Saturday, March 7, 2009

The major players at the start of WWII

Norman Davies has an interesting assessment of the four major “players” at the beginning of World War II. On page 56 he writes,

“Personalities provide an important factor in politics. They determine how the leading players will react when the ball comes in their direction. Adolf Hitler was impetuous, reckless, boiling with resentments, disinclined to seek advice. Joseph Stalin was paranoically mistrustful, cold, calculating, patient and, when the time came to strike, deadly. Both had the traits of gangsters; hardened to killing fond of humiliating others, allergic to opposition. Churchill, in contrast, had practiced democratic politics for nearly forty years. He had the constitution of a horse, a head for hard liquor, and a fearless disregard for the quirks of fortune. Psychologically, he was a fighter, a man who could not be bullied, who freely chose his ever more dominant partner. Roosevelt was far more devious, an adept at political marketing, a smooth-talking operator who, by the time of his third term, was confident of his historic mission to bring the USA from Depression to world dominance. All made mistakes. All survived to the last month of the European war. None was effectively challenged.”


I was born in October of 1934 so would have been 7 when Roosevelt gave his “day that will go down in infamy” speech on December 7th, 1941. I heard that at the time. And I recall listening to his “fireside chats” during the war. I would have been not yet 11 when Roosevelt died. He was a great hero to us; so it is a jarring to hear a British historian refer to him as “devious” and “a smooth-talking operator.” We elected him to four terms and would have continued electing him if we could have. So if he had been President of the U.S. as long after the war as Stalin was General Secretary of Russia, would we have the same love for him that modern day Russians have for Stalin? I tend to think not. Our affection for our presidents is short-lived. Then, later on, we rate our presidents to show what we think of them. Washington and Lincoln are always at the top but some presidents move up or down as historians write things about them.

It is interesting that one of the sins a communist leader could inspire was “the cult of the personality,” and yet no one in Russia inspired that cult as much as Stalin did. Marxism-Leninism aimed itself ideologically at a classless utopia where everyone contributed according to his ability and took according to his need. There was no place for a Nietzschean Ubermensch, and yet that is what Stalin was and the people loved him for it. He was just as strong a personality as Hitler was; although we bear in mind the differences that Davies presents us with above. It seems that only in Totalitarian regimes can such a personality cult arise. Churchill never had that in Great Britain. As soon as the war was over he was voted out of office. I rather think that Roosevelt wouldn’t have been forced out of office at the end of four terms, but I might be wrong.

History seems to have been kindest to Churchill. I have great admiration for him and my impression is that most Americans do as well. If we could insert him into our list of Presidents, he might be edged out by Washington and Lincoln and one or two others, but he would surely be in the top ten, perhaps in the top five.

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