Back in August, I took part of a panel on the Michael Coren show. You can see the show here.
One interesting thing about the show is that it illustrates the pervasiveness of a certain type of conservative revisionism. Two examples:
1. There is a standard critique of the American military during the Vietnam war as an example of class inequality: the working poor (poor whites, blacks, and latinos) were over-represented in the military and elite Americans shirked military combat (usually by getting deferments as University students). In recent years, some conservative historians have challenged this widely-held idea. But as I said on the Coren show, their counter-arguments aren’t very persuasive to anyone who looks at the data. I mentioned that there was an excellent article in the Atlantic Monthly by the judicious James Fallows that effectively refutes the conservative revisionists, which can be read here. The case of African-Americans is particularly interesting: in the early days of the years of the American war, a disproportionate percent of the American casualties were African-Americans. This became a hot political issue when the civil rights movement and others accused the army of using black soldiers as cannon fodder. Muhammad Ali summed up the war by saying: “Here lies the yellow man, killed by a black man, fighting for the white man.” In response to this critique, the army changed policies and by the end of the war African-American casualties were proportionate to their share of the American population. To my mind this strengthens the standard liberal case, showing as it does that without the civil rights movement the army would have been cavalier about African-American lives. Of course, the this doesn’t even touch on the fact that the largest number of casualties of the war were the Vietnamese themselves, more than 3 million of whom were killed, countless more maimed and injured. Those are the casualties that somehow always get forgotten.
2. We spent some time sparring about the politics of the Catholic church during the early 20th century. I said, accurately enough I think, that there were some Catholics (I specifically said not all Catholics) who were sympathetic to worst elements of the European right. As I explained, these Catholic rightists feared communism and saw fascism and even Nazism as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks and other movements of working class militancy. Coren cited some recent historians, almost all conservative Catholics I believe, who have argued that it’s unfair to criticize Pope Pius XII for not doing enough to oppose Hitler. The best response to this line of arguments was made by John Lukacs, himself a faithful Catholic, in a review of Gerard Noel’s Pius XII: The Hound of Hitler. The review ran in The Catholic Historical Review, Volume 95, No. 2, April 2009. Lukacs wrote: “The nub of the trouble is that this book furnishes little assistance to those who approve the thoughts and acts of this pope during World War II, while it—probably unwittingly—furnishes some evidences to his detractors…. In reality, Pius XII underestimated his powers, or, more precisely, his potential influence. Certainly he thought that nazism was execrable; but he loved Germans and Germany. He feared communism more than he feared nazism, and this fear affected his judgments and acts during the war….The very title of his book is misleading as it is inaccurate. This pope had no sympathy with Hitler, but hounding him he did not.” I think it’s fair to say that, for the reasons outlined by Lukacs, that Pius XII did not do enough to oppose Hitler. But aside from the Pope there were many Catholic clerics and lay people elsewhere, in Germany and throughout Western Europe, who were far worse, who collaborated with the regimes of Hitler, Franco, Petain, and Mussolini.
In 1995, the Catholic bishops of Germany issued a statement about World War II that was admirably blunt, honest and contrite. It read in part: “The denial and guilt that was prevalent in those days also came from the church….There was much denial and guilt among Catholics. More than a few allowed themselves to be taken in by National Socialist ideology, and remained indifferent to crimes against Jewish life and property. Others supported the commission of crimes or even became criminals themselves.”
All honour to those Catholics who resisted fascism and Nazism, many of whom were killed for their bravery, but the larger record of the church was of denial and guilt. The attempt to re-write history so these things are forgotten should be resisted.