Bryan Caplan  

Hummel's Three Laws and WWII Revisionism: Part 1

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I recently listened to an old lecture (c.1979) that economist and historian Jeff Hummel put on his webpage.  It's a one-hour intro to World War II revisionism.  While I'm sympathetic to the conclusion that U.S. participation in WWII actually made the world less free, I found Jeff's arguments awfully unconvincing.   It's possible that over the past thirty years, he has modified his views; in fact, since he's a voraciously well-read historian, I'd be surprised if he didn't have some second thoughts.  But since he posted the lecture without caveats, I'll treat it as fair game.

Jeff begins (around the two-minute mark) with three generalizations.  He doesn't actually call them "laws of history," but I will:

First Law. "[I]t is empirically almost never the case that one state or the other is unambiguously the bully."

Second Law. "When war occurs... it's usually because all warring parties desire it."

Third Law. "Either opponent state could have avoided the war without sacrificing the liberties that it permits its citizens."

I tend to agree with Jeff's outlook - see e.g. my defense of appeasement in Public Choice.  Our understanding of the past would be more insightful if historians took Jeff's laws seriously.  Nevertheless, when he tries to apply them to the outbreak of World War II, they fall flat.  I'm going to devote one post to each of his laws, starting with Hummel's First Law.

Let's begin with three conceptual problems.

1. Suppose you're trying to rebut the charge "Government X is a bully."  It isn't enough to point out that X has some complaints that, taken in isolation, seem reasonable.  You would want to see how X tries to remedy its grievances - and how X responds to comparable grievances of militarily weaker countries.  If X threatens war over minor incidents, and stonewalls comparable criticism of its own behavior, it is fair to call it a bully even if some of its complaints aren't per se crazy. 

2. The domestic actions of X are relevant for its "bully" status.  Suppose a known wife-beater knocks on your door and tells you to turn your stereo down.  From a normal neighbor, it's a fair request.  From the wife-beater, you could plausibly take this "request" as a violent threat.

3. If you're trying to judge whether X was a bully in 1939, it is perfectly fair to bring up its subsequent behavior.  In fact, this is one of the best ways of adjudicating whether earlier charges of "bullying" were reasonable.  If two teen-agers mutually accuse each other of "bullying," but one later goes to jail for rape and murder, common sense suggests that latter was probably to blame for the earlier conflict as well.

Now I'm perfectly aware that there are problems with analogizing individual and national behavior.  But Jeff didn't say that it is meaningless to charge a country or government with "bullying"; his claim is explicitly empirical.

So let's consider the empirics of Nazi Germany's pre-war foreign policy. 

1. Jeff insists that the 1938 unification with Austria was reasonable.  He doesn't consider that (a) a free trade and migration agreement between Germany and Austrian would have mostly solved the problem of Austrian economic isolation, or (b) that given Hitler's internal policies and rhetoric, neighboring countries (and Austrians!) had plenty of reason to fear the union. 

2. Next, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland.   Jeff argues that given the inequities of the Versailles Treaty, this demand was at least plausible.  But this is only true if you take the demand in isolation.  Given Hitler's past behavior, it was (a) almost certain that his mistreatment of non-Germans in the Sudetenland would be very harsh, and (b) reasonable to worry that he would make further demands.  Not only did he threaten war if his demands were not met; he demanded near-instant redress of a minor grievance.  If Nazi Germany's treatment of Czechoslovakia wasn't bullying, what would be?

3. A few months after the Munich Agreement, Hitler did exactly what the Czechs feared, invading the Czech rump state and setting up Slovakia as a satellite.  Jeff barely touches on these events, which provide a simple explanation why his subsequent targets (Stalin excepted!) didn't trust Hitler or take his grievances as more than pretexts.

4. Jeff doesn't mention the Memelland annexation of March, 1939.  This is pretty obviously a case where the Lithuanians did exactly what Hitler asked out of sheer terror.

5. After all this, Jeff patiently explains German complaints about Danzig and Polish refusal to negotiate with Hitler.  This is frankly astonishing.   By this point, the reasonableness of German complaints taken in isolation was irrelevant.  Every sensible person was asking, "After we give him Danzig, what's next?"  As it turned out, the crudest caricature of Hitler's intentions was correct.  Just months after the Poles started refusing his demands, he gave his generals a pitch-perfect bully's speech:
I have given the command and I shall shoot everyone who utters one word of criticism, for the goal to be obtained in the war is not that of reaching certain lines but of physically demolishing the opponent. And so for the present only in the East I have put my death-head formations in place with the command relentlessly and without compassion to send into death many women and children of Polish origin and language...

The attack upon and the destruction of Poland begins Saturday early. I shall let a few companies in Polish uniform attack in Upper Silesia or in the Protectorate. Whether the world believes it is quite indifferent. The world believes only in success.
6. Jeff briefly mentions the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, without ever admitting that it might shed some light on the whole "bully issue."   In the secret protocols of this Nazi-Soviet deal, the two military giants divided up the weaker countries that lay between them.  They also quickly worked out a system of cooperative repression, dissident exchange, etc.

7. Jeff dismisses Hitler's behavior during WWII as irrelevant to the question of whether he was a bully before the war.  This is pretty silly.  Yes, leaders do stuff during war that they wouldn't ordinarily do.  But very few act like Hitler consistently did - answering even mild defiance with massive reprisals.

None of this shows that Hummel's First Law is usually wrong.  But he doesn't do himself any credit by overextending it.  Nazi Germany really was an archetypal international bully - there's no denying it.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

The reason we didn't have a World War III is because post-war leaders like Eisenhower remembered both the lessons of WWI and WWII.

Doc Merlin writes:

I've seen a lot of moral equivocation about WW2 by the anti-war crowd recently and it bothers me a lot. I suspect we will begin to see glorification of Stalin soon. Within 20 years, maybe we will begin to see the sickening glorification of hitler. When people point out his defects they will say "but he gave free medical care, and he made sure the german people had jobs" the way they do about Castro now.

Matthew Gunn writes:

Clausewitz called war "a continuation of politics by other means," a remarkably accurate definition for the western way of war. Hummel's point three misses all this. States go to war to accomplish objectives FAR beyond the mere defense of their citizens' short term liberty.

Following Clausewitz's definition, an individual's cost-benefit analysis of war will depend dramatically on the value ascribed to the politics. How an individual views WWII, the Civil War, or the Iraq war is largely a function of how he/she views the political objectives. How abhorrent is slavery? Should the U.S. use force to build democracy in a foreign land? And so on...

Furthermore, to deny the utility of conflict is to deny that political objectives can be beneficial. Implicitly, Hummel does this.

There exists a kind of joint hypothesis problem. I don't think you can evaluate the utility of war without some model to evaluate the relative cost/benefit of different political outcomes.

Another side point, beyond war involving western nation states, Clausewitz's definition breaks down (see John Keegan's a History of Warfare).

Randy writes:

Great post, but the question to me is, what did Hitler's motives and objectives have to do with the productive class of America? Or to bring it up to date, what did the motives and objectives of Saddam Hussein or the Taliban have to do with me? The answer, in both cases, is nothing. The political classes throughout history have been manipulators, exploiters, and instigators of wars. I'm done with all of them. They can fight their own damn wars.

Mike Rulle writes:

I am a surprised you felt the need to write this at all. But sometimes stating the obvious can be a good thing---I guess.

Rimfax writes:

Pardon the beating of one of my personal drums, but I've heard similar equivocation regarding the Hirohito regime. The argument goes that the WWI winners economically compelled Japan into a disadvantageous and insulting maritime arms-control pact (easy to agree) and that the U.S. provoked Japan with a naval trade embargo (easy to agree).

As with the Hitler regime, this narrative requires ignoring the contemporary naked adventurism of Manchuko and other Japanese conquests, as well as the later revelations of human experiment atrocities, and others, that would make Mengele nauseous.

I'm not an unambiguous fan of U.S. involvement in WWII, but relativistic moral arguments about the works and roles of nations is more than a little bit of an abomination of ethical logic to me. I could listen to an argument that the Allied powers wanted or needed war as much as the Hitler or Hirohito regimes (still a tough sell), but to argue that their actions and intentions were morally equivalent, that there was no bully, requires a foul perspective given the evidence.

RL writes:

The readers of this post should appreciate that, so far I'm guessing without exception, all of the above comments relate to Bryan's post, not to Jeff Hummel's talk, which I suspect no other commenter has taken the time to enjoy.

To be more specific: the comments regarding moral relativism and any suggestion of Hitler apologetics clearly demonstrates the commenter has not listened to Hummel's talk and is not responding to anything Hummel said.

Less Antman writes:


Your analysis of Hitler seems reasonable to me, but I listened to Hummel's tape, and never once drew the conclusion that he was denying Hitler's bully status.

For example, he explicitly stated that there was no moral justification whatsoever for Hitler's attack on Poland, after pointing out (non-controversially, I believe) that it was generally felt at the time (including by Britain and France) that the transfer of Danzig to Poland after WWI was probably the most legitimate gripe of the German people.

Like a good prosecuting attorney, Hummel was trying to discuss Hitler's motives: he wasn't justifying Hitler's behavior. I'll go further: I think Hummel's very point was that Hitler was a bully, but a bully with specific goals, and that the outcome of 55 million dead, including 6 million Jews, and the preservation and expansion of Joseph Stalin's rule, destroying at least a generation of Russian and Eastern European lives, were horrible effects that reasonable and available alternative actions by the politicians in Britain, France, and Poland might have mitigated to a large extent.

I am mystified that anyone could look at what WWII did to the world and not want to discuss whether there might have been a better way to handle Hitler. Hummel's talk was interesting and informative on the topic. As were your comments, for that matter, even though I think your attempt to summarize his views needs work.

Douglass Holmes writes:

Well, I have listened to his lecture. I wish every country were like Switzerland, unquestionably able to defend its borders, but not interfering with anyone's business.
Hummel gives some specifics about how Britain, France, and Poland might have avoided war. He doesn't convince me. Perhaps he could explain how Ethiopia could have avoided war. Or Greece. Nor is it clear how China could have avoided the invasion of Japan.

auronarayan writes:

Absolutely self evident logic.

It reminds me also the kind of apologetics who facilitate with non-sequitors and moral relativism, an atmosphere that greatly helps the cause of such Bullys.

Imagine, if this could be aired now, how much more this same kind of talk would have helped the Nazis prepare more, in the early years leading to world war II
Who said the Nazis or Commies desired peace?
Or ever cared for human lives, that we on our own could have a choice of not having to fight?

We never had that choice, unless we embrace his ideology, and be servile.

Everything is built upon a premise that Hitler would not have got the Bomb first.

If the War didnt come, we would be mouthing the world over "Heil Hitler"s behind barbed wires.
I mean if we survived at all.

Hitler surely would have nuked entire continents, and re-populated them with the Volk.

Absurd that historians overlook this aspect of insanity that could have armed itself with Total power, and over run the free world.

Stalin would have tactically joined, and delivered the Bomb,before allies had a chance.

we are faced with the very same position as regards to Af-Pak.

Mutual Assured destruction, pray tell me, how can it deter a Suicide bomber?

And they let pakistan acquire slowly the Bomb.
Becos they werent sure who was the real bully, Pakistan asking for Kashmir, or India.

They couldnt understand that like Caplan's example of the teenager proceeding to become a rapist and serve time, Pakistan would eliminate its Hindu-Sikh-Christian minorities, while in India muslims would treble thier prepartition population levels.

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