So, Your Humble Blogger is aware of the tendency to view history through today’s lenses. Not just the difficulty in understanding context that is different from our own, which is the main and irreducible problem, but the natural tendency to magnify points of similarity. For instance, take British politics in the first years of World War Two. Over the last six years, people have viewed Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement policy through the lens of our current crises. Some suggested that the lesson was that we should never appease mad dictators, and some suggested that the lesson was that it’s a mistake to make head of the Executive an autocrat who trusts his personal instincts over any empirical evidence or expert advice.
Lynne Olson clearly leans to the latter view. It seems to YHB that she was struck by the fact that it was a small coalition of Conservative MPs that, dissatisfied with their leadership, worked to change it. Her book Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England winds up (in YHB’s eyes) too clearly highlighting the ways in which Our Only President is like Neville Chamberlain. Admittedly, the parallels are there. The Prime Minister had come to power through a new trend of rigidly enforced party unity. He and his supporters within the party not only violated the norms of the time but used the powers of the Executive in questionably legal ways, particularly in wiretapping and surveillance. Those who questioned his strategy or tactics were branded traitors. He had close political and family connections with the owners of the newspapers, and managed to have bad news hushed up and good (but false) news trumpeted. And he looked into Adolph Hitler’s eyes, was able to get a sense of his soul, and found him very straightforward and trustworthy.
Ms. Olson doesn’t go overboard, and she does a great job of differentiating the individuals involved and their interests and motivations. My guy Harold Nicolson was involved, and although I don’t think Ms. Olson really gave a sense of what he was like, neither did I feel like she drastically misrepresented him. Similarly, her portrayal of Violet Bonham-Carter was sketchy but lined up generally with my impression of her. Most of the others were new to me, or (like Harold Macmillan) new to me in that context, so I don’t know how accurate any of that was. As has become distressingly common in popular histories of this kind, there are neither footnotes nor endnotes marked in the text, but there are a few pages of endnotes that say things like Did he know: Tree, p. 76. That bugs me. Particularly when they are quoting one person’s opinion about another, and I can’t figure out whether the quote is from a personal letter or a diary entry or a memoir published decades afterward or a contemporary newspaper account. To be clear, I don’t blame Ms. Olson for this; it’s how Things are Done These Days.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about this period in history, and I kept coming across something in the book that either shook up what I thought I knew or put what I knew in a new light. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me that the main reason nobody listened to Winston Churchill about the Nazi threat for years was because Mr. Churchill had shown himself to have incredibly bad judgment on foreign affairs, again and again making dreadful blunders that embarrassed himself and his Party, and not incidentally led to the brutal death of thousands of people. A certain skepticism does seem rational. Also, I hadn’t quite realized how strongly pro-German the aristocracy was, or rather, how much of the aristocracy was very strongly pro-German and felt that Winston Churchill and the rest of the anti-appeasement MPs were dupes (or paid servants) of the Jews, or were in fact secretly Jewish. And some of them did have some Jewish relatives, but seriously, concern about Germany’s invasions of Austria, Czechoslavakia, Poland, Denmark and Norway seems to have been a bit more of a mover than sympathy for the plight of Europe’s Jews.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,