Coincidentally, while I was reading Nicholas Boyle’s Who are we now?, discussed inChronicle 265, I was also plowing through Winston Churchill’s six-volume memoir of World War II. The two works have mutual resonances beyond the fact that they were both written by Englishmen.
Churchill was one of the great personalities of the twentieth century. No one incarnates as he does the moral force of the victors of WWII. His memoirs reveal him to be not only a political leader and military strategist but also a manager attentive to the tiniest war-related detail, from the design of uniforms to the spelling of words in official communiqués. Despite bouts of ill health, Churchill devoted every ounce of his energy to the fight against Hitler, meeting with other world leaders in Washington, Québec, Teheran, Moscow, and Yalta, and visiting near-battle zones in Egypt, Italy, and France, the latter only a few days after D-Day.
The subordination of all considerations to a single overriding goal that made Churchill so powerful a leader is also what makes his world appear so very different from the postmodern world from which we are now emerging. In Chronicle 265 I discussed Boyle’s demonstration that the maturation of the nineteenth-century European market system was dependent on colonial empire (replaced, one might speculate, by the frontier cum Indians and in the United States). Churchill was the last great subject of the British Empire on which the sun never set and which he had no intention of renouncing after the war, knowing full well that it was the Empire that made Great Britain with its forty-odd millions a major power. Nor, in the fight to save civilization itself, could colonialism be put into question; Indian troops were duty-bound to fight alongside their British masters. Churchill would never have dreamt of comparing the British colonies to Germany’s military conquests or Japan’s “East Asian co-prosperity sphere.” Fortunately, we might add, for any hint of moral equivalence would have had a devastating effect on the war effort.
Although WWII was decided by two powers neither of which fit neatly into the system of bourgeois empires, the “post-colonial” United States and Uncle Joe’s Soviet Union–which Churchill inevitably refers to as “Russia”–Churchill was Hitler’s exemplary antagonist because he remained, as Roosevelt and Stalin did not, wholly a protagonist of imperial war, untouched by the scruples that would dominate the victimary era. For Churchill, domination is not evil in itself: the British Empire, motivated by the welfare of its subjects, is good; the barbarous Nazi empire is bad. So is the Italian mini-empire in North Africa, although the principle that European nations should rule African ones could not easily be contested by a supporter of British colonialism. As for the Soviets, perhaps because Stalin was his ally, Churchill never speaks of the Russian domination of Central Asian peoples as a form of colonialism.
Whether in the context of Boyle’s “75 year’s war” or in Churchill’s own, the morality play of WWII is the battle between good and bad Empire, the benevolent British kind versus the barbarous Nazi kind. Few choices could be clearer, yet, the choice once made, Empire itself was fatally undermined; henceforth the world would increasingly emphasize, and denounce, the similarity of the two systems rather than their difference. The Nazis’ inhuman domination of the Other, born of the frustrated lack of opportunity for the more benign variety that built the British Empire, will increasingly be taken for the model of Empire itself.
But the key element that makes the Churchillian morality play so foreign to us is that it excludes the most morally significant event of the war. Churchill openly expressed his distaste for Nazi anti-Semitism, notably during a visit to Germany on the sole occasion on which he might have met Hitler; he also offered support, including arms shipments, for the Jews in Palestine, although he did nothing to permit European Jews to emigrate there. Yet there is no reference to the Holocaust in the text, only a single, albeit emphatic one in the “minutes” of directives and communications included in the appendix of the final volume:
There is no doubt that this [see below] is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world, and it has been done by scientific machinery by nominally civilized men in the name of a great State and one of the leading races of Europe. It is quite clear that all concerned in this crime who may fall into our hands, including the people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death . . . (VI, 693)
In Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell 1989), perhaps the most intelligent analysis I have read on the subject, Zygmunt Bauman insists on the Holocaust’s essential modernity or, more precisely, on modernity’s essential aptitude for holocausts. In contrast to those who see mass murder either as an eternal possibility of fallen humanity or as a throwback to barbarism led by an unusual concentration of “authoritarian personalities,” Bauman points to its dependence on the instrumental rationalism not only of modern technology but above all of modern bureaucracy. Only in an advanced industrial society can a group of people be isolated from their neighbors and treated as so many items for “processing.” Not only is each detail of the slaughter performed without emotion in the task-oriented world of the civil servant, but, still more frighteningly, the victims themselves were caught up in the Nazis’ cleverly implemented instrumental logic, making choices that at each point appeared to offer the greatest possibility of survival but that collectively only facilitated the final solution. (There is a flaw in this brilliant analysis of the dangers of modernity. As in so many critiques of one or another aspect of the market system, Bauman is fighting the last war. The Holocaust inspires in postmodern society an ever-increasing sensitivity to the victimary condition, so much so that this sensitivity may come to pose a greater danger to civilization than victimization.)
How does Bauman’s Weberian model of bureaucracy run amok fit into the historical context of WWII as seen by Churchill and Boyle? The latter concur in viewing the war as a battle of empires, with little or no reference to either bureaucracy or anti-Semitism. Yet Boyle’s concept of a globalizing economy implies a highly rationalized division of labor; similarly, Churchill’s micro-management of the war would have been unthinkable without a complex civil and military chain of command constantly at work transforming his directives into realities. But although Churchill opposed with utter conviction Britain’s good Empire to Hitler’s evil one, he would very likely have admitted that the dedicated and courageous British soldiers, workers, and civil servants all had their counterparts in Germany. He several times pays homage to the tenacity of the German army, asserting controversially his right to praise Rommel as a gallant foe. The contrast that counts in Churchill’s universe is that of sociopolitical ends rather than organizational means. Unlike Bauman, Churchill is not afraid of bureaucracy; his enemy is tyranny. No doubt totalitarianism is inconceivable without bureaucracy, but so is the modern democracy that alone can combat it. Churchill’s imperial self-confidence gives him little insight into either the petty ressentiment of bureaucracy or Hitler’s unique obsession with Jews; he sees the world in terms of good and evil agents rather than of mutually resentful oppressors and victims.
Bauman is not unaware that the bureaucratic dehumanization that produced the Holocaust is incompatible with political democracy; as he puts it, “pluralism is the best preventive medicine against morally normal people engaging in morally abnormal actions” (165). Democracy, in turn, is for Boyle a product of empire; the institution of universal suffrage in the home country depends on the existence of a disenfranchised colonial population. Under the condition of Empire, rationalization is incompatible with dehumanization, or, more precisely, the relative dehumanization of the distant colonized precludes the absolute dehumanization of the nearby Jews.
The birth of consumer society, Boyle points out, is also dependent on Empire, both for the existence of a bourgeois leisure class who consume without producing and for the Empire’s gift to the metropolitan middle and eventually working classes of the opportunity to emulate the bourgeois life-style. But the beginning of consumer society is also that of modern anti-Semitism; the consumer, sensing his desire mimetically manipulated by the market, constructs “the Jew” as the market’s demonized Subject in order to explain this sense of powerlessness, and, eventually, to rectify it through anti-Semitic action. Jews and colonials play complementary roles with respect to the resentment generated by the exchange system: in one case, as a surrogate object for this resentment, in the other, as a compensatory outlet for its energies. Since it stems from a sentiment of inferiority rather than superiority, anti-Semitism is more virulent than colonialism, particularly when there is no colonialism to temper it. As we go from Britain to France to Germany, anti-Semitism itself takes on a darker tone: the Briton’s aversion to Jews on the model of colonial relations gives way to the Nazi’s obsessive hatred. Most of Churchill’s references to Jews are to the Jews of Palestine, whom he considers loyal subjects of the Empire like the inhabitants of India; there was a Jewish contingent among the imperial troops fighting in Italy.
The memoirs end rather abruptly on a note of political pique following Churchill’s unexpected defeat in the July 1945 parliamentary elections. In his campaign he had stressed completion of the war rather than the material interests of the electorate, and his hyperbolic denunciations of Socialism were counter-productive. Universally admired, Churchill would surely have won an American-style presidential election, but the British parliamentary system emphasizes party politics over personal charisma. Only in wartime can the head of a democratic state play the sacrificial leader whose unifying will transcends the resentments of his individual subjects. Hitler’s defeat freed the British masses to choose, for the first time, the party of the welfare state. Ironically enough, welfare socialism was invented in late nineteenth-century Germany as a substitute for Empire–and a defense against communist revolution. Now, in postwar Britain, Empire was no longer an acceptable substitute for socialism. The victimary era had begun.
Churchill’s account makes it clear that we came pretty close to losing the war. When the British faced the Axis alone in 1940, who other than Churchill–certainly not poorChamberlain–could have held them together? A friend recently sent me this famous Churchillian quote (not included in the war memoirs), which I have posted on my wall to help me get through this year of administrative duties: