We all tend to quote Churchill a little too much, but here’s one more quote. The policy of conciliation towards Hitler, he wrote after the fact, was “a sad story of poor judgment on the part of talented people with good intentions.” He was generous to rivals, at least after their folly realized.
The attempt to appease Hitler to prevent war was not malicious. Mediocre political leaders, who did not complete an academic course in understanding dictators, tried to prevent a repeat of World War I. The names of the fallen of the previous war covered the walls of the prestigious universities of England, where the politicians were educated. On the way to war prevention they were willing to sacrifice a country or two; And on the way to sacrifice they were willing to trust in a man who never ceased to deceive them.
We have already written here about the difficulty of normal and rational people in dealing with the state of mind of abnormal and irrational people. It is an inescapable opening. British leaders in the late 1930s traveled to Hitler, returning with the clear impression of “his sincerity.”
Lord Halifax, one of the most prominent statesmen of his time, visited Hitler in November 1937, whispering in his ears that Britain would accept a “peaceful change” in the status of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, provided that “far-reaching disturbances” were avoided. Hitler replied that he had no intention of harming Austria. Halifax returned home satisfied. Five months later Hitler entered Vienna victorious, a year and a half later – in Prague, a year and ten months later – in Warsaw.
Did Vladimir Putin read biographies of Hitler? who knows. But he certainly seems to be following them. He vehemently denied his intention to invade Ukraine until the very last moment. “Western hysteria,” his spokesmen mocked.
Entire elites were wiped out
Europe’s great historian, Jacob Talmon, was, if I am not mistaken, the owner of a theory about the sources of the intellectual and moral weakness of Western democracies vis-à-vis Hitler: the bloody harvest of World War I robbed them of an entire generation of potential leaders. Nearly a million Britons were killed in the war; Nearly 1.7 million French. Many, many more were killed in the first than in the second. Whole elites were wiped out in it. On our shelf are missing volumes of poetry and novellas, because so many artists have been killed in the Flanders trenches. Likewise, the elite politicians of the next two generations fell there. Remained mediocre.
We can not attribute the weakness of the West to Russia and Putin to the killing fields. But something has happened to Western politics in the last 30 years. In the United States and Western Europe, the power of the mediocre increased.
I think the last five presidents of the United States have inflicted considerable, perhaps enormous, damage on their country and their allies. Bush Jr., Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden – did not represent what is called in postmodern Hebrew “excellence”.
It seems to me that the last American president who understood the outside world, recognized the limitations given, tried to use force without exaggerating, and emphasized the importance of international stability was George W. Bush Sr..
He was far from a moral man, and was not without faults; But to his credit can be attributed the limitation of the goals of the first Iraq war and the attempt to prevent a sudden and uncontrolled collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. These three foci of conflict were the constitutive traumas of our time.
None of the heirs of Bush Sr. was blessed with the subtleties of his understanding. They overestimated the power of America (Clinton and Bush Jr.), or underestimated (Obama), or were not really interested (Trump loathed almost all U.S. allies and flirted with its enemies), or were at a loss (Biden in Afghanistan). We owe the dizzying decline in U.S. influence to the world. Dressed for the son and Obama we owe the rise of Iran. To everyone, especially Obama and Trump, we owe it to Putin and his barbaric war in Ukraine.
Obama was a historic president, that much is clear. But he is the man who taught Putin that it is possible to drive a wedge between America and its allies in Europe; He is the man who did business with Iran without understanding the aggressive trends of its expansion; He is the man who enabled Russia to return to the Middle East.
It’s a little hard to judge Biden. His actions in Afghanistan have likely strengthened Putin’s willingness to challenge America. But Biden has shown some signs of determination in recent weeks, uniting the West to a certain extent.
The troubling question is how the oldest democracy on earth yields an entire generation of leadership failures. This is a question that the British and French asked themselves in 1940, when everything seemed lost. That same year a sensational book was published in London, under a pseudonym, called “Guilty Men.” He named 15 people held accountable for Britain’s military and political weakness at the outbreak of World War II. It included three prime ministers, ten cabinet members, a leader of a parliamentary faction and a senior government official.
In 1940, on the brink of the abyss, Britain was finally redeemed from mediocrity. Churchill led it to a war of heroism, at the end of which Hitler was defeated – and the British Empire was annihilated. Then came the following mediums. Do not need geniuses, except at the last minute, according to the abyss.