Nazis and Communists: a data point

In the discussion of the relative treatment of communists and nazis in Australia, I recalled reading that Menzies had visited Berlin not long before the war, and made complimentary statements about Hitler. Googling revealed only one supporting source, from the memoirs of communist Stan Moran, who also claims to have bestowed the nickname “Pig Iron Bob”. Moran says

In 1937 Menzies went to Germany to see Hitler but Hitler was too busy to see minor politicians, and all he saw was Himmler. When he returned he said “If you and I lived in Berlin we would say that Hitler had done a great job for the German people.�

This matches the quote I recalled, but raises the possibility that it is a spurious one foisted on Menzies by his opponents. Does anyone have any info on this?

Assuming the quote is valid, it rather undermines the claim that any flirtation with Nazism or fascism is fatal to ones reputation, while similar sympathy for communism is not.

33 thoughts on “Nazis and Communists: a data point

  1. put 1937 into context.
    Hitler had gotten rid of hyperinflation and reduced unemployment to very low levels.
    Indeed one could say Germany was the only country to get out of the Depression. That was the genius of Schacht but to most Germans Hitler was the best politician going round and their standard of livving was rising.
    Menzies statement would ring very true to most Germans.

  2. put 1937 into context.
    Hitler had gotten rid of hyperinflation and reduced unemployment to very low levels.
    Indeed one could say Germany was the only country to get out of the Depression. That was the genius of Schacht but to most Germans Hitler was the best politician going round and their standard of livving was rising.
    Menzies statement would ring very true to most Germans.

  3. Ooops I don’t know how this happened.
    It is the second time it has ocured to me today So I will endeavour to improve my entering

  4. Even if true this hardly counts as a flirtation with Nazism. But the post does raise an interesting general issue about whether you can be involved with fascism or communism but redeem yourself later.

    I think the broad answer is yes, especially if there were mitigating factors (eg youthful error, especially in the early periods before the full extent of fascist and communist horrors were widely known) and the political belief did not extend to actual atrocities.

    Also to be taken into account are acts of repentance. Fighting against Nazi Germany, I think, would more than compensate for any previous sympathies. Ditto fighting in Korea, Vietnam etc against communism. At the ideological level, many ex-communists did a good job in exposing their former comrades. They too are redeemed.

  5. Even Churchill said some nice things about Hitler, and Mussolini during the thirties. A comparative politico-economy of fascism and communism done during the mid thirties would have put fascism much more in credit than communism both in terms of respect for civil rights and effective economic management.
    Stalin’s victims were numbered in seven digit figures by that time, whereas Hitler and Mussolini would have been struggling to get into four digit murder tolls. Hitler stopped a depression, Mussolini made the trains run on time whereas Stalin simply killed all the best farmers.
    Moreover, by the mid thirties, it was not clear that Fascism was the threat to peace that it later (post-Munich) turned out to be. The communists were still pretty menacing, and turned out to be even more so later.
    So it would be a little hard on Menzies to blame him for his flirtation with pre-genocidal fascists. Had he done the same thing after WWII then he would deserve the obloquy visited on people like Qusiling.
    So it was

  6. “Also to be taken into account are acts of repentance. . . fighting in. . . Vietnam etc against communism.”

    Except that fighting against communism in Vietnam:

    (a) actually did a great deal of harm in human terms, including 2-3 million dead in Vietnam, many more physically or psychologically disabled, massive economic damage, children still being born today with deformities from Agent Orange, and Cambodia being destabilised with the resultant deaths of 2 million people;

    (b) was in clear breach of the provisions of the Geneva Accord which provided for the reunification of the country after national elections in 1956 (the elections were not held because the US, Australian and interim South Vietnamese governments thought the Communists under Ho Chi Minh would win).

    If the 1956 elections had gone ahead, Ho had won and Vietnam had been reunified under Communist rule, there would undoubtedly have been deplorable acts of repression by his regime. But it is difficult to imagine that their human consequences would have been as bad as, or worse than, the human consequences which did result from “fighting against communism”.

  7. John, I don’t think this Menzies example does undermine your claim, because it was said in 1937. Had it been said in 1947 or 1957, and PIB’s praise of Hitler had similarly sunk without trace, then it would have more weight refuting your argument. But before 1939, a large swathe of opinion, from Right to Left, admired Hitler for slaying the dragon of inflation (Siegfried-like? One imagines a Nazi poster depicting this…). The Hitler-Stalin pact had muted criticism of Nazism from the European Communist parties, and respectable mainstream political figures (Lloyd George, the Mitfords, Lindbergh) had no quarrel with Hitler.

    After 1945, the situation had almost wholly reversed: conservative capitalists were so opposed to Hitler that they were willing to ally with Stalin to get rid of Nazism. Indeed, the whole post-1945 world order was constructed almost in a drive to repudiate Nazism as far as possible: the UN’s charter, eg, enshrines both human rights and the sovereignty of national borders — two values the Nazis were seen to have trampled on — even though these two values can and do often come into conflict themselves (c/f justifications for the Iraq invasion on humanitarian grounds).

    Almost without exception since 1939-45, expressing any sort of admiration for Nazism makes someone a pariah. David Bowie in the 1970s tossed off some comments about admiring Hitler’s leadership, and this aroused outrage. Schwarzenegger has had to work hard to distance himself from guilt by association with the world’s second most famous Austrian politician. I’ve no sympathy for Holocaust deniers, but it seems that even if political leader were merely to quibble over the numbers involved — “Hitler only killed three million Jews, not six million” — this would be electoral suicide.

    By contrast, while admiration for the crimes of Stalinist/ Communist regimes would (and should) kill someone’s political career, admiration for the noble ideals of the Left does not — even after 1956, even after 1968, even after 1989.

  8. I’d like to offer the following hypothetical (which will require most people on this forum to imaginatively reassign their gender).

    You are a woman working in an underfunded, understarved women’s shelter in the 1970s or 1980s, providing counselling, referral, emergency support and other services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. You know that one of your colleagues is a member of one of Australia’s communist or marxist-leninist parties. Your colleague has some shocking views about the benign nature of the regime in Vietnam/Cuba/Romania/USSR/whatever, and you feel very strongly that she is wrong in this. However she is also a very committed worker for the Women’s Shelter, with excellent leadership, management and teamwork skills which ensure it continues to function despite various pressures, and excellent writing, speaking, advocacy and network skills which have often enabled her to swing funding from various quarters to enable the Shelter to stay open. (NB: This part, at least, is not entirely hypothetical; I have personally known such women, or known of them.)

    Your colleague’s good standing amongst the other women either working in the centre or involved in the governing collective seems to be resulting in some of them developing sympathies for the party she belongs to and/or some of the regimes she is deluded about. From your own political perspective you find this disturbing. What should you do?

    If, in this situation, you were to follow the advice implicit in the positions of Louis Nowra, Gerard Henderson, the Groupers and other anti-communists, you would probably commence some kind of struggle within the Women’s Shelter collective to minimise her baleful communist influence. Indeed, if you took the Henderson/Nowra position completely on board you would seek to have her ostracised for being morally equivalent to a fascist and having the blood of millions of innocents on her hands.

    What would be the practical consequence of such a course of action?

    Firstly, it would not contribute to reducing the likelihood of a communist takeover in Australia, as this was (and is) non-existent anyway.

    Secondly, in terms of tangibly assisting the unfortunate victims of communist repression in the countries concerned, or contributing towards democratisation of those societies, you efforts would, in practical terms, amount to thowing creampuffs at the Lubianka Prison or swatting the Berlin Wall with a stick of fairy floss.

    Thirdly, and most importantly, your campaign would certainly be disruptive and divisive within the Women’s Shelter, harming working relationships and reducing its effectiveness in providing support to women in extremely vulnerable situations. In some cases this might literally be a matter of life and death.

    In some respects this hypothetical may be overdrawn, but the basic point I am trying to make is that specific national and temporal contexts do matter when weighing up the good and the harm that communists do (or have done), and that when evaluating the roles of individual Australian communists, whilst the pro-Stalinist views they may have held cannot go uncriticised, unless they have acted on these views at something more than a symbolic or expressive level they will often be outweighed by the positive consequences of those individuals’ activity on a range of issues and campaigns. And thus, the sort of essentialist anti-communism which not only opposes communism as a system, but opposes communists no matter where they are or what they’re doing, will do (and I would argue historically has done in Australia) far more harm than will the commos.

  9. “understarved” should read “understaffed” in the first line, second par of the previous post.

  10. Paul, I think your hypothetical conflates the questions of the proper practical response to unsavoury politics and the relative unpleasantness of fascist and communist views. If we reimagine your hypothetical as involving a young fascist working hard to (let’s say) help refugees from communist states, does our response change? And my knee-jerk response, like most people’s I suspect, does, even if the fascist beliefs cause no practical harm. Is that response reasonable on further consideration, and shouldn’t we be very concerned that the response of the left to the exposure of communisms flaws has always been to view it in the best possible light consistent with the undeniable evidence. Maybe the “deluded idealists, but not bad people” line is just today’s “Stalin is a fine leader doing what he has to against western imperialist efforts to destablise his workers’ paradise”.

  11. Who among the leaders of that time (1937), I wonder, could we count as being a critique of Hitler’s regime? I’m not sure, but I reckon it is probably fairly few if any.

    Ahh…. diplomacy.

  12. Paul, your first point requires some thought before I can post a response.

    “Maybe the “deluded idealists, but not bad peopleâ€? line is just today’s “Stalin is a fine leader doing what he has to against western imperialist efforts to destablise his workers’ paradiseâ€?”.

    I can think of a number of possible responses to this, the first one which comes to mind being that the comparison falls down on empirical grounds.

    I know from personal experience a lot of Australian communists who were “deluded idealists” but definitely “not bad”, and often very good, people. On the other hand we know (a) that Stalin was *not* a “fine leader” and was a very bad and disturbed man and (b) that many of the policies which he justified in the name of protecting the USSR from fascist or imperialist intrigues were, as well as morally reprehensible, positively detrimental to the military, scientific, economic and agricultural capacities of the country and the morale of its people, and therefore weakened it in the face of actual or potential external enemies. Mind you, it is true that many on the left were in denial about this for a long time.

  13. “Who among the leaders of that time (1937), I wonder, could we count as being a critique of Hitler’s regime? I’m not sure, but I reckon it is probably fairly few if any.”

    Most. There was significant and growing apprehension about Hitler’s intentions amongst the European democracies by 1937. The point of difference was on how Germany should be engaged.

  14. Paul (Norton), my point is not that a defence of Stalin is as consistent with the facts as we now know them as a defence of the moral character of individual communists. Rather, I suggest that (perhaps) both represent instances of a general historical trend whereby communism is given the benefit of the doubt to the greatest extent possible given the irrefutable facts. While it was possible to do so the left credited communism with producing worthy outcomes, and retreated from theat position only at gunpoint. Today it (we) appear to credit communists with worthy aims and ideals, and while I conceed that’s not inconsistent with the proven facts, perhaps it’s time we stopped giving communism the benefit of the doubt where the evidence is unclear, given the tendency of that heuristic to lead to incorrect conclusions in the past.

  15. Going back to what Menzies actually said “If you and I lived in Berlin we would say that Hitler had done a great job for the German people.”

    Now with that in mind, there are several ways his statement can be interpreted. Menzies could have been alluding to the fact that while Hitler had done much good for the german people, as HP and others have pointed out, on a global scale his actions may present a threat. Another way of saying this would be that Menzies applauded his domestic policies but not his foregin policies.

    By 1937 the marginalisation and persecution of Jews was in full scale, but I doubt the average German, and certainly Menzies, would have been aware of exactly what was going on – of the death camps, mass graves, grizzly experiments, and ghettos. Therefore the problem would not have appeared in such force to Menzies. If it had, perhaps he would have said something different.

    Or perhaps he was simply reffering to how ignorant and/or indoctrinated that German people were of their great leader’s real agenda – or merely just an observation that the vast majority of the German people were quite happy with Hitler’s regime. These are much more unlikely.

    If Menzies had meant that he approved of what Hitler was doing in Germany, he would simply have said “Hitler has done a great job for the German people.”

  16. Regard Paul 2’s alternative example of the young fascist working to aid refugees, one way to see the point of my original post is to observe just how implausible this example is. The kind of person attracted to fascism is not typically found engaged in charitable work, even for right-wing causes. As I said, the closest parallel to Paul Norton’s example is the good Catholic supporter of Franco, such as Santamaria.

  17. There is little ideological equiavalence between communism and nazism.
    Communism’s dystopia was incidental to its ideological program. Communist totalitarianism was a function of the Bolshevik’s use of a revolutionary one-party state to mobilise and terrorise the not-so-willing masses.
    Nazism’s dystopia was fundamental to its ideological program. The Nazis wanted endless wars of conquest, subjugation of the individual and racial oppression. That was their idea of fun ie selective violence to improve the breed.
    Both the Nazis and Communists were totalitarian collectivists. The Nazis were communitarian race nationalists. The Communists were egalitarian class socialists.
    There is not that much empirical equivalence between communist and nazi genocides. Of the two types of totalitarian collectivism, it is reasonable to say that race nationalism has killed more people than class socialism. Varioys types of ethnic cleansing practised by racists (Turks on Armenians, Germans on Jews, Mongols on everyone) has killed many more people than classist purges (ie liquidation of Russian kulaks or the evacuation of the Cambodian bourgeois.) Even Stalins crimes were as much race nationalist as class socialist in intention.
    Finally, the existence of widespread communist apostates is indicative of the disparity beween communist good ideals and bad practice. There are not many fascist apostates because fascist ideals were pretty much matched by fascist practice.

  18. “Moreover, by the mid thirties, it was not clear that Fascism was the threat to peace that it later (post-Munich)”

    Really? Abyssinia, the Rhineland …

    As for Menzies, he was well within the tradition of a large segment of, perhaps most of, the British Conservative Party, aka the Cliveden Set.

  19. Dave Ricardo — 12/1/2005 @ 8:33 pm clutches vainly at straws:

    Really? Abyssinia, the Rhineland …

    the weakest riposte in the history of the internet debates. The Rhineland was German territory, unfairly occupied by the onerous terms of the Versailles Treaty which Keynses opposed.
    David Ricardo suggests that Italy’s conquest of Abyssinia was a fascist threat to world peace. Italy’s African imperialism, like its European nationalism, was much more like 19th Century authoritarian than 20th century totalitarian. In any case its a bit rich for the descendant of the world’s greatest African empire scramblers to moralise about imperial conquests to the descendant of an anti-fascist partisan. Black Adder summed up the hypocritical nature of the Anglocentric world view up rather nicely, in respect of German, rather than the much nicer Italian, imperialism:

    Edmund: Do you mean “How did the war start?”
    Baldrick: Yeah.
    George: The war started because of the vile Hun and his villainous empire-building.
    Edmund: George, the British Empire at present covers a quarter of the globe, while the German Empire consists of a small sausage factory in Tanganiki. I hardly think that we can be entirely absolved of blame on the imperialistic front.

  20. Jack,
    Did you quote that from memory or are the Blackadder texts on the internet somewhere, if so where, I need to know…..
    Seriously, Jack’s earlier post reminds me of the appendix to Primo Levi’s book “If this is a man” responding to earlier criticism that he had not given equal weight in his lectures to the crimes of the Gulags. I looked for my copy of the book last night but couldn’t find it but he made several good points, one I do remember was that Fascism/Nazisnm could only get worse whereas Communism could only get better – this relates to the “incidental vs fundamental” distiction. I’m not sure how well his books were read in the Gulags but I’m sure this cheered them up no end.

  21. Aidan —

    I’m not convinced that Primo Levi’s claim that communism could only get better is correct. Let me quote a passage from Igal Halfin’s “Terror in My Soul: Communist Autobiographies on Trial” (Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 274):

    In the Bolshevik tradition, death linked the individual in a final embrace with the brotherhood of the elect. Death could be a sublime, highly positive experience of self-sacrifice, or a negative experience, in which one’s expulsion from the society of men was rendered eternal. The unidirectional structure of the official autobiography takes us nearer the meaning of death in Communism. If in order to realize one’s true self one had to become a Party member, failure to do so meant cutting the story short. A life lost to the Party was a life aborted, an unfinished life, and it could be narrated as such. But nothing short of conversion to Communism fully satisfied the demands of the genre. This seemingly innocuous feature of Communist poetics inspired a morbid conclusion: the individual who was absolutely unable to see the light of Communism – human dross at best, a menace to universal salvation at worst – had to disappear; whereas at first Communist misfits were given a second and a third chance to reform, properly to complete their life’s journey and become good Communists, from 1936 onward they were shot.

  22. Coming back to the Menzies quote, I hardly think it is damning. He’s stating a simple fact; had you and I lived in Berln in 1937 odds are we would have thought Hitler had done good things for Germany.

    The conclusions Menzies drew from this fact (eg that Berliners were/were not correct in this assessment, that doing good things for Germany was/was not a sufficient condition for Hitler to be counted as a Good Thing overall, that Germany was/was not a threat to Australia, that Nazism should/should not be applied in Australia, etc) are what he should be judged on. This statement gives no evidence on these.

  23. I think you’re stretching it a bit far, here DD. I suppose I could assert accurately enough that “if I lived in Pyongyang I would say that Kim Il Jong was the greatest leader the world had ever seen” . But unless I wanted to be misunderstood, I wouldn’t say such a thing without making the obvious point that if I didn’t say that, I wouldn’t live very long in Pyongyang.

    Menzies is clearly saying that a reasonable person would judge Hitler had done a great job for the German people, whatever outsiders might think of him. I agree that this doesn’t carry the other implications you mention, but it’s still comparable to many endorsements of Stalin and Mao of the form “his methods might not suit Australians, but he’s been good for Russia/China”.

  24. Well? Up until 1937 Hitler had done a great deal for the German people, by any measure available at the time. Of course, he and the Nazis contained their future within them even then, which you can’t so accurately suppose of Mussolini four years into power, but that wasn’t the point, was it?

  25. Context is all – but this quote is not given in context. Menzies may well have gone on to make the “obvious point”. The fact that his enemies did not provide the rest of the quote given makes one suspect that perhaps he did.

    And the analogue is not exact – its not just simple intimidation or a compositional effect (if I don’t say Dear Leader is great I won’t be in Pyongyang for long, if I don’t say der Fuehrer is great I won’t be in Berlin for long …). A reasonable Berliner in 1937 may well have rationally judged Hitler to have done a great job for them to date – which is Menzies point. They wouldn’t have understood the economic unsustainability or the true threat to peace of his approach. Nor would they have had much undertanding of his past murderous practices, let alone his even more murderous future.

  26. Having just finished a book on the life of Sir Hal Colebatch I would say that there was at least one (non-left) Australian politician who was clear about the threat from fascism and was consistent about it. It was just a pity he had already marginalised himself by taking on unpopular causes like free trade, de-centralisation, the freedom of the individual and the importance of not being bound by strong party discipline.
    Menzies (and most others in politics at this time) did not believe strongly in any of these, so would not have been too appalled at what he could see happening in Berlin by 1937 – he, of course, would not have been permitted to see the worst of the abuses. Of course, by 1939 and certainly by 1945 he would have strongly disagreed with what had happened.

  27. I have to take issue with what I think is a mis-construal of Menzies’ words. The interpretation being given by some is that he was referring to majority opinion in Berlin in 1937, not his own opinion. But Hitler achieved power after an election in which his party got 33% or so of the popular vote. Having achieved power, he then outlawed his main rival (the Communist Party), expelled their MPs from the Parliament, and intimidated other parties into supporting him. The main stronghold of the Communists and the Social Democrats was in the industrial cities (Berlin, Hamburg, etc), and resistance to Nazi rule continued in these cities throughout his period in power. (He was not able for some years after 1933 to make speeches in public in Hamburg without receiving catcalls, for example.) It is quite possible that at no point in time between 1933 and 1945 did the Nazis command a majority of popular opinion in Berlin or Hamburg.

    It staggers belief to think as wiley and intelligent a politician as Menzies would not know some of this, not least because of the public opposition to Nazism in Australia prior to 1937. For him to have been referring to Berlin popular opinion rather than to his own opinion he must either have been uncharacteristically naive (not an attribute I’ve ever heard him described as) or else deliberately
    dissembling. Neither explanation seems more plausible to me than the simplest one, that he was expressing his own support of Nazi policies.

  28. Regarding Peter’s scary quote from Igal Halfin, one could argue that the post-1937 period was indeed dark for the USSR, but that it got better after Stalin died. Whereas Hitler’s successor in the 1000 year Reich would have only been worse (if such were possible)? Unless we believe that the Nazis would have closed the death camps once the Jews, Gypsies, Russians etc were all dead………Me, I’m glad I live now and here not then and (either of) there.

  29. How funny. Andrew Norton wrote:

    I think the broad answer is yes [one can redeem oneself], especially if there were mitigating factors (eg youthful error…)… At the ideological level, many ex-communists did a good job in exposing their former comrades. They too are redeemed.

    Earlier today I was listening to Phil Ochs:

    Once I was young and impulsive
    I wore every conceivable pin
    Even went to the socialist meetings
    Learned all the old union hymns
    But I’ve grown older and wiser
    And that’s why I’m turning you in
    So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

    We all know that’s where I will end up

  30. Responding to Aidan (post 31): One reason that the post-Stalin period in the USSR was not as awful as it had been under Stalin was that the ruling circle ensured the death of Beria, his chief henchman. If Beria, rather than Kruschev, had been Stalin’s successor, the 1950s and 1960s may have been much nastier for the USSR than they were.

    I don’t believe there is any necessary reason for Communism to improve with time. After all, it didn’t get better after Lenin’s death.

    On a related topic, a few years ago I saw an interview with Mikhail Gorbachev by Clive Anderson on British TV in which he was asked by a member of the audience whether he was pleased that the 1917 Revolution had occured. Gorbachev (speaking through an interpreter) said that he wished that the February 1917 Revolution had prevailed.

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