Tag Archives: history


I spend a lot of time wondering about how reasonably intelligent people start to believe in not-so-intelligent ideas, especially since I myself have been down a few rabbit holes of idiocy at several points in my lifetime. But while the “why” is very important, there is also the matter of what to do about it. Are there things one can do to avoid falling for wholly irrational, tribal worldviews? Is there a vaccine against this? I have a couple suggestions.

When looking back on some of the dumber ideas I fell for in my youth (not counting the religious conservative worldview I was raised with), I sometimes wonder if they were unavoidable, and that if I went in one direction rather than another this was only due to circumstances and experiences. I believe to some extent that young males, well into their twenties, are imbued with a sense of hubris that emboldens them and motivates them to hold fast to the most idiotic beliefs at times. Witness the confidence of some of these alt-right followers display when expounding on society and politics and you’ll see what I mean. Each one is a Dunning-Kruger case study. Now granted, many people carry this overconfidence well past their 20’s, but that’s the thing- either you become self-aware, grow up, and correct yourself, or you remain an overconfident blowhard to the end. The latter of those, incidentally, can lead to a very lucrative career on Youtube or if you’re lucky, Fox News.

What is it that young males (and let’s face it, males tend to fall for this far more often) are so susceptible to? If I had to define it in one word, I’d say epiphany. By epiphany I mean this specific realization that one factor somehow explains the whole system, and when you come to that realization, that epiphany, you now have gained all the knowledge you to truly understand the world around you. That knowledge is like a filter you can apply to any situation, be it a news story, an upcoming election, or some kind of international conflict. In fact, a lot of people who fall for this kind of thing have given that epiphany a name- the red pill. Being “redpilled” has different meanings whether it’s being used by MRAs (“Men’s Rights Advocates) or neo-Nazis; the former see the red pill as understanding that women secretly rule society while the latter say it’s the Jews, although there’s a lot of overlap between the two ideologies these days.

There are left-wing versions of this too. These can range from the general “anti-hegemony,” Chomsky-ite worldview,  whereby everything bad can be explained by the influence of the US and its close allies. Or it can manifest in an extremely mechanical application of Marxist class theory, whereby everything is reduced to class, and specifically class as understood by Marx in his own time, rather than material reality in the present. Marx’s greatest contribution to history was an analysis and critique of capitalism. He did not develop some kind of esoteric knowledge which could explain the workings of all things and allow those with that knowledge to control the flow of history. Some leftists either do not know or forget that Marxist theory is a method for analyzing certain aspects of human society and its evolution, not an answer to all life’s questions or a cure-all for in any every social problem. The misapplication and manipulation of Marxist theory has been disastrous, to say the least.

A corollary to the epiphany is that it is typically forbidden or taboo, and this is used as evidence that it is correct. For example, there is a quotation misattributed to Voltaire which goes: “To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?” In fact, the quote in question most likely originates from the white nationalist leader and convicted pedophile Kevin Alfred Strom. There’s a good lesson in that; sure, it may be taboo to praise Hitler in public or to defend the gulag system in our modern society, but it is also taboo to defend pedophilia or cannibalism. In other words, being taboo doesn’t necessarily make something right, either factually or morally. Some things are taboo for a reason and they should remain so.

So my advice to the young men out there (because again, it’s mostly a male thing) is this: If anyone tells you this one weird trick that explains the whole system, be very cautious. Remember that skepticism is the default position you should be in with all extraordinary claims, and any claim that purports to explain the whole world is certainly extraordinary. Yes, material reality shows we live in a capitalist world divided into antagonistic classes, but there are many other factors outside of these two established facts which weigh heavily on events. Even concepts like determining who has power and how doesn’t can only really work as rules of thumb. And I don’t think I should have to even point out that any theory that claims the world is run by a cabal of Jews, secret societies, feminists, etc. is clearly bullshit and can be simply dismissed.

While that advice is for the potential audience for such flawed ideologies, what can society do to help foster critical thinking? I have often noted how for many people, the response to the “America can do no wrong” narrative of their upbringing and our political discourse is simply “America can do no right,” as opposed to a more critical and nuanced point of view. It is this kind of thinking that leads “dissidents” to identify with and praise regimes that have done either worse things than the US, or at least did no better.

It seems to me, though I may be wrong, that if we didn’t teach American exceptionalism, if we didn’t teach the “America is the greatest thing in the history of anything, ever” narrative in schools, then we might prevent the opposite idiotic idea, that any regime in a spat with the US must be good or have a righteous cause. In many ways, that view seems to stem from the aforementioned epiphany, and the idea that America and its hegemony is the lens through which we should view all global politics is basically an epiphany. It is and example of “everything they taught you was wrong, here’s the truth.” So what would happen if we didn’t teach that way anymore?

If we just taught US history accurately, warts and all, then revelations of its crimes wouldn’t seem so groundbreaking because, after all, they’d already be revealed. The fairy-tale version of American history is lying to children, and when people figure out they’ve been lied to they tend to get angry. So angry, in fact, that they might even be receptive to someone else’s lies, so long as they go against the lies they’ve already been told.

Of course it’s one thing to say how history ought to be taught and another to actually get the system to teach it. I remember Cracked.com’s Jason Pargin making the very correct point that the reason country’s teach history in schools isn’t to actually teach what happened, i.e. history. The “lesson” you’re supposed to get from history class is that the present order in your country is fair, just, and good, and more importantly- people did certain things in the past so you should do them too. If we taught history as it is, the authorities would have a revolt on their hands.

BREAKING NEWS! Someone compares contemporary Russia to a non-Russian historical precedent!

I’m quite certain I’ve said this before at some point, but one of the most irritating cliches when it comes to Russia coverage is the unspoken rule that modern Russia can only be understood through its own history. We get inundated with articles debating whether Putin is a new Tsar and if so, which one. Is he Andropov? Is he like Brezhnev? Is Kadyrov following in the footsteps of Ivan the Terrible, or could he be a new Stalin-like figure on account of his Caucasian heritage? Is Russia’s current economic situation reminiscent of the 90’s, Perestroika, or the Brezhnev stagnation?

The same rule applies to potential solutions.  Russia needs a Peter the Great to re-open relations with the West! Who will be the “Gorbachev” that re-introduces “democracy” to Russia? And so forth. In fact, the rule is often adhered to not only by Western observers, but also pro-Kremlin people as well. After all, Russian chauvinists shudder at the idea that their country, so unique, esoteric, and utterly mysterious, could ever be compared to another nation at any point in history.

Well guess what- someone actually ventured to break the cycle, and how! In this article, Sumantra Maitra dares to compare Putin to Aurangzeb, the last Mughal emperor of India. You may disagree with the analysis, but they deserve credit for daring to suggest that no, Russia is not so ridiculously unique that we can’t find better explanations by looking at other historical precedents in other countries. Personally I’ve always found Putin to be more of a Mobutu than a Russian Tsar or Soviet premier.

Sometimes I wonder how people would react if we applied this rule to other countries, specifically Western European nations, the UK, or the United States. You say Trump is like Hitler or Mussolini? Preposterous! Go find an American analog. Off the top of my head I’d say George Lincoln Rockwell, assuming you’re married to the whole Nazi comparison. Comparison that liken the American experience in Afghanistan to the Soviet one? Impossible! You must choose something American, like the Seminole Wars. It doesn’t matter how different these situations actually are, all analysis of American politics must be based on American history and no other country is comparable!

I hope I’m not a lone voice suggesting that firstly, not all analysis of Russia should be based on finding alleged parallels in Russian history, and secondly, comparisons should be based on what really fits, not what happens to be the closest historical parallel in Russia’s history. Some might claim that since the Kremlin leadership seems to have a similar worldview, whereby history is used to explain every action, it makes sense to use the same technique. That’s credible for sure, but to be fair the historical knowledge of Putin, Lavrov, and other assorted Kremlin cronies is horribly incomplete. They focus on “Russian” victories of the past while ignoring the key defeats, and especially the reasons for those defeats. If observers do the same, I think there’s a danger that their analysis will inevitably suffer as the whole practice starts to resemble a trivia contest.

So just a humble suggestion- maybe it’s time for some journalists and analysts to follow in the footsteps of Maitra and expand their horizons, looking for parallels outside the narrow focus of Russian history.

Denims: American Vatniks.

Yesterday I warned Americans about the danger of Russian-style, post-modernist “unreality” taking hold in America if fear-mongering confidence men like Glenn Beck are not opposed. Today I encountered a piece from the heartland which shows you that America is not too far removed from Russia when it comes to poor critical thinking skills.


Oh yes, it’s that time again.

If America has any edge on Russia in terms of political theatrics, it’s that the American Republican party is pretty good at keeping the real nutcases bottled up in state legislatures while only letting more moderate types ascend to the House and Senate in DC. Sure, there are exceptions, such as when it comes to reproductive rights issues, and the party has been steadily moving to the right. However, for the foreseeable future we can rest assured that the honorable Cody “Bubba” Jerritt, whose pet projects include returning to the gold standard, proclaiming Jesus Christ the “True King of America”, and automatic secession from the USA in the event of an invasion by UN troops will never manage to escape Alabama. He’d be defeated in the primary and forced to go back home to his home town of Methlabburg.

Of course if you give these people enough time to stew and spread their message, they could one day gain more influence on a national scale, much the same as the religious right achieved during the Culture Wars of the 90’s and under the Bush years. What is more, is that even if they can’t influence power at the federal level, it doesn’t mean they can’t totally wreck things in their states. There’s a reason why reactionaries throughout American history tended to be advocates of states’ rights after the Civil War. At the state level they can bully and intimidate people with impunity unless the federal government steps in.

Who are these people? Well today’s item is about dipshits in Oklahoma who are upset about the “political agenda” in their public school history curriculum. What political agenda you might ask? It’s not patriotic enough! Apparently, deliberately molding and shaping a history curriculum so as to make it more “patriotic” is not a political agenda at all. Except when other countries do it, of course.

Let’s check out a few horrifying excerpts, shall we?

An Oklahoma legislative committee overwhelmingly voted to ban Advanced Placement U.S. History class, persuaded by the argument that it only teaches students “what is bad about America.” Other lawmakers are seeking a court ruling that would effectively prohibit the teaching of all AP courses in public schools.

Hmmm…This sounds really familiar. When I was a young lad we had conservatives complaining about “politically correct” textbooks that were supposedly denigrating America’s great white heroes. Incidentally, I never encountered any of those books. All my textbooks were pretty much “Hooray for America.” James Loewen used twelve commonly-used history textbooks as the basis of his book Lies my Teacher Told Me, which was first published in 1995. All of these books were overly patriotic and totally glossed over numerous negative chapters in American history. Based on this, it is highly unlikely that these AP courses are using the works of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky in their syllabus.

Fisher said the Advanced Placement history class fails to teach “American exceptionalism.” The bill passed the Oklahoma House Education committee on Monday on a vote of 11-4.

I always find it funny when people act like failing to believe or in this case teach American exceptionalism is a negative thing. To the rational person, this is like complaining that the schools don’t teach Holocaust denial, racial science, or the divine right of kings. Basically this Fisher fellow is upset that the schools won’t teach kids that Santa Claus is real.

Here’s another pair of ominous excerpts:

The RNC said a new framework for the exam “reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

Under the changes proposed in Colorado “students would only be taught lessons depicting American heritage in a positive light, and effectively ban any material that could lead to dissent.”

Only two eagles? Godless Communists!

Only two eagles? Godless Communists!

People who follow the circus that is the Russian Duma ought to take these quotes to heart. Americans would be naive indeed to believe that the mentality of the Russian vatnik cannot be exported. Russia has a large population of people who are cynical, bitter, eager to blame others for their problems, and perpetually outraged at their inability to achieve their dreams. America has a population with the same mentality, even if it is smaller or less intense due to a higher standard of living. Setting these minor nuances aside, rest assured that there are more than enough people in the US who would happily wield the power of the government, even the federal government, in order to suppress by force of law any viewpoints which they do not like. The only difference between the US and Russia in this respect is that in America you have far more resources and freedoms at your disposal to fight those people, be it on the streets, in the school boards, in the state legislatures, and so on.

America’s vatniks, whom we should call denims perhaps, can only win if good people let them. Do not just dismiss these cranks by saying this is just “flyover country.” Today that may be true. Five to ten years down the road it could be another story as repeated victories “mainstream” these idiotic beliefs. Russia’s problem is vatnost; America’s biggest threat may be denimism.

Though you hate them so, Vatnik, know that you have legions of brothers across the sea. They'd hate you too if the could find you on a map, but they consider teaching the existence of other countries to be a liberal, pagan conspiracy.

Though you hate them so, Vatnik, know that you have legions of brothers across the sea. They’d hate you too if the could find you on a map, but they consider teaching the existence of other countries to be a liberal, pagan conspiracy.

PS- For those of you who don’t like the term denim to refer to American vatniks, rest assured I’m not married to that name. If you have a better suggestion I’d like to hear about it in the comments.

Racist Compulsive Disorder

I had actually been planning to write this off-topic piece several weeks ago, but unfortunately a ton of very on-topic news came down the pipe. Seeing that February is Black History Month, the delay has actually been fortuitous. Coincidence? Yes, of course it’s a coincidence.


Aaaaaanyway, let me set up the background. Some  readers and Twitter followers have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a Civil War binge lately. It’s part of a more general Victorian era phase, I suppose. That and throughout most of my life I tended to study the history of pretty much every country but America. In fact I nurse a suspicion that American history is deliberately made as boring and bland as possible so as to actually discourage people from delving into it. My years of history education in school can be summed up by skipping ahead in the textbook, anticipating that time when we’d stop reading about settlers planting corn and finally get to World War II, only to be disappointed as we failed to reach it by the end of the year or glossed over it. Other than that, much of what I “learned” consisted of urban legends and myths which I would see debunked over the years immediately following high school graduation.

So I’m watching all these documentaries and I discover this site for the Civil War Trust, an educational organization which not only creates and promotes materials dealing with the Civil War, but also works to preserve historic battlefields. Incidentally one of those battlefields was none other than Gettysburg, where a developer wanted to build a casino of all things just a half mile from the historic site. Only in America. Getting back to the point, I end up watching some of their short videos and eventually I get to one about black soldiers in the Civil War. Here is the video in question:

Now from my experience it’s always a good idea not to read the comments on any Youtube video about the Civil War, because you will be inundated with Lost Cause bullshit. Since this video was about black soldiers, part of my mind was saying “Don’t read the comments! Do not read the comments! DO NOT SCROLL DOWN!  NO! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! WHY?”  Yep, I couldn’t help it. I scrolled too far.

As you no doubt guessed, it got pretty racist, real quick. And yet something about the predictability of those responses pissed me off. You can say “Well that’s the internet,” so many times until one day you just want to ask one of these fuckheads what is wrong with them. I’m not talking about “calling them out,” I’m not talking about shaming them, I’m talking about a serious inquisition to discover what their specific defect is. I want to know the motivations behind a person who says “Oh look at this, a positive video about the contributions of black people in American history. Better chime in with a racist comment to take them down a peg or two!” 

I want to know the reason because sometimes it feels like these people are literally compelled to react in that manner. If there was a video about Irish soldiers in the Civil War, what would you expect to see? No doubt there’d be a cascade of comments from dozens if not hundreds of proud plastic Paddies talking about how their great-great-great-grandfather came from some Irish town they first heard mentioned in a Flogging Molly song, and therefore they are in fact, Irish. What you won’t see is anyone coming in their pointing out the indisputable fact that in the 19th century Irish immigrants were often associated with drunkenness and criminality, or that it was Irish people who were largely responsible for the New York City draft riots, which happen to bear the honor of being the worst and most destructive riots in American history.  Remember that Scorcese film The Gangs of New York? That’s actually based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Herbert Asbury, and it’s fairly accurate in its portrayal of the times. One could say it was even too generous. It’s also worth noting that according to their own officers and outside observers, America’s black troops during the Civil War were far more disciplined and well-behaved than most white soldiers. Whereas the latter often spent their free time gambling, drinking, brawling, or visiting brothels, black soldiers tended to dedicate most of their free time improving their literacy or their military skills.

Obviously I’m not seriously trying to revive 19th century Know Nothing anti-Papist Irish bashing. I’m using this to show the contrast between how people react to certain topics in American history compared to how they react to black history. As with Irish history, we’re allowed to talk about Italian-American history without bringing up La Cosa Nostra and get away with it.  We’re allowed to speak with reverence about Confederate generals and soldiers and yet someone who brings up the undeniable fact that they did, in fact, wage a war to preserve slavery is shouted down. Bring up the topic of black soldiers though, and then suddenly everybody groans about “political correctness” and starts making comments about real or imagined problems in the black community today.

It’s not so much that these people harbor these racist ideas, it’s that they feel the need to give their two cents where it is neither required nor wanted. They can’t just see the video and think or say something racist to themselves to get whatever kind of self-satisfaction that apparently brings them. No, they need to let the world know, in spite of the fact that even they gain nothing from this behavior.

Black History month tends to be that time of year when morons all over the States tweet and post their late-winter mating call: “Why can’t we have a White History Month?” These people are oblivious to the fact that most of the history they’re taught tends to be from, for lack of a better word, a “white” point of view.  If you were to count up all the educational videos on the Civil War Trust’s Youtube channel alone, you’ll see that the majority of them don’t even mention black Americans. It was a “white man’s war” by white design. When it comes to battle documentaries, the most popular seem to be Gettysburg, Antietam, and Shiloh. None of those involved black troops.  This means those Youtube commentators can watch several hours worth of documentaries without suffering the sheer horror of being reminded that black Americans made positive contributions in American history.

As an amateur historian I’m kind of split on the question of how to start addressing this problem. I tend to agree with those who say that American history needs to feature more minority figures and viewpoints, but on the other hand I think that dividing history into “black history,” “Latino history,” and “Asian-American history,” ultimately leads to trouble. First of all, our country is a lot more diverse these days. Think about how teachers would look when they have to admit that no, there probably weren’t too many famous Arab-American heroes around the time of the War of Independence or the Civil War. I’m sure you could dig up some names, but then it’s clear to everyone including whomever you’re trying to enfranchise that you’re grasping at straws. As a people the Arabs have countless accomplishments, a fact which can and shold be included in history curricula, but I think there’s an even better solution.

Let us stop teaching that the history of people who kind of look like you is “your” history. Take all those things people want to teach as “black history,” for example, and so integrate them into the curriculum so that it becomes simply history. The problem with compartmentalized history isn’t just that you leave “white history” as the dominant field which gets to be called simply “history.”  If fails to cross-pollinate, if you will, by which I mean it may get specific groups interested in what you call “their” history, but it doesn’t get people from those groups interested in other people’s allegedly proprietary history. Integrating all these different narratives and stressing their inseparability would accomplish that.

Some people might object, saying it is unlikely that children and young adults will get passionately interested in the history of another people. Again, that depends on how you teach it. I am by America’s social standards, white, yet my roots in the United States go no deeper than the early 20th century, perhaps the late 19th century at the most. I doubt anyone today would see any injustice in the fact that I was forced to learn about settlers at Jamestown, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the War of Independence, the Constitutional Convention, the War of 1812, the Civil War, pioneers, homesteaders, and so on. Those people were “white,” and I’m “white,” ergo I’m supposed to assume these people I had nothing to do with in a country whose soil my ancestors had never touched have some kind of connection with me. My point here is that we’re already telling schoolchildren, even the white ones, to identify with the history of people who have very little in common with them save for the most superficial features. Therefore, would it be such a bold step to better integrate history and try to get young people interested in the history of other groups and nationalities?  If anything, Americans of all ethnic groups today have a lot more in common with each other linguistically and culturally than they do with Americans of the 19th century.

Perhaps this integrated approach would develop something that is still sorely lacking in American society- empathy. Empathy might have swayed the minds of some people against chiming in with a racist, stereotypical comment like the ones you see on that video. They might still hold the same beliefs, but at least they’d have the common decency not to piss in someone’s Cheerios just because they are driven irrationally mad by seeing a positive video about black Americans. Maybe empathy and a more inclusive method of teaching history could some day lead to a country full of rational people who don’t feel somehow threatened by the idea of learning about the history of black Americans. Till then, remember this advice and you will never go wrong- Don’t read the comments!

How to avoid looking like a jackass: Helpful tip #2

There comes a time in every politically-minded person’s life when they compare America to the Roman empire. Basing one’s political arguments on comparisons between the United States and the Roman Empire is kind of like wetting your bed. Up to a certain young age it’s understandable, but thereafter it’s a sign that you have a serious problem.  For a case study, take a look at this beautiful, classic take-down of a John Stossel piece on Gin & Tacos.

As the reader might have guessed, America/Rome comparisons drive me up the fucking wall.  While the John Stossel piece comes from his libertarian point of view, this trope is most often wielded by more traditional conservative forces, as well as some far right extremists as well.  The typical fairy tale is that Rome became too tolerant, too decadent, and as a result too corrupt, and therefore it collapsed. Utter bullshit. For one thing, when Rome was tolerant, it was at the height of its existence as an empire. And what was the Roman state religion throughout its decline? Christianity. Are you sure you want to use that trope, Mr. Conservative? People even further to the right insist that Rome fell because it’s culture and blood became too mixed. Again, utter bullshit. Rome at its height was cosmopolitan, tolerant, and accepting of other cultures and religion.  As for mixing of blood well, a lot of that foreign blood came from the very same Germanic barbarians that far right extremists constantly fap to.  Shouldn’t the influx of precious Germanic blood plus the imposition of one state religion have strengthened the Roman empire?  Forget it. The question is rhetorical because this is all bullshit in the first place.

Next time you hear someone say “America’s like Rome,” ask them when the Roman empire fell. If they don’t go full deer-in-headlights right there, they’ll probably come up with 476 AD. Not even close. If you’re an informed reader, you might say 1453. Not bad. But if you want to get technical the answer is 1923. The Roman Empire fell in 1923. That’s not a typo.  Ottoman Sultan Beyazit I claimed to be Sultan of Rum(Rome) even before the capture of Constantinople by his descendant Mehmet II, but after the latter finally achieved what Beyazit could not, he claimed the title Kayser(Caesar) and declared himself the successor to the Roman Empire. Prior to the conquest of the Middle East under Selim I “The Grim,” Arabs sometimes referred to the Ottoman Turks as “Romans.”  Since Ottoman sultans continued to claim this title after 1453, it is fair to say that the Roman empire truly collapsed with the Ottoman Empire, and that was in 1923.  My great-grandfather fought against the true successor of the Roman empire.  Yours might have as well.

At this point if the person in question can’t get their head around 1453, they probably shouldn’t be talking about the Roman empire. They should probably start with something much more manageable, such as the history of modern Finland.

I think America/Rome comparisons go hand in hand with other tropes such as using The Matrix in philosophical debates and discussions, thinking Fight Club is deep, invoking 1984, comparing every drawn-out conflict to Vietnam, and assorted other lazy shortcuts which help otherwise stupid people sound smart and politically savvy in the company of other stupid people. All the ignorant sheeple suck down Coca-Cola and plop themselves in front of the idiot box to watch reality TV after they get home from the shopping mall with their precious material goods, but I know what’s really going on! We’re Rome, and their Wal-Marts, fast food joints, professional sports, and cheap consumer goods are nothing but the modern equivalent of bread and circuses!

Okay maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe their are a lot of parallels between America today and the late Roman empire, which of course must only refer to the Western Roman empire because West = good. Let me see…

-America has a state religion, the imposition of which ended a long tradition of religious tolerance and acceptance.

-America directly occupies and administers foreign territory all over the globe.

-Faced with dire conflicts all over the world, the US military has had to increasingly rely on foreign mercenaries to fill out its ranks. The US Army is full of men recruited from Iraq and Afghanistan. Now many of these mercenaries have managed to rise to high ranking positions in the military.

-Large migrations of warrior peoples are threatening the borders of the United States.

Yup. Just like Rome! Oh wait, none of those things are actually happening! And that is just a handful of differences we could point to. As Ed from Gin & Tacos points out, you could find all kinds of trivial details with which to compare two states, but this doesn’t make your overall comparison accurate in the slightest. Cows and tables have four legs, but cows are not tables.

So the next time you see someone making a comparison between America and Rome, do yourself, the historical record, and them a huge favor. Punch them in the head.

How to avoid looking like a jackass: Helpful Tip #1

History is full of counter-intuitive facts. We all “know” that the Crusades were a series of holy wars between Christians and Muslims, right? Yet the Crusades would often see Muslims making pacts with Christian lords, infighting on both sides, and on many occasions, crusading Christians slaughtering other Christians.

Let us look at something a bit more recent. The American national anthem- what a hallowed tradition that is! Oh wait. No. “The Star-spangled banner” only became the USA’s official anthem in 1931; prior to that date, commonly used “national anthems” included “My country ’tis of thee,” an idiotic song set to the same melody as “God Save the King.” Pause on that for a second. You fight for independence from an empire, and then one of your best proposals for a national anthem uses the same melody as the anthem of the very same empire.  Hopefully the guy who wrote that song got killed in a duel or something.  Another de facto yet unofficial American anthem was “Hail Columbia,” an idiotic song with an idiotic title which sounds like a Prussian military march.  So “The Star-spangled banner” is a real improvement over those, right? Well no. For one thing, the poem which provides the lyrics describes an incident from the War of 1812, a war which the United States basically lost, narrowly managing to preserve the status quo. And the melody?  It’s ripped off from an abomination known as the “Anacreontic song.”

Crazy, right? Well that’s history.  And that’s why if you hear someone talking about historical events you’re not very familiar with and their claims seem very counter-intuitive, you might want to fire up old Google before declaring that person to be “Batshit crazy.”  Otherwise you might end up publishing something which makes you look like an ignorant jackass. Sadly, i09’s George Dvorsky had never heard that advice before he published this article.  This is obviously a case of “I never heard that before! And it comes from Vladimir Putin, no less! That must mean it’s his idea!”

Basically what happened is Putin was addressing a group of historians in Moscow and he strongly implied that Western historians deliberately downplay the policy of appeasement and in particular, the Munich agreement.  Oddly enough, if you look at much older sources from the Cold War era they tend to be far more frank about issues like appeasement, Munich, and the Phony War.  This is simply not the case today. These days, thanks to shameless propagandists such as Timothy Snyder, Europe has managed to rewrite even the most basic facts of WWII. Munich is ignored while Motolov-Ribbentrop is portrayed as an alliance which actually started WWII. I was dumbfounded to learn this in 2009. All my life every source I read said that Hitler started WWII because he invaded Poland on 1 September, with Britain and France then declaring war on Germany on the 3rd. The Soviet invasion of Poland, in fact Western Ukraine and Belarus, occurred on the 16 or 17th of September depending on which source you choose, and in either case this was after the Polish government fled Warsaw.  The commander of Polish forces gave the order not to resist the Red Army and to continue fighting the Germans.  Neither Britain, France, or anyone else declared war on the USSR as a result, nor was the USSR expelled from the League of Nations for this action.  In spite of this and dozens of other facts, many of which were never really particularly secret, the modern narrative of WWII pretty much ignores Munich, or at best treats it as a misguided mistake. Molotov-Ribbentrop on the other hand, is now upheld as proof that WWII was actually started by Hitler and Stalin, and absurd revision of history.

The author quotes Putin on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact:

At the same time, Putin claimed that Stalin’s agreement with Hitler — the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — was perfectly fine.

“Serious research must show that those were the foreign policy methods then,” he is quoted as saying, adding: “The Soviet Union signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany. People say: ‘Ach, that’s bad.’ But what’s bad about that if the Soviet Union didn’t want to fight, what’s bad about it?”

First of all, the claim that these foreign policy methods were normal in those days is absolutely true. Chamberlain’s own personal correspondence explicitly confirms his wish that Hitler could be encouraged eastward in return for leaving Britain and France alone. This eastward move would admittedly be at the expense of countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, etc. Dvorsky seems to forget that this was an era when the two major “democratic” powers of the world held tens of millions of people in bondage in Africa and Asia. In this very same era, and for some time after WWII, both these empires eagerly suppressed uprisings, including peaceful demonstrations, with the full force of their colonial troops. Rising powers like Germany, Italy, and Japan threatened the status quo of the time.  Therefore if any of them could be appeased and thus make the business of running an empire easier in the process, the sacrifice of Poland or Czechoslovakia seemed like a small price to pay. Far more important, however, was the fervent hope of men like Chamberlain that Hitler’s eastward expansion would lead to a confrontation with, or at best containment of the Soviet Union. That Hitler was welcomed in some Western circles as the builder of a bulwark against Bolshevism is again, no secret, nor is it some radical new revisionist theory.

There is one major thing wrong with Putin’s statement on this, however. That is his implication that there was no negative reaction to the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact. That is utter nonsense; like the EU today, the press of that time went wild with allegations that Hitler and Stalin were now allies. I should remind the reader that the pact, proposed by the Germans and signed on 23 August 1939, came only months after the end of the Spanish Civil War in April of that same year. This conflict, which began in 1936, saw the Soviet Union providing the Spanish Republic with tons of tanks, planes, ammunition, advisers, and volunteers against the nationalists who were supplied by Germany, Italy, and Portugal. During that conflict, Britain, France, and to some extent the United States maintained an embargo against the legally-elected Spanish Republic, totally turning a blind eye to German, Italian, and Portuguese intervention.  On one occasions, a Royal Navy vessel involved in the blockade did nothing while a German vessel shelled coastal targets in support of a nationalist offensive.  This might seem like  a digression but I bring this up because while hacks then and now love to portray the non-aggression pact as an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, it’s important to keep in mind who had been fighting fascists long before 3 September 1939.  Moreover, the scandal in the West over the pact no doubt helped distract from the cowardly actions of the British and French governments in their failure to create a collective security pact and their appeasement of Hitler at Munich.  Bottom line is that Putin was dead wrong about the reaction to the signing of the pact.

George goes into full on fuck up mode as he attempts to respond to Putin’s comments.

“This is so infuriating I don’t even know where to start.”

I know the feeling, George.

“First, most Western historians don’t contest the assertion that Britain and France were guilty of appeasing Hitler. There’s no conspiracy by historians to “hush” this assessment. If anything, Western historians since A. J. P. Taylor’s The Origins of the Second World War have largely supported this view.”

True, but appeasement is often treated as a misguided mistake, and is often excused by the reluctance of the French and British to get involved in another war. While there certainly is no conspiracy to hush up appeasement, there has been a noticeable trend in the past decade or so to portray Hitler and Stalin as allies, to downplay Munich and play up Molotov-Ribbentrop, to suggest that Hitler would not have gone to war and that somehow WWII could have been avoided were it not for Motolov-Ribbentrop, and  the years of Soviet striving for a collective security pact are almost entirely ignored. However I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a “conspiracy” as much as it is an academic circle jerk. A conspiracy would involve hiding or fabricating evidence. In the case of this historical episode, absurd revisions and idiotic claims are made in spite of widely available evidence.

“Putin’s claim that the Munich Agreement precluded Russia from creating an anti-fascist front with the Allies is as disingenuous as it is inaccurate.”

Since the USSR continued to negotiate with France and Britain for such a front after Munich you could say this is inaccurate, but I’m afraid George has probably never heard about those negotiations. He wouldn’t have written this article were that not the case.

“Given just how fearful Western Europe was of Nazi Germany, a united front would have been entertained given the dire circumstances.”

Um…No, no it wouldn’t. It’s important to point out that during this time the USSR actually had an alliance with France. The problem was that this alliance was not militarily binding on France in the case of a German attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviets were looking to expand this pact with Britain and other countries, but most of all make it military binding and practical. What they feared was a scenario where Hitler, having expanded to the borders of the Soviet Union, could justify an attack on the latter by claiming it was an ally of Germany’s enemy, i.e. France. The previous agreement wouldn’t require France to declare war in such an event, leaving the Soviet Union to fight a war on its own.

As for fear of war with Germany well, first of all, any World War II buff worth his or her salt knows that Germany in the late 30′ was a paper tiger. Throughout WWII, around 10% of its forces were mechanized, leaving the bulk of its army to rely on horse-drawn and in some cases, camel-drawn transport. Early German panzers were not terribly impressive and models such as the laughable Pzkpfw-I and the slightly more effective Pzkpfw-II were actually outclassed by the tanks of many other nations, including Poland in 1939. In fact, the annexation of Czechoslovakia was a major boon both economically and militarily to Nazi Germany, especially in the realm of tanks. The German-named Panzer 35(t) and 38(t) were in fact high quality Czechoslovakian-built tanks, captured without ever firing a shot.  During the campaign against France in 1940, at least one third of German tanks involved in the offensive were Czechoslovakian.

An original Czechoslovakian Panzer 35(t) in the background.  "Sanks for zee tanks, zuckers!"

An original Czechoslovakian Panzer 35(t) in the background. “Sanks for zee tanks, zuckers!”

Waffen SS soldiers with a Czech ZB 26 light machine gun.

Waffen SS soldiers with a Czech ZB 26 light machine gun.

More Waffen SS men, this time with the Czech ZB 37 heavy machine gun.

More Waffen SS men, this time with the Czech ZB 37 heavy machine gun.

It is entirely fair to say that if anything enabled Hitler to go to war it was Munich, if only because the subsequent annexation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia literally handed Germany an arsenal without a fight. The redrawing of borders also severely strained Poland’s strategic defense plans, naturally.

Moving on, George digs himself deeper:

“Second, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a non-aggression treaty, can be interpreted as its own kind of appeasement policy. It basically said to Hitler, “Go ahead and do whatever you want — we won’t get in your way.”

You could call this a form of appeasement, but then you have the following question as to why Western powers are let off the hook for wanting to avoid war while the USSR is portrayed as an ally of Hitler?  The truth is that no country wanted to go to war in 1939; their general staffs all believed that they were not ready.

“Had Stalin refused to sign the non-aggression treaty, it’s unlikely that Germany would have invaded Poland. Or if it did, the Soviets could have declared war on Germany just like the Allies had done, changing the strategic parameters and dynamics of the conflict in a profound way.”

Utter nonsense.  First of all, the invasion of Poland had been originally scheduled for the 26 of August, three days after the signing of the pact. ‘Fall Weiss'(Case White), the plan for invading Poland, had been organized well in advance. On the night of 25-26 August, a German sabotage group which hadn’t been informed about the delay of the invasion went into action in something that became known as the Jabłonków Incident. This mistake shows that Hitler had intent to attack Poland without or without Molotov-Ribbentrop; in fact the reason for delaying the invasion actually had to do with Britain and Warsaw hinting to Berlin that they were willing to return to the negotiation table.

As for declaring war on Germany along with the allies, what exactly would this have entailed? If the USSR were to follow suit with Britain and France this would have meant sitting back doing nothing while Germany invaded all of 1939 Poland. But couldn’t the USSR fight on the side of Poland, as an ally? Well no. According to the diplomatic relations between the two nations at the time, any attempt to cross the Polish border, even if it was to repel the Germans, would have been seen as an invasion. During those heated discussions between the USSR, France, and Britain on the topic of collective security, Poland played an obstinate role, hinting that it might side with Berlin and flat out refusing to treat with the Soviet Union. One major failure at Munich surrounded Poland’s refusal to allow the Red Army transit rights through its territory on any condition.  Poland never asked for Soviet help.  It’s also worth noting that the Western allies declaration of war was largely toothless, and it has been theorized that Britain and France hesitating in hopes of finding a way to weasel out of their guarantee to Poland.  In any case, keep in mind that the USSR had no binding military alliance with Britain, France, or Poland for that matter in 1939. That means had they declared war after the allies on 3 September, they would have faced Nazi Germany more or less alone. This is precisely what they feared and exactly what they were trying to sort out with Britain and France.

Lastly, the idea that Hitler would not have gone to war with Poland ignores who Hitler was. Hitler really, really, liked war. He glorified it constantly in his writing. After the Munich agreement, he famously fell into a bad mood, remarking that he felt he had been “swindled” out of a war he sorely wanted. Who know, had Hitler been born in our times, he might just be an avid Call of Duty player, swigging Mountain Dew, pissing into empty bottles, and talking shit to people online instead of being a genocidal maniac.  Whatever the case, the idea that Hitler would just call off the war due to the fear of a Soviet attack in response to his invasion of Poland is laughably unbelievable. Would that have been a gamble? Sure. Hitler was a gambler though, and it paid off more than once during the war.

There was one thing which could have prevented Hitler from invading Poland- a strong collective security pact between Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union backing up Czechoslovakia.

Moving on with George’s creative history.

 “The Soviets were well aware that Nazi Germany was going to invade Poland, and that by letting it do so unhindered, the Soviet Union would get the Eastern portions of its former territory in return.”

Except that they didn’t let Nazi Germany do it unhindered. The Wehrmacht did not stop at any line determined by the secret protocol of the pact. That’s why there was a battle of Lvov, for example. It was clear that the Nazi goal was to take all of 1939 Poland. When you look at a map of that state, you’ll see why allowing them to do this could have led to disaster in 1941. I’ve yet to see any evidence to show that the invasion of Poland was planned in concert by Red Army and Wehrmacht officers prior to 1 September 1939 or 16-17 September for that matter. The chaotic series of events and clashes between Wehrmacht and Red Army patrols strongly suggest that Hitler had never intended to hold to any sort of territorial protocol.

“Thirdly, Putin’s comments that the Soviet Union “didn’t want to fight” is obviously bullshit of the highest order.”

Not at all. The Soviet Union was by no means alone in this respect. At the time the Red Army was going through a major reorganization of forces and was in no condition to fight a major war. The Winter War with Finland proved this. George would do well to pick up a book called Stumbling Collosus – The Red Army on the Eve of World War.  Do you even Glantz, bro?

“He’s conveniently forgetting the USSR’s unprovoked invasion of Finland in late 1939, not to mention the eagerness with which Stalin went to war against Poland during the joint invasion with the Nazis a few months earlier.”

The war with Finland was not exactly “unprovoked,” however flimsy the Soviet case for war might have been. The thing is, the Soviets didn’t really expect the Finns to go to war, nor did they consider that such a conflict would be so devastating. The strategic goals of that war were deemed necessary to preparing for a much larger conflict with Germany.

“What’s more, some historians speculate that Stalin agreed to the Pact as a way to buy time before launching his own invasion against Germany some time around 1948-50 (though this is unsubstantiated).”

He’s way off here. The most believable theory about a Soviet offensive puts the potential date somewhere around early summer in 1942. In fact, all the unbelievable theories I’ve seen also use this date. The Nazis themselves claimed to be launching a preemptive attack against a coming Soviet invasion.  In any case, this is rather amusing because George has basically fucked his own argument here. The Soviet Union, like many other countries, was actually trying to delay war until it felt ready.  Even the German military staff didn’t want to go to war in 1939.

And speaking of fucking your own argument.

“Fourthly, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also served as a trick. Hitler made no bones that his ultimate foe was the Soviet Union. The non-aggression treaty allowed Nazi Germany to occupy the Western side of Poland, and to buy Hitler some time before launching Operation Barbarossa against the USSR — a surprise attack that left Stalin completely dumbfounded.”

Oh yeah, good point. So what could the USSR have done to prevent Nazi Germany from occupying Western Poland in 1939? Well let’s see, they could have immediately invaded Poland, which I’m sure would have totally welcomed the Red Army in spite of the fact that their government had categorically refused any sort of alliance with the USSR. Then the USSR could have gone on the offensive, more or less by itself and with whatever was left of the mauled, overstretched Polish forces all the way to Berlin! Then anti-Communist historians would actually praise the Soviet Union and this would never have been portrayed as an act of aggression and conquest by the Bolshevik hordes. Yes, that is totally plausible.

“But Putin doesn’t really doesn’t care about the facts. As noted in The Telegraph article, “Critics say Mr Putin and his administration are increasingly mobilising historical events as a means of bolstering his authoritarian rule.”

This statement is by itself true, which is why it must be all the more embarrassing when he has a busted clock moment and actually manages to get the facts straighter than Mr. Dvorsky here.  Does Putin distort the history of WWII and the Soviet Union? Oh yes, absolutely. For example, the state-run Russian media is quite fond of spreading the idea that the USSR was nothing but a continuation of the Russian empire, and that the United States has always been her historical enemy. I’ve seen the alliance in WWII portrayed as one of convenience, with the US working to sabotage it at every step. In reality, the US and Russian Empire have a long history of alliances, trade, and friendly policies, while the Soviet Union wasn’t really considered a threat to the US until after WWII, i.e. when both the United States and USSR emerged as world superpowers. Russian state propaganda runs roughshod over Ukrainian history, often exaggerating the extent of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazi occupiers. I often find that infuriating since it actually bolsters Ukrainian nationalists’ own propaganda.

This, however, was truly a case of a broken clock being right this time of day, and George went and made an ass out of himself because he hadn’t done his homework. He heard these ideas coming from Vladimir Putin and assumed that Putin was the source of such ideas when he was inf fact merely repeating them, albeit with some errors.  So the moral of the story is, if you hear something about history which sounds crazy to you because you’ve never heard about it before, do some research before screaming all over the internet how “batshit crazy” it is.

If the reader is interested in examining the details of 1930’s Soviet-British-French negotiations in regard to collective security, I highly recommend Michael Jabara Carley’s 1939: The Alliance that Never Was and the Coming of World War II. Richard Overy’s The Road to War and Geoffrey Roberts’ Stalin’s Wars are also very useful when it comes to this topic.