Paul Gottfried's opening address to the Fifth Annual H.L. Mencken Club Conference

At tonight’s fifth anniversary meeting of the H.L. Mencken Club, it seems appropriate to focus on History as the transmitted picture of our past. This picture determines how we see ourselves as members of communities and of a shared civilization. The critical reason those Allied occupational forces that set out to reeducate Germans after the Second World War depicted the German past as  leading inescapably to Auschwitz was to re-socialize fundamentally a defeated population. One could do this this more easily by making people despise their ancestral past than by leaving them to veneratetheir ancestors. Today’s German intellectuals judge historical research by whether it’s “pedagogically useful,” that is, by whether it intensifies the already emphatic rejection of an national identity and the sense of collective guilt over the German past. 

Ideological considerations, as Stanley Payne shows, have also led to a whitewash of the crimes committed by the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. A depiction of Spaniards in 1936 as the victims of a brutal takeover of their government, engineered by the reactionary forces of the past, serves the Spanish Left at the present hour, as it tries to turn Spain into a multicultural country. The Republic provides a convenient reference point that, like the Nationalist uprising of 1936, has become play dough in the hands of educators and the media. Those who opposed what is usually a cleaned-up version of the Republic’s violent interregnum are cast into the role of forerunners of the current  opponents of an advancing leftist agenda. The fascist impulse, we are made to believe, is alive and kicking, although its forms may depend on the changing uses to which the term can be put.  One should never underestimate the value that historical narratives and the teaching of history have for purposeful, well-placed minorities.

The appearance of consensus among academic historians  does not necessarily indicate that  research questions have been answered conclusively. In a discipline in which veracity is often equated with  political correctness, one should not assume that advances in knowledge are taking place when critical dissent has stopped. Rather we are dealing with fashionable interpretations of the past that have been raised to the status of religious truths. In the cases of the American Civil War and Reconstruction, complicated historical situations have been boiled down to a simplistic morality play, featuring white racists in mortal combat with black freedom-fighters and white progressives. Once revered Civil War historians like Shelby Foote are now routinely disparaged for not stressing sufficiently the righteous cause of the Union and the wickedness of the antebellum South.  

Even the once authoritative account of Reconstruction by a Lincoln Republican and Columbia University historian, William A. Dunning, is now described on Wikipedia and by leading academic historians as the work of an apologist for Southern slavery. Dunning dared to criticize the rule that was  imposed on the defeated South by Union troops and Radical Republican administrators. His once standard three-volume study of Reconstruction goes so far as to question the governing competence and claim to incorruptability of those black officials who were nominally in charge of state governments in the occupied South. Dunning’s work has been superseded by what we are made to assume is a more timely, balanced treatment, Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, a volume packing an unmistakable political message. The handiwork of someone who loudly berated Gorbachev for abolishing the Soviet Communist dictatorship and who never hides the radical purpose of his history-writing, it has nonetheless achieved canonical status. Foner is now credited in the New York Times with providing the “monumental,” “authoritative” account of Reconstruction. He is also the preferred historian of the longtime GOP grey eminence Karl Rove. 

His  portraits of former slaves who oversaw state governments in the occupied South with a wisdom worthy of a philosopher king left me gaping with disbelief. For those who are not entirely hallucinatory or egregiously dishonest, such narratives should be open to question. Equally noteworthy is Foner’s demonization of any white Southerner who objected to the Reconstruction government. This author holds no brief  for the complaints or misfortunes of defeated white Southerners. For those who were trampled underfoot after a lost war, Foner has about as much sympathy as he does for those who were destroyed by the Soviet experiment under Lenin and Stalin. 

Foner’s reviewers  have tred lightly when dealing with his canonical texts. My explanation for why this is so would apply equally to the ready acceptance of other historical accounts now considered to be definitive. Noting that certain progressive points of view are factually wrong or interpretatively questionable is for an academic historian  professionally unwise and (yes) socially disastrous. 

This would apply to whatever questions the academic and journalistic establishment has decided to close, from the causes of the Civil War, World War One and World War Two to whether the US started out as a “propositional nation.” Nowhere in any of these cases do I hear the last word being spoken. The answers we are urged to accept are the pedagogically useful ones, for those who direct our culture and education. That Foner and his equally leftist fellow- Civil War-era historian James McPherson view the Obama presidency as the happy consequence of their “scholarship” is not at all surprising. That connection hasbecome a recommendation for reading their texts and for assigning them to students.   

Given this situation, it may be time to reopen historical questions that have been prematurely closed , and all the more so, I would conclude, after having received via the internet a historical commentary from a local college president. Its author, an academically honored historian, was proud that his view had just appeared on Huffington Post; and he wished to share his wisdom with us happy few. His main point is hard to miss: The US is in the midst of withdrawing from the rest of the world. If we do so, contrary to the author’s advice, we would be resuming the heartless, isolationist policy that our country had adopted after the First World War, when “we turned our backs” on the Europeans.  A war had broken out in 1914, because Germany, driven by its capitalist rulers to seize new markets, suddenly turned “violent.” We were of course right to take up arms against this aggressor, but we should have stayed in Europe once we had helped make peace. After the Second World War, we took a higher road by sharing our resources with others.

Since the commentator solicited responses, I happily sent in mine, which I doubt were ecstatically welcomed. Nothing in the comment struck me as true, except for the fact that World War One, at least to my knowledge, began in 1914. My correspondent’s view about that struggle being unleashed exclusively by German capitalist imperialists had once been briefly taken  by the East German Communist regime. But this view was eventually scuttled by Communist officials for the more classical Leninist explanation, that capitalists on both sides, and not just the German authorities, had unleashed the War. Even the controversial thesis about Germany’s sole responsibility for the Great War, famously advanced by Fritz Fischer in the 1960s, is not economically reductionist, in the same way as my acquaintance’s elliptical treatment. Those who advance the Fischer thesis consider a wide variety of political and cultural factors in arriving at their conclusions about Germany’s supposed bid for world control. Although, in my opinion, not a convincing explanation and one based on misquoting the German actors, Fischer and his disciples present an argument of sorts. Not so my friend with his more reductionist interpretation of why the guns went off in August, 1914.

 Even wackier, however, is his notion that the US totally withdrew from Europe once the fighting was done. If memory serves, our government tried strenuously to bring together the former European belligerents by flooding them with loans, working to limit German reparations, hosting disarmament conferences, and laboring behind the scenes to promote Franco-German rapprochement. No, we did not join the League of Nations but made this decision for eminently sensible reasons. We had no desire to become embroiled in collective security arrangements, one that might have required the sending of American military forces to deal with clashes between the defeated powers and their Eastern neighbors. Those neighbors who had fought on the Allied side were then absorbing former German citizens and territories, in a sometimes brutal manner. There was also a post-War suspicion that Americans had been pulled into a conflict that we should have avoided except as a possible peacemaker; and so Americans were understandably reluctant to return to the same mess a second time. But none of this proves we had turned our backs on Europeans. For example, we continued to feed the war ravaged until well into the 1920s.

As for American actions after the Second World War, the Huffington Post-contributor again misses the point. In the postwar years we were embroiled with Stalin’s Russia; and we had to shore up as quickly as we could those European countries that fell under our control, including the ones we had bombed during the War. This involvement had nothing to do with becoming global citizens, any more than American participation in World War Two had been about caring and sharing. Even such a supposedly humanitarian post-World War Two project as the Marshall Plan was sold as a war measure, to keep countries in Western and Central Europe from surrendering to the Communists. Germany, by the way, was required to pay back with interest everything it obtained from the US under the Marshall Plan, a feat that it managed to achieve only quite recently.

Those who have argued with me for suggesting that historians are more biased today than in the past usually retort that historians have always had axes to grind. Until the second half of the last century they wrote from a white, male, Christian perspective. We are now balancing things, by speaking for those who were not heard from before. We are privileging the voices and selected opinions of those who were once ”minimized,” to quote a favorite, misused term of Jesse Jackson that TV commentators took up, perhaps out of deference to its source. This belief in compensatory or balancing narratives is now so prevalent in the Academy that the Historians’ Society, a neoconservative alternative to the established academic historical associations, begins a recruitment brochure by assuring readers: “We do not want to return to those supposedly good old times that were sexist and anti-Semitic.” Or so we are made to think about past historians, according to these tepid opponents of the hegemonic academic Left.

There are two problems with these recent assaults on past historiography. One, they fail to take into account the critical difference between someone who reflects the views of his age and someone who turns history into political propaganda. It is quite possible that William Dunning as an historian of Reconstruction was not fully sensitive to the prejudice against former slaves in the post-Civil War South. His views on how far the emancipation of freemen should have been carried forth were undoubtedly less progressive than those positions we now hear from our custodians of political virtue. The same would have been true for the positions of Lincoln and even for those of some Abolitionists. 

 But there is no evidence that Dunning distorted facts because he was dishonest and bigoted. He was committed to a standard of historical objectivity that in today’s frenzied political climate may seem astonishingly quaint, like lace doilies on Victorian furniture. Nineteenth-century historians, as Herbert Butterfield reminds us, took seriously the task of researching and writing “objective” history. I recall seeing traces of this in an Orthodox Jewish lady I had as graduate student in the early 1970s at NYU. This woman had planned to do a dissertation on the fate of Jewish communities in Galicia in the twentieth century but then abandoned her topic. The reason she gave  made me respect her forever: She refused to prepare a dissertation on a subject  she could not treat with the proper degree of objectivity.  

This refusal would now be ascribed in all likelihood to inexcusable moral indifference.  Truly sensitive historians, we are told, should have zero tolerance for reactionary rule or for what until recently were considered natural hierarchies. Today’s historians are calling attention to screaming inequality, wherever they chose to notice it, in the past or in the present. But bourgeois honesty, which these people not incidentally reject, would require them to recognize that they are pursuing non-scholarly ends. What they consider to be scholarship is a form of proselytizing—or a means of helping the practitioner advance professionally by means of useful political postures. 

Two, the current retreat from nineteenth-century ideals of historical scholarship is often linked to a cavalier dismissal of Western civilization. Any historical past or social arrangement in the West  should be regarded as wicked, to the extent it’s not about victims being liberated from an unjust situation. In this narrative, the spokespersons for victim claims seek to instill in us what we are meant to venerate.  They are also pointing out those sins we should be spending our lives expiating. Here an obvious exception is made for those designated victims who should be exulting in their overcoming of the past. The victim elect and those who plead their cause, as journalists, politicians or historians,  are given a special place in this PC scheme of grace.

The driven moralists who teach such things are neither relativists nor nihilists. They exude righteousness, as they assert what for them is the one moral absolute. They are preoccupied with the march toward full equality, an undertaking that all of us should be happily participating in.  If, according to Butterfield, history is a discipline that was invented primarily by German scholars in the nineteenth century, trying to reconstruct objectively the past, then  that discipline has now become a very different creature, namely an exercise in moral fanaticism practiced on behalf of the oppressed and especially on behalf of those who are seen as victimized by the uniquely evil West.  

Let me make clear that this development has little to do with Marxists or socialists. Historical works that are victim-centred reflect a rebellion against inequality in any form. Socio-economic differences are only a small part of what we are told is reprehensible. Even more critical are gender relations, even gender itself, Christianity for being insufficiently egalitarian, and the West as an exploiter of non-Western peoples.  Equally suspect arewhites, of the non-gay and non-female variety, whenever they resist the claims of non-Whites, and especially blacks and Hispanics. Supposedly all of us would be equal in every relevant way if only the malefactors of inequality had not spoiled our natural condition. It is therefore the work of historians to point out these monstrous disparities, so that we can eventually surmount them.    

Let me note at this point the recent passing of a brilliant social historian, who was a mentor to some in this room. This heroic figure, Eugene Genovese, was also my teacher. Even though I never encountered him in a classroom, I never stopped learning from his writings and from his correspondence with me. Gene was in every way the polar opposite of everything I’ve been railing against. He was courageous in saying things out of season; and even when he professed to be a Marxist, he wrote things that no one else on the left could ever have said.

 That was because even when he claimed to be a revolutionary leftist, he admired what was noble and aristocratic; and he extended these sentiments to even such an indelicate topic as describing those who built the political economy of Southern slavery. Robert Paquette observed to me in a note that Gene received little credit for his last great work, on the mind of the Southern master class, which was really on the religious thought of those who led the Confederacy and had to deal with their loss in the Civil War. My response would be: It is inconceivable that today’s historical profession, which is mired in Political Correctness and egalitarian fixations, could even comprehend such a work. It is clearly a case of people living in non-commensurable universes of discourse.

Gene’s ideas and approaches fell out of fashion but not because he praised bourgeois capitalism. He fell from academic grace because even as an old-fashioned Marxist, he expressed thoughts that were out of season. In his profession  historians striving for objectivity were replaced by noisy feminists, spokespersons for the racially oppressed, and advocates of alternative lifestyles. Gene held no brief for any of these indigenous oddities. There is little difference between what he produced as a Marxist, who had been friendly to the Vietcong, and what he wrote later in life, as a socially traditionalist Catholic. He continued to be driven by the same scholarly interests that had characterized his early work. Truth to tell, I was never struck by Gene’s political views, which seemed very conventional, whether he was trying to identify with the anti-anti-Communist Left or in his later years expressing the opinions on foreign policy he had just heard on FOX.  Gene was not a political spokesman but a practicing historian of the first order. One went to him for enlightenment in his discipline, not to be brought up to speed on current events.

One of the marks of a principled historian is the capacity to learn from one’s research. Just as I would not expect Eric Foner to absorb the insights of Southern white critics of Reconstruction, I would be disappointed if a less ideologically programmed historian reacted in the same manner. Gene obviously did not. He wrote a famous essay explaining how the apologist for slavery George Fitzhugh offered observations about a capitalist economy that he himself reached as a Marxist socialist. The author of this essay did not shy away from complimenting the perceptions of someone whom conventional left-liberal historians had branded as a precursor of fascism. The historian of nineteenth-century women’s movements Aileen Kraditor came to the conclusion that opponents of women’s suffrage often made compelling arguments.  Kraditor stated these arguments in detail, even while she was a professing Marxist-Leninist. 

  In his latest study of the Spanish Civil War, Stanley Payne devotes considerable space to the unnecessary reprisals carried out by the Nationalist government after the defeat of the Spanish Left. Although I wouldn’t notice this feature in most conventional histories of the Spanish bloodbath, which almost always come from the Left, what is noteworthy here is that Payne has courted controversy by substantiating Republican atrocities, before and after the Nationalist uprising in July 1936. As someone who has exhaustively detailed the Republican provocation for the Spanish civil war, Payne may have felt professionally obligated to cite the crimes perpetrated by the other side. Although one might expect no less from a professional historian, in this age and cultural climate his scrupulousness and even-handedness seem truly astonishing.

Finally I’m expressing a personal complaint.  I bring it up not simply out of peeve but because it illustrates a problem we face in trying to improve the study of history and of the other humanities. About a month ago, a review of my book Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America was published in the English neoconservative flagship monthly Standpoint by a senior editor, whose name I shall not dignify by mentioning. Not one word in this commentary indicated anything significant about the content of my study; nor was there a single word here that would suggest the reviewer had even bothered to remove the cellophane cover from his complimentary copy. But Cambridge University was scolded for having published this work by an “extreme right-winger from an obscure liberal arts college in rural Pennsylvania.” This putative lapse of judgment occurred because my publisher and I had the same “enemies.” I apparently attacked Strauss, which in my book I never did, because I hate democracy and Israel and because I am an “elitist,” and some kind of Hegelian. (Perhaps the acquisition editor at Cambridge answers to the same unusual description.) Since I’m languishing at an obscure school in the hinterlands, it was in any case inappropriate to publish my work. (For the record, I retired about sixteen months ago as a professor with an endowed chair from a somewhat better than average four-year college, which is an easy train’s trip from every major city in the New York-Washington Corridor. Reading the vivid reconstruction of my person that has been called to your attention, I almost forget such biographical details and began to imagine that I was someone else.)

These attacks came from a publication that claims to be for liberty and which never ceases to deplore the war on academic standards. But even this publication and other ones like it, which sometimes lament a real problem,  often show the same signs of madness as those they warn us against. Here I am reminded of a famous observation by the German philosopher Heidegger taken from a poem by Hölderlin, that there aresome  situations that are so thoroughly desperate that “nur ein Gott kann uns retten,” “only a god can save us.” Although the crisis I’ve outlined may not be quite the one that Heidegger or Hölderlin had in mind, it may demand a comparably extraordinary solution. It too may require nothing less than divine intervention.