Thursday, July 18, 2019

Leo Strauss Endorsed "Might Makes Right" in World War Two

Over the years, I have written a series of posts claiming that the assertion of natural rights in Lockean liberalism depends on the forceful resistance to oppression and tyranny, which suggests that it really is true that might makes right.  Natural rights emerge in history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking the natural human tendency of individuals to rebellion against exploitation.  Thus it is that individuals assert what Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature" in punishing those who violate their natural rights.

For this reason, the history of Lockean liberalism has often turned on the history of warfare--both revolutionary and international warfare--and the history of weaponry.  So, for example, the Declaration of Independence was not just a declaration of Lockean principles but also a declaration of war, so that the success of those principles depended on the fortunes of war.  Similarly, the American debate over the justice of slavery was settled by the bloodiest war in American history.  And the establishment of the liberal international order after World War Two depended on the defeat of Nazi Germany in the war.

Some of my posts on this line of reasoning can be found hereherehere, hereherehereherehere, and here.

Recently, in reading for the first time a lecture by Leo Strauss delivered in 1943, I was interested by some of his remarks suggesting that he might have agreed with me about this.  It was delivered at a public session on "The Re-education of Axis Countries Concerning the Jews" at the annual meeting of the Conference on Jewish Relations, November 7, 1943, at the New School for Social Research in New York.  Strauss never published this in his lifetime.  It was published for the first time in 2007 in The Review of Politics (vol. 69, pp. 530-38).  It can be found online.

Here's the long paragraph that caught my attention:
"When we speak of re-education, we imply that the wrong education, which is to be replaced by a second education, by a re-education, is of crucial political importance.  We are apt to imply that the root of the difficulties is some sort of education, of indoctrination, viz. the Nazi indoctrination.  Is this really the case?  And how is it the case?  We must beware of taking the Nazi doctrines, their Rassenkunde [racial anthropology] and their geopolitics and what not, too seriously.  What was important, what did influence the Germans, what educated the Germans were not those pedantic follies by themselves, but the prospect opened up by Nazi rearmament, by Nazi diplomacy, and by Nazi arms, of the solution of all German problems by a short and decisive war.  And, after the hope of a short victorious war was shattered by the Spitfires, the prospect of the solution of all German problems by a new Hubertusberg peace on a planetary scale was destroyed. [The editor notes that "the Treaty of Hubertusburg at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 established Prussia's place as a great European power."]  If we disregard the German high school teacher, if we consider the mass of the Germans, we shall find, I believe, that what guided their outlook, and hence their actions, was merely the crucial implication of the Nazi doctrine, viz. the implication that the needs of the German people as interpreted by the most efficient man in the land are the supreme law, not subject to any higher consideration.  To put it bluntly, the Nazi education consisted in this: that they convinced a substantial part of the German people that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays.  I remember the argument of German students in the early 1920s: a country whose policies are not fettered by moral considerations is, other things being equal, twice as strong as a country whose policies are fettered by moral considerations.  For 50% of all possible ways and means are rejected, as immoral, by the moralistic countries, whereas all ways and means are open to the unscrupulous country.  It is evident that this doctrine is subject to the test of sense-experience and, hence, that the Nazi doctrine is a force only as long as Nazi strategy is successful.  The victory of the Anglo-Saxon-Russian combination, if followed by a just and stern and stable peace, will be the refutation of the Nazi doctrine, and thus will uproot Nazi education.  The re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper and among the ruins of the German cities. [The editor notes that "the Red Army crossed the Dnieper in early October 1943 and took Kiev November 6."]  It will be consummated by a meeting of British-American and of Russian tanks in Unter den Linden, and by the harmonious cooperation of the Western and Eastern occupying forces in bringing to trial the war criminals.  [Unter den Linden is a boulevard in the heart of Berlin.]  No proof is as convincing, as educating, as the demonstration ad oculos:  once the greatest German blockheads, impervious to any rational argument and to any feeling of mercy, will have seen with their own eyes that no brutality however cunning, no cruelty however shameless can dispense them from the necessity of relying on their victims' pity--once they have seen this, the decisive part of the re-educational process will have come to a successful conclusion" (532).
So Strauss thought that any talk about the need for "re-educating" the Germans was mistaken if this implied that the pretended theoretical doctrines of the Nazis should be taken seriously, because these theoretical doctrines were nothing more than "pedantic follies."  The only Nazi doctrine that was persuasive with the Germans was the claim that Nazi arms would win a short and decisive war that would give Germany global dominance that would solve all German problems and satisfy all the needs of the German people.  And this would all be possible because the Nazi leaders--under "the most efficient man in the land"--would be Machiavellian in being unconstrained by any moral considerations and consequently free to use all of the brutal means necessary for fighting a successful war.  The "moralistic countries" would be defeated by an utterly immoral country.  The Nazis would thus prove the Nazi doctrine "that large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime pays."

That Nazi doctrine is "subject to the test of sense-experience," because we can see with our own eyes whether immoral warfare is victorious or not on the battlefield.  And so the defeat of the Nazis in World War Two is "the refutation of the Nazi doctrine."  This began when "the hope of a short victorious war was shattered by the Spitfires."  The Spitfire was a single-seat fighter aircraft used by the British Royal Air Force throughout World War Two.  The Spitfire was perceived as crucial during the Battle of Britain (from July to October of 1940) for blunting the attack of Germany's air force, the Luftwaffe, and thus saving Great Britain from German conquest.  From that point, seeing that Great Britain could not be conquered, the Germans knew--by their own eyes--that they would be fighting a long and costly war.

Then, by the middle of 1943, the Germans were in full retreat on the Eastern Front, falling back from the attack of the Red Army; and the British and Americans had opened a Southern Front by invading Sicily (in July of 1943) and then advancing through Italy.  Strauss points to the Battle of the Dneiper River, which was being fought as he spoke.  This was one of the biggest military campaigns of the war, involving almost four million troops.  The German troops had retreated from Russia to the Dneiper River, one of the major rivers of Europe, which divided the Ukraine in half between the west bank and the east bank.  Beginning on August 26, the Red Army launched a campaign to take the eastern bank and then cross to the western bank.  As the Red Army moved through the villages, cities, and countryside where the Germans had brutally killed and tortured innocent people, the Red Army soldiers became ever more aroused to vengeful retaliation to punish the Germans for their brutality.  By December 23, six weeks after Strauss's lecture, they had succeeded in taking complete control of the river.  This explains Strauss's remark that "the re-education of Germany will not take place in classrooms: it is taking place right now in the open air on the banks of the Dnieper."

Strauss then foresaw that this re-education of Germany would be consummated by a meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin, and then the Western and Eastern occupying forces would bring the German leaders to trial for war crimes.  He was anticipating what became the Nuremberg war crimes trials that began in November of 1945, acting under international law and the laws of war.  Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels escaped this punishment by committing suicide in the spring of 1945 before they could be captured.  This would prove the Nazi doctrine wrong by proving that "large scale and efficiently prepared and perpetrated crime" does not pay.  But this lesson in the legal rule of just punishment had to be preceded by the lesson taught by the meeting of Allied tanks in Berlin.

Notice that to refute the Nazi doctrine of the immoral rule of the stronger over the weaker, Strauss suggests, we cannot appeal to some transcendent standard of right set by God, Nature, or Reason.  Rather, we must appeal to "the test of sense-experience" by seeing that "moralistic countries" can defeat immoral countries in war as an exercise of "the executive power of the law of nature."

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