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Revising Revisionist History

The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy
By Adam Tooze
Viking, 832 pages, $32.95.

A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television
By David Everitt
Ivan R. Dee, 432 pages, $27.50.

A cursory search of the Internet, which is the latest and perhaps most perplexing form of revisionism, identifies many diverse histories for the common term “revisionist history.” The searcher is sent in a thousand democratically different directions at once, most of them pejorative in nature: On the Internet, “historical revisionism” is most often linked to the pretextual presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the denial of the Holocaust and conspiracy theories regarding the American government’s own perpetration of the catastrophe of September 11, 2001.

The historiographic consensus, however, seems to be the following: “Revisionist history” both as modern concept and term was first coined following the First World War. The most disastrous provision of the Treaty of Versailles was the official assignation of total guilt to Germany. Such burdened blame would translate to Germany’s iniquitous international standing and, through reparations, its destabilized domestic life. The provision humiliated Germany, which felt it had been blackmailed into the conflict; this shame would lead, through economic depression, admixed with a terrible race hatred, to the next World War, just two decades later.

Indeed, Weimar Germans referred to the Diktat of Versailles as the Schandfrieden, or the Schmachfrieden — the “shaming,” or “humiliating,” peace. In America, though, it was not until 1926, when Harry Elmer Barnes, a former government propagandist, published “The Genesis of the World War” that the Manichean, good vs. evil narrative of the First World War was first questioned under the revisionary rubric — with the war’s origins subsequently concretized, from initially abstract or caricatured dualities into the orderly disciplines of the economic and social.

Alternately, the internationally modern history of the concept of “revisionism” can be traced to a number of late 19th-century thinkers — including Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky in vanguard Jewish Germany, and Jean Jaurès in France — who sought to “revise” Marx’s plan for revolution. Believing that a socialist society could be implemented through a series of legislative reforms to a capitalist democracy, their “revisionist” opposition of what’s been called “evolutionary socialism” to Marx’s revolutionary socialism might have been the very ideological struggle in which the term acquired its pejorative estate — at least in the usage of later Stalinists, who would denounce less doctrinaire or loyal elements of the Communist Party with the “revised” “revisionist” epithet.

Any discussion of revisionism, then, leads to the following question, asked by every history from that of the authorship of the Bible through the Greeks, Romans and their West, to today: What is the purpose of history? Should history instruct in the facts, or in moral lessons? Is history’s purpose to present every possible vantage, or merely to establish, and enforce, a national or ideological agenda?

Two new books of revisionist history are notable for their hybrid, or Sphinx-like, quality — for the manner in which they both assay the strict facts while managing to assert an ideological corrective for what their authors regard as our blemished historical hindsight.

‘A Shadow of Red: Communism and the Blacklist in Radio and Television,” by David Everitt, is the first book to deal evenhandedly with the origins and effects of the communist blacklist in American radio and television. While the blacklist’s effect on the Hollywood film industry has been well documented, and even well fictionalized, the 1950 purge of the airwaves has been little examined, and never with such “fairness” and “balance.” This neglect is strange, as television and radio collectively reached, and still reach, a much larger audience than Hollywood film.

Everitt’s attempt to rectify, or equalize, the record is admirable. His antagonizing protagonists are fully formed: not bogeymen of censorship, but sons of the Depression, paters familias and patriots, concerned not as much with politics as with what we might now call, per the Reaganite Republican Party, “family values.” John G. Keenan, the most pedigreed of the lot — the son of a New York attorney — was impeccably educated before lawyering his way to dissatisfaction, and the FBI. Kenneth Bierly, from Illinois, was an attorney, as well, while Theodore Kirkpatrick, of Ohio, was a loan officer. Both also found their calling in the bureau, and then in business with each other, for themselves and for what they regarded as the good of the nation they loved. In the dubitable tradition of American privatization, all three would leave federal employ to begin, thanks to financing from Jewish anticommunist and textile importer Alfred Kohlberg, a campaign of extreme public vigilance. In 1950, their company, American Business Consultants, Inc., published a booklet titled “Red Channels,” identifying more than 100 suspected communist sympathizers in broadcasting. By the end of that year, the broadcast blacklist began.

These were days of great suspicion — and, too, of unconventional aggression. Edward R. Murrow would overstep proper, or pre-established, journalistic bounds in his work for CBS, a network that J. Edgar Hoover would privately call the Communist Broadcasting System. This battle for the airwaves involved, on both sides, an institutionalized acrimony that, unlike the former work of the personalities affected (actors, directors, producers and writers), and unlike Senator Joseph McCarthy’s marquee prosecution of Hollywood, was never much broadcast to popular sympathy, or popular condemnation. Ultimately, the broadcast blacklist’s denouement was not to be found on television or radio itself (as was much of the progress of film’s prosecution) but, instead, in the distinctly anti-glamorous, un-entertaining forum of law. Everitt’s excellent account of the libel suit brought by John Henry Faulk against AWARE, Inc., a McCarthyite front organization, is one of the great revisions of this book, both in its deeply researched writing and in its editorial assertion of that trial’s enduring relevance. Faulk v. AWARE, Inc., in which the plaintiff sued for being branded a communist and was so prevented from obtaining future radio work, was a signal received long distance, helping to end the blacklist across mediums.

Television and radio were perceived as so threatening because, unlike film, in which an individual movie effort could languish in production for months or even years, the airwaves, much like the Internet is now, were produced live, unalloyed and unedited in what we’ve come to call “real time.” In prosecutorial estimation, any party could, on a moment’s notice, commit an act of subversion and have that “free speech” — or, perhaps, as many suspected, a secret signal to insurrection or revolt — transmitted immediately to the American millions.

Everitt is self-censorious, though, if not merely cautious and so true to reportorial form, regarding why his subject has been so long neglected. Making way through “A Shadow of Red,” such reason is itself shadowy, as if to be read between the black lines: Film was and is, at least theoretically, art, whereas the airwaves were once overwhelmingly intended, and regulated, to transmit information, raw fact. Could it be that the official raising of a cry about the communist infiltration of film perhaps directed popular inquiry away from the commercialized use, or misuse, of “news”? This type of questioning, courtesy of the model of Fox News on the right and of the unchecked, unbalanced nature of blogging that tends to scale to the left, is with us today.

Revisionism in “The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy” is accomplished on an entirely different scale. The Third Reich can seem the most exhausted, and exhaustive, of modernity’s historical subjects. Adam Tooze, a senior lecturer in economic history at the University of Cambridge, has given us a revolutionary, and epic, accounting of the rise and fall of the Nazi economy. The sum of its findings is revelatory, and its impact should be, at least academically, immense.

No work of numerical record, though, rife with tables and graphs charting the rise and fall, or, as Tooze puts it “the making and breaking” of the Nazi economy, could efface the present public memory of the Second World War. This memory has become, today, almost a sense-memory: With such visceral documentation available (both photographic and filmic, and that, also, of firsthand accounts), it can feel that the horrors of that war are immediate still, and that the history presented by Liberation images and the texts, for example, of Elie Wiesel deserves an almost institutional primacy. This view, which is that of the victim, holds thusly: Human history’s most important subject should also be its most immediate, or personal — human suffering; the documentation of which, if it may be too late to prevent an atrocity, might still serve as a warning for generations to come.

Tooze is human, too, but his subjects strive to seem otherwise. Apparently, Hitler was guilty of the very sin of which he accused World Jewry: He was money mad, economically obsessed. This book’s thesis goes further: Tooze holds that Hitler, in his perpetration of the Second World War, hoped above all to create a Europe, unified as the Reich, that would economically rival the American Empire. Hitler’s ideal Lebensraum, then, was an expansionist policy with a goal of world domination — not wholly in the spirit of Romanticism but also, in Tooze’s view, in the spirit of a practical politik that would implement and ensure Germany’s international competitiveness after a disastrous early century.

Here is a remarkable passage: “The vision that inspired the German colonial project in the East had more in common with the American ideology of the frontier than it did with the Middle Ages. In the autumn of 1941 Hitler returned repeatedly to the American example in discussing Germany’s future in the East. The Volga, he declared, would be Germany’s Mississippi. And the bloody conquest of the American West provided Germany with the historical warrant it needed to justify the clearance of the Slav population.” This is all “documented,” as it’s said — the book’s army of endnotes annexes much more than 100 pages.

Such metaphor-making — on Hitler’s part as much as on Tooze’s in his subsequent economic comparisons of wartime Germany, America, Britain and the Soviet Union — leads to the author’s most revelatory revisionist assertion: The Holocaust, which Tooze calls “Judaeocide,” was only one, though the most successful, of the Nazi genocidal objectives. If the early antisemitism of Nuremburg was intended to create the pretense of an “international” American-Jewish or “Zionist” conspiracy both to defer and displace German economic and power fears, the ultimate projected murder of European Jewry was even more evil than initially thought: Officially, it might have been yet another preliminary, or mere pleasantry; less a Final Solution than an initial experiment.

Tooze takes the focus from Wannsee and its conference that famously charged Reinhard Heydrich with the murder of European Jewry, and instead widens his documentary draft to the Generalplan Ost, which was the primary Nazi policy addressing all ethnic groups under the Third Reich’s Eastern dominion. In sum, Tooze asserts, or reasserts, that the Nazis intended to murder the entire native population of Eastern Europe and then, incredibly, impossibly, that of Soviet Russia, as well. Only with a complete decimation of the Eastern lands and its backward Slavs, their region to be later repopulated with Germans to be engaged in agriculture and industry, could Germany, or Europe-as-Germany, hope to overturn the verdict of Versailles, and compete as a global concern. While the Jews, who by their numbers were almost inconsequential, were to be murdered along with political subversives and communists, homosexuals, Gypsies, the mentally unfit and other sundry undesirables, several million Slavs would be used for slave labor, while the majority of others were to be killed, too, or starved out — with the bread basket of the Ukraine used to feed the Wehrmacht, and the great cities of Moscow and Leningrad liquidated, for future German settlement. According to Tooze, these were Hitler’s hopes — seemingly more evil, and yet strangely more logical, than any presented before.

A nation with realized ambition but without any realizable plan, Tooze’s Germany begins to collapse, and knows it’s collapsing, and constantly denies its collapse, in the face of American production, which Tooze calls “the Fordist narrative” — the saving grace of America’s most notorious antisemite. “By any reasonable estimation,” he writes, “Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States sealed the fate of Germany.” Tooze concludes his epic with a re-history of the war’s conclusion: He destroys the myth that the Allies, taking instruction from Versailles, exacted no reparations from Germany. Recovery is contextualized as less a fact than a question, followed by an idea of the economic disparity obtaining between the halves of a Germany divided.

In 1945, not at the end of history but at the end of one history among many, paradox abounds: The Soviet Empire is crippled, but incredibly broadened, victorious; the Germans are utterly decimated, and yet, thanks to American aid, an economic miracle is just a decade or three down the autobahn. These paradoxes find timeless context in the contradiction of a famous aphorism paraphrased from antiquity: History is not written by the winners; history is written, instead, by those who survive it, those who survive winning, and, too, those who survive losing, by the next generation, and then again by the generations that follow, forever — and ultimately, the “truest” pejorative or negative revision would be to never write history again.


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