Monday, September 18, 2017

Reading Revisionism

It seems to me that I have been running across a great deal of revisionist World War II-era economic history as of late, focused primarily on how the balance stood between two of the war's major participants--Britain and Germany.

The old view was that the British Empire was stodgy and enfeebled, and looked it when it went up against sleek, ultra-modern, ultra-efficient Germany.

Much recent historiography has taken a different view--that Germany was not really so tough, nor Britain's performance so shabby. That it was really Germany that was the economic underdog against the trading and financial colossus--and, for all its dings, the techno-industrial colossus--Britain happened to be.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with revisionism as such. New information, and the availability of new ways of looking at, should prompt rethinkings of old perceptions and assumptions. However, revisionism also has a way of pandering to the fashion of the times--and this seems to be one of those cases.

This line of argument seems to say that Britain didn't do so badly out of free trade. That the country's weaknesses in manufacturing just didn't matter that much--that the emphasis on finance instead was just fine. That, by implication, the conservative establishment did just fine, overseeing the economy, and managing the country's foreign affairs, and then fighting the war--not needing any help from a bunch of lefties and Laborites, thank you very much, and certainly not disgracing itself the way they claim it had clearly done post-Dunkirk.

It seems more than coincidence that this is all very congenial to a conservative outlook--in particular the one that today says free trade, financialization, deindustrialization, the balance of payments (and all the rest of the consequences the neoliberal turn has had for the economies of the developed world) simply do not matter, that our future can be trusted to economic orthodoxy, that critical and dissenting views have nothing to offer. And also the one that says Britain can do just fine on its own, without any allies, continental or otherwise.

It is no more convincing in regard to the past than it is in regard to the present.

Still, even if one doubts the more extreme claims (there is simply no refuting Britain's failures as a manufacturing and trading nation), there is a considerable body of hard fact making it clear that Germany had some grave weaknesses--and Britain, some strengths that have to be acknowledged in any proper appraisal of the way the war was fought. So does it go in two books I have just reviewed here--Adam Tooze's study of the German economy in the Nazi period, The Wages of Destruction; and David Edgerton's more self-explanatory title, Britain's War Machine.

Review: The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy, by Adam Tooze
Review: Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton
My Posts on William Haggard's Slow Burner
Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)

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