Without doubt, 1945 was a crucial year in world history. “Null Jahr” (Year Zero) as the Germans called it, saw developments which were to shape world affairs: the suicide of Hitler and the fall of National Socialism in Germany, the first indications of hostility between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union that foreshadowed the Cold War, the dropping of the atomic bombs upon Japan, and the clear emergence of the United States as a dominant power in the world. In this book, Lukacs seeks to explain the importance of the major personages and events of 1945, and to revive some sense of what Europeans and Americans were thinking in Year Zero.
Most readers will probably find the chapters devoted to the several world leaders of greatest interest, particularly the chapter on Adolf Hitler. For several months before his suicide in April, 1945, Hitler spent time dictating his thoughts and observations to Martin Bormann. These would later be published and are now known as “Hitler’s Testament.” Calling the Testament a document of much historical significance, Lukacs excerpts some of the remarks and gives his commentary on them. Lukacs regards Hitler as having been a neoidealist who believed in the power of mind over matter. The most powerful of Hitler’s ideas, of course, was National Socialism. Hitler believed that National Socialism, as an idea or ideology, was more dynamic, stronger, and inevitably superior to Marxist socialism. For that reason, until the very end of his life, Hitler would be convinced that Germany and National Socialism would triumph over the Soviet Union and Marxist socialism.
Hitler was also obsessed with two other ideas: a determination to gain more land for the German people, and to rid Germany of the Jews. He blamed American intervention in the war against Germany on the Jews in the United States and declared, in the midst of the collapsing Third Reich, that “within a quarter of a century either the Americans will become violently anti-Semitic or they will be devoured by the Jews.” As for the Jews of Europe, Hitler proudly asserts in his Testament that at least they have been eliminated and, for that, future Europeans should be eternally grateful to him and to National Socialism. Lukacs recognizes the extraordinary revival of interest in Hitler, but he thinks that National Socialism as an ideology was finished and discredited in 1945.
Winston Churchill is another world figure whose thought and conduct in 1945 are considered. Lukacs points out that Churchill was an antagonist of Hitler longer than anyone else in World War II, yet despite that, Churchill would react to the final defeat of Hitler with mixed emotions. In Churchill’s view, the triumph was soon followed by tragedy. A new danger appeared with the thrust of the Soviet Union into Eastern Europe. Churchill had not been unduly concerned with the spread of Communism as an ideology; it was the presence of the troops of imperial Russia in middle Europe in 1945 which he now viewed with alarm, although why Churchill should have been alarmed or surprised by the Soviet advances is perplexing. As is well known, in 1944, Churchill had gone to Moscow to strike a deal with Stalin whereby several of the nations of eastern Europe were, in effect, turned over to Soviet occupation in return for British dominance in Greece. Churchill’s apprehension must have been over the Russian presence in eastern Germany. The occupation of Germany had not been part of the 1944 Moscow accord, yet the Russians were there. In 1945, Churchill urged the armies of the western Allies to push forward to Berlin and deny Germany to the Soviets. In that, he was overruled by the Americans who saw no strategic value in that city. Churchill then hoped that the special relationship of Britain with the United States would be retained and strengthened, and the English-speaking nations would stand together to resist any further advances of the Soviets into central Europe. Here again, Churchill would feel frustrated.
Friendship with the Russians seemed to the Americans in 1945 more important than the special relationship with Britain. Britain would not, it appeared to the Americans, carry much weight in postwar affairs, whereas Stalin and the Soviet Union were, it seemed, to become a major force, a force which the United States should placate and accommodate, not oppose. It would not be long before the Americans altered their attitude and became the most determined opponents of Communist ideology and Soviet expansion, but in 1945, Churchill’s efforts to arouse the United States to the Soviet danger fell mostly on deaf ears. Compounding the tragic situation, from Churchill’s viewpoint, was the rejection of himself and his government by the British people in 1945. The succeeding Labour government backed away from assuming leadership in European affairs, and shared the American desire for accommodation with the Soviets. At the end of 1945, out of power, and faced with the apparent failure to bring about the kind of European comity he devoutly wished, Churchill faced the “chill of old age” with a sense of tragic foreboding.
Franklin Roosevelt had died only three months before Winston Churchill lost the prime ministership in July, 1945. Lukacs makes much of Roosevelt’s deteriorating health in the months before his death. He thinks that a great deal of the explanation for the American decisions can be traced to President Roosevelt’s declining physical and mental capacities. Like Churchill, Roosevelt was not a fanatic anti-Communist. He was, in fact, “slightly left of center,” and a man who regarded the right as greater enemies to freedom than the left. Fundamentally, Roosevelt believed in American democracy. He further believed, like his spiritual mentor, Woodrow Wilson, that American democracy could and should be carried to the rest of the world. What was good for Americans must be good for everyone else. Roosevelt visualized the postwar world in terms of progressive democratic evolution with free elections, constitutional governments, the Four Freedoms, all under the benevolent guidance of the United...
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