I went on Sky News this morning to debate nonviolence with the author Mark Kurlansky, whom I mentioned yesterday and who is publicising his book, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, in London this week.
We discussed briefly Kurlansky's view that nonviolence is an effective and principled course in foreign policy. I pointed out that passive resistance against colonialism or oppression has been effective only where the protestors have been able to appeal to a common set of moral values with the oppressor. I cited George Orwell to the effect that it's difficult to see how Gandhi's techniques could work against a regime where political opponents disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. I said it was perfectly obvious that against the secular totalitarian states of Hitler and Stalin, or the theocratic totalitarians we fight today, an appeal to conscience will be rebuffed if it is even understood. I added that the only way you can make such a plainly implausible case on historical grounds is by minimising the evil of aggressors and emphasising the sins of omission and commission by our own side. Having read Mr Kurlansky's book, I was very sorry to see that this is what he does; one of his most egregious historical claims, I pointed out, had come straight from David Irving.
That was as much as I had the opportunity to say on air. I will add here that Kurlansky's book goes well beyond the proposition - which is difficult to argue against - that military force has limits to its effectiveness. Plainly there is an orthodox case that even when dealing with bellicose and despotic states such as Baathist Iraq, Iran or North Korea, containment, sanctions and diplomacy may be a a more pragmatic course than military action. But that argument is not a case for nonviolence. Containment of Saddam Hussein (which I believe was doomed to fail, and fail quickly, if we had not overthrown Saddam by force) involved a permanent policing of the no-fly zones and a sanctions regime that caused much suffering. Mark Kurlansky makes a far more extreme argument that WWII was not a just war. (He also believes, and said on air, that nonviolent witness such as that of Vaclav Havel defeated Communism - the policy of containment and nuclear deterrence pursued by Nato for 40 years presumably having nothing to do with it.)
As you may imagine, Kurlansky reaches this conclusion about WWII with a heedlessness of history that makes his book the worst I have read for many years. He gratuitously insults those who fought fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in the Far East by mocking the common description of them as "the Greatest Generation" ("post-World War II militarist propaganda", says Kurlansky, p. 138), and putting the word "heroes" ostentatiously in inverted commas. He asserts (p. 130) that "few today would argue ... that Germany had been ill treated by the punitive terms imposed upon it at the end of World War I" - and thereby shows he has not read Margaret MacMillan's prize-winning Peacemakers: The Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War (2002), which does indeed take issue with the common view that the Paris Peace Conference imposed a harsh settlement on Germany. (There is incidentally a plausible historical argument that a post-WWI settlement that had partitioned Germany might have prevented the rise of Nazism. In short, the peace settlement that actually obtained was too weak, not too harsh.)
Kurlansky proclaims (p. 134) the famous Danish rescue of the Jews under Nazi occupation as an instance of the power of nonviolence; recent work by Danish historians using the National Archives demonstrates a far more ambiguous history of Danish relations with Nazi Germany. From 1935, Denmark progressively closed her borders to Jewish refugees, and expelled 21 Jews to Germany between 1940 and 1943. Kurlansky asserts (p. 142) that "Japan had been ready to surrender before the nuclear attacks", but this common claim has been debunked by Sadao Asada ("The Shock of the Atomic Bomb and Japan's Decision to Surrender - A Reconsideration", Pacific Historical Review, November 1998), who showed that the shock of both atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was crucial to the peace party within the Japanese Cabinet in urging surrender. Astonishingly, Kurlansky asserts (p. 141) that "historians estimate that between 100,000 and 130,000 people" died in the Allied bombing of Dresden. Reputable historians of modern Germany in fact estimate that around a fifth of that total perished at Dresden. The seminal source for Kurlansky's claim is not a historian at all: he is the racist faker David Irving, whose work directly on this subject (his book The Destruction of Dresden, published in 1963 and running to numerous later imprints) was exposed by Professor Richard Evans as being founded on "consistent and deliberate falsification of the historical evidence" to serve the end of "achiev[ing] implicit and in the end explicit comparability with the mass murders carried out by the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere" (Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust and the David Irving Trial, 2001, p. 183). Finally, Kurlansky outdoes himself when he declares (p. 135): "Contrary to popular postwar claims, the Holocaust was not stopped by the war. In fact it was started by it."
In the circumstances, and grave though the issues be, I was mightily relieved to come across an assertion in Kurlansky's book that repeats - without attribution and clearly without checking - one of the very few popular beliefs about Nazi brutality that is not true. Kurlansky asserts (p. 135) that the Nazis "had death factories that actually did make soap out of human beings". They did not, a fact that is often used for malevolent ends by Holocaust deniers to rubbish historical research into the Holocaust (see this account of their techniques of misrepresentation). Mark Kurlansky, author of bestselling histories of Cod and of Salt, has thus written a book that I initially thought was shady and disgusting, but turns out mainly to be historically illiterate, morally vacuous and professionally incompetent. The publisher of this foul and stupid work is, I regret to record, the respected house of Jonathan Cape. The book carries a preface by the Dalai Lama, who expresses the "hope and prayer that this book should not only attract attention, but have a profound effect on those who read it" - in the gut, presumably.
UPDATE: Historical understanding is, of course, advanced by critical inquiry rather than established by courts of law. But it is worth noting that David Irving's fabrications and inflated claims about the victims of the Dresden bombing were explicitly considered by Mr Justice Gray in his judgement in the Irving versus Lipstadt libel trial in April 2000. The full text of that judgement is available on the invaluable Nizkor website, and the conclusions about Irving's historiography are here. Having considered the expert witness in defence of Professor Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books, Mr Justice Gray noted (paragraph 13.124) "the accumulation of evidence that the true death toll [at Dresden] was within the bracket of 25-30,000". He concluded (paragraph 13.126): "In my judgment the estimates of 100,000 and more deaths which Irving continued to put about in the 1990s lacked any evidential basis and were such as no responsible historian would have made."
It is clear that no responsible historian wrote the book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It is moderately scandalous that no responsible historian was commissioned by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of the publishing giant Random House, to check Kurlansky's book before publication.