Unfortunately, I can’t resist pointing out minicon stupidities, and the latest example of this problem came to my attention in a recent syndicated column by Rich Lowry. In what is intended to be a discourse on American exceptionalism, Lowry goes through the anti-democratic evils of continental countries and then gets to England, which is awarded a clean bill of health. England previewed our “liberal democracy,” practiced “benign colonialism,” and was in many ways a “jumping off” point to our “exceptional nation.” “It was a bulwark against the dictatorships of the Continent, from Napoleon, to the Kaiser, to Hitler.”
Let me point out some of what is wrong with such hyperbole. The English bear many of the same “black marks” that Lowry ascribes to continental countries, and as the descendant of Irish peasants, Lowry might recall at least some of England’s many misdeeds. English rule abroad was not always “benign colonialism,” and in the Boer War, which the Salisbury government launched against the Afrikaners to grab their land, the English practiced naked aggression and engaged in atrocities against their fellow Northern European Protestants, as opposed to such customary English victims as Highland Scots, Irish Catholics, and the inhabitants of Chinese coastal cities.
It is also ridiculous to see all English entanglement in wars against continental powers as driven by a democratic struggle against dictatorship. As an insular empire protected by a large navy, the English had an interest in keeping hegemonic powers from emerging on the continent and pursued this interest with whatever allies they could find. What the English typically practiced was Realpolitik, which meant siding with some undemocratic, feudal regimes against other more powerful states. During the Napoleonic wars the English allied themselves with a reactionary Russia against a much more progressive France, which abolished serfdom and proclaimed religious liberty wherever its armies went. English Tories feared the rise of Germany from the time of its unification not because they viewed it as a “dictatorship” but because it was becoming a continental powerhouse. Later, in order to defeat its rival, England pulled the U.S. into the First World War, thereby setting the stage for playing second fiddle to England’s American cousins.
The silliest statement in Lowry’s botched history lesson is the reference to the Kaiser’s “dictatorship.” Would the esteemed editor of National Review explain what that description means? Germany on the eve of the Great War had more intellectual and academic freedom than it does now as a custodial antifascist regime. German citizens in 1910 paid by far lower taxes than the subjects of the current Western democracies. Imperial Germany was a state under law (Rechtsstaat) and it was harder to divest German property-holders of their possessions than is presently the situation in the United States. Germany was also a federal government, in which a patchwork of duchies, free cities, and kingdoms continued to exercise some degree of sovereignty. Despite Wilhelm’s less than able handling of international relations (which was almost in the same bombastic category as that of George W. Bush), he did not run Germany as a “dictator.” By the way, German workers by the early 20th century were more literate and better fed than their English counterparts.
Let me note that I am not an Anglophobe of any kind. In fact I have profound admiration for a great deal of British history and politics, and I’ve a particular affection for the Hanoverians, under whose prudent rule England emerged as a great imperial and industrial power. In high school I would offend my history teachers by asserting that the American revolutionaries had little to complain about in the way the British government treated them. They were taxed minimally and for the most part left alone. Needless to say, if I were an Irishman (like Lowry’s ancestors) I would have felt differently. My beef here is with the anachronistic equation of everything English with “democratic,” together with an expected revulsion for evil continental countries, and particularly those speaking German. Although such a combination may satisfy neocon prejudices, it typically results in grossly distorting the European past.