Sunday, July 1, 2012

Allies vs Axis: Empires vs Wannabes...

A couple of weeks ago, a very entertaining Maltese tour guide at the new 'Malta in Wartime' museum explained to the ignorant tourists the difference between the Axis and the Allies. The Axis powers, he said, were all new nations established in the 1860's, who wanted more than they had; whereas the Allies were all old established Imperial powers, who had just about everything they wanted.

Now I have always taught the origins of WW2 to students by lining up the surviving powers from WW1 and having the students tell me which got what they wanted and which didn't. That gives you the sides for the next war. The two on the 'goodies' side in WW1 who switched to the 'baddies' in WW2, being Italy and Japan. (Italy because they didn't get the territorial aggrandisement they were after - and which had been promised to them until the Americans blocked it; and Japan because the Americans were so paranoid/racist they insisted - during the Washington Treaty talks in the 20's - that the British abandon the Anglo-Japanese Treaty that had worked so well for the 'goodies' in WW1. thug Canadian and Australian racism was not far behind in this preference.) France was also screwed over by the Americans at Washington, for scrapping battleships a bit too fast, but there was no chance they were leaving the British team for the German one.

So I found his assessment pretty straightforward and simple. In fact I was happy to accept an insight that my multiple research degrees and many years of writing on WW2 had previously overlooked, and resolved to include the comment just as casually in my future writings.

But then it occurred to me how it would sound to Americans... (United States of...)

That made it much more deliciously challenging.

To be fair he was not aiming the point at Americans. (In a week in Malta, surrounded by thousands of European and African and even Asian tourists, I can count the Americans I came across on the fingers of one hand.) He was making the point mainly to French and Germans and Italians, all of whom have fantasies about how nice their Republics/European Union are, and all of whom face a reality check at Malta. The first French Republic in particular was invited in to replace the rule of the decadent Knights of St John in 1798, and took only weeks to make itself so obnoxious that the large scale revolt the Knights had never provoked exploded. The request to the British to help drive out the French, and a couple of years later to join the Empire, is one of the main lessons he was making to the new Europeans who are still gamely fighting to convince everyone else to take one for the Union team. Idealism is no replacement for competence, and wishful thinking no replacement for trustworthiness. Got that Euro-fascists?

The American reference was not even actually stated. Just automatically implied when he said that all the major Allies were old fashioned empires that had spent centuries accumulating territories. But the very casualness with which it was assumed was striking to anyone who reads much American history... at least that written by Americans.

Americans like to pretend to lots of contradictory things. And this, almost accidentally, and very innocently, poked fun at a whole group of them.

Americans like to pretend that A) they are a young and energetic country, and B) that they have a very old constitution by world standards. They aren't actually either of these things really, with their founding colonies being far older than most European nation states, and even their original federation predating the German and Italian federations by a century. Only if you consider their 'nation' as dating from when the North re-conquored the newly independent South do they come out resembling a 'young' nation (making them the same age as the dictatorships). But surely that would make their 'reborn' constitution forcibly imposed on conquored states a new entrant too?

Americans try to pretend that Europeans are imperialists, while Americans are not... Which is a bit of a laugh considering that the United States occupied and incorporated more territory of Indians, Mexicans, Hawaiins, Pacific Islands etc; than any other nation (except its 'old imperial' Allies Britain, France and Russia). Consider the French Territories and Alaska for instance? The American conquest of most of the Spanish overseas territories, and their incorporation into its possessions (for their own good of course), just prior to WW1 is in no way relevant to the war of the imperial powers a few years later, is it?

Americans like to pretend that the 'old world' is set in bad old ways, and the 'new world' is different. See previous paragraph.

Americans like to pretend that republics are good, and monarchies are bad. But of course Germany only finished up with Hitler because it was a Republic, and the entire British Commonwealth of Nations, not to mention Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, etc, have to be swept under the carpet for that one to fly in WW2... Axis republics included Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Soviet Union (at the start anyway), and various other German and Japanese puppet states like Manchuria. On the Allied side a search for republics would only leave France (3rd Republic possibly, but Vichy and de Gaulle are doubtful in this category)... and perhaps Brazil? Republics good, monarchies bad? Take that you French/Italian European Union troublemakers

But most importantly, Americans like to pretend that they never played the 'Great Game', and that their motives were always pure. (See comments on why Japan finished up on Axis side above.)

So why was our guide making this point? Well, I am not sure how the Maltese usually act (though Australia has the highest number of immigrants from Malta - more than Britain and Canada combined, so I do know quite a few people of Maltese extraction). But I doubt that the Maltese newspapers and news are usually so covered with critical articles on the Euro and the problems of the Union. I also doubt that the nostalgia for British rule is usually so often repeated. I was particularly amused to hear the guide point out that Maltese independence had started as a Dominion under the Queen (like Australia or Canada or New Zealand or Malaysia, etc, etc), but then moved to a republic within the Commonwealth also under the Queen (like India, and Pakistan and South Africa, etc, etc). He commented that he supposed this meant that they had had the best of both world's, but as a self consciously first world country, the subtext of which group Malta should belong to seemed pretty clear.

To have an Italian background, Maltese speaking guide, carefully explain to the dumb French and Italian and German tourists, why the Maltese should not fall for some fairly baseless assumptions (and giving an entirely unconscious but devestating put down to American assumptions almost by accident)... was irresistibly amusing.

I left him a nice tip.


  1. You clearly haven't taken enough university level history classes taught by American academics if you think Americans try to pretend they never built an empire.

    Also, your distinction between "Republic" and "Monarchy" without any further qualifiers is a red herring.

    Most of the monarchies you cite has monarchs that have been little more than gilded rubber stamps for the elected representatives for at least a century or more.

    Most of the republics you cite are not what your average American means when they talk about republics being a good thing, but are what the average American would call a dictatorship or tyranny. Or, in some cases (especially Malta) puppet states.

    The better comparison is between constitutional republics and constitutional monarchies. And add to that, you also need the qualifier of them being constitutions that manage to more often than not successfully balance rule of law and liberty, populations that are nationalistic enough to no dissolve into civil war all the time but independent enough to not blindly follow dictators, and economies which are capable providing folks enough of what they want to keep them reasonably satisfied with the govt.

    Besides, two out of the main three Axis powers were monarchies. The King of Italy did nothing to stop Mussolini until after they were already loosing the war, which I would imagine a large part of why Italy is now a Republic.

    1. Dear Jason,

      yes, no, and perhaps.

      As someone who regularly presents to secondary, tertiary, postgrads, history teachers association conferences, and even the general public, I can guarantee you that what is 'latest thinking' at university has a very long way to go to impinge on the general public (let alone on Holywood). I think you will find more than a few well received Presidential statements over the last decade claiming that the US has never been an imperial power.

      My definitions are very loose on purpose (as is almost all 'pro-republican' commentary), but I would be interested to know how you define a 'Constitutional Republic'. Britain is the most successful 'constitutional monarchy', despite having no written constitution; whereas most republics that have become dictatorships - from revolutionary France to Lenin's Russia to any African dictatorship you care to name - have written constitutions.

      Being a 'little more than a rubber stamp' is vital, but all a monarch needs to make it work is the right to appoint the government, or call elections. The Spanish Republic was an easy mark for dictatorship. The only reason the later military coup failed after the restoration monarchy was because the King told the officers concerned he had their personal oath. They gave in.

      The real vital point is someone in the system who looks to the long term, not the short. The US attempted to put this role in the Supreme Court instead, but with the politicisation of those appointments, it is hardly surprising it has not really worked.

      And yes, the two Axis powers that were constitutional monarchies of sorts had the disadvantage that their monarchs were pretty keen on imperialism. They also had monarchs who sacked their governments and declared peace when the long term perspective required it. (Unlike Germany, which had to be reduced to rubble because the Wiemar Republic had no safeguards or long term viewpoints at all).

      By the way, the Italian Republic was apparently imposed with the help of the occupying Americans DESPITE the popular vote being for retaining the monarchy. (Note: the French replaced by acclamation their 1st Republic with Napoleon; replaced the second by electing a guy who called himself Napoleon III; voted for the third to be replaced by a renewed monarchy (he died before it happened); eventually collapsed their third to replace it with a dictator - Petain, and probably would look a bit different now if De Gaulle had had a son interested in politics!)

      I would also be fairly reluctant to suggest that the Italian Republic could be considered a very good sample of an effective government. It is almost as much of a basket case as Greece, whose current 'Golden Dawn' politics look surprisingly Weimar like.

      No really, name a Republic, of any sort, that is actually a working system based on every role being elected? For long.