Hand Grenade of the Month May 2017 - The Hitler Problem

John T Kuehn's picture

Handgrenade of the Month May 2017

The Hitler Problem

Just as I was wondering what I might write about next, especially since April’s hand grenade appears to have been a dud (as far as generating some dialog),  Mr. Sean Spicer of the Trump Administration brings military history and the fundamental a-historicism of American society into focus with a very public “gaffe.”

The facts first.  Here is what Mr. Spicer said, I tried as much as possible to avoid the “cherry picking” context error we see made so much in American discourse these days:

“I think a couple things. You, look—we didn’t use chemical weapons in World War II. Y’know, you had —someone who is despicable as Hitler who didn’t even sink to the, to the, to using chemical weapons. So, you have to, if you’re Russia, ask yourself, is this a country that you, and regime you want to align yourself with?” [1]

Directly underneath this quotation above a picture of press room journalists was this:  “PRESS ROOM (presumably thinking about Hitler’s many gas chambers)” [2]

Two things strike the military historian here, or just the average historian, especially those familiar with the facts about Hitler’s service in World War I and his non-use of chemical weapons for military objectives in the conduct of World War II against Allied Forces  (as opposed to his government’s use of chemicals for mass murder and genocide).

First, what was Spicer’s purpose, which has seemed to have been lost in the brou-ha-ha over his apparent gaffe?     My understanding based on the above is that he is saying Russia is supporting a Syrian regime that has committed a war crime that even the Germans did not stoop to, as led by Hitler, who established the policy on no use of chemical weapons, especially World War I style gas attacks on enemy combatants.

Or more simply, he was using a historical analogy to criticize Syrian and Russian actions, a position I think most of his audience that day agreed with.  What they seem to disagree with was his use of Hitler as a positive example of behavior.  This is forbidden.  This is the Hitler problem.

 He might have been better served to have said the German Army did not use chemical weapons, then his audience—poorly educated (if at all) in military history for the most part—would probably have let the comment pass, or tried to reinterpret it in some other tortured way as a stick to hit an administration they do not like  (for the most part, maybe one or two of them have empathy for current US federal administration led by President Trump, but this is supposition on my part).

Second, the no use of gas policy against combatants of other nations was Hitler’s policy.  He did not allow its use against combatants he considered sub-human-- the soldiers of the Red Army of the Soviet Union, whose captured soldiers Hitler’s legions murdered by the millions via conventional non-chemical means (mostly through starvation and neglect, but sometimes directly with guns and other weapons after their surrender).   [3]

So where did Hitler’s aversion to the use of gas (or other chemical weapons) against uniformed combatants come from?  Quite simply it came from his experience in World War I on the Western Front, where he endured gas attacks and developed an aversion to this horrible new weapon of warfare.  We often forget Hitler, the lowly enlisted veteran of an earlier war and his traumatization by these attacks. He almost certainly had comrades that were damaged or died from these attacks, never mind that it was his own nation, Germany, that let this particularly toxic genie of war out of the bottle. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Tsar for Armaments later wrote:

 “…Hitler [in 1944] , to be sure, had always rejected gas warfare; but he hinted in headquarters that the use of gas might stop the advance the Soviet troops.  We went on with vague speculations that the West would accept gas warfare against the East because at this stage of the war the British and American governments had an interest in stopping the Russian advance.  When no one at the situation conference spoke up in agreement, Hitler did not return to the subject.”  [4]

Speer also discusses in this section Western preparations and even plans for mass gas warfare and as we know, historians have documented US plans to use gas if the Germans initiated first use as well as American plans to use gas pre-emptively in the invasion of Japan (Japan had already used gas against the Chinese in their war in the far east, but not, significantly, against US soldiers except perhaps as guinea pigs while incarcerated.) [5]

Thus what we are seeing celebrated as an ignorant gaffe by President Trump’s press secretary is actually a celebration of a certain component of the polity’s own historical ignorance of military policy and events from 1939 to 1945 other than the Holocaust--of which they are adequately aware of [which is better than nothing].  But sometimes a little historical knowledge goes a long way—too long.   Colin Gray has decried this a-historicism as a feature of the American Way of War:

““A defense community led by the historically disrespectful and ill educated is all but condemned to find itself surprised by events for which some historical understanding could have prepared them.” 

 I daresay it is a feature of the American way of politics.

Final Caveat.  I did not vote for Donald Trump in the primaries or General Election. I completely disagree with his administration’s continuation of the foreign policy of liberal hegemony practiced, somewhat haphazardly in former President Obama’s case, by the previous three administrations  (Obama, Bush, W. Clinton).[7]  I feel somewhat perturbed that I even felt I had to add such a caveat.


John T. Kuehn, Fort Leavenworth, KS

[1] Transcript extract located at http://fusion.net/here-is-a-transcript-of-sean-spicers-comments-about-hit-1794224814 (accessed 4/14/2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] For a quick account of this atrocity, which resulted in the murder of almost one third the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust, see Jonathan M. House and David Glantz, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler, revised and expanded edition (Lawrence, KS:  University Press of Kansas, 2015), 67-68.  This authoritative source estimates 3.3 million Soviet prisoners died in German custody, most during the first year of the war.  This is actually half of the 6.6 million Jewish victims estimated to have been murdered during the Holocaust.

[4] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (NY: Bonanza Books edition, 1970), 412-414.

[5]  Ibid. and see also D. M. Giangreco, Hell to Pay (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 112-113; see also Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson, wherein he discusses the famous accident when a German radio guided bomb hit a US ship in port containing gas munitions during the Italian campaign.  The US was not planning first use on that occasion, but was ready to respond in kind if the Germans did.

[6] Colin Gray, from “The American Way of War” in Rethinking the Principles of War, ed. Anthony D. McIvor (Annapolis, MD:  Naval Institute Press, 2005), 27-28.

[7]  This is a legitimate positon.  “Liberal hegemony” is best articulated and defined by Barry Posen in Restraint:  A New Foundation for the U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2014), 5-12.

John, in my opinion that was far from the most stupid thing Spicer has said. Chemical weapons, by and large, were not used in combat by either side in World War II, unless I've forgotten something. And the idea that the Russian Federation was weighing in on the side of a state that resorted to using chemical weapons ought to have given the Kremlin pause. That's all Spicer seemed to be trying to say.

And, I'd like to see more about this chemical attack, to include the possibility that it was inadvertent -- an accidental release from a chemical weapons depot, I think someone claimed. And really -- was 59 Tomahawk missiles a useful response? Some B-2s, with large, runway-cratering munitions and area denial stuff would have been more effective, wouldn't it?

I also think it's worth discussing this "liberal hegemony" you think we're pursuing. Not saying you're wrong, but we should clarify some terms.

[ED NOTE -- Let's be sure to keep this focused on the historical point that John made. Current politics and policy are not within H-War's area of focus.]

Being mildly interested in this subject, having just read the post about Hitler and his aversion to military uses of gas but not civilian populations, to obtain his objectives, do not think any reason here to post further depth analysis or argument or discussion on the question.

It seems fairly presented on the points. There are a couple of other matters, related should like to set forth. Probably because this is military history, should not attempt to comment on the foreign policy issues, as per editorial request as well, they are not here central.

Second, something historians and others have done from time to time, pose counter-factual or hypothetical versions of history to examine subject from such a view.

For instance, supposed Hitler had been an American and by some sheer chance(?) had been elected to head of an American govt. What do list members, if they wish, think might have been the result once he turned to dictatorship, as he did in Germany after being elected thru an election process ? Would he have initiated WW II to overturn free govts elsewhere, rounded up undesirable Americans and others placing them in camps rather than deporting them ?

Would he have attempted the conquest of a Communist Soviet Union and IF he did such things, how might Americans have accepted said as 'realities' to life ? Would the military, like Germany's once they saw themselves losing the war, have reacted any differently, such as attempting a coup long before the results of global conflict were deeply underway ? Would the American military have abandoned their own traditions and accepted such a 'reality' to rule by a dictator, or chosen unlike Germany's military to overthrow such an evil govt. before it could undo the traditions and practices of liberty and freedom which both civil and military society have tolerated since the Republic was founded ? Once already, Southern States rebelled against a Union they deemed hostile to their own claimed and pretended freedoms from a federal authority.

Some curious thought about American history as a counterfactual experience instead. Quite agree with the observation of American a-historicism and its potentially harmful effects especially when practiced within the govt.
Wyatt Reader MA
UCLA-Whittier College
US Govt. ret.

In understanding the rise of Hitler, and indeed other fascists in Europe, it is important to keep in mind that democratic traditions were very weak. In the Weimar Republic, there was broad rejection, both on the left and the right of parliamentary democracy and liberal traditions. Key elements of society--for example the universities--were mainly anti-democratic, and there were early supporters of Hitler among both professors and students. The German military was also autonomous politically, and although initially suspicious of the revolutionary and egalitarian nature of Nazi ideology, made a pact with the Devil, so to speak. None of this was the case in 1930s America, which admittedly was a much less democratic society than we are today.

What does autonomous mean in context of 1939 v. 1940 and after ?

Political Sympathy and support for Fascists already existed among some, including the political officer charged by Defense Minister Groener, Schleicher, who was Chief of General Staff's political arm.

Schleicher's intrigues by 1932 led him to seek Hindenberg's appointment of Hitler as German Chancellor. While the Army and General Staff may not have unanimously supported the Nazi's from 1919 on, when Schleicher first emerged, in the next decade of political and economic, as well as electoral life in Germany he was able to move into their orbit as the ruling govt. of Germany. Less Democratic Germany certainly; its traditions not nearly those of the US. Yet, once military persona with govt. posts and out of, entered into the political arena, Democracy's stresses were certainly increased. US maintained for many years one rule that 7 years must pass before former officers could be considered for Govt. posts in civilian capacity.
source: pp. 230-31; A Genius for War, The German Army and General Staff. Previously posted volume on H-War. Col. T.N. Dupuy.
Note: Political Genius would not seem indicated for career military persona based on the German 20th Century experience during the Fascist period to history.

I object to the use of 'hand grenade' as a descriptive title for discussion topics. Hand grenades are nasty weapons. Can't the community find a more congenial metaphor?
Stephen Fein

I am under the impression that since this is a military oriented forum the term is perfectly fine and judging from some of the responses and interactions I think some of the posts genuinely cause a stir and healthy debate. All aspects of war could in some degree fall under the nasty category and this is an unnecessary "safe-space" idea.

My only complaint is that generally it hones more towards military subjects that are less inclusive of specialties such as mine, Middle East, and lean heavily on U.S. military history.