A few days of vacation in the Rocky Mountains is a good time to catch up on one's reading. But if I was looking for escape from the issues on which I spend most of my time, I didn't find it in "Churchill," the brief but penetrating biography by Paul Johnson, among the world's greatest living historians. In particular, Johnson's account of the 1930s holds up an eerie mirror to the present.
Johnson notes that when Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, most Europeans failed to recognize either the nature or the gravity of the threat. Winston Churchill - retired soldier, popular writer, not very popular politician -- was the exception. He understood that unless free peoples acted decisively, they would come under attack, sooner or later.
Churchill was derided as an alarmist, or even a "warmonger." The well-known economist, John Maynard Keynes, argued that Hitler had legitimate grievances: in particular the unjust Versailles Treaty that had held Germany down since the conclusion of the first great war of the 20th century. Clifford Allen, a prominent British politician, "applauded Hitler," saying: "I am convinced he genuinely desires peace." Archbishop Temple of York agreed. Hitler had made "a great contribution to the secure establishment of peace," he said.
Today, of course, it is the ruling Islamists of Iran who candidly express their aggressive and even genocidal intentions. In speeches and sermons, they pledge to wipe Israel off the map, and vow to bring about "a world without American." For three decades, "Death to America!" has been the regime's rallying cry, inscribed also on the sides of missiles whose range and accuracy increase year after year.
And once again, those who would take these threats seriously and act decisively are dismissed as alarmists, or denigrated as warmongers by foreign policy mandarins. Once again, they insist that grievances must be addressed: Did not the CIA meddle in Iranian domestic politics in the 1950s? With American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, don't Iran's rulers have cause for concern?
In the 1930s, the Nazis bought heavy weapons from Joseph Stalin, the Soviet dictator, who could not imagine that Hitler would use those weapons against him a few years later.