Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Right Question (Blair’s Lessons, part III)

I am still making headway through Tony Blair’s memoirs. Today’s thought comes from Blair’s writing on Neville Chamberlain, who thought he could prevent war by appeasing Hitler. Blair reflects on that mistake: 
Chamberlain: denounced by history. A comparison to Chamberlain is one of the worst British insults. Yet what did he do? In a world still suffering from the trauma of the Great War, a war in which millions had died including many of his close family and friends, he had grieved; and in his grief pledged to prevent another such war. Not a bad ambition; in fact, a noble one. 
One day, meandering through the bookcases, I had picked up his diaries and begun to read the account of his famous meeting with Hitler prior to Munich … He recounts how Hitler alternated between reason--complaining of the Versailles Treaty and its injustice--and angry ranting, almost screaming about the Czechs, the Poles, the Jews, the enemies of Germany. Chamberlain came away convinced that he had met a madman, someone who had real capacity to do evil. This is what intrigued me. We are taught that Chamberlain was a dupe; a fool, taken in by Hitler’s charm. He wasn’t. He was entirely alive to his badness. 
I tried to imagine being him, thinking like him. He knows this man is wicked; but he cannot know how far it might extend. Provoked, think of the damage he will do. So, instead of provoking him, contain him. Germany will come to its senses, time will move on and, with luck, so will Herr Hitler. 
Seen this way Munich was not the product of a leader gulled, but of a leader looking for a tactic to postpone, to push back in time, in hope of circumstances changing. Above all, it was the product of a leader with a paramount and overwhelming desire to avoid the blood, mourning and misery of war. 
* * * 
Chamberlain was a good man, driven by good motives. So what was the error? The mistake was in not recognizing the fundamental question. And here is the difficulty of leadership: first you have to be able to identify the fundamental question. That sounds daft--surely it is obvious; but analyze the situation for a moment and it isn’t. 
You might think the question was: can Hitler be contained? That’s what Chamberlain thought. And, on balance, he thought he could. And rationally, Chamberlain should have been right. Hitler had annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia. He was supreme in Germany. Why not be satisfied? How crazy to step over the line and make war inevitable. 
But that wasn’t the fundamental question. The fundamental question was: does fascism represent a force that is so strong and rooted that it has to be uprooted and destroyed? Put like that, the confrontation was indeed inevitable. the only consequential question was when and how. 
In other words, Chamberlain took a narrow and segmented view--Hitler was a leader, Germany a country, 1938 a moment in time: could  he be contained? 
Actually, Hitler was the product as well as the author of an ideology that gripped several countries, of which Germany was one. By 1938, fascism was culminating in a force that was not going to act according to Chamberlain’s canons of reason, but according to the emotions of the ideology. He misunderstood the question and so answered wrongly.
But, my God, how easy to do. By contrast, Churchill spotted the right question and answered it correctly.
Notice what Blair turns to in determining the question: history and political context. It has made me wonder what is the question in today’s divisive issues. Is abortion about the right of the mother or the right of the child? Is homosexual marriage a question of equal rights or special rights? Should economic solutions be focused on meaningful work or on poverty alleviation? Is healthcare about availability or expense?

The answers depend on what the question is, and the question is usually not as obvious as to our political opponents as it is to our political allies. But, and of primary importance, policy debate is about much more than framing the question to our own advantage. One also needs to frame it correctly. Chamberlain shows us this: he framed and analyzed the question successfully, but it was the wrong question. And the result was tragic.

Also in this series:
Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)
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