A little history lesson for Abbott & Co

Journalists are said to be the writers of the first rough draft of history. Immersed as they are in the present, they can be forgiven for their occasional lapses in understanding history itself.

In Saturday’s Weekend AustralianChris Kenny set out a compelling argument that Prime Minister Tony Abbott can sit comfortably knowing that the Canberra press gallery and other mainstream critics will come at him from only one direction: the left. Kenny argued that the love media has set such predictable expectations for Abbott that he can dismiss them and consolidate on the pragmatic middle ground.

But Kenny also drew a historical parallel. “In our national debate Abbott needs a Maginot Line only on his left flank. Seldom do the mainstream critics skirt around to snipe from the right”, he wrote. Applying this historical parallel to Abbott was mistaken, as the history of 1930s France shows.

The legendary Maginot Line was an extensive and supposedly impregnable network of fortifications that ran for several hundred kilometres along the north-western borders of France.

Inspired by defence minister and Western Front veteran Andre Maginot, who was, like most of his countrymen, obsessed by the trauma of 1914-18, French governments throughout the Depression-ravaged 1930s spent billions on constructing the Maginot Line in the unshakeable belief that it would hold back German armies and buy France time to mobilise to defend La Patrie. As Hitler rose and Germany re-armed, however, the vast sums spent on the Line consumed scarce resources that could better have been used for modernising the French army and air force with up-to-date tanks, aircraft and artillery.

So confident were the French that any future German invasion would repeat August 1914 that the Maginot Line did not extend the length of the frontier from the English Channel to Switzerland, and left the border with neutral Belgium open.

But when Hitler came for France in May 1940, his Panzers didn’t play to the script. Their main attack exploded further to the south across the river Meuse and the through the dense Ardennes forest, a natural barrier that French generals had assumed impenetrable to tanks and therefore not worth fortifying. In the north German troops swept into France though Belgium and Holland.

The Maginot Line, and the several hundred thousand French troops guarding it, were simply bypassed and captured intact by Germany when the French surrendered after only six weeks.

Given these historical realities, Kenny draws the wrong bow by saying that Abbott can rely on fixed defences against Labor and his media critics. The French lulled themselves into a false sense of security with the Maginot Line: its true lesson for Abbott is that he cannot afford to assume that future attacks on the Coalition can only come from one ideological direction, or that their consolidating in government can be predicated on Donald Rumsfeld’s “known knowns”.

Instead, the PM should be a Panzer, not a defender.  He needs to anticipate a war of ideological and policy movement. Once Labor rights its left-listing ship – as it eventually will – and again starts sailing to the centre, he cannot afford to respond by fighting the last war. The presumption that he can afford to do so is the flaw in both Kenny’s historical analogy, and his otherwise powerful argument.

If the Maginot Line parallel parallel applies to current Australian politics, however, it is actually more appropriate for Labor than the Coalition. Labor’s dire plight can well be likened to the cancer in the French Third Republic in the 1930s, and especially its catastrophic fall in 1940.

For most of that fateful decade, the French political elite looked inward, chattering about itself. Having complacently ticked off the German threat by building the Maginot Line and the craven policy of appeasement, French leaders spent more time fighting each other, even as Hitler’s shadow loomed ever darker. They refused to acknowledge how unprepared France was to defend herself. In the final years before the war, factions and personalities maintained their self-obsession and simply wished the harsh realities of the outside world to go away.

Even at the moment of supreme crisis in May, 1940, as German armies swept across France and panicked chaos reigned in Paris, there was a vacuum at the top. Just as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard tore at each other’s throats, French prime minister Paul Reynaud and his defence minister Eduard Daladier (who he had deposed as PM) refused to speak to each other as their beloved nation disintegrated around them and defeatists like Marshal Philippe Petain strangled the government.

In 1940, France was beaten as much by herself as by Nazi Germany. In 2013, Labor’s internal hatreds and infighting, and the destructive war of attrition between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, destroyed its division-riven government. All Abbott needed to do was to offer a credible alternative and let the opposing rabble do themselves in.

As George Santayana wrote over a century ago, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Chris Kenny and Tony Abbott, and Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese for that matter, should draw different lessons for our times from the Maginot Line and the fall of France. Fighting the history wars needs warriors with a good understanding of history.

Terry Barnes was a senior ministerial adviser to Tony Abbott in the Howard government


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