Saturday, June 24, 2006

Germany and the United States

In the United States I grew up in, Germany ranked as one of the countries most unlike us. The Second World War was barely over and memories were still fresh. I still remember December 1953, when Mrs. Bullet, my first grade teacher, decided to take a few moments to explain the meaning of Christmas. (It was also characteristic of that far-off time that it didn’t occur to her that not all her students might be Christians.” Jesus,” she said quietly, “was born to love everybody.”

“Even the Germans?” piped up my friend Billy Fry in amazement.

“Yes Bill,” she said, “even the Germans.”

Yet for some reason, when I began studying history seriously in the 1970s, various similarities between Germany and the United States began to occur to me. They had been the two rising nations of the Atlantic world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Emperor William II and his contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, who shared an obsessive machoism and a certain emotional instability, were often compared. And Germany, as I learned, had fatally decided in 1914 that its world position was inadequate and taken advantage of a crisis in the Balkans to launch the First World War. That case of overreach was parallel, to some extent, to the Vietnam War that I had just lived through, although it was far more serious, leading as it did to two change of regime, National Socialism, and an even more disastrous Second World War.

Civilization has advanced, thanks to the Second World War and Vietnam, and nations today are making mistakes on far smaller scales. We still have lost fewer men in Iraq than we did in three months of 1968 in Vietnam, and on average we have probably lost fewer men than Germany did on an average day in the First World War. But the political atmosphere within the US, I regret to say, has many parallels to what developed in Germany from 1914 through 1918, and this does not bode well for our future.

German foreign policy had been controversial before 1914, and the large Social Democratic Party, which won a third of the seats in the Reichstag in 1912, generally favored some kind of international reconciliation. But even though Germany had not been directly threatened in 1914, an enormous majority of the German people, including the socialist leadership, accepted the idea that Germany was fighting a defensive war against Russia and France. Not only that, the parties in the Reichstag, who had little real control over the government, not only supported the war but also pushed for the strongest possible steps to win it, including unrestricted submarine warfare against Britain. Only a small minority of left-wing socialists—the equivalents, perhaps, of the late Paul Wellstone and John Murtha—dared argue against the premises of the war. And thus, when Germany finally collapsed in November 1918 after failing to seek peace in time, it became easy to blame the defeat on treacherous policies and revolutionaries.

The Bush Administration, from the beginning, has fought the war in Iraq far less seriously than the Germans fought the First World War (although their war effort was also severely hampered by greed and division at home.) But it has successfully politicized the conflict from the beginning, first by arguing that Iraq was linked to Al Queda and threatened the US with weapons of mass destruction, and now by arguing that anything less than US victory will be a gain for terrorists. (In that they are correct. Terrorists, operating through militias, already rule much of Iraq and may well eventually rule all but the Kurdish areas, and that will have a ripple effect elsewhere. John Murtha is right, however, that persisting in our present course is quite likely to make things worse.) And it is extremely difficult, as the recent Congressional debates showed, for Democrats to take these premises on. I am reminded of the reminiscences of George Ball, who in 1964-5 tried to head off the Vietnam War by writing several of the most brilliant memos in the history of American strategy as Undersecretary of State. He failed, he remarked years later, because he couldn’t make giving up “look like a victory.” But persistence on a gigantic scale, in that case, only led to a greater defeat.

Politically, however, it has been the left wing, not the right, that has suffered from Vietnam, and the Republican leadership is obviously counting on that again. I do not doubt that Karl Rove has concluded that as long as 100,000 men are still in Iraq on January 19, 2009, Democrats (assuming they win in 2008) can take the blame for the subsequent withdrawal, and Republicans can ride any negative strategic consequences to victory. That, actually, is what the German Army and the German right wing did in 1918. When a center-left revolution overthrew the monarchy, its first act, inevitably, was to ask for an Armistice on any terms. They never lived down the consequences.

It was not until 1960 that a courageous German historian named Fritz Fischer dared argue, in a huge and well-documented book, that Germany had both started the war in 1914 and carried it on for offensive purposes. Even then that was controversial enough for the West German government to ask the United States to deny him a visa in order that he would not be able to peddle such subversive ideas across the Atlantic. (They failed, thanks largely to American historians.) By then Germany had suffered terrible consequences of expansionism—depression, Nazism, the deaths of millions in a new war, the destruction of almost all its cities, the ethnic cleansing of more than ten million Germans from Eastern Europe, and the Soviet occupation of about a third of the country for 45 years. That will not happen to the United States, for which we can be thankful. But at the same time, we shall not be forced, like the Germans, to recast our thinking. In the last few years I have realized that I have totally lost any residual fear of Germany or any tendency to equate today’s Germany with that of the first half of the twentieth century. That is partly thanks to my son, who in Scotland several years ago, while an exchange student, heard an interesting argument between a young Scottish nationalist and a German student. “I simply can’t identify with this nationalism,” the German said. “I have been brought up all my life to reject nationalism.”

The oceans, we used to say, protected our freedom. Now, I am afraid, they protect our hubris. 9/11 probably represents the upper limit of the harm foreign powers can do to us. Unfortunately the oceans do not prevent us from wreaking havoc in various parts of the world, or from debasing our own political life to continue harmful foreign adventures.


Anonymous said...

In the run up to the current Iraqi war, Margaret Thathcher, when told of American attempts to involve the Germans in the invasion, commented that it had taken two world wars to convince the Germans that war was wrong and that the Germans should be left that way.

Leo Brux said...

I teach about Germany (3rd Reich seen from a PolSci perspective) to US college students who study in Munich, Germany.

Mr. Kaiser, I agree with every word of your essay on Germany here.

In particular, I can confirm our non-nationalism. Nationalism isn't cool even for our young generation. It was always non-PC for my generation (those born in the two decades after the war).

The soccer world championship gave plenty of experience to our millions of guests from all over the world that Germany today is maybe the least nationalistic of all the bigger nations in the world. A remarkable effect of learning from our horrible history.

It's the prevailing trait today. Of course there are exceptions: a right-wing radical minority. But up to now it's only a small minority excluded from political cooperation on parliamentary levels.

And we should not underestimate quite some foreigner hostility and islamophobia here in Germany. It seems that Muslims might become our new "Jews".

Joerg said...

I thought that even during WWII there was a considerable respect and understanding for Germans. More than for the Japanese or even Black Americans.

Interesting post!

Would you like to participate in our next Carnival of German-American Relations?

These quarterly carnivals are hosted on a German and an English language blog. Everybody is invited to submit a blog post on German-American relations (very broadly defined) by sending a trackback. All submissions are automatically listed in the right column of our Carnival Submissions Blog.

The two hosts select the best posts and present them on their blog to a wider audience.
I think your post would be great contribution. (Please, email me, if you have any question). Thanks.

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