Saturday, December 27, 2008

Legacies of error

It's a banner Christmas season for movies again, and for months I've been looking forward to Valkyrie, the Tom Cruise vehicle about the conspiracy to kill Hitler. While Hollywood's capacity to mangle history must never be underestimated, the subject is so extraordinary compelling that I am going to remain optimistic. (I never read reviews of something I want to see until I've seen it: I don't want to know anything in advance.) I couldn't make the film yesterday, but I decided to bone up on the subject matter again, and I walked to my local library (it's only two blocks away) and got out their copy of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

I remember the arrival of that book via the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1961. I don't think my father ever opened it: he was too much a man of action to get into a book of a thousand pages. But I did within a couple of years, and it was one of the first works of serious history that I made my way through. I don't think I had opened it up in more than four decades and I was now amazed at how good it actually was. Shirer had really made an exhaustive study of the Nuremberg records, in particular, and he narrated the anti-Hitler conspiracy in extraordinary detail. Like most GIs, he wrote capably if not musically, and of course his subject provided more than enough drama.

Two things beyond the story itself (and the role of Count von Stauffenberg, whom Cruise is playing) stood out for me. The first was the bizarre nature of the Nazi regime, especially in its later stages when things were going badly. While it was certainly totalitarian in enforcing its views upon the average citizen and stifling dissent, its upper reaches were ruled by anarchy. The Army High Command in particular was never really loyal to Hitler. Dozens of generals were involved in the conspiracy and many more generals and field marshals knew about it and kept their mouths shut even though they refused to participate. The security services, led by Heinrich Himmler, had inevitably gotten some word of what was going on, but Himmler himself by 1943-4 was thinking about eventually making peace with the allies after Hitler's disappearance, and that may have made him less aggressive than he might have been about taking action. (Himmler actually tried to implement that plan in the last days of the war and was shocked to find that the allies were not interested.) Like certain other governments, the Nazi regime ran on the personal favor of the man at the top, and like certain other heads of state, Hitler was too lazy to pay close attention to what was actually happening in many spheres. He had also alienated the military by cashiering literally hundreds of generals (many of which he eventually brought back.)
Although the conspirators were courageous men, their anti-Nazi zeal, it must be said, waxed and waned along with the fortunes of war. They were quite active during the winter of 1939-40, before the attack on France, which they did not expect to succeed, but after France fell they apparently basked in the glow of victory and did not really revive their activities until late 1941, when Soviet Russia had refused to fall and the United States had joined the war. Even then it took more than a year for them to become serious. The conspiracy included quite a few high civil servants and some churchmen (both Protestant and Catholic) and professors, as well as a few former trade union leaders, intelligence officers, and, as noted, Army officers. Many of them were old enough to remember the results of the defeat of 1918--including, eventually, Hitler's rise--and their goal in 1942-3 was a new government that could negotiate peace at least in the West. Some actually hoped to continue fighting the Soviets and many hoped to keep some of Hitler's territorial gains in the East. They decided rather early on that Hitler had to be assassinated but initially discovered that that would be no easy job. Not only was he well guarded, but he never stayed in one place very long and constantly altered his movements. On one occasion a conspirator entered a room with a delayed-action bomb similar to the one Stauffenberg used, only to find that Hitler was only going to be there for a few minutes, not half an hour. He had to abort the plan.
Another aspect of the story caught my eye, however, because of its contemporary relevance. Nearly until the last minute some conspirators feared that the assassination of Hitler, followed by peace on any available terms with the allies (who had made it known through some covert contacts that they were not interested in peace with anyone in Germany), would create another "stab-in-the-back" legend like the one that had grown up after 1918, when a democratic revolutionary government had been forced to make a disastrous peace. As it turned out, various delays prevented the execution of the plot until about seven weeks after the Normandy invasion, when Germany was on the point of being driven out of France and the Soviets were also in the midst of their greatest offensive to date. By then the conspirators realized that their plans for peace were almost certain to fail, but their leaders decided that it didn't matter. The assassination of Hitler had become a matter of German honor.
What struck me about this, not for the first time, was how one single mistake, one terrible, fateful decision, can reverberate through history for many decades. In Germany's case that mistake had occurred in July 1914, when most (not all) of the German leadership had convinced itself that the time was ripe for a trial of strength between Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand and Russia, France, and possibly even Britain on the other. The real source of the July crisis was Balkan nationalism--the Serbian desire to destroy Austria-Hungary, which had led to the Archduke Franz Ferdinand's assassination--but Berlin's decision to force a confrontation led to the world war. When no quick victory occurred, the German government had to tell itself and its people that the war had been forced upon it. The imperial government chose not to take advantage of President Wilson's attempts to mediate a peace in 1916-7--attempts which, I have found, were more bitterly resented by the British than by the Germans--and instead decided on unrestricted submarine warfare and brought the United States into the war in 1917. It waited until the German Army was collapsing to take up Wilson's offer, and by then it was far too late to get a genuine peace of understanding that would have preserved the authority of the German government. The Versailles Treaty and the economic chaos of the 1920s--hyperinflation, followed by a brief recovery, followed by a depression--became new excuses to blame the leaders of the Weimar Republic and the allies for Germany's problems. The war guilt clause of the Versailles Treaty, meanwhile, led the new government to sponsor a whole academic industry designed to prove (falsely) that Germany had not started the war and therefore did not deserve to pay reparations.
Now the Bush Administration's policies in the Middle East have also been catastrophic, as a review in the current New York Review of Books points out. Thanks in large part to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans the United States can still afford such mistakes and survive, but I am afraid that that miscalculation, like the German one in 1914, may poison our politics for a long time. The decisions to invade Iraq, to interrupt the peace process in the Middle East, and to insist on Palestinian elections discredited the US around the world and strengthened our enemies in the region. The decision to remove the government of Afghanistan has contributed to the destablization of nuclear-armed Pakistan. Much of the American people, I think, realizes that these decisions--especially the Iraq war--were mistaken. That has not however prevented the Bush Administration, including Secretary Gates (who will continue in office), from laying a basis for a long-term Amerian presence in Iraq, and President Obama is on record favoring a larger effort in Afghanistan. Bad policy, in short, may have been institutionalized already. But even if the new President does reverse course on some of these fronts--as I hope he will--both the Republican Party and a good deal of the foreign policy establishment will call him an appeaser and blame any further problems on a failure to stick with Bush's policies.
Despite the drop in violence in Iraq, much evidence suggests that the situation there will deteriorate again as American troops withdraw. Nothing has happened to indicate any real interest in national reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds, and the new round of provincial elections, like those in 2005, are almost certain to harden ethnic lines and re-open conflicts in disputed areas. Meanwhile, the situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating, and Pakistan and India are on the brink of war after Mumbai. (In a clever fantasy op-ed a few weeks ago Richard Clarke, the Clinton Administration's terrorism czar, suggested that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack counted on it to renew tensions with India and force the Pakistani Army to move troops from Pakistan's western border to its eastern one. Today's papers report that those movements are now taking place, making it easier for the Taliban (which the Pakistani government has always wanted in power in Afghanistan anyway) to operate freely in the tribal areas. On another front, a New York Times article last week talked about the popularity of militant Islam among the young people of Jordan--until now our most reliable and pro-western ally in the Middle East.
A couple of weeks ago I heard Robert Baer, the former CIA agent whose first book was the basis for the movie Syriana, argue that the United States had to give up the idea of transforming the Muslim world. I could not agree more, but I do not know whether that idea will have much traction even within the new Administration. But I think much depends upon our ability to face this reality. If we continue to go further down that path in an attempt to justify our initial mistake, the consequences could eventually become much more serious, even if they never do quite approach the consequences for Germany of the error of July 1914.

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