Saturday, July 15, 2006

German words are hot!

via Atrios and a bunch of other people, you really do need to read this Harpers piece about the age-old Republican fetish for blaming the people who either won the war (in the case of WWII and Yalta) or who had no power over the end of it (Vietnam.)

Some longish thoughts below.

The first (perhaps the only) thing that always needs to be said about the original dolchstosslegende is that it was not something that developed organically or spontaneously from the German public after WWI. Rather, it was created and deliberately nurtured by the German High Command as a way of excusing their inability to win the war in Europe. Rather than concede that yes, Germany had been defeated in the field, the High Command invented the myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back.

The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation’s stunning defeat in World War I. It was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, “As an English general has very truly said, the German army was ‘stabbed in the back.’”

Like everything else associated with the stab-in-the-back myth, this claim was disingenuous. The “English general” in question was one Maj. Gen. Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forward this suggestion merely to politely summarize how Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff—the force behind Hindenburg—was characterizing the German army’s alleged lack of support from its civilian government.

“Ludendorff’s eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone,” wrote Hindenburg biographer John Wheeler-Bennett. “‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.’”...

It didn’t matter that Field Marshal Ludendorff had in fact been the virtual dictator of Germany from August of 1916 on, or that the empire’s civilian leaders had been stunned by his announcement, in September of 1918, that his last, murderous offensives on the western front had failed, and that they must immediately sue for peace. The suddenness of Germany’s defeat only supported the idea that some sort of treason must have been involved. From this point on, all blame would redound upon “the November criminals,” the scheming politicians, reds, and above all, Jews.

Ludendorff managed to do so much to bring ruin to Germany - including advocating the unrestricted submarine warfare which eventually brought Wilson and the US in to the war, sealing Berlin's fate - and then, literally on the eve of Germany's defeat, resigned rather than be held responsible for the armistice he'd argued in favour of.

The sin was not Ludendorff's alone - Hindenburg would testify to the Reichstag that Germany was stabbed in the back - but Ludendorff is probably the worst example of someone who had absolute control over the national war effort, and then blamed their defeat on the people under them. Hitler - who Ludendorff supported early in his political career - would be blaming the Germans for the slaughter of 1945 in much the same way.

The parallels, I would think, are obvious. The Republicans - and here we need to include the highest levels of the uniformed military - have had absolute control over the conduct of the war in Iraq. More than that, they have had total control over the federal government, meaning we have to conclude that the Republicans have put exactly as much effort in to this war as they wanted - no more, no less. Indeed, Gen. Tommy Franks has said pretty much that: "The force level at the beginning of that operation, March 19, 2003, was precisely right."

So Bush could have, if he had chosen, raised a larger army in the preparation for Iraq II. Indeed, this could have been very easy indeed in the months immediately after 9/11. He could have raised taxes to pay for a larger force. He could have done all the things that now look obvious prior to the war, but Franks - the American Ludendorff - still refuses to admit the possibility of error. When American forces leave Iraq - either under fire or not - expect Franks to blame the media and the Democrats more than he already does.

All this is of course on top of Franks' shameful lies during the 2004 election campaign, saying that bin Laden was never at Tora Bora, and that the preparations for Iraq hadn't distracted from the search for bin Laden. As I've said before, Franks has already demonstrated the only qualification a Republican needs to run for high office: An ability to lie to the nation about matters of war and piece, with ease and frequency. For this reason, and others, I still expect Franks to run for office in the next few years, possibly even President (despite the 200-1 odds against him today.)

Another bit from the Harper's piece stood out for me:

What has really robbed the conspiracy theories of their effectiveness is how the war in Iraq has been conducted. Bush and his advisers have sought to use the war not only to punish their enemies but also to reward their supporters, a bit of political juggling that led them to demand nothing from the American public as a whole. Those of us who are not actively fighting in Iraq, or who do not have close friends and family members who are doing so, have not been asked to sacrifice in any way. The richest among us have even been showered with tax cuts.

Yet in demanding so little, Bush has finally uncoupled the state from its heroic status. It is not a coincidence that modern nationalism dates from the advent of mass democracy—and mass citizen armies—that the American and French revolutions ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century. Bush’s refusal to mobilize the nation for the war in Iraq has severed that immediate identification with our army’s fortunes. Nor did it begin with the Bush Administration. The wartime tax cuts and the all-volunteer, wartime army are simply the latest manifestations of a trend that is now decades old and that has been promulgated through peace as well as war, by Democrats as well as Republicans. It cannot truly be a surprise that a society that has steadily dismantled or diminished the most basic access to health care, relief for the poor and the aged, and decent education; a society that has allowed the gap between its richest and poorest citizens to grow to unprecedented size; a society that has paid obeisance to the ideology of globalization to the point of giving away both its jobs and its debt to foreign nations, and which has just allowed one of its poorer cities to quietly drown, should choose to largely opt out of its own defense.

Back before the Iraq war, the more common use of the word "neoconservative" (at least here in Canada) referred to domestic policy, not foreign insanity. But it's pretty much a synonym for the modern Republican: someone who not only is incompetent, but willfully so. Someone who not only doesn't do a good job governing, but who believes that good governance is impossible. Their fundamental objective, then, is to delegitimize the state as a form of social organization.

This is the common thread from Delay-style corruption and Bush-style incompetence to the increasingly high-pitched calls of treason from the right. The point is not merely to tar and feather the opposition party - though that of course - but to undermine the entire idea of a democratic state. The right is already laying the foundation for future disaster by fetishizing the military command, derogating basic principles of constitutional governance, and calls for the media and Democrats to be silenced by any means necessary.

To bring it full circle, we already know where this path leads. The first dolchstosslegende was one of the only points of consensus in German politics during the Weimar era. There are a number of reasons for this, but basically even the left was afraid to tell the truth about Germany's military defeat, for fear of further alienating the already alienated veterans. The other point of consensus was that the Versailles Treaty was unjust and needed to be abandoned. Both of these powerful political issues were eventually used by the Nazis to form a new consensus. And we know where that led.

There's much more in the Harper's piece, which you should read. But I think that the most important point to draw is that, uninterrupted from roughly Vietnam on, the American right has embraced lies (whether they knew they were lies or not is irrelevant) in order to slime the opposition and build up the belief that the American military has never failed, only been betrayed. In the process, they've built a political philosophy which more than anything resembles the politics of Weimar Germany.

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