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Imperial Hubris: A German Tale

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All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
—Leo Tolstoy

The great French historian and resistance martyr, Marc Bloch, is supposed to have said that history was like a knife: You can cut bread with it, but you could also kill. This is even more true of historical derivatives like analogies; they can provide either illumination or poisonous polemic. The first requirement for an acceptable historical analogy is plausibility; the two situations compared must have striking similarities, and the image of the historic antecedent must be as clearly understood as possible. This becomes an unlikely presupposition when the analogy is proposed by partisans working in an age of stunning historical ignorance. Nowadays, politicians and partisans use analogies instead of arguments, convenient shorthand for their defenses of dubious policies.

It was beneficial that President Kennedy was conscious of historical analogies. During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, he remembered how easily nations had slipped into World War I in 1914, and how important it was to give an adversary a chance to back down while saving face. When the invasion of Cuba was being considered, he noted to Robert McNamara, “It seems to me we could end up bogged down. I think we should keep constantly in mind the British in the Boer War, the Russians in the last war with the Finnish, and our own experience with the North Koreans.” But it was dangerously misleading in 2003 to brandish comparison of the Allied occupations of Germany and Japan in 1945 with the American occupation of Iraq solely in order to suggest the ease of establishing democracy by force of arms.

The Devil and the good man may cite Scripture—for opposite purposes. This is true for analogies as well. Some historic moments or persons may be unique—try to find another Abraham Lincoln, for example. Even Iagos are hard to come by. It may be proper to recall Jacob Burckhardt’s warning-cum-aspiration: Our study of history will not make us clever for the next time but should make us wise forever.

The United States, with its frequent claim of exceptionalism, should be free of historical analogies, and at the time of the American Revolution, the struggle to establish a constitutional republic was without modern parallel. But as the nation became a world power and, finally, the world power, its boast of exceptionalism began to sound hollow, and comparisons with the fate of earlier empires became common.

With the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945, the United States emerged as the leading power of the West, and was thereafter confronted by imperial responsibilities and temptations. At home, the “Red Scare” became a powerful political-psychological force. Abroad, the successive burdens of Korea and Vietnam, which demanded the sacrifice of American lives and fortunes, were followed by the rise of an altogether new challenge, international terrorism, with the United States as its principal target.

A nation puzzled and divided by American ascendancy following World War II was attuned to the many analogues that politicians and partisan scholars offered. It is no wonder many of these analogies focused on the most dramatic and recent world-historical disaster—the rise and fall of Hitler and his empire. In the early 1950s, left-wing alarmists saw in Senator McCarthy a Hitler and in Eisenhower, a Hindenburg. At the time, I thought this an invidious and dangerous comparison in that American political culture was fundamentally different from that of Germany. But German has been the language of politics in extremis, Weimar the symbol of democratic self-destruction, Hitler the reminder of the all-powerful, enthralling tyrant—and appeasement of him as the road to war.

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  • read this

    Posted by Charlotte Hozumi on Sat 10 Oct 2009

  • Munich was the beginning of World War 2 not only because of divisions in the West, but because it convinced Hitler he had only to threaten and bluster, that his rivals were weak and decadent and would yield. For Benes, the Czech president, was not invited to be present at his country's dismemberment, which would thereby lose the strong defensive positions that had been built up in the hilly border areas, and would leave the rest of the country wide open for occupation, as happened. Mussolini was there, though Italy had no interest in the question, but not Stalin, who must have concluded that it would be prudent to reach an accomodation with Hitler, nor was Poland represented, whose territory would become surrounded by Germany on 3 sides, were Czechoslovakia to become occupied. The desire of France to escape from her treaty obligations with Czechoslovakia and Poland, and of Britain's with France, was a lesson not lost on Hitler.

    Posted by Ernest Zeller on Tue 12 Jan 2010

  • Munich nothwithstanding, war was never an "option" for Herr Hitler. Rather it became necessary in order to maintain power.

    Howard K. Smith forecast, opined, that the war became inevitable because of Nazi domestic policy - and this well in advance of Munich. Essentially they were facing economic catastrophe and loss of power, unless they attacked. Smith assumed correctly that those attacked would, for their own domestic reasons, fight back. They did - and thus war came into being. Naturally the Nazis claimed that the attack was "self-defense".

    The general principle is that war, in the proximate, is always the result of domestic politics, never the result of external matters. This principle may clarify for some people the mystery of 911 et al.

    Posted by Lisa Lebowski on Mon 29 Mar 2010

  • Good read. What a shame that the current democratic Western political millieu seems little more capable of enforcing reasonable rhetoric and behavior on the part of its leaders than that of the Kaiser's empire a century ago.

    One possible typo here:
    Portentous decisions had to be made, including whether to declare unrestricted submarine warfare, thereby insuring the entry of the United States into the war.

    Shouldn't this be ensuring?

    Posted by ED on Mon 11 Oct 2010

  • The abominable end of WW1 ... Treaty of Versailles and all that ... ensured that Germany would take action to recover lost lands and millions of people when they got a government determined to get them back. They got such a government in 1933.

    Germany always had a problem/crisis with food production. Hitler was determined to get hold of Western Poland to alleviate this situation. This was another underlying cause of WW2 which is not taught these days.

    The third cause of an inevitable European war was soviet Communism. The Comintern was deadly serious about conquering Europe and many Europeans were equally deadly serious about avoiding this conquest. Hitler was one of the latter. This is also not taught these days.

    Posted by michael davis on Sun 28 Nov 2010

  • Hitler was also intent on conquering and depopulating much of European Russia- The Ukraine especially. He planned to starve the population and then send in Germans to exploit the land.

    He also utilized anti-Communism much like the American right-wing did. He used is as a organizing tool; Even if he actually hated it, it was most useful as a club to beat his domestic enemies with.

    Posted by mcc on Mon 4 Apr 2011

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States of War
About the Author

Fritz Stern is University Professor Emeritus at Columbia University and the author of several books, including The Politics of Cultural Despair, Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichroder, and the Building of the German Empire, and, most recently, Five Germanies I Have Known.

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