July 31, 2008

The latest issue of The American Conservative (July 14) includes a provocative symposium on whether World War II should be considered “€œthe good war”€ and, no less significant, whether Winston Churchill deserves the adulation that the media have accorded him as “€œman of the century.”€ The contributions are all well documented and boldly framed, and it would be hard to find a passage in any of them that seems stereotypical or not worth stating. Of the published commentators I personally learned the most from Christopher Layne and Michael Vlahos. Both make useful observations that Churchill’s most lasting achievements have yielded dubious benefits. These results include by now outmoded rules of statecraft that have sometimes been applied indiscriminately, and what became the authorized narrative for The Second World War, Churchill’s multi-volume text which continues to shape the popular perception of the last European war. The conclusion that Layne, Vlahos, and several of the other contributors suggest, is that for all his talents and his willingness to stand up to Hitler, Churchill might have left behind a troubling legacy, and particularly for those who are unwilling to assess his catastrophic mistakes and self-interested historiography.

More troubling for me than these commentaries are Scott McConnell’s introduction, or, to be more accurate, his concluding remarks. There Scott expresses the probable views of his esteemed former professor Fritz Stern. For those who don”€™t know, Stern is the New York Times‘s favorite German historian and his intellectual historical study The Politics of Cultural Despair remains a classic for politically correct, antinational Germans. In line with his mentor’s spirit, Scott offers this portentous lesson from the German imperial past:

Look instead [of to the Munich meeting in 1938] to German conduct in the prelude to the First World War, when the Reich, the most powerful state in the world, felt itself encircled, while its military and diplomatic leaders grotesquely exaggerated the threats they faced. If Germany didn”€™t confront tsarist Russia then, the opportunity would be lost: preventive war was the much-discussed option. Learned men in the thrall of worst case thinking were blind to the ways Germany’s outward thrusts of power were perceived by others.

Scott ends his somber reflection by expressing this pious wish: “€œWe might pray that analogies to Wilhelmine Germany never fit too well.”€

The problem with these warnings is they have no real connection to the present American situation. Moreover, they don”€™t even offer an accurate picture of Germany’s political and military history a hundred years ago. The U.S. is far more powerful economically and militarily than any other world power, and it was on the verge of becoming this by 1914, as British historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in several of his books. Incidentally, in 1914 Germany was not the “€œmost powerful state in the world.”€ The U.S. was already overtaking it industrially and had a far greater military potential, and because of its navy and overseas empire, England enjoyed a power comparable to that of Wilhelmine Germany, which had only recently forged ahead of England industrially. Until the eve of the Great War, when the Germans worked to increase the size of their army, France had a land force that was numerically comparable to Germany’s. Because of the foolish distraction of its naval buildup, which intensified the anti-German animosity of Churchill without allowing the German Empire to get ahead of England as a naval leader, imperial Germany thrust itself into harm’s way.

The German government’s fear of being encircled was anything but “€œgrotesquely exaggerated.”€ Since the 1890s France and Russia had built an alliance that was aimed at the Germans and Austrians; and as late as the summer of 1914, the Russians and English, as German historian Egmont Zechlin has documented in detail, were negotiating a naval alliance that was emphatically directed at the Germans.

No one is claiming that the last German emperor was a skilled or prudent diplomat. His intermittent bluster, maladroit attempts at playing off the British against continental powers, and his naval build-up, which Wilhelm presented as a defensive measure but one which understandably unsettled the English, all serve to underscore his lack of diplomatic finesse. But the Germans were not alone in that department. Most of Europe’s prominent statesmen in the years preceding World War One seem to have been almost equally tactless. Wilhelm exemplified the political style of Europe’s major powers in his age, a widespread flaw that contributed to the Old World’s undoing. While the German emperor did his share of mischief, given the location of his country and the recentness of Germany’s rise to world power, there is abundant evidence of hasty, bombastic speech among his opposite numbers elsewhere in Europe.

Anti-German German historians Fritz Fischer, Immanuel Geiss, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Wolfgang Mommsen, and Fritz Stern have all focused specifically on German diplomatic faux pas in the early twentieth century. These critics then undertake to link these real but exaggerated blunders to some peculiarly Teutonic “€œculture of illiberalism.”€ Because of its undemocratic, sexist, patriarchal and nationalist culture, we are told, Germany’s bid for power in the twentieth century became an inevitable development. This perspective assumes a causal link between an ominously depicted social culture and exclusive responsibility for the disastrous conflict in 1914. But it is not clear why the Germans”€™ failure to move toward a currently enshrined liberal model would create the necessary conditions for a German bid for world conquest in 1914 or the atrocities of the Third Reich. It is even hard to show that the Germans in 1914 were more anti-Jewish than most of their European neighbors, a contention that most German Jews of the time would have vigorously disputed.

Indeed this view of a German “€œspecial path”€ into modernity is based on a special German provincialism, one that has caused anti-German historians to treat as peculiarly and dangerously Teutonic what were European-wide values a hundred years ago. German society in 1900 looked much more like French or English society than like our own late modern one.  Moreover, there was nothing peculiarly German about the lack of measure shown by the Germans in dealing with other European powers. Churchill was at least as truculent in his statecraft as the German executive before the First World War, and he represented a country that has been generally spared the critical responsibility its leaders had for the magnitude of the war that broke out in 1914.

Of course we are talking here about the war that no one wanted, that is to say, not in the destructive form in which it came. Most European statesmen of the time had nothing against some limited hostilities to achieve their geopolitical ends, and since they could not imagine the possibility of the bloodbath unleashed, they were willing to pursue their parochial advantage through military means. The French were more than open to a struggle against Germany during the two Balkan Wars, but they expected the Russians to do the fighting for them. Once the Germans and Russians had proceeded to take up arms against each other in the east, or so went the desired scenario of French ambassador to Russia, Maurice Paléologue, French troops could then enter the struggle from the west, by occupying Alsace and Lorraine, the two provinces that France had lost to Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

Despite their impetuousness, however, early twentieth-century European leaders might have been less, not more, prone to rhetorical excess than the present US leadership. With due respect to Scott, it does not seem that U.S. is now inching slowly toward the noisy boastful example of imperial Germany. The Kaiser’s speeches about Germany’s right to “€œa place in the sun,”€ meaning a few colonies in Africa, sound almost schoolmarmish, when compared to W’s sweeping references to an American imperial mission, as set forth in his Second Inaugural and fifth State of the Union addresses. In these elocution exercises, our president explained that we could only be a moral nation, by bestowing our form of government on the rest of the world. W’s would-be successors Senators McCain and Obama are planning to bestow on the world more of the same, McCain by creating a Union of Democracies, which, for all we know, may be the neocon equivalent of the Warsaw Pact, and Obama by sending our inspectors across the globe to make sure that elections in foreign countries occur “€œdemocratically.”€

In Germany the Kaiser received from the Reichstag sharp reprimands in 1908 for saying stupid things about the German navy to the British Daily Telegraph, in an interview in which the German ruler asserted that his navy was being expanded to counter Japanese expansion in the Far East. German elected officials thought that Wilhelm, who was then ineptly trying to appease British public opinion, had spoken indiscreetly, and his subjects didn”€™t hesitate to let him know. In our country, by contrast, the president receives congressional applause when he rhapsodizes about universal crusades for democracy.

I wish that someone could explain to me why our leaders are thought to sound more prudent when they talk about Weltpolitik than did the architects of imperial German foreign policy. Moreover, if one reads the collected speeches of American religious leaders about our providential role on the eve of America’s entry into World War One, speeches that are cited at length in Richard Gamble’s The War for Righteousness, European jingoist rhetoric produced by Wilhelm or Churchill pales by comparison. None of this Old World bluster even approximates the millenarian lunacies exhibited by Wilson’s clerical cheering gallery.

But the difference is the U.S. can afford to be righteous and arrogant without having to pay the price that Europeans did in 1914. Our economic and military strength, our isolation from other lesser powers, and by now the clear disparity between our menacing moralizing and the limits of what we can actually accomplish by force all protect us against our folly. We are fortunate not to have to operate in the narrow spaces and almost claustrophobic diplomatic circles in which European tensions festered at the beginning of the last century. Our present leaders can afford to sound obnoxious in a way that Europe’s political actors in 1914 could not. That having been said, it does seem a bit much to dwell on the verbal intemperateness of a particular German ruler a hundred years ago. What does the New Testament say about the beam in one’s own eye as compared to the mote in someone else’s?        


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