Sunday, August 26, 2007
An Abusive History Lesson
I am a firm believer in the value of history. History is an essential tool to understanding our world and a knowledge of history put s us in a better position to shape our destiny. Those who are ignorant are indeed dangerous leaders. To me it is becoming more apparent that George Bush Jr. is a man without history, or worse, a man with a malicious understanding of history.
Bush's speechwriters understand tyhe emotive power of history. In his address last week, they used it as Pericles used his funeral oration, to draw political strength from soldiers who fell in battle and cannot speak for themselves. In the midst of this speech, comparing the Iraq War to Vietnam, he uses as his most dramatic point another historic element: The Stabbed In The Back rhetoric of Weimar politics. If you don't unquestionably follow my commands, says Bush, you will be betraying our soldiers in the fields. Their death will be on your hands!
As the United States staggers past the fourth anniversary of its misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being perpetuated. To understand just how this strategy is likely to unfold - and why this time it may well fail - we must turn to the birth of a legend.
This is an excerpt from an article published in 2006 in Harpers Magazine by the historian, Kevin Bacon:
"The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation's stunning defeat in World War 1. It was Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, "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 disingeniuous. The "English general" in question was one Major General Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forth this suggestion merely to poliitely summarize how Field Marshall Erich von Ludendorff - the force behind Hindenburg - was characterizing the Germanarmy's alleged lack of support from its civilian government.
"Ludendorffs's eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone," wrote Hindeburgs biographer, John Wheeler-Bennett. "Stabbed in the back?" he repeated, "Yes, that's it exactly. We were stabbed in the back."
Ludendorffs enthusiasm was understandable, for, as he must have known, the phrase "dagger thrust" had been popularized almost fifty years before in Wagner's Gotterdammerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siefried, is fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillian, Alberich."
That the German Army had been "stabbed in the back" by the nations civilian leadership was an outright lie. The military had established a dictatorship by the last years of WW1. Nevertheless, leaders like Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized it was a powerful tool which could be wielded to hold liberals at bay and silence them.
Very few commentators have recognized of spoken of the obvious moral bankruptcy of Bush's speech. One did and he recognized the manipulation at its core of the theme that was used to murder democracy in Weimar Germany. It was not a liberal, interestingly enough, buut the conservative, Andrew Sullivan in his analysis in The Atlantic:
"To place all troops into the position of favoring one strategy ahead of us rather than another, and to accuse poliitical opponents of trying to "pull the rug out from under them," is a, yes, fascistic tactic designed to corral political debate into one possible patriotic course. It's beneath a president to adopt this role, beneath him to coopt the armed sevices for partisan purposes. It should be possiible for a president to make an impassioned case for continuing the his own policy in Iraq, without accusing critics of wanting to attack and betray the troops. But that would require class and confidence. The president has neither."
Donald Rumsfeld appeared before a few veterans groups about this time last year and gave speeches using the terms "appeasement", "Munich" and "1938". This malicious misuse of history seemed to be as bad as you could get, but this goes much further. The peculiar argument that Bush used and wants to make into a theme was used to demolish a democracy and install a totalitarian dictatorship.
Weimar fell because it was a democracy with too few democrats committed to its survival. Too few citizens had the courage to speak up for the values of a democratic state. That is the lesson of Weimar Germany we cannot afford to forget!
This post first appeared on The Men With Muckrakes, August 25, 2007