This review originally appeared at The Guardian.
Martin Woollacott enjoys Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s fascinating account of how defeat has shaped the modern world, The Culture of Defeat
The Culture of Defeat
by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, trans Jefferson Chase
Defeat is a concept that, with the related idea of decline, is almost too useful in comprehending human affairs. To take a few examples at random, where would our understanding be of the mentality of the modern Arab world, the origins of the apartheid state in South Africa, or the stance of postwar Germany, without reference to the lost wars that so clearly shaped all three? The campaign in China to stop the harping on about the country’s “150 years of shame and humiliation” since the early 19th century is another case of defeat as a sculptor of national character. China now wants to leave defeat behind, to stop thinking like a historically injured party and start thinking like the great power she believes she has become.
Defeat in modern western history is the subject of this book, but the implications are global. The reaction of other civilisations to western victories is, after all, at the core of most interpretations of world events over recent centuries and indeed of most interpretations of today’s international politics. We use it especially when we “explain” Islamic fundamentalism in terms of a response to the long-term decline of the Muslim world.
Yet the concept of defeat as a driver is too often a broad brush, and the great virtue of Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book is that it so elegantly measures and elaborates the ways in which defeat has affected particular societies. What it shows is how much of the life of nations is a dream life, whether that is manifest in the intoxication of victory, in the production of excuses to explain defeat, or in the search for remedies to reverse it. We are taken to a place where rationality and irrationality are mixed in a proportion of one part to three or more. It is a place where the political and intellectual energies of a people are largely devoted not to establishing the facts that led to defeat or to fairly apportioning any blame, but to the working up of fantasies and fictions. The first reaction of France to defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 was, Schivelbusch tells us, to “invent an alternate, more comforting reality” in which, somehow, it had not actually lost but merely suffered a reversal. But it is more than comfort that is at issue here, rather a way of preserving the national idea and national self-esteem, whatever the costs to oneself or to others.
Schivelbusch also examines how the American south coped with defeat in the civil war and in what fashion Germany survived the collapse of its armies in 1918. In each case, the same constellation of notions emerges. Traitors and scapegoats play a part, but there is also the more fundamental thesis that something fine was defeated by something gross. In the US, southern chivalry supposedly went down before the north’s butcher-shop efficiency, a mere application of factory skills to the battlefield. French ésprit in the Franco-Prussian war was crushed by the rote discipline of the Germans. And in the first world war, the Germans lost because their European opponents, on the point of being beaten, “unfairly” brought in the Americans, bringing to bear on one country the might of nearly all the advanced industrialised world. Then there is the thesis that defeat purifies a nation, while victory puffs up the winner, brings countervailing forces into play, and prepares his downfall.
In the extremity of defeat, nations draw on their past history and on the literature that has informed their understanding of themselves. Sometimes what they need is at the front of the cultural cupboard, like the Walter Scott obsession that helped sustain the belief that the south was a land of aristocrats and gentlemen, like Victor Hugo’s argument that France was another word for civilisation, or like the Nibelungen drama from which the Germans drew their 1918 metaphor of “the stab in the back”. Sometimes the useful items are at the back of the cupboard. Joan of Arc, Roland and Vercingetorix, all hardly known in France before 1870, were rescued from the memory hole by a nation that needed martyrs after the Prussian victory. Max Nordau found in Paris in 1881 “a kind of belief in the Messiah”. The politician who prospers in the aftermath of defeat is often one who can combine a rhetorical style that is entirely unyielding in its demand for the restitution of what has been lost with a practical realisation that its restoration is an impossibility. Leon Gambetta, whose private view was that “only madmen” could dream of attacking Germany to get Alsace and Lorraine back, was also an artist at keeping open the wound represented by the loss of the provinces. One might compare Yasser Arafat’s similar if less successful combination of essentially contradictory positions on the question of the return of Palestinian refugees.
The search for compensation for defeat often ends in an attack on third parties. The French army made up for its failures against the Prussians by slaughtering the communards, and the French state later found solace in conquering north Africans. The American south, consistently the most bellicose and military-minded part of the United States, as the American writer Michael Lind has argued, found a kind of satisfaction in the 20th century in its disproportionate contribution to the US armed forces in war after war. In the darkest case, the politicians who prospered as a result of defeat were Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Much about the Nazis, including their fascination with propaganda, their notion of national socialism as a continuation of war socialism and their cult of the soldier-worker, arose from the muddled theories of why the war was lost that were swirling around in the early 1920s. Their first target, of course, was another third party, the Jews.
Schivelbusch, an eclectic cultural historian who has written on such subjects as the impact of early railway travel and the spread of artificial light, has produced a stimulating and constantly suggestive book. The argument sometimes wanders, if always in a fascinating way, and the account of the various stages of the process of absorbing defeat is not entirely consistent from one case to another. But it is a book to make you think, and continue thinking, about how defeat conditions nations and profoundly influences the decisions of their leaders.
In a brief epilogue he muses on the defeat of the Soviet Union in the cold war, the implications of which are still being worked out. And, as a final touch, he raises the possibility that America’s reaction to the twin towers attack has been in part a response to its earlier, “forgotten” defeat in Vietnam. It is a thought to ponder as the United States and Britain struggle to achieve their objectives in Iraq.