I just finished reading the edited collection, Forever in the Shadow of Hitler: Original Documents of the Historikerstreit
and, with some irony
, my friend J and I spent part of the morning commute comparing the conservative German historians
' similarity to other conservative nationalists seeking to retain national pride in the face of horrific national histories in Japan
and the United States
If you're not familiar with the Historikerstreit
, it erupted over two significant events in the mid-1980s: one the visit of Ronald Reagan to the Bitburg
cemetery and two, the publication of an article by Ernst Nolte
which said, among other things, that Chaim Weitzman's declaration in 1939 that the Jews of Palestine would fight on the side of England in a war against Hitler meant that Hitler was rational in targeting Jews as political enemies and putting them in camps. Jurgen Habermas made the bold move of connecting the Nolte article to several other recent publications by conservative Germans and all of these to the rightward shift in German politics, known as the Wende
, and the indignant responses came next. Richard J. Evans, (who was more recently
an expert witness against David Irving at his libel trial), wrote an excellent brief summary
of the arguments that places them in the context of German post-war politics and the historiography of fascism. Particularly in reading Evans' summary of the work of Andreas Hillgruber on the German army on the Eastern front, my mind again ran to comparison.
Evans points out the problems with Hillgruber's representation of the German army on the Eastern front, drawing on the work of Omer Bartov
on the German invasion of Russia, which indicates that rather than behaving as simple patriots defending their country from fearsome Russian hordes, or acting with "realistic moral responsibility"(with greater realism than the members of the military who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the July Plot
of 1944) as Hillgruber argued, that the German army in the East behaved "with extreme brutality and barbarism to the Red Army...also laid waste whole areas of territory...and massacred or otherwise caused the deaths of millions of civilians as a matter of policy." (Evans, 60)
It was hard to read the conservative historians dubbing Hitler's aggressive war as a "preemptive attack" on Russia, without thinking of the rationalizations presented for the U.S.'s 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the name of preemption
, complete with its own fascist
terminology of "shock and awe." Reading about Germany's efforts to come to terms with its past, I began to wonder how history a hundred years from now will judge America and how my generation will fair, as we forwarded emails and updated our statuses on Facebook, but easily returned the focus to our personal lives or careers while our country went on committing horrors
in in our names
. Will the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan become, like the war in Vietnam, remembered as strategic blunders with American victims, rather than as shocking, horrific examples of military aggression
and war crimes
? Will any criticism of the war be diverted by a mythology
of the anti-war movement's betrayal of the troops? Today, our award-winning
films concentrate on the experiences of American troops, and try to show gritty
realism, but often wind up justifying aggression and even war crimes, and fail, as Nick Turse
points out, to show the other side of the U.S. war machine - the point of view of people whose countries are under attack. He writes,
Few Americans born after the Civil War know much about war. Real war. War that seeks you out. War that arrives on your doorstep -- not once in a blue moon, but once a month or a week or a day. The ever-present fear that just when you’re at the furthest point in your fields, just when you’re most exposed, most alone, most vulnerable, it will come roaring into your world.
Those Americans who have gone to war since the 1870s -- soldiers or civilians -- have been mostly combat tourists, even those who spent many tours under arms or with pen (or computer) in hand reporting from war zones. The troops among them, even the draftees or not-so-volunteers of past wars, always had a choice -- be it fleeing the country or going to prison. They never had to contemplate living out a significant part of their life in a basement bomb shelter or worry about scrambling out of it before a foreign soldier tossed in a grenade. They never had to go through the daily dance with doom, the sense of fear and powerlessness that comes when foreign troops and foreign technology hold the power of life and death over your village, your home, each and every day.
The ordinary people whom U.S. troops have exposed to decades of war and occupation, death and destruction, uncertainty, fear, and suffering -- in places like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- have had no such choice. They had no place else to go and no way to get there, unless as exiles and refugees in their own land or neighboring ones. They have instead been forced to live with the ever-present uncertainty that comes from having culturally strange, oddly attired, heavily armed American teenagers roaming their country, killing their countrymen, invading their homes, arresting their sons, and shouting incomprehensible commands laced with the word “fuck” or derivations thereof.
So perhaps U.S. patriots are not so far from Hillgruber in insisting on national identification with the average soldiers at the front regardless of their actions. I do not write this to say that the U.S. troops behaved like the German forces on the Eastern Front; of course there are significant differences. My point has to do with the nationalist impulse that insists on justifying or rationalizing the history of war in the name of preserving pride in one's national identity. As those on the left in the Historikerstreit
argued, the very fact of resistance even within the military itself indicates that there was more than one "German" point of view. Similarly in the U.S., soldiers and veterans continue
despite the cost to themselves. Rather than following the post-war Germans'call to rehabilitate the military's reputation and expunge national shame, it is long past time that we heed another German, Erich Fromm, who repudiated imperialist nationalism as an affliction crippling human consciousness:
The average man today obtains his sense of identity from his belonging to a nation rather than his being a 'son of man'. His objectivity, his reason is warped by this fixation. He judges a stranger with different crieteria than the members of his own clan....Nationalism...is our idolatry, is our insanity. Patriotism is its cult....that attitude which puts the own nation above humanity....Only when man succeeds in developing his reason and love further than he has done so far, only when he can build a world based on human solidarity and justice, only when he can feel rooted in the experience of universal brotherliness, will he have found a new, human form of rootedness, will he have transformed his world into a truly human home (from The Sane Society, 59-60)