A spot of cultural history for a Thursday evening: Wolfgang Schivelbusch examines how modern western societies have responded to being on the losing side of wars in the frequently fascinating but not completely convincing The Culture of Defeat: on national trauma, mourning, and recovery (2001 in German; 2003 in English, translated by Jefferson Chase). As can often be the case with cultural history, Schivelbusch mixes neat, nuanced and multi-faceted case studies with massive sweeping generalisations about human experience. Happily, the latter mostly comes in the introduction, and so is soon dispensed with.
But before we reach the interesting stuff we must wade through newspaper-soundbite prose ("Defeat follows war as ashes follow fire. At the heart of both defeat and war lies the threat of extinction...") and a sprinkling of slightly cringeworthy pop-psychology. Discussing what might be characterised as the stages of grieving with regards to defeat, Schivelbusch outlines how societies move from initial shock and despair to a sort of rebirth in the desire for revenge and/or the colonisation of the moral high ground. "To see victory as a curse and defeat as moral purification and salvation," he says, "is to combine the ancient idea of hubris with the Christian virtue of humility, catharsis with apocalypse." So far, so fine; however, this is particularly appealing to the intelligentsia, he continues, because:
To see one's own father-ruler overpowered by another is invariably a source of satisfaction. Indeed, the sons' vision of liberating the mother-nation - a stage of the dreamland state - transforms the fathers' defeat into the sons' own victory.
'This is so because FREUD'; always my favourite sort of historical explanation. Alternatively, we might - okay, I might - suggest that the notion of purification appeals to the country's intelligentsia above others because they were the ones with the wherewithal to spend time sitting down and thinking about it and coming up with self-justifying myths to assuage their wounded manhood, whereas maybe everyone else was too busy clearing up the rubble, growing food for the next year, or simply being dead. If indeed it does appeal to them more than anyone else, and it's not just an historical accident that we happen to know what the intelligentsia was thinking, because they were so keen to tell us, and did so in ways that are more likely to survive to the present than, say, the thoughts of the ordinary man or woman.
Similarly, Schivelbusch's argument that defeat is uniquely shocking to the people on the home front - as opposed to the people who are actually defeated, i.e. the soldiers - is superficially compelling. "The intensity of the shock increases in direct proportion to the distance from the actual site of defeat", he suggests, because the people at home can fool themselves into believing they can't lose much more readily than can someone who is on the front line. But it's hard to share Schivelbusch's apparent conviction that this is a universal truth (or that 'home front' is an especially meaningful phrase before nationalism), rather than an observation most pertinent to the context of the 19th/20th century. His corrective to the notion that only with the advent of total war in the 20th century were civilians directly affected by warfare is, however, a useful one; that said, his suggestion that the 19th century was a historical anomaly in this regard, because it was a period in which wars all took place far away and the consequences of defeat affected soldiers alone, only makes sense if you assume that there were no civilians in Africa or India.
The most interesting aspect of the introduction, and it is this which carries through into the rest of the book, is the way that defeat in battle can bring about sweeping - and often very welcome and necessary, if traumatic at the time - changes back home.
The deep and widespread depression caused by lost wars in the age of nationalism is as obvious as the joyous public celebrations of the victorious ones. It is all the more surprising, then, how briefly the losing nation's depression tends to last before turning into a unique type of euphoria. The source of this transformation is usually an internal revolution following military collapse. The overthrow of the old regime and its subsequent scapegoating for the nation's defeat are experienced as a kind of victory. [...] For a moment, the external enemy is no longer an adversary but something of an ally, with whose help the previous regime and now deposed system has been driven from power.
Schivelbusch is much more interesting - and, at least for this reader, on much more solid ground - when he turns to examine particular examples of this last piece of analysis. He does this through three detailed case studies of social, political and cultural responses to military defeat: the American South after the Civil War; France after the Franco-Prussian war of 1870; and the inevitability that is Germany after World War I. The idea that the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany was a direct response to its humiliating and economically-devastating defeat in WWI will not be novel territory for anyone who has studied history in a UK school in the past half-century or so. What is useful about Schivelbusch's account, however, is the way he sets 1918-33 in a broader cultural context, both German and - looking back to his previous two studies - French and American. In many ways, the seeds of Germany's inability to regroup and recover after the 1918 defeat were planted in the Prussian victories of 1870; the German armies of WWI were "heirs to and prisoners of a heroic past", a nation built on an inflexible - and until then highly successful - military culture that had as yet no narrative to explain and cope with defeat.
This offers Schivelbusch considerable scope for comparison with the French and the American situations. I was particularly taken with the section on the American South, because it's a period I know little about, and yet one which clearly still animates much of the politics of the US today. Schivelbusch begins by setting out the plain fact of the cost in human lives of the Civil War. Casualties numbered 620,000, which he glosses as 2% of the white population of the US, which makes me wonder a) where are the figures for non-white casualties and/or the total population of the US, and b) given how racial categories have shifted over the past 150 years, exactly what does 'white' mean in this context? More specifically, he notes that 20% of the white male population of the defeated South were killed, the sort of casualty levels that suggest most families would have been very directly affected by the conflict.
The outline of the contrasting cultures of the northern and southern US is fascinating - the one all about industry and Puritanism and labouring for a living, the other all about gilded leisure while others (slaves) do all the work, although with an overlay of romaniticised militarism that would prove important both during and after the war. Through the writings of the period (newspapers, pamphlets, sermons, novels), Schivelbusch details how the South's response to defea - and to the humiliating punishment subsequently imposed by the victors, in the form of the Reconstruction - was transformed from baffled rage and scapegoating to an astonishingly complex mythology of victimhood and self-aggrandisement. The idea of the Lost Cause was a potent one: this portrayed the Southern fighters as brave rebels, seeking to defend a superior but doomed civilisation against the cheating Northerners who stocked their unreasonably large armies with - horrors! - immigrants and suchlike. The South's suffering was reconfigured as something sent by God as a test and thus a proof of his love; although they had lost the war, they were the true victors, ennobled by their affliction and by the fact that they weren't going to let any uppity Northerners tell them they couldn't be as racist as they pleased.
The South's conviction that it wasn't really defeated, at least not in the ways that mattered and certainly not by an enemy fighting fair, has clear parallels with post-1918 Germany, whose 'stab in the back' narrative - the idea that Germany only lost because the generals and/or the Jews sold the country out - proved so politically useful for those who wanted to challenge the unstable status quo. Defeat as a temporary thing, a test sent by God to separate the chosen true believers from fair-weather this-worldly types, is a trope that goes back much further - it's a common response among Near and Middle Eastern Christians communities during the seventh-century Muslim conquests, for example. It goes hand-in-hand with both monotheism - how, otherwise, can you account for being beaten by people who aren't following the One True Way? - and the idea of history as a finite thing that will very soon end, preferably with the Kingdom of Your Particular God On Earth and the fiery doom of all those horrible peoples who were briefly so smug about having defeated you. Sucks to be them, or it very soon will be, any day now. It's a coping mechanism.
After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, France went through a similar cycle of grief - shock, anger, revenge, self-congratulation - but in a rather more dramatic way; in 80 pages we take in the Paris Commune, rampantly romanticised medievalism, bizarre sporting crazes, and a considerable degree of lashing out at the even-less-fortunate (Jews with German names, North Africa) in an effort to feel powerful again. The way the frustrations of defeat lead French society to turn on first itself (in the bloody suppression of the Commune, and anti-Semitism towards Jewish citizens) and then others (through North African colonialism) is well drawn, and goes a long way towards turning the episode from something to be seen in purely military terms, or at most as a chapter in Franco-German relations, to a cultural event with implications that go far beyond French borders. We are shown the Communards, for example, being described as "the scum of the earth" and their post-war uprising as "the most despicable crime imaginable", all in service to a horrific act of revenge that uses them as a proxy for the real enemy:
The Paris Commune - the living, breathing ideal of heroic resistance - was a profound irritant to the officers, who had proved unequal to the German challenge. Their humiliation sealed the Commune's fate and determined the way in which it was destroyed - not in a surgical, professional military operation but in a bloodbath, as the army sought to drown the memory of its defeat.
Here Schivelbusch is not so deft at weaving everything together into a coherent cultural whole; the writers upon whom he draws sometimes feel quite disconnected from each other, perhaps because (as he notes) the French had a much longer and consequently more diverse and multivalent cultural history to look to for their symbolisms and their explanations. Joan of Arc, Roland, the Catholic Church, Marianne: all of these and more were at French writers' disposal when they sought to express who they were and why they were totally better than those cold, mechanical Prussians who'd had the temerity to beat them in battle. (Here, again, we see a society turning a military defeat into a moral victory: if winning requires giving up who we are, then we don't want to have won, anyway.) In places, Schivelbusch goes a bit off the wall in his drive to link everything that happened for forty years back to 1870. Thus, the humble bicycle is all about trying to escape the memory of being a defeated nation:
As already observed, the French between 1980 and 1914 favoured machine and motor sports rather than purely physical games [...] the velo (bicycle) most vividly represented a synthesis of man and machine, in which the two worked together, enhancing each other. The popularity of bicycles in 1890s France [...] can perhaps therefore be understood as a collective longing for release from the laws of the physical world.
Well, quite. Flights of theoristic fancy aside - or possibly even including them - this is a stimulating book.