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In the darkest days of World War II, in early 1942, both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill went before their people and gave them a straight account of the struggle they faced. They called for resolve and commitment. But they never understated the challenge ahead. How different are the speeches of America’s self-anointed “war president.”
Yesterday President Bush delivered what was billed as a “major speech” in which he drew heavily upon history—particularly upon his generation’s war, the one in which he declined to serve—to justify his leadership perks. It was an astonishing performance that merits some careful review. After a long and historically dubious narrative of American involvement in foreign conflicts—from World War II, to Korea, to Vietnam, he comes to a rhetorical landing on the current struggle in Iraq:
Today our troops are carrying out a surge that is helping bring former Sunni insurgents into the fight against the extremists and radicals, into the fight against al Qaeda, into the fight against the enemy that would do us harm. They’re clearing out the terrorists out of population centers, they’re giving families in liberated Iraqi cities a look at a decent and hopeful life.
Our troops are seeing this progress that is being made on the ground. And as they take the initiative from the enemy, they have a question: Will their elected leaders in Washington pull the rug out from under them just as they’re gaining momentum and changing the dynamic on the ground in Iraq? Here’s my answer is clear: We’ll support our troops, we’ll support our commanders, and we will give them everything they need to succeed.
I am a firm believer in the value of history. As Schiller said, in a sense everything that we are today, all the challenges before us, and all the opportunities, can only be explained on the basis of the history which has led up to this moment. History is an essential tool to understand our world and a critical knowledge of history puts mankind in a better position to shape its destiny. Those who are ignorant of history make bad, indeed dangerous leaders. And it’s increasingly apparent that Bush is a man without history; or worse still, a man with a malicious understanding of history.
Bush’s speechwriters clearly understand the emotive power of history. In this address, they use it, as Pericles used his funeral oration, to draw political strength from soldiers who fell in battle and who cannot speak for themselves. But deep in this speech, indeed at its very point of catharsis, lies another historical element which should not go unrecognized: it is the stabbed-in-the-back rhetoric of Weimar politics. If you don’t unquestioningly follow my commands, says Bush, you will be betraying our soldiers in the field. Their death will be on your hands. The audacity and hypocrisy of these words is thundering.
In an important article in the June 2006 Harper’s, Kevin Baker furnished a memorable history of the “stabbed-in-the-back” theme, a staple of rightwing fringe politics around the world since 1919. And indeed, Baker launched his article with a prediction:
As the United States staggers past the third 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 return to the birth of a legend.
Bush’s speech yesterday marks the realization of Baker’s prediction: the dagger is drawn and is being wielded, by Bush himself. Here’s a brief bit of Baker’s comprehensive history, which makes for compelling reading:
The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation’s stunning defeat in World War I. It was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, “As 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 disingenuous. The “English general” in question was one Maj. Gen. Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forward this suggestion merely to politely summarize how General Erich Ludendorff—the force behind Hindenburg—was characterizing the German army’s alleged lack of support from its civilian government.
“Ludendorff’s eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone,” wrote Hindenburg biographer John Wheeler-Bennett. “‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.’”
Ludendorff’s enthusiasm was understandable, for, as he must have known, the phrase already had great resonance in Germany. The word Dolchstoß—“dagger thrust”—had been popularized almost fifty years before in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siegfried, is fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillain, Alberich.
The entire notion that the German army had been stabbed in the back by the nation’s civilian leadership was an audacious lie. In fact the German military had firmly established a de facto dictatorship over the country by the last years of the war, the parliament has been emasculated and the civilian leadership had been whisked from power. Nevertheless, leaders like Hindenburg and Ludendorff realized that it was a powerful political tool which could be wielded to silence political liberals and hold them at bay. They assumed, correctly as it turned out, that the liberals would view the military as sacrosanct and would refrain from criticism of them.
Very few commentators today have recognized the moral bankruptcy of Bush’s speech. One did, and he recognized in its core the manipulation of the time-worn theme that was used to murder democracy in Weimar Germany. Interestingly, it’s not a liberal, but a conservative who makes the point: Andrew Sullivan. From his analysis today at The Atlantic:
To place all the troops into the position of favoring one strategy ahead of us rather than another, and to accuse political opponents of trying to “pull the rug out from under them,” is a, yes, fascistic tactic designed to corral political debate into only one possible patriotic course. It’s beneath a president to adopt this role, beneath him to coopt the armed services for partisan purposes. It should be possible for a president to make an impassioned case for continuing his own policy in Iraq, without accusing his critics of wanting to attack and betray the troops. But that would require class and confidence. The president has neither.
Last year, Donald Rumsfeld appeared about this same time before two veterans organizations and gave speeches talking about “appeasement,” “Munich,” and “1938.” The malicious and historically uninformed nature of his remarks could not, I thought, be topped. I was wrong. The resort to the “stabbed in the back” argument reflects the worst sort of political bottom fishing. It is the sort of thing a democratic leader should never do. We should all keep in mind the peculiar provenance of the argument that Bush brandished yesterday and promises to make into a theme: it was used to demolish a democracy and to introduce a totalitarian dictatorship. Weimar fell because it was a democracy without enough democrats committed to its institutional survival. Too few of her citizens mustered the courage to stand for the basic values of a democratic state. And that is the lesson of Weimar Germany which we dare not forget.
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“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds.”