Thursday, January 22, 2009

Meanwhile, Back in Germany...

What, meanwhile, of the Germans? Don't get me started!

Well, maybe I should get started, but I am really just working my way to the blog for Feb. 6, when the German National Constituent Assembly will be meeting (or at least did meet on that day ninety years ago) in the Stadttheater of Weimar. More on that for Feb. 6.

But a quick look at the background is necessary. Germany fought a long, hard war against many enemies, with the added privation of the Allied Blockade, which quite illegally interdicted food supplies from reaching the civilian population. Somewhere between 600,000 and 900,000 German civilians died from the effects of this "hunger blockade."

This is not to say that the Germans didn't commit illegalities and immoralities during the war. They did some bad things in occupied France, Belgium and Russia: forced labor, shooting civilians as spies, enforcing rigorous occupation regimes, etc. (though not the fantasies of the famous Bryce Report). The Germans also carried out a form of submarine warfare that was often illegal and immoral.

But both these terrible sets of things--from the previous two paragraphs--happened. If I point out the sins of one side, I am not thereby denying the sins of the other side, or sides. This is of course a fundamental perceptual problem of the violent century that has followed World War I: We tend to assume that all history consists of good guys on the one hand and bad guys on the other. Unfortunately, the way it has tended to work is that one "side" takes the form of a large, institutional collective entity which does bad things to a lot of individuals. And on the other side, a large collective entity does bad things to a lot of individuals.

True, from time to time neighbors have killed neighbors in this terrible century (see Jan Gross's book, Neighbors, for a horrible example). But mostly, the folks doing the killing, or ethnic cleansing, or whatever, are not wreaking some kind of personal vengeance, but a collectivist response. And vice versa. In fact, the bad guys seem to be pretty much on every side at some point.

Back to the Germans. They came close to winning in 1917. The Americans entered the war, the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war, and Ludendorff (chief of staff to Hindenburg, the commander, and both of them acting as virtual military dictators of Germany for the last two years of the war) decided to bring back as many troops from the Eastern Front as quickly as possible, train them in the most up-to-date tactics, and then unleash a huge spring offensive in 1918. The offensive began in late March, and it looked like the Allies had had it. The British commander, Haig, issued his famous "backs-to-the-wall" order, which sounded like someone who thought he was not going to win. But at the eleventh hour, the Americans shored up the gaps, halted the German advance, and began forming units to give new life to the Allied line. Indeed, with this new life, Haig counterattacked for the last hundred days of the war, pushing the Germans slowly back from their trench positions. Still, the Allies thought the Germans would hold out, and the Western Front was still, after all, on French and Belgian soil. But Ludendorff lost his nerve, and, practically hysterical, demanded the government to negotiate a cease-fire with the Allies.

So the Germans were defeated in the field. This is important. The German army was giving as good as it got (or better, according to Niall Ferguson) until the American units finally impacted (Remember the Third Division--Rock of the Marne!) the whole front. But in any case, the German army was defeated, not stabbed in the back.

Next--well, as I said, don't get me started. I will stop here. But stay tuned for the "Top Ten Events in the Tumultuous History of Germany Between October 1918 and February 1919."

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Design of a Violent Century by Hunt Tooley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.