Can Germany Be Counted on to Fight Fascism?

News Abroad

Mr. Herf is Professor of History at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Zweielerei Erinnerung: Die NS Vergangenheit im geteilten Deutschland (Berlin: Ullstein/Propylaen, 1998).

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We’re all familiar with the variety of short-term explanations for Germany’s opposition to the war in Iraq. These stress that above all opposition was due to rejection of the policies of the Bush administration, its alleged unilateralism and advocacy of preemptive war linked to a political discourse laden with religious overtones that does not fit into the disillusioned mentalities of post-twentieth century Europe. Yet there are longer term issues, issues of deep seated political culture that these kinds of explanations fail to grasp. Hence, the central question I want to address is the following one: Why, after over a half century of public reflection about “coming to terms with the Nazi past” did a left-of-center German government refuse to participate in and then oppose a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq?

To pose the issue in this way does not assume that Saddam Hussein was identical to Hitler or that his regime was a carbon copy of Nazi Germany. It does assume that a combination of ideological legacies rooted largely in Europe’s twentieth century totalitarian era-- of French fascism, elements of Nazism, and Stalinism–laced with indigenous currents of Arab nationalism shaped the Baath Party and regime. It assumes that Saddam’s record of foreign policy aggression and miscalculation, his determination to accumulate weapons of mass destruction and his links to international terrorism combined with vast resources of oil posed a grave present and future threat to the Middle East, the United States and to Europe. Advocates of Germany’s position argued that inspections, containment and deterrence had and would keep Saddam in check and that American policy would only inflame rather than defeat the terrorism inspired by Islamic radicalism. My core thesis is that German opposition to the Iraq war lies in an inadequate and partial understanding of the meaning of armed anti-fascism, of how and why Hitler was in a position to start the Second World War and in a failure to grasp the relevance of debates over preemption and appeasement in the 1930s for the Iraq crises of the last decade. As a historian of Germany’s often impressive efforts to confront the criminality of the Nazi era, I have found its policies of 2002/03 profoundly disappointing.

The lessons and memory of the Nazi past divided not only between West and East Germany. Within West Germany, they also divided between conservatives and Social Democrats or rather between conservatives and the majority of Social Democrats. The dominant tradition of the party by far remains rooted in the moods and language of Willy Brandt’s Detente policy. Helmut Schmidt, who was one of the initiators of the NATO decision to deploy intermediate range nuclear weapons in Western Europe and open negotiations with the Soviet Union over reducing or eliminating these weapons, lost support in his own party over this issue. In place of Schmidt’s blend of traditional realpolitik and diplomacy, the SPD’s foreign policy thinking became dominated by Brandt and his foreign policy adviser Egon Bahr. Gerhard Schröder emerged from the majority wing of the party which had opposed the euromissile decision.

The key lessons this wing has learned from the Nazi past are those enshrined by Brandt’s speeches and essays of the 1970s. German foreign policy is “peace policy.” It’s main tasks should be overcoming the legacies of Nazi aggression, reconciling with neighbors and former victims, opposing arms races and restricting the German military to one task and one task alone: deterring an attack on Germany and defending the country if it is attacked. During and after German unification, these valuable Brandtian themes continued in the diplomacy of Helmut Kohl and Hans Dietrich Genscher who were fully aware of the need to reassure Europe that a unified Germany would not, as Jay Leno put it, go on tour again. Rather it would be a European Germany in a unified Europe. So what began as the message of Social Democratic message of the 1970s became conventional wisdom across the political spectrum. Yet, as Hans-Peter Schwarz noted in a penetrating essay of the 1980s, these valuable and praiseworthy aspects of the political culture of Detente could lead to neglect of the continuing realities of power politics and could thus become a source of “paralysis” in German foreign policy.

During the battle over the euromissiles, lessons of the Nazi era divided neatly on political lines. With a few exceptions, it was conservatives who applied the lessons of Munich and the dangers of appeasement to the need to deploy the missiles if the Soviet Union refused to dismantle its medium range nuclear arsenal. Joschka Fischer, then a new member of the Green parliamentary faction, compared the logic of Western nuclear deterrence to the same “logic of modernity” that had led to Auschwitz. The by then post-modern West German left saw the root of Nazi criminality in an instrumental rationality common to both the Nazi regime and to American nuclear strategy. Fischer, Otto Schilly, then still a member of the Green Party, and the majority of Social Democrats in the Bundestag rejected arguments made mostly by West German conservatives that the lessons of the 1930s might apply to the Western left’s rejection of the NATO decision. Moreover, both due to the 1960s new left, the discourse of Detente and the memory of Nazi war on the Eastern Front in World War II, opposition to a hard line rooted in anti-communist or anti-Soviet sentiment was widespread among West German liberals and leftists in response to Carter’s human right campaign and the Reagan administration’s hard line.

Yet in 1998 and 1999 during the Kosovo crisis, it appeared that a rubicon had been crossed and that the memory of Nazism in German left-of-center politics assumed a new and diametrically opposite meaning. The novelist and essayist Peter Schneider, Green politician in Frankfurt/Main, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, singer and essayist, Wolf Biermann, and now Germany’s Foreign Minister Fischer all connected the memory of the Holocaust to the need for a German armed anti-fascism and thus for NATO’s military intervention in the Balkans to put an end to Serbia’s campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass murder. For the first time in postwar German history, liberal and left-of-center actors connected support for Western and American military intervention to the discourse of anti-fascism.

The East German government, of course, had spoken the language of anti-fascism for half a century. Yet its version of anti-fascism associated the United States as the main threat, obliterated the distinctiveness of the German past in generalizations about capitalism and fell into moral disrepute as a German state which supported the Arab wars against Israel. Without the resources of a national government, the radical left in West Germany had spoken in similar terms. Fischer’s advocacy of German military intervention in the Balkans, albeit late and limited as it was, suggested that memory of the Nazi past in contemporary German politics no longer led necessarily to pacifism, a refusal to use Germany’s armed forces to defend human rights in Europe. Perhaps most importantly, this apparent crossing of the rubicon during the Kosovo crisis suggested that Fischer and other left-of-center figures took seriously the idea that totalitarian regimes and movements could emerge in the present and that Germany’s abstinence from the use of force left the field open to ruthless tyrants.

So, I confess, after this turn during the Kosovo crisis, I was surprised that Schröder adopted his unequivocal “no” to a war in Iraq, even if supported by the United Nations Security Council. I was disappointed that Foreign Minister Fischer went along with the Chancellor. The case for invading and overthrowing the Iraqi regime was a much more difficult one to make than was intervention in Kosovo. For a German politician to make that argument a next step in the reflection on the Nazi past was necessary. Chancellor Schöder was perhaps intellectually incapable and politically opposed to doing so. His more reflective and thoughtful Foreign Minister was unwilling to do so. Doing so required making the very arguments which Fischer had denounced in the Bundestag in spring 1982.

These arguments would focus on the dangers of appeasement, the need for preemption against an arming dictatorship, and the regrettable necessity at times for a shorter and less costly war in the present to forestall a larger and more disastrous war later. They would require a willingness to use words like “fascism” or “Stalinism” or “totalitarianism” or even a contemporary hybrid of nationalism and socialism to describe the Iraqi regime. They called for thinking about the arsenal of weapons such a regime with vast reserves of oil would sooner or later certainly be able to accumulate. Doing so required the ability to make a case about the dangers which a regime with a record of miscalculation and barbarism would pose not only to the United States or Israel but also to the other states of the Gulf region and also to Germany and Europe itself. It required the ability to think about the Iraqi mixture of totalitarian dictatorship and weapons of mass destruction, and of its reactionary modernist synthesis of political irrationality and modern technology.

One of the most startling aspects of the German opposition to the war with Iraq was that the impulse to refrain from the use of force so often attributed to criticism of Cold War anticommunism and rooted in memories of Nazi Germany’s war of extermination against the Soviet Union persisted even in the face of the first regime since the fascist and Nazi era to combine these political traditions with the possibility of accumulating weapons that could threaten both Europe and Israel directly. Objectively, that is, in terms of its consequences regardless of intentions, Gerhard Schröder adopted a policy of anti-anti-fascism or anti-anti-totalitarianism.

The argument I am making about the importance of historical traditions and memory in the Iraq crisis finds confirmation in the contrasting British policies articulated by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Minister Jack Straw (as well as by the leaders of Poland and other countries of Eastern Europe). Blair, by far the most articulate and convincing advocate of the war on either side of the Atlantic, did so with the cadences, discourse, logic and arguments derived from Winston Churchill and George Orwell which had been passed on by an intact and proud liberal intellectual and political establishment evident in the Churchill biography of one of Blair’s political mentors, Roy Jenkins. A full appreciation of Churchill and Orwell has yet to enter into German political culture. Indeed, a full appreciation of Franklin Roosevelt would be good medicine for American political culture as well. None of the leading Democratic candidates for president, or the leaders of the Democratic Party in Congress spoke with Blair’s passion and clarity, nor do I recall any of them evoking the memory and policies of Franklin Roosevelt and the proud traditions of the Democratic Party in the war against Nazism and fascism. The editorial pages of the Washington Post and the pages of the New Republic were considerably ahead of the left-of-center political leaders in this regard. As Blair and Straw found their voice in the traditions of Churchill and Orwell, so American liberals will hopefully find similar sustenance in evoking Roosevelt, a president whose legacy has been strangely absent in the recent public discourse of the Democratic Party.

The task for German liberals in this century, as the great German historian of Nazism Karl Bracher noted several decades ago, is to make clear that the totalitarian impulses of Europe’s mid-century did not disappear from world politics but have resurfaced in the previously romanticized places in what used to be called the third world. It will be a while before such inclinations become widespread in Germany. In the short term, I suggest that American liberals remind our German friends, in as civil and friendly a way that we can, that Germany missed its opportunity to support the first war to overthrow a government with significant residues of the fascist and Nazi past since 1945. Germany remains our firm ally but how firm and how reliable in the next crises remains to be seen. Yet what other country in Europe knows more about totalitarianism, the threats it poses and the successes and pitfalls of its overcoming than Germany? One hopes that the thaw in American-German relations signaled by Secretary of State Powell’s visit to Berlin this week continues and that it is accompanied by reflection on the implications of facing the Nazi past for ongoing policy.

In our country, if American liberal politicians want to have a snowball’s chance in hell to win the election of 2004, I suggest that they refresh their knowledge of Franklin Roosevelt’s diplomacy and war-making and remind American voters of the internationalist traditions of the Democratic Party which he established. There was, and there remains nothing conservative or neo-conservative about Roosevelt’s war-making and diplomacy. Today, the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism, as Tony Blair understood, stand in a proud and grand British and European secular tradition of armed anti-fascism and anti-totalitarianism. American policy in postwar Iraq has, as we all know, gotten off to a rocky start. It is in the interest of Germany and Europe that the United States and Britain, with eventual assistance from the United Nations, succeed in establishing a successful democratic government in Iraq.

The lessons of the successful Allied occupation of post-Nazi Germany apply to our current problems. As the Allies did in postwar Germany and Japan, we need to win the peace as effectively as we won the war. We need to: restore law and order, establish security and end looting; crush the Baath Party completely; hold extensive trials dealing with the crimes of the past government; prevent the former Baathists from insinuating themselves into the new regime; and devote enough resources and stay in Iraq long enough to see that a democracy emerges and that the doubters and critics around the world are proven wrong–yet again.

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Elia Markell - 6/2/2003


I cannot imagine what in my posts would lead you to suppose I was not incensed at the failure to remove Saddam in 1991. Powell, in particular, was at fault for this. But I doubt you are correct about the claim it would have been less destructive of America's international reputation had we violated the UN resolution we were under then and marched triumphantly to Baghdad. And spare me any side-splitting suggestions, please, that had we done so, those who take the U.S. to task for its past support for Saddam would today be praising us for climbing out of bed with the dictator then instead of now. After all, the French were in bed far more thoroughly then, got in even deeper later and were so to the end, and yet are actually praised by America's critics for this complicity. If another word besides "hypocrisy" exists for this double standard, I can't think of it -- another failing perhaps of my being a "non-historian," I guess (though how you would know that escapes me.)

Albert Madison - 5/30/2003

Elia Markel writes of the "the hypocrites who supposedly DID want to take him on" (Saddam) until they had an actual chance to do so -- and who then butted out totally".

He neglects to name names and dates. This is a common oversight made by the many non-historians who populate HNN.

The best "actual chance" of removing Saddam came in 1991. It could have been done then at a vastly lower cost of Iraqi lives, devastation to the Iraqi economy, and destruction of America's
international reputation and national security, than what has been inflicted upon us in recent months.

The people who "butted out totally" in 1991 were Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and George H.W. Bush. To be sure, you can't blame the current president for what happened and didn't happen in 1991. He was no doubt busy doing other things at the time. He was Researching pretzels, maybe, who knows ? You certainly CAN point the finger at the advisors and officials who are really running things in Washington today and ask some questions about shame and levelling with the American public.

Assuming historical truth is what you are interested in.

Elia Markell - 5/30/2003

Well, it's true you never said any of the things you say you never said. And I never said you did say them. OK?

The phrase "American left" hardly hardly seems empty to those who are on it and who identify themselves as on it regularly, proudly, endlessly. Legitimate arguments about what it is and what it ought to be can be advanced. But to pretend the term itself is empty and mindless is absurd. Perhaps your opposition to it is an instance of the near universal refusal of liberal Democrats to call themselvers "liberals" anymore. I consider myself close to being a liberal in the tradition from FDR and Truman to Scoop Jackson, to some of those at the New Republic, and to people like Shelby Steele or the late, great Mike Kelly, etc. -- which means those who self-identify as the "American left," tend to see me as a protofascist conservative sell-out.

As for your gripe against "the hypocrites who refused to take [Saddam] on for 23 years," I can only marvel, to repeat, at how little you to want to gripe about the hypocrites who supposedly DID want to take him on for 23 years until they had an actual chance to do so -- and who then butted out totally.

Albert Madison - 5/30/2003

Elia Markell is full of words I never said and opinions I never uttered.

I am not a member of the "American left" whatever that mindless and empty phrase means, I never expressed opposition to capitalism, I never stated that Germany did not have a unique experience with totalitarianism, and I have never said it was wrong to "take on" Saddam.

My gripe is against the hypocrites who refused to take him on for 23 years and who now seek to blame Germany in order to cover up their hypocrisy (or who pretend that their knowledge of German history alone suffices to explain why Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have unique experiences with international unpopularity).

Albert G. Madison

Elia Markell - 5/30/2003

This post misses the key point Herf makes, that Germany has a unique historical experience and responsibility with respect to fascist totalitarianism. That Baathist Iraq was a fascist and Stalinst totalitarian state, and a great danger to the entire region, is simply obvious. Germany should have stood against Saddam and led the way in undoing him.

Mr. Madison also vastly overstates worldwide opposition to the war in Iraq, conveniently forgetting for example the strong support by those Eastern European nations with a good memory of totalitarianism. Elsewhere, as well, many other governments, with a wink and a nod to their pacficist and appeasing publics, were quite glad to see us do the dirty work. The fact that these nations AND their publics exhibit no seriousness about providing for their own defense and no readiness at all to dispense with the convenient U.S. shield provided them, is evidence of how thin and unserious their "anti-war" sentiment really is.

Mr. Madison also illustrates the way an utterly irrational and blind hatred of George Bush clouds the American left's understanding of its duty, which first and foremost is to issue a clarion call to the West to stand against fascism and related forms of totalitarianism. The left once was ready to put aside its opposition to democratic capitalism to do this much more important duty. It has apparently forgotten it now. Instead, we have Mr. Madison employing the standard left trope of refusing to take on Saddam now because the U.S. refused to take him on before. Two wrongs do not make a right, even when different subjects practice each wrong.

Albert Madison - 5/30/2003

Professor Herf certainly knows his German history well. Maybe he now should devote a little time to reading the daily newspapers.

The German governments and most other governments in Europe were solidly behind the U.S. government's involvements in the Gulf War, in Kosovo, and in Afghanistan. As everyone (except maybe Bush for Election in 2004 speechwriters) knows well, only Britain was substantively behind Mr. No-Nation-Building George W. Bush in the recent war to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and Al Qaeda havens.

Herf's valid insights about German history are useful, and interesting, and of almost no relevance to the question of why Germany and nearly every other country in the whole world was reluctant to jump into an unprovoked war to depose a dictator supported or tolerated in power by America for 23 years, just because Perle, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Rumsfeld suddenly and arrogantly told them they had to.