This Time It's the Democrats Who Mistakenly Want to Return to Normalcy

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Ms. Klinghoffer is a senior research associate in the department of Political Science at Rutgers University, Camden. She is the co-author of International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences. Click here for her HNN blog.

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History may not repeat itself but the 1920 Republican election slogan “Back to Normalcy” seems awfully apt as a 2004 Democratic one. Then the question was the American commitment to making Europe safe for democracy. Now, the question is the American commitment to making the Middle East safe for democracy. Then as now, the stakes are nothing less than an unknowable number of lives. Then as now, partisan politics prevents opinion makers from articulating the stakes in a forthright manner. Then the debate focused on the collective security clause of the League of Nations. Now, it deals with the absence of WMD in Iraq. In both cases, the obfuscation of the real stakes is aided by a presidential reluctance to level with the people. Then, rightly or wrongly, the election sent Europe the message that America will not be there to help the democracies if they got into trouble. Now, a Democrat victory may send a similar message to the Middle East . Indeed, failure to make clear to the world that the commitment to democratize the Middle East is a bipartisan one, may just end up making the twenty-first century not only as unnecessarily violent as the twentieth had been but, given the much greater destructive potential of today's weaponry, much more so.

In 1919 Winston Churchill, the most far sighted politician of the twentieth century, warned that if “the Bolshevist tyranny” was not stamped out there would be “a union between German militarism and Russian Bolshevism . . . which would be unspeakably unfriendly to Britain and to the United States and France, and to all that those free democracies stand for.” It makes little difference whether he had in mind a rise of National Socialism or a Nazi-Soviet pact. It is much more important to realize that Churchill feared then what Bush fears now, the potential combustibility of the mixing of an aggressive militaristic autocracy with a hostile radical ideology. It should not be forgotten that since the thirties Sunni Arab nationalists, including military officers, have long considered Iraq as the Prussia of the Arab world. The country destined to unite the Arabs from the Atlantic to the Gulf through the ruthless use of military force.

It was the increasingly greater and greater mixing of Iraqi militarism with Islamism that kept George W. Bush, and not only him, awake at night. It should not be forgotten that just as George H. Bush considered Saddam's militarism dangerous enough to cross the ocean to block, Woodrow Wilson considered the Kaiser's militarism important enough to jettison his campaign promise and send American boys to war. Note the following August 19, 1919 White House conversation between Wilson and Senator McCumber as reported by Henry Cabot Lodge:

Senator McCumber: Do you think if Germany had committed no act of war or no act of injustice against our citizens that we would have gotten into this war?

The President: I do think so.

Senator McCumber: You think we would have gotten in anyway?

The President: I do.

In other words, Wilson 's entry into World War I was not any more motivated by unlimited German submarine warfare than Bush's war on Iraq was motivated by WMDs. Why was Wilson so intent on preventing a German victory? Perhaps because he received unsettling reports of German atrocities and, even more freighting, reports that German war aims were being actualized. An example of such a report can be found online under the misleading title An Account of Germany's Treatment of Poland by U.S. Member of Commission to Poland, Frederick C. Walcott. That report deals not only with atrocities German committed while executing their Schrecklichkeit (frightening the population into submission Germany developed in Africa) policy but also their “ethnic cleansing” one. Walcott reported:

Even now I find it hard to describe in comprehensible terms the mind of official Germany, which dominates and shapes all German thought and action.  Yet it is as hard, as clear-cut, as real as any material thing.

I saw it in Poland , I saw the same thing in Belgium, I hear of it in Serbia and Rumania.  For weeks it was always before me, always the same.  Officers talked freely, frankly, directly.  All the staff officers have the same view. . . .

"Starvation is here," said General von Kries. "Candidly, we would like to see it relieved; we fear our soldiers may be unfavourably affected by the things that they see.  But since it is here, starvation must serve our purpose.  So we set it to work for Germany.  By starvation we can accomplish in two or three years in East Poland more than we have in West Poland, which is East Prussia, in the last hundred years.  With that in view, we propose to turn this force to our advantage."

"This country is meant for Germany," continued the keeper of starving Poland. "It is a rich alluvial country which Germany has needed for some generations.  We propose to remove the able-bodied working Poles from this country.  It leaves it open for the inflow of German working people as fast as we can spare them.  They will occupy it and work it." . . .

In Belgium, General von Bissing told me exactly the same thing. "If the relief of Belgium breaks down we can force the industrial population into Germany through starvation and colonize other Belgians in Mesopotamia, where we have planned large irrigation works; Germans will then overrun Belgium .  Then when the war is over and freedom is given back to Belgium, it will be a German Belgium that is restored.  Belgium will be a German province and we have Antwerp -- which is what we are after."

“At the bottom,” President Warren Harding argued, “the people desire a return to common sense. They are tired of viewing rainbows and soap bubbles.” But Wilson was no more motivated by rainbows than Bush is. “It took me a long time to believe it,” he said. But the Progressive elements within Germany were “too small a minority to have any influence . . . on the people as a whole.” So, until German democratization takes hold, American guarantees were needed to prevent a repeat of German aggression. He told the senators that if Germany had known that the U.S. would enter the war on the side of the allies “she never would have dared to do what she did.” Hence, an American commitment to act in concert with the allies in case of a German attack would serve “to steady” Europe and with it “the whole world.”

Whether a more forthright president could have sold collective democratic security to the American people is unclear. It is clear that had he been more forthright, Republicans then and pundits since could not have tarred him as a hopeless idealist for failing to understand that German autocracy was the magic pill needed to contain “the Red Menace.” Nor could the Leftists tar the Versailles treaty as “victors' justice” thereby undermining the legitimacy of the Weimar republic in the hope of hastening the rise of a Communist Germany. Similarly, had George W. Bush laid out the American strategic interests in getting rid of the Iraqi Kaiser, his Democratic opponents could not have been able to challenge his credibility or term the removal of Saddam as inherently “unjust.” Nor could the Rightists use the serious difficulties of postwar democracy (not nation) building to counter the very idea that freedom can thrive in Arab Prussia and urge for a return to the policy of supporting “our bastards.”

If history is written by the winners, then Imperial Germany was the victor of the First World War. They won because historians decided that the war was A March of Follies, a war lacking a moral purpose. This was achieved by downplaying, if not completely denying German atrocities. Despite public sentiment to the contrary, the Kaiser was permitted to live comfortably in the Netherlands free to celebrate the rise of Hitlerism and call it “a miracle.” Hoping to strengthen the Weimar Republic the allies turned over the responsibility of trying their marauding generals. The purpose, wrote the July 9, 1921 New York Times (quoting Le Temps) was to “convince the Germans that crime is bad business and that Generals a la Stenger will cost the German people dearly.” It failed. “What is serious,” argued the French Journal Des Debats, “ is that in the face of the whole world Germany should through the comedy of Leipzig give such an exhibition of Pan Germanism. . . . By the manner in which she conducted the war she (Germany) overturned all that civilization had done to limit the effect of war.” Berlin responded that the French complain because they wish to continue the military occupation of parts of Germany.

To their and our misfortune, the Germans won the debate. The debate over the morality and strategic importance of the war in Iraq is still ongoing though all too often Saddam Hussein is dismissed as just another “bad man” and his atrocities as irrelevant. Once again the coalition is about to turn over the conduct of war crime tribunals to a new democracy. This time the self appointed “heir of Nebuchadnezzar” will be on the dock and most of his victims were Iraqis. Still, only a bi-partisan American commitment to see the through the democratization of Iraq will prevent the post World War I scenario from the repeating itself.

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J L A Hartley - 9/23/2004

Dear Judith Apter Klinghoffer and All

Barbara W Tuchman was an excellent historian. There is no doubt at all that her allusions to German atrocities in Belgium in World War One are accurate and impartial. Her book The Guns of August (1962), published at the same time in England under the title August 1914, gives an utterly factual account of the first weeks of the War.

The only complaint I have against Mrs Tuchman is that she professed to have in front of her absolutely authentic references and sources for everything she recorded. She certainly gives a very copious bibliography at the end of her book, but she doesn't quote the exact words she relies on.

In consequence, I have searched in vain for some *German* use of the loaded word Schrechlichkeit in 1914 and before. She really ought to have given us the exact words where they are relevant and even crucial. Was the use of the exact word Schreckichkeit the original German word or was it an astute Allied propaganda trick?

As an aside, Mrs Tuchman's publishers, the Macmillan Company in the USA and Constable in the UK, forbade foot-notes and relied on end-notes, which presupposes that readers are octopuses.

If anyone can supply me with references for the formal, official use of the word Schrecklichkeit by the German authorities in 1914, I should be eternally grateful.

With best wishes

J L A Hartley


Jim Balter - 2/29/2004

Ms. Klinghoffer's argument is like that of Velikovskyists
who argue that Wegener and Jastrow was derided, Wegener
and Jastrow were right, Velikovsky is derided, therefore
Velikovsky was right. If her argument about Iraq could
stand on its own legs, she wouldn't have to go on about
Germany. *Valid* analogies are those in which the
similarities are self-evident, and so the logic of one
must attach to the other. Analogies which attempt to
attach the attributes of P to Q simply by force of the
truth of P are invalid -- they are nefarious rhetoric.

Michael Edward Piston - 2/29/2004

Ms. Klinghofer thinks it was a mistake to let the Germans try their own war criminals and so it would be a mistake to allow the Iraqis to try theirs. However, the vast majority of the war crimes were committed by the Ba'aths against the Iraqis themselves. The major foreign victims of Iraqi war crimes, the Iranians, are unlikely to wish to see the Americans vindicate their rights. Perhaps the Kuwaitis would, but the crimes against Kuwait are small indeed in comparison to those committed against Iraqis and Iranians. The German war crimes in World War I were committed against Allied population, therefore providing the Allies with a basis for trying them if they chose to. It is an analogy which is inapplicable to Iraq.

Michael Edward Piston - 2/29/2004

There is no reason why an Islamic state should be inherently any more hostile to the U.S. than a secular one. In Iraq there are numerous Muslim parties which are friendly to the U.S., such as al-Dawa, (Iraqi)Hezbollah and the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). If they and others decided to form a government with the Sharia as its Constitution and the mullahs as its judges, precisely in what way would that be threatening to the U.S.? Certainly the fact that a state is secular in nature is no guarantee it would be friendly, as can be seen from the examples of Syria and (formerly) Libya and Iraq itself.

Michael Edward Piston - 2/29/2004

Ms. Klinghofer thinks it was a mistake to let the Germans try their own war criminals and so it would be a mistake to allow the Iraqis to try theirs. However, the vast majority of the war crimes were committed by the Ba'aths against the Iraqis themselves. The major foreign victims of Iraqi war crimes, the Iranians, are unlikely to wish to see the Americans vindicate their rights. Perhaps the Kuwaitis would, but the crimes against Kuwait are small indeed in comparison to those committed against Iraqis and Iranians. The German war crimes in World War I were committed against Allied population, therefore providing the Allies with a basis for trying them if they chose to. It is an analogy which is inapplicable to Iraq.

Johnny Ramburg - 2/28/2004

The majority of Iraqis are shiite muslims. If the occupying powers hold elections, it is quite likely that the Iraqis will elect leaders who will establish an Islamist state similar to fellow axis-o'-evil member Iran. How does this make the world or the U.S. more secure and why is such a transition worth billions of dollars, thousands of lives and who knows how many blown off appendages?

Robert F. Himmelberg - 2/25/2004

Regarding the Klinghoffer argument about Wilson's motivation for entering the war and his conceptions about post-war security, I simply would like to note the relevance of the recent, and I think very well argued and supported article in Diplomatic History by Ross A. Kennedy, "Woodrow Wilson, World War I, and an American Conception of National Security."

With Klinghoffer, I too think Bush should level with the people and explain better (some not very successful and lamentably partial tries have been made)the real reasons for the war and the occupation. A difficult sell however, given that success in Iraq is problematical and Americans may be in no mood to accept foreign projects that are expensive and where certain success is not within immediate grasp (though, in fact, they have supported such projects in the past, such as the recnstruction of Europe, etc.). Nor, given the present climate in which many Democrats are playing to disillusion with the failure to find WMDs, would it be easy to renew a broad support for the legitimacy of the war and the recnstruction program.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/24/2004

This piece strikes me as a little breathless and overdrawn. The United States' occupation of Iraq is hardly comparable to the massive and drawn out war of nation states against nation states in WWI. Nor would the "democratization" of Iraq necessarily preclude horrors yet to come -- that is unless you are quite confident that democracies commit no horrors. I doubt that.

Judith Apter Klinghoffer - 2/23/2004

Your impression is the problem. Historians now admit that it was NOT overstated! Read Barbara Tuchman's latest book.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2004

I was under the impression that reports of German atrocities in WWI were grossly overstated, but that might be just on the Western Front.

I think the odds of democratization happening in Iraq are much greater if the Bush administration is under serious electoral pressure, and I think it's foolish to assume that Democrats would be any worse at fomenting democracy in Iraq than the Bush administration has been. The best thing that could happen to Bush, with regard to his historical legacy, would be to lose the election and let his successor deal with the violent hangover.