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Coming to Terms With History: An Essay on Germany and the American South

ISSUE:  Winter 2000

1865. 1945. Two wars. Two defeats. And memories that linger, that fascinate. One might expect that a war that came to an end 55 years ago (let alone one that ended 135 years ago) would have long since ceased to hold sway over the imaginations and emotions of so many. And yet, Civil War reenactments and documentaries, historians’ debates about slavery and its implications for contemporary race relations, as well as controversies over Confederate symbols keep this past very much alive. Similarly, as the debate over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit has demonstrated, as discussions about current German/Japanese attitudes toward both the Second World War and the ceremonies commemorating the end of that war have revealed, and as concerns about the nature of those ceremonies and the meaning of the Holocaust for us today have shown, our emotions are still very much in play and the experience of war continues to inform much of our public and political discourse.

But for Germany and the American South in particular, the experience of war—of defeat and the corollary moral onus of guilt—appear to have left deeper marks. Their fascination with that experience seems to go deeper than the purely historical. It is driven by more than simple curiosity. It transcends any merely academic desire for objective clarity about the historical record and longs for more than a purely factual examination of the past. It is more akin to an obsession, born of a kind of desperation.

Both Germans and Southerners have in common a strong desire to explain—sometimes to justify—their peculiar historical personae, to both the world outside and (more importantly) to themselves. They seek to prove to themselves and to others that their respective pasts can be understood and even be made into a useful component of their contemporary identities.

In reflecting on their respective pasts, both Germans and Southerners have thus become inadvertent intellectual allies. They have come to share an inner need to investigate, interpret and—to whatever extent possible—define their own identities through the prism of their particular historical experiences. Though they are each, at times, tempted to escape from the implications of their respective histories, or at least to attempt to lessen the burden associated with it, they are nonetheless unceasingly aware of the problematical character of the history they each have to bear.

In his examination of the Southern literary tradition, Tell About the South, Fred Hobson has spoken of a “Southern rage to explain,” by which he means the literary effort to come to terms with the moral legacy of slavery, the Civil War, and defeat. By the same token, one could just as well speak of a postwar German (at least West German) “rage to explain,” of an effort to come to terms with the meaning and consequences of war, defeat, and, especially, of the Holocaust. It is possible that this insatiable search for propitiation through history is, in part at least, an expression of a yearning for the intellectual and spiritual peace that comes of a calming self-satisfaction with one’s own history, a generally affirming confidence and commitment to one’s past. But for Germans and Southerners, this sort of historical self-assurance has always been undermined by a deeper historical self-consciousness. The sort of peace sought is never quite achieved with any sense of finality. The past constantly intrudes on the present. And thus both Germans and Southerners are repeatedly thrown back on their individual histories, locked in an uneasy fascination with themselves that never passes away.

How, then, are we to explain this preoccupation with the past— and, in particular, with a specific segment of the past? Part of the answer may lie in the nature of the wars in which each engaged and, especially, in the consequences of defeat. It has often been said that the victors write history. As a result, the defeated are frequently left with a great deal of explaining to do. For many of those involved, both the war against the Confederacy and the war against Nazi Germany became contests between two fundamentally opposing ideologies—slavery vs.freedom—or, for some, an even more elemental conflict between good and evil. The consequences of being on the wrong—or losing—side of such an issue were, therefore, considerable indeed. Defeat implied more than merely military collapse and subjugation. It meant moral condemnation.

As each conflict became invested with the character of a crusade, the focus of the campaign eventually shifted from a clash of armies to a struggle against an entire population, against the enemy society itself. Total war came to describe the nature of the struggle as war dragged on into its most destructive final phase. Persisting defiance and resistance on the part of both Germans and Southerners— continuing until long after all hope of victory (or even of a successful defense) were dashed—exasperated and angered their adversaries to such an extent as to provoke them to intensify their efforts to make the enemy feel the sting of war. Just as it was Sherman’s goal to make the price of continued war-making so dear as to become unbearable and thereby break the the bonds of loyalty between the enemy populace and its leaders, so too was the Allied bombing campaign against Germany aimed at breaking the enemy’s willingness to suffer and thus his will to make war. Importantly, it is this latter period of each war—the campaigns of Sherman and Sheridan in the South and the Allied air war against Germany—that is recalled with the greatest bitterness and resentment by the defeated peoples. And it was this phase of the wars that became the source of lingering ill will and historical rancor toward the victors.

Moreover, there was something of the notion of collective guilt, or at least collective responsibility, implied in this strategy. Parallel to and feeding the total nature of the conflict there was developing the notion that in order to root out the sources of the conflict (of the evil itself), and thus prevent the possibility of future war, the very structure and institutions of the South and of Germany, the social and political fabric itself, had to be remade. Neither Sherman nor the Allied war planners were much interested in broad theories about the nature of social cohesion. They were simply interested in the effectiveness of the tactics they employed. Nevertheless, there was to arise (indeed it formed a basis of the interpretation of enemy motivations and actions) the conviction that the Southern/German societies—their very social and political orders—were flawed, degenerate, evil and thus in desperate need of change lest the threat of conflict one day flare again. This became one of the guiding analyses of the root causes of the war and also the intellectual/philosophical basis for policies and programs promoted by some at war’s end (i.e. during Reconstruction/Occupation). The burden of guilt thus became the price of defeat.

It was this interpretation of the causes of conflict which chafed at both Southern and German sensibilities, and which most gave momentum to their urgent need to explain. Recent debate in Germany, for example, has focused on the question of whether the end of the war should be interpreted to mean the “liberation” or the “defeat” of the German people. It is a debate that attests to an ongoing ambivalence about their national experience and a reluctance to accept the consequences of guilt. Even though the Germans were prepared at the time to accept the material fact of military defeat, they were not prepared to accept the charge of social degeneracy implied by postwar occupation policies or subsequent historical interpretation. Having been saddled with the burden of guilt and the mark of banishment, they sought as best as possible to limit their culpability, to separate themselves from it by placing blame elsewhere, and thereby retain or regain a sense of honor and respect. Similarly, the South satisfied its own longings for self-respect and historical absolution by attempting to decouple the “Southern cause” from the issue of slavery.

As part of this effort to rebuild a sense of dignity, both were reluctant to accept the link between those who fought—the common soldier—and the cause for which they had fought. To spare the moral integrity of individual soldiers and citizens, the respective regime was made to bear complete responsibility for the tragedies of war. Fighting became separated from purpose. Defeat came, according to the rationalizations of the vanquished, as a result of the sheer overwhelming numbers of the enemy and was not due to any lack of valor on the part of the individual soldier, nor to the relative ability of the foe. Moreover, both Germans and Southerners turned the charges against them on their heads by transforming their own alleged depravity into a kind of dogged sense of superiority. Just as Southerners clung to the notion—in defeat—that their society embodied the best that the nation had to offer, so too many Germans adhered to the belief that, despite everything, theirs was still one of the greatest, most noble cultures that civilization had to offer.

By separating the conflict from the cause, the Civil War became a free-floating symbol, readily serviceable to most any need that arose after the end of the war. The Germans—because of the magnitude of the crimes committed by them or under their command (or perhaps because the world was simply less willing to let them off the hook)—were less able to separate the war from its source. But while their war may have been a less useful instrument in postwar causes than the Civil War became for the South, it was no less powerful as a kind of negative ideal, as a potently effective symbol of what should be avoided in the future. Reaction to the crimes that were associated with the German war became the source of a new social/political identity for some—of a new political agenda—as Germans sought to shape a new Germany that would embody a rejection of all that Nazi-Germany had represented: militarism, aggression, racism, and oppression. For some postwar Germans, even the so-called bourgeois morals (i.e.order, discipline, punctuality, industriousness and the like)—all of those Teutonic virtues so often associated with Germany—had come to be so tainted by the Nazi experience that they too would come to be viewed with some measure of suspicion and disdain, as elements of a proto-fascist mentality that must be guarded against.

While many in Germany (and in particular the intellectual caste) tended to view the past as an anachronism, as a warning to flee from, the South, on the other hand, tended to view its own past in a more idealized fashion, as an anchor to provide stability and order in the midst of confusion brought about by political, social, and economic change. Yet both saw themselves, in other words, as having been assigned a special mission, a special role to play in history. Both attempted to turn defeat into a virtue, to demonstrate how defeat could build character.

The South took an almost perverse delight in using its past to craft a positive self-image, or at least what it took for such. Germany’s National Socialist past, by contrast, had been consumed in the flames of the Third Reich. It was no longer viable as a historical object suited for national self-identification because of its intimate connection to the Holocaust, So while the South glorified its past, using it both to provide an anchor in the face of contemporary challenges and as a source of the kind of criticisms of industrial society expressed by the likes of the “Agrarians,” the Germans instead rejected the past, except as a warning to the future, and sought to use the past as a kind of anti-model in an effort to reshape postwar Germany into a modern progressive state at home (but which, interestingly enough, also contained an element critical of modern industrial society) and a model of virtue in the international arena.

Both the South and Germany shared the view that their historical experiences—in particular as defeated enemy nations and moral outcasts—provided them special insight into world affairs and allowed them to see through the moral facades that nations erect to obscure their true intentions and motivations. Their peculiar perspectives, they felt, set them apart from those around them, and especially from their former adversaries. Indeed, they derived a certain sense of moral superiority from their interpretation of historical experience, one not at all devoid of a measure of nationalistic sentiment (and a particularly ironic development for the self-described anti-nationalist Germans). Both seemed to be saying, first of all, that no outsider could be fully capable of understanding what they had suffered as a people, so no outsider could possibly be in a position to pass judgement on them—to judge their conduct or, more importantly, to appreciate the specific circumstances of their actions. Only those who had similarly fallen from grace, then, could comprehend what it meant to be on the wrong side of an issue, and only they possessed the special understanding that came of the experience of suffering and sin. Thus the Germans’ and the Southerners’ tendency to view political (and especially international) developments less in positivistic than in normative terms was born of an almost religious sense of being part of history’s select—an exclusivism that sometimes expressed itself in a newfound postwar sense of moral superiority and righteousness. Through sin and punishment, each might well say, both the South and Germany acquired the depth of perception and the moral judgement that allows them to see with more clarity moral defects in others as well as to more fairly judge moral conduct in the world in general.

While this may be maddeningly galling to others, there is clearly an appreciation for the foibles of history and a skepticism about the perfectability of man. Evident in both Germany and the South, for example, is a shared undercurrent of suspicion directed at the idea of progress. In Germany, this suspicion is directed primarily against material progress and the social reasoning that supports it. In the South, on the other hand, a bed-rock conservatism in which the concept of individual sin still influences all interpretation of human nature and prospects of human progress, concerns about progress are instead directed at the notion of social progress and projects aimed at the general betterment of the human condition.

Still, like the sinner turned desperate evangelist, the heart of the German/Southern matter centers around a deeply felt defensiveness and a corresponding desire to reclaim a role in political affairs and a position of respect in the larger community. It was not until these goals had begun to be achieved that the South and Germany were finally able to begin coming to terms with some of the darker, more troubling aspects of their respective histories. The return of Germany to a position of (at least partial and, some would say, quite considerable) power and influence was not altogether unlike the South’s eventual, though somewhat more delayed, return to a central position at the controls of power in Washington. Both sought earnestly after a return to normality and explicitly rejected political experimentation. The clarity they had sought in political and cultural conservatism may have been comforting for a time to peoples yearning after stability, order, and a new sense of self-respect, but the defensiveness that lay behind it hindered them from an honest discussion about the past, forcing elements of that past to be projected into contemporary affairs, distorting and misdirecting political and social responses to newly arising challenges.

One could well speculate that it was not until the 1930’s, 40’s or even 50’s, with the appearance of the Southern Literary Renaissance and the coming to power of Southerners of national political significance, that the South finally began to feel secure enough to begin to step out of the shadows of its own past and to begin facing up to the challenges of the present. The process proceeded somewhat more apace in Germany, encouraged by a considerably faster recovery and return to the center-stage of world importance, but the evolution seems to have run along similar lines.

Still, the memory of defeat dies harder than that of victory. The shared fascination with the past meant that both Germany and the American South approached new challenges while continuing to hearken back, in one sense or another, to a common experience of defeat, ostracism, and moral stigma. Each had, in turn, to prove itself to the world at large: the South had to prove its patriotism, its allegiance to the nation as a whole, while Germany had to prove its peaceful intentions, its suitability for full membership in the community of nations.

Coming to terms with the burdens of history implies more, however, than merely tallying up good and bad behavior. Some of the more problematical implications of this process may be more contradictory and complex than it may at first appear. In the South as in Germany, defeat placed everything in question, it demanded justifications, verifications, a closer examination, and careful explanations. It placed the defeated on the defensive and so forced them into a position that the victors did not (yet) have to face. This is not to imply that the South or Germany were unable to come to terms with losing the war; that fact was rather quickly accepted. But defeat did force them both to face the past and the future with different perspectives than the victors were allowed to enjoy. Their fascinated ambivalence toward the past led to the curious and contradictory combination of fatalism and activism that has characterized much of their behavior.

Despite their resentment of the onus of defeat and moral culpability, however, and irregardless of their open and often repeated rejection of the victors’ “way of life,” both Germany and the South had a deep and abiding desire to rid themselves of the stigma of the past, to once again become part of the dominant culture, so to speak, or at least to have the sense of opportunity and control that acceptance would bring. The lingering wounds of defeat, on the other hand, kept them eager to expose the missteps and shortcomings of their former conquerors. The South remained anxious to show the Union that it did not possess all the answers to society’s ills. Germany was keen to demonstrate that the United States was not the repository of all virtue. Each, in its own way, sought to shape a future for itself based on what it took to be the remaining elements of a still “usable past.”


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