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Snatching speculation from the jaws of defeat

The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Metropolitan Books: 416 pp., $27.50

August 03, 2003|John Lukacs | John Lukacs is the author of numerous books, including "At the End of an Age" and "The Hitler of History."

How do entire nations react to defeat? An interesting theme but perhaps not more interesting than how individual men and women react to their personal tragedies and how they try to recover from them. Some time during World War I, Marcel Proust wrote in a fragment: "The life of nations merely repeats, on a larger scale, the lives of their component cells; and he who is incapable of understanding the mystery, the reactions, the laws that determine the movements of the individual, can never hope to say anything worth listening to about the struggles of nations."

This sentence carries more truth than 10 rows of books by professors and think tanks in international relations. It also contains more truth than Wolfgang Schivelbusch's "The Culture of Defeat." Alas.

Schivelbusch is an extraordinary savant. Both the quality of some of his insights and the material quantity of his reading is astonishing, reminiscent of a few Central European thinkers of three or four generations ago. What he read, in three or four languages, is tremendous; moreover, unlike many scholars wishing to impress their readers, he uses his sources well; they are much more than referential footnote material.

Nonetheless "The Culture of Defeat" is a rich but unbalanced diet; it is recondite, sometimes obscure, a forlorn piece of work. Schivelbusch knows much of history, culture, society and psychology -- but, not unlike the work of some earlier and typical German thinkers, his accumulated treasure of information is a mortgage rather than an asset; it is vitiated by his speculative tendency, forced into the Procrustean bed of his thesis. How do entire nations react to their defeats? Schivelbusch hammers away at a few similarities from which he draws certain conclusions, but these, in spite (or perhaps because) of the immense material he gathered and presents, are, alas, unconvincing.

His book is composed of three prime examples: the American South after 1865, France after 1870, Germany after 1918. These are so different and random that they do not even fit his best generalizations. Why France after 1870? Why not after 1940? Each era saw a great shock of defeat, but the reactions of the French people in and after 1870 and in and after 1940 had very few elements in common. Why Germany in 1918? Why not Prussia after 1806; or Germany after 1945? Again, differences in those countries were startling, much greater -- and deeper -- than their similarities.

Schivelbusch, rightly, studied the psychic elements of events and movements: national myths, repressions of memories, etc. He knows much about the social, cultural and intellectual history of the American South before the Civil War, including, for instance, its cult-like passion for the novels of Walter Scott. Schivelbusch's evidences are rich, but his conclusions leak. A crucial summary sentence, forcing the South, France and Germany together, occurs on page 210: "Thanks to Wagner, Germany became Siegfriedland, just as the American South had become Walter Scottland and France Joan of Arcland." Not really. The cult of Scott in the American South occurred well before the Civil War, not after it, the opposite of what happened with the peak of the cult of Joan of Arc in France and of the Siegfried cult in Germany.

Or, he writes: "As the ideas of revanche and the Lost Cause have shown, martyr propaganda tends to be so obsessed with the bruised, deflated ego that little energy remains for more productive forms of regeneration." Not so in the history of the American South. Or, near the end of this book: "[A]fter forty years, no one had expected a decisive outcome of the Cold War." (Well, this reviewer had.)

"The Culture of Defeat" is so learned, so admirably researched, with many kinds of sparkling little finds amid its mass of notes (that, for example, the Tour de France was named after a famous French children's book). But, it is also so speculative, often debouching into nonsense. Yes, there was Americanization in Germany after World War I, an imitation of things American in many ways, but is it fair to say that, "like the consolation prize, the Girl took the place of the goddess of victory in the postwar German psyche"? Yes, there were many girls in Berlin (fewer elsewhere) who circa 1926 dressed and cut their hair like American girls; they were not Brunhilds -- but "goddesses"? My goodness: "The legs of the Tiller girls correspond to the working hands of the factory." And a few lines later: "The recontextualization of an enemy's defensive 'weapon' into a kind of trophy -- in this case an article of women's fashion -- follows the same lines as the social degradation of 'humiliation' of the dress of disempowered classes."

Say this again? Dancing in Weimar Germany occurs "when the 'original solipsistic stasis' of the ego is disturbed by external stimuli. The goal of dancing is to transform this condition of disruption/disease back into the original condition of stasis." Yes, as Yeats said, one cannot separate the dancer from the dance, but then the "goal" of dancing is dancing. Yet Schivelbusch's footnotes alone are worth reading; they reflect rather than merely demonstrate the immensity of his knowledge. At times their numbering is wrong, but this does not much matter. Like many of his footnotes, much of his book is worth reading -- or at least looking into.

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