World War II In The West's Political Imagination

Roundup: Talking About History

Christopher Caldwell, Financial Times (London, England), 18 Sept. 2004

For two weeks, German newspapers have been charting an approaching storm. Earlier this month, the ruling Social Democratic party saw its vote collapse to 31 per cent in regional elections in the Saarland, where scarcely a decade ago it was winning absolute majorities. More ominous still, the far-right German National party (NPD), which had won no measurable allegiance there since the late 1960s, narrowly missed winning seats in the state parliament, with 4 per cent of the vote. Clearly, many Saarlanders were outraged by the welfare reform package advanced by Gerhard Schroder, the chancellor. And some lurched to the xenophobic parties of the right.

In eastern Germany, where two more state elections take place on Sunday, the outrage is more severe and the lurch will be larger. According to Forschungsgruppe Wahlen, a German election-polling firm, the NPD is registering 9 per cent in pre-election polls in Saxony, while the equally hard-line German People's Union looks set to take 6 per cent in Brandenburg - both levels that would translate into ample parliamentary representation. This is leaving aside the Party of Democratic Socialism - the successor to the Communist party - which stands to win 27 per cent and overtake the SPD. Nothing is more novel about the upsurge of the right in Germany than the equanimity with which it is being received. In 1968, when the NPD took several dozen seats in a handful of regional parliaments, European observers anguished over the crisis. This year, the possible entrenchment of rightist parties in eastern Germany is taken seriously but not that seriously. In Germany, politicians themselves invoke the right's effect on employment as readily as they do the country's history. Mr Schroder was quoted in the Suddeutsche Zeitung as saying:"Anything linked to the brown (fascist) muck harms us, harms Germany and really harms us with foreign investors." Everywhere else, the German elections are fighting a losing battle for news space with the elections in the US.

If the world can take such an electoral realignment in its stride, part of the credit is due to the achievements of German democracy since the second world war. But there is a larger development at work: the war is losing its grip on the western moral imagination. Until very recently - and certainly as late as the Kosovo war - the second world war supplied European and American thinkers with their benchmark for the progress of civilisation, their criteria for acceptable and unacceptable statecraft and their rationales for military intervention.

At times the reliance on mid-20th century frames of reference was simple-minded. Lazy thinkers would resort, in any argument, to what Leo Strauss, the political philosopher, called the"reductio ad Hitlerum", flinging the epithet"fascist" indiscriminately at politicians from Margaret Thatcher to Silvio Berlusconi. But the war did provide a roster of evils - dictatorial states, mass intolerance, racism and anti-liberal ideologies - that the west could unite in condemning.

Big international spats over the stakes and facts of the second world war - such as often occurred in the quite recent past - are hard to imagine nowadays. Take the scandal surrounding the forged"Hitler diaries" in 1982, which riveted cultural commentators in every western country for weeks; or the German Historikerstreit of 1986, the anguished national debate touched off by a newspaper article by Ernst Nolte, the historian, that suggested Nazism imitated Soviet communism; or the instant global celebrity accorded Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the young Harvard professor, for his book Hitler's Willing Executioners, in 1996. Contrast those episodes with the reception of Der Untergang ("The Downfall"), a film about Hitler's final days that was released in German cinemas last Thursday. Opinion is split on whether the film is a masterpiece or irresponsibly"humanises" Hitler. But these disagreements are largely confined to history buffs within Germany.

It is easy to see why publics and politicians are tempted to discard the second world war as an all-purpose moral framework. Blindness can result from clinging to old paradigms. Two years ago, French officials were incredulous when they faced international criticism for not responding to a wave of anti-Semitic attacks. In their view, no country exercised more vigilance against anti-Semitism. They may have been right. Unfortunately, they were stuck in the second world war. The intolerance they were conditioned to watch for was that of pious rightwing peasants who had supported the Vichy regime in the 1940s - but the intolerance they were suffering was that of north African immigrants whipped into a frenzy against Israel by watching Arab satellite TV channels.

The threats after the second world war involved intolerance, class, bureaucracy and propaganda. Today, the focus is shifting to migration, religion, sovereignty and crime. English opponents of the US war in Iraq mine the history of their own empire for cautionary tales. (Among journalists, the Boer war is particularly in vogue.) Interest in Islam and the west has sparked a boom in books on the Crusades. The thirty years war provides not just a warning about militarised religion but also the last example of a wholesale shift in the international system of states before the European Union's current experimentation.

The second world war is not in any danger of fading from the memory of Europeans. The coverage accorded this week to veterans' commemoration of the Battle of Arnhem is proof of that, if any were needed. The war is the kind of catastrophe that the EU is meant to prevent. But its role is totemic, rather than instructive. It commands respect but it is getting harder to decipher by statesmen and voters looking for moral guidance. This is a point that was made by Joachim Fest, the German historian, in an interview in the days before Der Untergang was released."Those born after the war often lack the imagination to think their way into conditions under a totalitarian tyranny," he said."From time to time I think they're to be envied for their naivety."

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