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A View from the Left: Auschwitz, Munich and Iraq By: Jeffrey Herf
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung | Thursday, February 13, 2003


At the annual Wehrkunde conference held this past weekend, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld urge Europeans not to repeat the mistakes of the 1930s when the democracies and the League of Nations failed to deter fascist aggression. According to press reports, the lectures about the lessons of Munich did not only come from the United States. Portuguese Defense Minister Paulo Portas reminded Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the failures of European pacifism of the 1930s beginning with its inability to counter the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. Fischer responded brusquely , "You don't need to talk to me about that" and noted he, Fischer, had supported the use of force in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Yet Portas, and others, certainly do need to talk to Foreign Minister Fischer and many other Germans "about that." For despite the fact that "coming to terms with the Nazi past" has preoccupied Germans in recent decades, this discussion has not included extensive discussion of the issues of appeasement, the breakdown of collective security and the absence of preemptive war in the late 1930s. The Schroder government's unequivocal opposition to American policy concerning Iraq has now brought this feature of German political culture to the fore. 

Winston Churchill's The Gathering Storm, a book that retains an important place in the libraries of American and British liberals, has been of marginal significance in postwar West German and then German intellectual life. Churchill's legacy was always an uncomfortable one for postwar Germans. For those who did not want to hear more arguments in favor of military strength or wars of any kind, his was an unwelcome message. Churchill, after all, argued that military strength, indeed perhaps even an Allied preemptive invasion of Nazi Germany in 1938, might have averted the greater catastrophe of World War II as well as the Holocaust. He reminded his postwar readers of the even more discomforting fact that it was only the military force which was able to defeat Nazi Germany. Moreover, the same Churchill who on June 22, 1941, offered an alliance with the Soviet Union following the German invasion and sustained that alliance to the end of the war, also was one of the leading voices of the early Cold War warning of the Soviet threat. Yet apparently many German liberals remembered the Churchill's associated with the Cold War and postwar anticommunism and forgot the Churchill who led the struggle against Nazi Germany.

When conservatives, from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl applied the lessons of Munich to West Germany's fears of the Soviet Union, this too led liberals to associate the message with German politicians they opposed. For many in the SPD and Greens, the application of the Munich lessons to the Cold War with the Soviet Union was suspect, carrying as it did in their minds echoes of the, albeit totally different kind of, anticommunism of the Nazi regime itself. "Coming to terms with the Nazi past" in West Germany and then in unified Germany meant remembering and doing everything to avoid a repetition of "Auschwitz," This was one reason that Foreign Minister Fischer endured the taunts of the pacifist wing of his own Green Party to support German and NATO intervention in Kosovo to prevent ethnic cleansing, as well as the American war in Afghanistan to defeat Islamic fundamentalists who echoed so much of the themes of European fascism of the 1930s and 1940s. Fischer struck a deep chord of popular sentiment which approved of Germany's use of military force to prevent another Auschwitz or respond to the terrorist attack of September 11 and Al Qaeda's promise of more to come. Yet he, and even more so the diplomatically inept Chancellor Schröder, strike equally deep chords of German sentiment when they utter an emphatic and unequivocal "no" to the possibility of an American led war to disarm and thus end the regime of Saddam Hussein. Yet neither Schröder or Fischer offer convincing arguments as to why Saddam should disarm without even the threat of an American attack.

In June 1983, during some of the most bitter moments of the dispute over the deployment of medium range nuclear missiles in West Germany and Western Europe, Fischer, then a new member of parliament for the Green Party compared the logic of nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction to the "system logic of modernity" that led to Auschwitz. Heiner Geissler, one of the leaders of the conservative Christian Democrats, set off a furor in the West German parliament when he criticized Fischer and the peace movements by saying that it was the pacifism and appeasement policy of the democracies faced with the German dictatorship of the 1930s that had first made Auschwitz possible. Otto Schilly, then still a member of the Green Party, responded to Geissler by saying that he had made an "absolutely shameless statement." Schilly, Fischer and the Social Democrats in parliament saw Geissler's evocation of Churchill's argument as an effort to relieve Nazi Germany of responsibility for unleashing World War II and, as a misguided attempt to equate the interaction of democracy and dictatorship in the 1980s to that of the 1930s. The record of those parliamentary debates and the public discussion of the issue during the euromissile dispute makes clear that, with the exception of a few advisers and policy experts close to Helmut Schmidt, and members of the FDP close to Hans Dietrich-Genscher, it was almost exclusively right of center politicians in Germany who were willing to evoke the Churchillian argument and warn of the dangers of concessions to Soviet pressures. Indeed, examination of those debates led to the impression that many West German liberal and left-of-center politicians,  journalists and intellectuals had never read Churchill's Gathering Storm. 

One might think that the sequel to the euromissile dispute, namely the fall from power of the Kremlin hard liners, the emergence of Mikhael Gorbachev, the 1987 arms reduction agreements regarding medium range nuclear weapons based on Reagan's much derided zero-option of 1981, the peaceful end of the Cold War, German unification  and the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe would have at least some opponents of the NATO double-track deployments of 1983 to reflect on the wisdom of the hard line taken by the United States and its NATO allies in the 1980s. Instead, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, Mikhael Gorbachev seemed to receive the lion's share of the credit for these wonderful developments. Too few Germans, outside the Kohl government and some advisers to Helmut Schmidt who had initiated the medium range missile controversy, were willing to state the obvious. That is, that the deployments were a major turning point of European and international history and that without them and the failure of the Soviet hard line towards Western Europe, Germany would most likely still be divided, the Soviet Union would be a going concern and the Cold War would not be history. Too few understood the power politics that had made possible peaceful German unification and the end of the Cold War. So now we have arrived at a terrible moment. The Schröder government offers an emphatic no to any threat of war against Iraq. In Iraq we face the first dictatorship since Hitler to combine fragments of European fascism and Stalinism, an atrocious record of terror at home and aggressive miscalculation abroad, anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, a clear desire to exert control over a significant part of the world's and Europe's oil supplies as well as an unbending determination to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. We face a regime which, unlike the Soviet Union, offers an abundance of evidence that it cannot be contained with a system of extended nuclear deterrence. Faced with the regime of Saddam Hussein, one would have hoped that of all the major countries in the world and within the Atlantic Alliance, that Germany would be one of the strongest supporters of a hard line towards Iraq in the hopes such unified pressure would enhance the prospects of Iraqi disarmament without war. But it also means being willing to contemplate war with Iraq in spring 2003, rather than to wait until in 2004 or 2005 when Saddam would have acquired even more chemical and biological weapons and then perhaps nuclear weapons as well. It means refusing to underestimate the danger of the Iraqi regime or to assume that UN resolutions can be fulfilled without the credible threat of force. Yet it is sadly clear the Churchillian lessons of fighting a smaller and shorter war if necessary against an aggressive dictator rather than waiting to have to fight a longer and more terrible one later, are not lessons which these German leaders and apparently a majority of the public have remembered or even learned in the first place. It is sad to see a country with so many talented and capable people led by a government which so manifestly seems unable or unwilling to absorb basic lessons from the failures but also victories of the democracies in World War II and the Cold War. Many people in Washington and New York this winter have been reading Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq. Before dismissing the parallels with an air of no longer convincing European sophistication, one hopes that Germans will think again hard about the threat Iraq poses to Germany. In the short run, however, much damage has been done and we in this country cannot count on the good judgment and historical perspective of, at least this, German government.


Jeffrey Herf teaches Modern European history at the University of Maryland in College Park. His most recent book is The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust (Harvard University Press, 2006). His history of Nazi propaganda aimed at Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East during World War II is forthcoming with Yale University Press in fall 2009. He was one of the authors of “American Liberalism and the Euston Manifesto.”


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