Monday, May 23, 2005

And That's Kicking Your Ass...

About a month ago (maybe a bit more) I read a rather interesting book by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, entitled "The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning and Recovery". Interesting stuff. Schivelbusch effectively portrays attempts by national communities to cope with and recover from (in a non-physical manner) the effects of defeat in war as a string of collective neuroses, perhaps not unlike the coping symptoms associated with the onset of terminal illness (anger, denial, acceptance etc). Schivelbusch refers to his thesis as a "philosophy of defeat" and, at worst, it's pretty provocative and interesting. Though the various phenomena tend to come in stages, they can have a significant historiographical impact and result in enduring national myths.

Schivelbusch uses the opening section of the book to outline these various aspects and then employs three illustrative case studies - the American South, France after the Franco-Prussian War and Germany 1919. All in all it's an interesting book (though not a particularly easy read, in spite of the fact that it's a good translation) and worth a look, even if one is not inclined to endorse all of Schivelbusch's arguments. Some of Schivelbusch's theses, particularly the notion of the Unworthy Victory and of "defeat empathy", seemed to enjoy significant relevance in the contemporary world.

A (very) brief summary of Schivelbusch's proposed national coping mechanisms:


- The earliest symptom, in the final stages and immediate aftermath of national defeat. Has about it a strange undertone of euphoria and often involves a number of specific and recognisable factors: first, the scapegoating and overthrow of the defeated regime by is own people. This is then often seen as a strange kind of victory in itself - war guilt is transferred onto the old, discredited regime and the great mass of the nation perceives itself as having clean hands. In popular perception, defeat in war takes on a strangely liberating quality and the general feeling is often one of optimism, even to the degree of embracing the enemy power as a liberator and new ally. The general view is that things are going to get better. The new mood of optimism and the transfer of guilt away from the nation at large results in a strong belief and expectation that the victorious power will permit a return to the ante-bellum status quo. This state of mind will often last for no more than a few weeks, before which reality sets in with a thump.


- The next stage sets in when the expectations associated with "Dreamland" go tits up. It is likely to be especially pronounced if the victors (and now assumed friends and allies) refuse to co-operate and live up to expectations (this may or may not be the fault of the victorious power as such - expectations formulated during the Dreamland period may have been wildly unrealistic and unreasonable). The general feeling is one of high dudgeon and trust betrayed. Having overthrown the old regime with glee and repudiated all its works, opinion turns a hairpin bend and begins to tend toward the counter-revolutionary. It is at this stage that "stab-in-the-back" myths are likely to find their genesis.

The Unworthy Victory

- At this stage the myth develops that the victors somehow "cheated" to gain their victory. The heart of this is the development and cementing of a perception that the victors' victory is somehow illegitimate. Apparent asymmetries, such as army size, technology gaps or spiritual wholesomeness will be set-upon to reinforce this. The defeated will frequently construct a narrative that involves embattled heroes overcome by sterile, production line technocrats. Examples of this include Germany [heroes] vs Britain and later the USA [technocrats], the US Civil War, Confederacy [old school gentlemen with a warrior culture] vs Union [materialistic, mongrelised, effeminate arsenal practice merchants] and in many cases the French vs the English/British [Crecy - heroic knights vs cowardly longbowmen. Napoleon's comment that the British are a nation of shopkeepers]. Via this narrative the defeated (already absolved of their guilt) become martyrs and are paradoxically awarded a degree of dignity commensurate with this status and also are seen to have suffered an unjustifiable indiginity that justice demands be rectified.

Losers in Battle, Winners in Spirit

- This phenomenon is interesting in that it also draws on the victorious nation. Following on from the above, a process begins to work among the victors whereby those who have been defeated become the object of sympathy. Victory does not bring with it the satisfaction and solutions to problems that were envisaged. Suspicious of power, intellectuals in the victorious nation begin to embrace the defeated as somehow preferable to their own newly emboldened and empowered elites. Domestic and international perceptions of the victorious power nosedive. Hence, pre-1870, Germany was widely perceived as a centre of learning, science and culture. Post-1870 it rapidly came to be seen as a nest of marauding, soulless barbarians and thugs. Similarly, the notion of the Southern gentleman reached its apogee, not merely in the former Confederate states but in the Union and the world at large, during the post Civil War turmoil.

Revenge and Revanche

- Sccivelbusch traces the instinct for revenge in historiography back to the Iliad but sees an important distinction between revenge and revanche (redress). Whereas revenge is inherently punitive, revanche involves the restoration of equal footing and is essential to make reconciliation possible. Schivelbusch posits the notion that in order for revanche to be possible, said restoration and the reconciliation process must happen promptly, almost immediately after the event or a process of festering will begin, with the various above neuroses setting in and the development of losers' myths.

Interestingly, Schivelbusch argues that a different situation is likely to exist in the event of a nation facing defeat at the hands of a coalition. Defeat at the hands of a coalition is likely to result in the popularly accepted perception of the defeated nation as equal to the strongest member of the coalition. Defeat is thus once again seen to have honour in it and the desire for revanche is diminished, though other aspects of the defeat neuroses may well still be in evidence. Schivelbusch argues that the players who will be most likely to exhibit symptoms of defeat are, in fact, the junior members of the victorious coalition. This will hardly come as a revelation to hardcore Realists but it is certainly an interesting and provocative point within this framework.

Partly related to the issue of revenge/revanche, Schivelbusch notes that a policy of unconditional surrender on the part of the victors is only likely to prove successful if the victor is able to ensure the complete breakdown of the enemy on the scale of Japan or Germany in the 2nd World War. Even here, several of the above symptoms are becoming evident in German and Japanese historical and political discourse, even if on a somewhat delayed timescale.


Schivelbusch identifies various aspects of the final renewal process. First, the nation is likely to become increasingly forward looking and energised. The idea of war as a purifying force is more likely to set in in a defeated nation than in a victorious one. The defeated nation will begin to collectively identify with great heroic defeats through history. The goals of the war that brought defeat are likely to be either forgotten or noisily repudiated. Evidence may be seen of what Schivelbusch calls "defeat moralism" (Southern US politicians becoming evangelists for universal values and self-determination abroad, the Japanese setting themselves up as a beacon of pacifism and exemplars of an almost unique victimhood through their exposure to the only nuclear attacks in history).

On Getting Shafted

This is a very inadequate summary of what are actually fairly complex and involved expositions on Schivelbusch's part and although they have been given definite categorisation, aspects of the various different stages frequently interact and shade into each other. I'm still digesting a lot of what he has to say myself. Anyway, it's an interesting read and while you may not expect to agree with it all (it would be interesting to see Schivelbusch's model - for that's essentially what it is - applied to other conflicts), there are some definite nuggets of truth in there. If you're in the mood for something a little bit out of leftfield it may well be worth your time.

POSTSCRIPT: I notice that at the time of writing, American readers can pick it up from for $7.99. I'd go so far as to say that at that price you can't go too far wrong.


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