The American presidential election is today, meaning I’ve been swamping myself with US news. An op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday interrupted my Ami-centered mindset and reminded me of a big issue in postwar Germany.
In “The Permanent Militarization of America,” Aaron B. O’Connell, a history professor at the US Naval Academy, reminds us what former President (and WW2 General) Eisenhower had to say about the military in America, 1961. As O’Connell put it,
He cautioned that war and warmaking took up too large a proportion of national life, with grave ramifications for our spiritual health.
O’Connell argues, effectively, in my opinion, that today’s United States hasn’t heeded Eisenhower’s warning. What does this have to do with postwar Germany?
One of the pillars of the Allied policy on Germany was demilitarization. Disarming the Germans wasn’t the most important point. The blind respect and admiration for war and all things military had to be rooted out of the minds of the Germans. The Allies recognized that Nazism or Hitler weren’t solely responsible for Germany starting World War II. The roots stretched far back, perhaps as far as 1870 when Germany defeated France. Bismark at last united the fractured German lands into one nation.
German pride became connected not only with culture, but with military might. The industrial strength of Germany was intertwined with its arms industry, showcased at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Krupp Gun Exhibit invited visitors to admire some of the world’s most advanced weapons.
Culturally, a Prussian (as people often called it) militarization infested the country. Children often wore miniature uniforms and were raised with the values of obedience and respect for authority. As Heinrich Mann pointed out in his books, especially Der Untertan, society identified itself almost slavishly with its leader, the Kaisers at the time, who of course presented themselves to the nation as military leaders in uniform. Military parades and shows of might were wildly popular.
World War I should have rooted this pro-military attitude out of the Germans. For many, especially on the political left, it did. But soon after the defeat, the right wing, including the National Socialists, propagated the Dolchstosslegende, that let the military and Kaiser off the hook for the devastating war. Other elements on the home front, especially the Jews, they argued, “stabbed the army in the back.” This was just what many Germans, smarting from defeat, wanted to hear. It was fertile ground for the Nazis.
The total defeat of World War II, and the Allied effort to teach democratic values, finally uprooted the Germans’ pro-military attitude. If it wasn’t for the Soviet threat in the postwar world, Germany might have never had another army. By 1955, the Allies saw the need for a buffer army in Europe, and the Bundeswehr, the democratic successor of the Nazi-era Wehrmacht, was born.
Only 10 years after the war ended.
In 1945, Germany was defeated, millions dead, the nation in ruins, a political, social and moral vacuum. The “lingering sadness of war,” as Eisenhower would put it years later, was daily reality. If any people saw the failure of glorifying all things military, it was the Germans of that generation. And it yielded a society that is still today deeply suspect of anything to do with war. In the 1950s, Germans protested against the founding of the new Bundeswehr. Young men refused to follow the draft, thinking they – like their fathers and grandfathers – were to be trained up for another war.
Back to Aaron O’Connell’s essay. This paragraph, read with Germany in mind, is frightening. Let it be a warning.
Uncritical support of all things martial is quickly becoming the new normal for our youth. Hardly any of my students at the Naval Academy remember a time when their nation wasn’t at war. Almost all think it ordinary to hear of drone strikes in Yemen or Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. The recent revelation of counterterrorism bases in Africa elicits no surprise in them, nor do the military ceremonies that are now regular features at sporting events. That which is left unexamined eventually becomes invisible, and as a result, few Americans today are giving sufficient consideration to the full range of violent activities the government undertakes in their names.