Die Kultur der Niederlage: Der amerikanische Süden 1865, Frankreich 1871, Deutschland 1918. By Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Berlin: Alexander Fest Verlag, 2001. ISBN 3-8286-0165-0. Notes. Indexes. Pp. 464. €35.50.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch, one of popular history's most ambitious authors, has written his most ambitious book yet. His thought-provoking Die Kultur der Niederlage transcends established academic boundaries between American and European history in comparing the cultural impact of military defeat on the Southern States after 1865, France after 1871, and Germany after 1918. In order to come to terms with the enormity of the military débâcle, all three societies embarked on sustained and creative efforts to give meaning and purpose to the unexpected experience. Schivelbusch concentrates primarily on two facets of this process: first, the invention of political myths which smoothed over the humiliation of defeat, and, second, the proliferation of visions of modernization which promised national regeneration. The author likes to refer to collectives ("the public opinion," "the collective psyche"), but, effectively, he restricts himself to the analysis of élite discourses conducted by intellectuals, politicians, generals, engineers, and businessmen.
In the aftermath of war, the old élites were anxious to create myths which denied the finality of defeat or its moral implications. "The Lost Cause" in the Southern States reconfigured the war as a sacrifice, the Secession as a tragedy, and the reunification as catharsis. The French Revanche represented an equally redemptive myth featuring the restoration of French glory. While both the American and the French fabrications contributed to postwar social cohesion, their functional equivalent in Germany—Im Felde unbesiegt—undermined the legitimacy of the new post-1918 Weimar Republic. If Germany was indeed "undefeated in the field," why then had it lost the [End Page 249] war? Another myth, the Dolchstoß, came to the fore; it asserted that the "victorious" German army had been "stabbed in the back" by revolutionaries—like the legendary Siegfried who had been killed from behind by his friends.
All three societies drafted older legends into service. The Dolchstoß resonated with the Nibelungenlied; La Revanche was filled with images reminiscent of the Chanson de Roland and the story of Joan of Arc; and "The Lost Cause" drew on Sir Walter Scott's novels. In the new age of industrialized warfare, the archaic and the modern apparently went hand in hand. Preindustrial imagery, Schivelbusch suggests, was not a form of antimodernism or escapism; it sweetened the pill of unavoidable socio-economic modernization. The author argues that, ultimately, defeat proved a salutary lesson; in peacetime, the losers learned from and, in fact, outdid the one-time victors. The former Confederates envisaged an industrially thriving "New South"; the Third Republic engaged in educational reform, physical exercise, and colonial expansion to compensate for both a humiliating defeat and territorial losses; and Weimar Germany indulged among other things in jazz dancing and Fordism.
The cultural history of war is a booming field, and Schivelbusch relies
heavily on secondary works. However, the idea of uniting this vast body
of scholarly literature in a comparative study aimed at the general reader
is ambitious and original. Unfortunately, the author fails to explore the
comparative method fully. The book is divided, rather conventionally, into
three parts, one on each country, interspersed with occasional comparisons
and cross-references. The long introduction highlights some cultural
convergences and national contrasts, and yet throughout the book the
author touches on many points without pursuing them systematically. Full
of interesting theses but few conclusions, this book is rather an essay
or a fragment. Characteristically, it ends with a puzzling question:
perhaps, Schivelbusch wonders, the essence of the "culture of defeat"
and its various components (sports and levée en masse in
France; dance and assembly lines in Germany—Schivelbusch omits
American examples) was a longing for "movement" to help overcome the
trauma of defeat.