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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

German soldiers in a trench during World War I
-- Imperial War Museum/Archive Photos
The fatal legend of preemptive war

German history shows the perils of Washington's new strategy

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” -- Voltaire


The Bush Doctrine, offered by neoconservatives in the White House as a unique response to a world changed by Sept. 11, is anything but new. Much of the ideology behind current American foreign policy parallels a belief system that took root in Prussia under Frederick the Great and bore poisonous fruit in the Nazi era. The notion that preemptive war is a legitimate tool of foreign policy, sold to the American public by the Bush White House, became increasingly popular in Germany in the period leading up to the Second World War. Likewise, the idea of exceptionalism, entitling the U.S. government to force its views on others because the American way of life is best, parallels a commonly held German belief in that nation’s cultural superiority. The similarity to Germany goes even to the language and tactics the White House has used to convert the American people to its cause.

A real danger of a preemptive strategy is that it seemingly can succeed at first.

In fact, Germany’s journey to the Third Reich started in triumph.

If modern polling had existed in the 18th century, Frederick the Great would have scored near the top. The Prussian king waged three protracted preemptive wars against Catholic Austria and got away with it. In fact, his Protestant subjects started calling him “the Great” in recognition of his success in wresting part of the rich province of Silesia from Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

Frederick, lacking a compelling reason for preemptive war, invented one. He counted on spin to sell his unethical initiative, ordering his minister to “cook up some legal nonsense” to justify his aggression, as his biographer, Nancy Mitford, puts it. “That’s the work of a good charlatan,” Frederick reportedly said.

The inebriation of victory

Having manufactured a threat by implying that Austria and her ally, Saxony, were likely to attack, Frederick spurred his soldiers on, urging them to fight “for the fatherland.” He singled out European governments he didn’t like as “former great powers.” He convinced his subjects that the Silesians would greet his invading troops with smiles and flowers, instantly recognizing the new regime as superior to the former one. That proved untrue, but Frederick’s subjects soon forgot their disappointment in the inebriation of victory.

Frederick cultivated the arts and reformed the government, but his preemptive tactics worried his friend Voltaire, a frequent guest at the Prussian court. The French philosopher remarked that the Prussian king’s triumph over Austria changed German destiny by putting nationalism into play for the first time. Klaus Wiegrefe, writing in the Jan. 22, 2001, issue of the German magazine, Der Spiegel, judges Frederick yet more harshly. The Prussian ruler’s successful conquests persuaded the German public that preemptive war could have positive results; thus, says Wiegrefe, “a fatal legend was born.”

Intellectuals such as Georg Friedrich Hegel, who held the philosophy chair at the University of Berlin in the early 19th century, encouraged the Germans’ belief in their exceptionalism. He claimed German superiority justified that nation’s drive to world domination through war and conquest. Soon there developed in the popular culture what historian Edward Crankshaw calls “a totalitarian mystique which glorified the community as standing above all law.”

Prussia emerged as the most powerful German state. But it was left to Otto von Bismarck, who became premier in 1862, to inspire even higher ambitions in his people. His aim was to unify Germany and turn it into a continental superpower, using any means needed. “The great questions of the time will be decided, not by speeches and resolutions of majorities ... but by iron and blood,” Bismarck told the Prussian Diet in September of that year. Bismarck came to embody the totalitarian mystique. Unapologetic, he skirted the constitution and spent money on defense without the legally required parliamentary approval. Like Frederick, his role model, Bismarck took Prussia into three victorious preemptive wars, rigging the facts each time to make his opponents appear the aggressors.

He bested Denmark in a dispute over Schleswig-Holstein, then went against the Austrian Habsburgs at Koeniggraetz, winning a victory that established Prussian supremacy in Germany. Victory over France in an 1870 conflict led to unification of the small German states, with the Prussian king as German emperor.

Having made Germany the foremost power in Europe, Bismarck swore off what he quaintly called “prophylactic wars.” He reasoned that sooner or later the vanquished would return for revenge. But Bismarck’s message that German cultural superiority entitled the nation to stand above the law ignited the nationalistic mood. There were battle scenes on glasses and sofa pillows. People decorated their homes with tin soldiers and went in for militaristic sports. The country was aflutter with flags.

William II, who became German emperor in 1888, stoked the nationalistic fire. A man with an epic ego, William played on people’s prejudices and exploited their religious beliefs to further his goals. He encouraged a sort of collective national piety, with him in the role of Protestant priest.

William’s messianic message was accompanied by his disquieting habit of sending German warships unannounced into foreign ports. William wished to show “that Germany could not be ignored in any question in the world,” says historian A.J.P. Taylor.

The mood of the German public edged toward megalomania. They began to think “the world belonged to them,” says Taylor. Many Germans dismissed criticism as envy of their nation’s power and affluence.

Nursing a vendetta against his uncle, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), William manufactured a crisis, claiming Germany faced an imminent threat of attack from England and her allies.

But while William II is rightly blamed for the war that was to consume all of Europe, it was his ally, Austro-Hungary, that triggered World War I by declaring war on Serbia. The Habsburg move came in response to a terrorist attack by members of a Bosnian Serb group closely connected to the Serbian Black Hand. Serbian nationalists, longtime opponents of the Habsburg presence in the Balkans, had become particularly active after the monarchy’s 1908 annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although Emperor Franz Joseph I believed that civilized nations do not wage preemptive war, hawkish elements in the monarchy persuaded the old emperor that the definitions of war had changed following the June 28, 1914, assassination of the Austrian heir-presumptive, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, in Sarajevo. Without waiting to establish proof of the Serb government’s complicity in the murders, Franz Joseph rushed to war a month later. Buoyed by a popular slogan, “Better an end with terror than terror without end,” Habsburg soldiers rallied to the flag.

William II’s violation of Belgian neutrality turned the local conflict into a world war.

German exceptionalism

Believing themselves faced with a war for which they bore no blame, William’s subjects remained loyal throughout the conflict. Many prided themselves on not reading foreign newspapers. They refused to entertain opposing views.

“The Germans got on the world’s nerves,” acknowledged former German Reichschancellor Bernhard von Bulow in his memoirs, adding that it was only after the war that some Germans grudgingly came to realize that other people viewed them as the aggressors.

Unfortunately, the peace settlement at Versailles didn’t encourage German soul-searching. It stripped the Germans of most of their territory and left them with huge reparation costs.

Adolf Hitler quickly capitalized on their hurt pride. Like many demagogues, Hitler stirred his audience with patriotic phrases about “freedom” and “democracy.” He thought in absolutes, leaving no room for dialogue. He regarded history as a struggle between good and evil. He declared it was his messianic mission to defend the Germans against the Jews. In so doing, he was “fighting for the work of the Lord.”

Hitler hammered the theme of German exceptionalism. German cultural values were superior to all others, he said. He encouraged the nation to avoid multilateralism. He argued against the League of Nations and lashed out at journalists for “licking France’s boots.”

Hitler spelled out his strategy in Mein Kampf, a book deserving notoriety not only for its racist diatribes but also for its cynical rules for manipulating the public. Among other things, Hitler advises his supporters to repeat slogans over and over “until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by that slogan.”

While most Western political leaders ignored Mein Kampf, Winston Churchill took it seriously. He realized that the bestselling book unveiled a strategic plan for reshaping Europe in the Nazi image.

The world woke up after it was too late.

The Bush Doctrine, spelled out in the National Security Strategy released by the White House Sept. 17, 2002, and in administration speeches and statements, also has attracted little attention. It should be taken seriously. The similarities to the ideas that took hold in Germany and culminated in World War II suggest the dangers in the policy pursued by the White House. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly, and many circumstances may arise to avert the United States from continuing down the road that Germany followed in the 20th century.

Still, to a researcher of German history, these parallels are worrisome. For all its talk about American values, the Bush Doctrine actually repudiates those values.

Preemptive war is at the center of the ideology, but the Bush White House goes beyond that, claiming that the United States has the duty, indeed the moral obligation, to violate the rights of sovereign nations and to change their rulers as the American government sees fit. The aim is to shape the world in America’s image.

The administration justifies its departure from the accepted standards of international behavior by claiming the Sept. 11 attack forever changed the rules by which nations live. However, the leading idea in the Bush Doctrine wasn’t developed in response to 9/11.

Already in 1992, in the waning days of the presidency of the elder George Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, then undersecretary for policy at the Pentagon, endorsed preemptive war as a way of dealing with weapons of mass destruction. His proposal, which appeared in internal guidelines prepared for the Department of Defense, caused a furor after it was leaked to the press, and subsequently was omitted in the final document.

Neoconservatives continued to be backbenched during the Clinton administration, but once George W. Bush was elected they rapidly gained influence. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are particularly sympathetic to neoconservative ideology. Neoconservatives holding key posts in the administration include Wolfowitz, now deputy secretary of defense; Pentagon adviser Richard Perle; Eliott Abrams, who is in charge of Middle Eastern policy at the National Security Council; Adam Shulsky of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans; and John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control. Neoconservative outsiders with close ties to the administration include writers William Kristol and Robert Kagan.

Much of the inspiration for neoconservatism comes from Leo Strauss, a Jew who fled Germany during the Hitler years and eventually held a professorial post at the University of Chicago, where he became something of a cult figure. While claiming he believed in liberal democracy, Strauss actually advocated a strong nationalistic state with order maintained, if necessary, by force. It is as though Strauss had unconsciously come to believe in the fascistic methods of those from whom he had fled.

Wolfowitz and Shulsky studied under Strauss, and many other neoconservatives say he had a profound influence on their thinking.

Neoconservative ideology

Neoconservatives depict a brutal world in which might is what counts. They claim the United States should use might since it has it.

Robert Kagan, founder of the neoconservative think-tank, Project for the New American Century, in a March 17, 2003, interview with the German magazine, Der Spiegel, put it this way: “If you meet a bear in the woods and you’re armed only with a knife, you handle yourself differently than if you have a firearm in your hand. The person with the firearm feels strong and will shoot, the other person will run away.”

Neoconservatives contend that American exceptionalism entitles the United States to set itself up as a model for the world. Lawrence F. Kaplan and William Kristol go even further in their book, The War over Iraq, claiming that exceptionalism entitles the United States to pass judgment on others.

The Bush administration interprets this exceptionalism to mean that the United States can develop a new generation of nuclear weapons while branding countries that are starting to develop weapons programs as rogue nations. It means touting the United States as a champion of human rights while violating the Geneva convention by holding prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without trial and without access to lawyers or family. According to Rumsfeld, it means the United States “can’t be held to evidentiary standards” when going against terrorists.

Responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush raised the banner of battle by declaring a “war on terrorism,” a phrase that invites abuse of power by its vagueness. Like Emperor Franz Joseph in responding to a perceived threat from Serbia, Bush declared the United States would “make no distinction between the terrorists who committed those attacks and those who harbor them.”

The administration’s intentions became more apparent two days after the World Trade Center attack, when Wolfowitz told a Pentagon briefing that going after terrorists meant not only capturing the perpetrators but also “removing the sanctuaries, removing the support systems, ending states who sponsor terrorism.”

Bush targeted his initial candidates for regime change -- Iran, Iraq and North Korea -- designating these governments as an “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address. The Bush administration eventually compiled a list of more than 60 countries it said fostered terrorism.

Having more or less dealt with Afghanistan, Bush focused on Iraq. Like Frederick the Great, Bush lacked a compelling reason for a preemptive attack, so he trumped one up. Saddam Hussein, undeniably an evil man, was promoted to the role of leading global villain. The president repeatedly linked the Iraqi dictator and al-Qaeda, even though there was no evidence of collaboration between the two. Bush declared that the Iraqi regime was an immediate threat to the United States.

Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations claiming he had proof that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Few people watching Powell’s performance were convinced. Most Americans weren’t watching.

Undeterred by the failure to win Security Council support for invasion of Iraq, Bush concentrated on winning converts to his cause at home. Opening cabinet meetings with a prayer, the president let the public know he believed he was doing the “Lord’s business.” The Bush message left no room for dialogue. The president spoke in absolutes. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he said on Sept. 20. He was to repeat that phrase, or something similar, more than 100 times in the coming months, until even the simplest member of the public understood what the president wanted him to understand.

Rumsfeld looked down his nose at “old Europe.” Hating the French became a mainstay of U.S. policy. Cheney wanted the United Nations to get the message that it “was not important.”

Many ordinary Americans now talk about regime change and future targets for preemptive war as if they were acceptable tools of foreign policy. They condone or at least tolerate the government’s prying into reading lists in public libraries. Many even silently accept the illegal detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Big Brother has been welcomed into the American family. What used to be a healthy pride in country has turned into malignant nationalism.

A scene from Bob Woodward’s book, Bush at War, suggests the extent to which the neoconservative ideology has infected the American psyche.

Woodward describes the arrival of Special Forces and CIA teams in Afghanistan on Feb. 5, 2002. They brought with them a piece of the World Trade Center, burying it in a spot consecrated in memory of those who died on Sept. 11. After a prayer, one man said: “We will export death and violence to the four corners of the earth in defense of our great nation.”

The plague of nationalism is an imminent threat. There is nothing trumped up about that.

Journalist Maggie Ledford Lawson covered Capitol Hill for a number of publications, including Congressional Quarterly, before moving to Prague, where she is writing a biography of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I.

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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