July 19, 2007

1918, 1938, 2008

No ghost is dragged onto the ramparts to suggest a tragic direction more than Neville Chamberlain. Citing the Munich Agreement of 1938 is now a matter of rhetorical reflex, routinely used by those with militarist intentions and sensibilities to defend those intentions and sensibilities as the "evil" necessitated by Evil. Hitler was "appeased" with dire consequences, the argument goes, suggesting at the same time that the true hope for peace in our time lies somewhere beyond the horizon of an endless war.

Chamberlain, upon returning from Munich said, "The real triumph is that it has shown that representatives of four great Powers can find it possible to agree on a way of carrying out a difficult and delicate operation by discussion instead of by force of arms, and thereby they have averted a catastrophe which would have ended civilisation as we have known it."

True enough, the catastrophe came anyway. And that it came with such ferocity has made "Munich!" the great war cry of confrontation. In Israel, "Munich" has long been the potent symbol for enemies of the state: of both the diplomatic ones within and the Arab ones without. In the U.S. this past week, John McCain accused those urging a new direction for the disaster that is Iraq of likewise contributing the U.S.'s defeat, of being aligned with Evil, of ensuring the catastrophes to come. His Republican colleague Lindsay Graham argued for the justness of the war and the importance of its continuation with the chant: "let our soldiers win."

McCain was conjuring Chamberlain to his (and President Bush's) Churchill. Instead of Hamletic anxiety, he was suggesting, we need the resoluteness of Fortinbras, who leads his men into Poland, thousands upon thousands, to fight for a plot of land not big enough to bury them.

Graham, unwittingly, was proving the horrific rightness of another historical parallel. The lesson is also German, but the date is 1918 and not 1938. The Weimar Republic of Germany, which produced Hitler's Reich, was infused with the spirit of vengeance: in 1918 the elites has been betrayed by the masses; masses infected as they were by forces that would have to be rooted out. Defeat in the Great War could be paid for by purging the enemies within. Victory had been denied. If only the soldiers had been allowed to win, the bitter logic goes, Germany would have rightfully prevailed. The dangers of delusion.

At the same time Senator Graham was claiming the possibility of victory in a hopeless pit of death, a conservative commentator on another Sunday morning show, was making the following dire point about such delusion:

"We are in danger of having . . . a Weimar moment in our politics. German politics was embittered disastrously by the belief that they were on the cusp of victory in 1918 and were stabbed in the back by the civilian leadership who didn't understand Germany's military prowess. There is a constituency in this town that believes we're winning in Iraq, that we have at last figured it out, that the indexes of success are there, and that if we pull out and have the kind of disastrous consequences--telegenic disastrous consequences we could have--we're going to have people saying, 'we had it won and threw it away.'"

He did not articulate the consequences. He did not have to. In the carefully managed state of emergency which is U.S. politics, history is called upon to play its role: the first time as catastrophe, the second time as tragedy, always with a difference, and yet always with too many bodies to be taken up off the stage.