Friday, October 3, 2014

"History is written by the victors"... a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill. Whoever actually said it doesn't matter, because it's true.

In the book I'm currently reading, Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier, 1936-1949, the author, a German officer, does some serious soul-searching in a Russian POW camp after the war. I think it's an interesting glimpse into the complexity of human thought. My emphasis:

Each of us was left immersed in his own thoughts most of the time.

Losing the war preyed on my mind. Being captured had always been a real possibility for all of us, but surrendering our country . . . I felt stunned now, almost as if I were in someone else's bad dream. The war had shattered my life and left only a deep void. Home and a normal life were things I would probably never know again. I had to learn to adjust to our total defeat and my status as a prisoner of the Russians. It was a feeling of complete desperation. Germany was divided both geographically and ideologically, and it was unlikely ever to exist again as a whole nation.

I spent much of those first three weeks going over Germany's experience of the previous six years. Where had we gone so wrong? I felt that Germany's claim to the Rhineland and the Polish Corridor had been justified because they had been made part of other countries after the World War in spite of their overwhelmingly German population and against Woodrow Wilson's promise of National self-determination in his 14 Points. The invasion of Austria was enthusiastically greeted by the majority of the Austrian population and the subsequent plebiscite approved the formal annexation. France was invaded after its declaration of war. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were neutral, however, and yet we had gone through those countries for strictly strategic reasons; obviously, in retrospect, that was wrong. Apparently, it seemed acceptable in 1940 because it had been done in 1914. Norway we needed for its raw materials and to protect our northern flank, but now that I had time to consider our actions, I had to concede that we had no right to invade and occupy Norway. It was only now beginning to dawn on me that our treatment of other nations had been arrogant -- that the only justification we had felt necessary was our own need. As for the Soviet Union, we had hated the concept of communism and felt that the Soviet government was cruelly subjugating the Soviet people, but that hardly gave us the right to violate their sovereignty. Of course, we were not just fighting communism; the concept of LEBENSRAUM, or living space, would have been our justification for annexing the Ukraine for its food-producing capability and the Caucasus for its oil reserves. We had operated under a "might-makes-right" theory.

As these things all went through my mind, I began to realize that I should have thought them through at the time of their occurrence -- but I was a soldier, and a soldier does not question the orders of his superiors. I had unquestioningly accepted the brutal philosophy that might makes right; the arrogance of our national behavior had not even occurred to me at the time. Although such blind obedience was probably the only military way to keep soldiers focused on the task at hand, the realization that I had allowed myself to become a nonthinking cog in Hitler's military machine depressed me now. What had begun -- at least in our minds -- as an effort to correct the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles had escalated far beyond anything that any of us could have imagined. In retrospect, I realized that I -- and countless others like me -- had helped Hitler start and fight a world war of conquest that had left tens of millions of people dead and destroyed our own country. I wondered now whether I would ever have questioned these things if we had won the war. I had to conclude that it was unlikely. This was a lesson taught by defeat, not by victory.

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