About 67 years ago tonight (I'm writing this late on August 31st), the Germans launched the Second World War in Europe, and the greatest human carnage that we have reliable records for, by invading Poland. September 1st, 1939, at about 5am in the morning, I think, the planes began to swoop in and a German cruiser anchored in the port of Danzig, there supposedly on a friendly visit, opened fire on the Polish port defenses. There's amazing video of that ship firing into the city, the tracers going off and the big guns blasting various sites in the town. It all happened without any warning.
Well really, anyone with a brain had to know something was up. Germany had swallowed Czechoslovakia in late 38 and early 39, and was steadily ginning up a reason to jump their neighbors to the east. But like today, people have an amazing capacity to avoid seeing things if those things are inconvenient or inconsistent with what they prefer to believe. We see that now, on a daily basis. I find myself thinking a lot of the time that some belief systems out there could never exist without the capacity of its devotees and acolytes to completely ignore the obvious reality sitting right in front of them. It must be a basic aspect of the human animal. Experts call it "selective perception"- the capacity to ignore information that you disagree with and focus on information that reinforces your preconceived ideas. Bottom line... people are fuckin' stupid and deluded. Always have been. Always will be. Bank on it, you'll do well.
Anyway, back to the carnage. The Nazis had come to power in Germany in 1933 by selling the idea of national renewal to the beleaguered voters who'd seen their beloved nation mugged, raped and sodomized since the last war, and were sick to death of it. The Germans had lost the First World War after winning most of the battles and without ever having seen foreign troops on their soil. The ensuing treaty of Paris carved whole chunks of their nation away, people included, that then became part of the new nations of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The French, who'd seen whole regions of their nation laid waste in the war were gleefully taking it out on the newly emasculated Germans, taking back territory they'd lost in the 1870s and forcing Germany to be demilitarized and humiliated.
Things were bad enough in the 1920s, with Germany forced to pay ridiculous war reparations to everyone and suffering a huge amount of political instability. The great depression came along in 1929 and 30 and just took everything to an even more surreal level. The worst of the depression was in full swing in 1933, and Germany was hit hard. Inflation had destroyed the savings of the middle class, arguably the most critical demographic group in any country. You've all heard stories about people rolling wheelbarrows full of money to the bakery to buy bread. That's literally true. People papered their houses with money because it was cheaper than wallpaper, burned it for fuel in their furnace because it was cheaper than coal. It took a billion reichsmarks to buy a beer in Hitler's local watering hole. The people there were neck deep in serious shit, and their political leadership was worse than useless.
The allies had taken down the Kaisers government in 1919 and sent him into exile. They replaced it with an ineffectual parliamentary system, but did nothing to ensure that the system succeeded. In fact, it's as if they set out to see it fail. The Germans went from a political culture that valued order, to a place where disorder reigned. From being the most important great power in Europe, with the most advanced technology, science, philosophy, popular culture, music, to being everyone's piss boy. As a result, any group that was close to the main stream of German heritage and thought, that played on visions of the past and a sense of oppression and betrayal was bound to win. The voters by 1933 had to choose between the same old bureaucrats that had mismanaged things, the Communist Party on the left who were offering a revolution to the workers and poor, or the National Socialist German Workers Party on the right... "Nazi" for short, from the German "Nazional".
The Nazis played up to all the right feelings in the public. They came from a very familiar place politically, draping themselves in nationalistic chauvinism, the greatness of the past, giving people someone to blame their problems on and saying that if elected, they would punish the guilty party's and make Germany great again. They didn't say that if elected they would drag Germany and the world into a war that would end with 50 million deaths and genocide, but there you go. Who knew? They didn't know that this would be the last election Hitler would allow, but they hadn't gotten much out of elections in the 20s and probably thought it was a small price to pay for the national rebirth they were longing for.
The truth is, democracy is a fragile thing. It has to be nurtured, particularly in its youth. Essentially it's a process. People need to see something out of it in order to allow it to grow and become cemented in their political culture. Once it is, the voters can put up with all sorts of crap without it threatening the survival of the system. Voters in Germany had gotten nothing but grief out of it, so most of them probably didn't miss it when Hitler did away with it. People might say that the Germans just weren't ready for democracy yet, but that sounds too much like a convenient excuse to me.
There's a myth out there that says you can't impose a democratic system on people who aren't ready for it. The opponents of the war in Iraq love to spin that one out and wave it around. They use it to explain all the death and destruction there now, and would have us believe that we made a huge mistake even trying to give them a system their volatile, tribal, sectarian culture is too primitive to contain. The lesson of Germany though illustrates the fact that it can be done if it's done right. Pound the shit out of them so there's no doubt who won or lost, occupy them for 6 or 7 years, denazify them to get rid of the officials who represent the old regime, pump money and experts in to rebuild their economy and play up to the good things in them, and freedom takes hold pretty well. Turns out most people are the same, despite their culture. Give em a chance and the natural democratic instincts will come out.
It can't happen thought if every other country around you is actively resisting the change. The vast majority or our problem in Iraq is not the natural result of taking away the stability of the old regime, meddling where we shouldn't have meddled. That's an all too convenient "conventional wisdom" pushed by the folks who've been calling the war a quagmire since the second week. Our problems in Iraq are a result of a tragic decision on the part of the major Sunni regimes in the region to subvert the process that would produce a democracy run by Shiites and Kurds (which we should have seen coming). But more fundamentally, it represents a fundamental failure on the part of all the people in the west who supposedly love freedom to work hard enough to see it grow in Iraq. What message was sent to the enemies of real change in the middle east when Zarqawi blew up the UN headquarters and the United Nations and all the NGOs in the country promptly ran away like cowards? Isn't democracy something worth dying for any more?
What would Germany look like today if all her neighbors and the powers of that day had actively subverted the process of political change and democratization? Well, we know the answer to that question. We've seen it happen. When nothing was done to nurture the democratic process in Germany and a lot of other European nations in the 1920s a whole slew of dictatorships blossomed. The Czechs were the only ones to succeed in creating a real democratic system that worked, and that was in spite of all the meddling that was going on. The collapse of the republic and the rise of Hitler was not the result of the idea that democracy can't be imposed on a people. It was the result of the failure of the powers of that time to see the process through to it's end.
It was a failure of will. A failure of vision born out of shortsightedness and greed. The powers of that day chose to defend a narrowly defined national self interest and told themselves that the failures of the German republic were a result of the failures inherent in the German character. They're too fond of uniforms and order. Sound familiar? Don't we hear now from many corners that the Arabs are just to culturally primitive, too tribal to accept a functioning pluralistic democracy? How could we think to try to impose it on them? They're not ready for it yet. We learned after the Second World War that it can be done. We learned that lesson at the cost of more than 50 million lives, but when we took the time, effort and money to see it through to it's end, it worked like a charm. The result was a blossoming, stabilizing democratic force in the heart of Europe that anchored the western alliance against the new Soviet menace in the east.
It may be an unfortunate truth that our efforts in Iraq are destined to fail. Many pundits are sure of it, as Iraqi society seems to slip into sectarian chaos. If it does fail, it won't be because we tried something that couldn't work. The blame for the failure will be shared by lots of folks. We'll debate the issues for a long time. Undoubtedly a lot of the blame will go to all those who played up to the most negative aspects of Iraqi society to divide it and destroy its ability to function. Too many people are willing to destroy Iraq in order to save it from reform and westernization. Maybe that was an inevitable result of not having a force on hand big enough to establish order and security. Again, these things will be debated for a long time.
Undoubtedly though, blame must also be shared by those in the democratic world who sat back and watched while the house burned. Some of them did it out of a cynical desire to see us lose, but others simply failed to feel the pull of obligation to help bring the benefits of our system to others. It's always easier to complain about some horrible system, analyze the situation to death, protest the abuses of human rights, and then have a telethon to raise money for the victims. It's a way to create the illusion that you are doing something while you really do absolutely nothing. Very safe. Very tidy. Tell yourself "those people" are just too culturally primitive to deal with real freedom and self government. Don't go jump into a civil war. It's not worth dying for.
There was a phrase that spread through France and western Europe in the months after the Germans rolled into Poland and the war broke out. Anti war protesters were determined to save their nations from repeating the mistakes of the last war. They said "Mourir pour Danzig?" (why die for Danzig?). Apparently it wasn't worth it to them yet to shed the blood it might take to end the Nazi tyranny. That tyranny was rolling through Poland, away from France, so who cares? Don't borrow trouble. By May of 1940, that tyranny was rolling through France and they were singing another tune. I grew up hearing over and over that if someone had just done something earlier, maybe those 50 million people wouldn't have had to die.
If the result of all this carnage in Iraq is the rise of a new fascist regime, or two or three such regimes, well, we will have seen it all happen before. Despite everything we did and all those that bled for the freedom of those people, some things just don't change.