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Second World War

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Germany: The Rise of the Right

Angela Merkel’s slogan in her campaign for a fourth term as Chancellor was terminally bland and smug – “For a Germany in which we live well and love living” – but it did the job, sort of. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is back as the largest party, so Merkel gets to form the next coalition government. But the neo-fascists are now in the Bundestag (parliament) too, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany.

It’s not Merkel’s fault, exactly, but the numbers tell the tale. The CDU had its worst result ever, down from 40 percent of the vote at the last election to only 33 percent this time. And it looks like the 7 percent of the vote that the CDU lost went straight to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the neo-fascist party, whose support was up from just under 5 percent last time to 12.6 percent this time.

That makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag. All the other parties have sworn to have nothing to do with it, so Merkel’s party will have to seek its coalition partners elsewhere. It will take at least a month to make the coalition deal, which will probably link the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, but that is not the big story. The rise of the hard right is.

‘Rise’ is a relative term, of course: only one German in eight actually voted for the AfD. But that is still shocking in a country that thought it had permanently excised all that old Nazi stuff from its politics. And if you look more closely, the AfD’s support was strongest in the same parts of the country that voted strongly for the Nazis in the 1933 election that brought Hitler to power.

The AfD was founded by an economics professor who just wanted Germany to leave the euro currency, but in the past four years it has been taken over anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists, and they do sound a little bit like You-Know-Who at times.

Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leader, has described Merkel’s government as “pigs” who merely serve as “marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” And the party’s other co-leader, Alexander Gauland, said in an election speech last week: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

That sort of comment might be interesting to debate in a university seminar on German history, but 72 years after Hitler’s death it is still too soon to say out loud in a Europe that was ravaged by German armies in the Second World War. Gauland, Weidel and their AfD colleagues are playing with fire and they are well aware of it.

The truly alarming thing, however, is not the occasional echo of the Nazis in AfD rhetoric. It is the fact that Germany is conforming to a general trend towards the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist right in Western politics.

Each country does it in its own historical style. The pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom last year was actually led by isolationist “Little Englanders”. Their implausible promise of a glorious free-trading future for the UK outside the European Union was just a necessary nod in the direction of economic rationality – but the Brexiteers won because enough people wanted to believe them.

Similarly, Donald Trump fits comfortably into the American tradition: he is channelling American demagogues of the 1930 like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. The economic situation of American workers and the lower middle class today is close enough to that of the 1930s that they responded to his mixture of nationalism, dog-whistle racism and anti-big-business thetoric by voting him into the presidency.

In France, Marine Le Pen appealed to nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the resentment of the long-term unemployed to win almost 34 percent of the vote in last May’s presidential election. She lost, but the more important fact is that one-third of French voters backed the neo-fascist candidate. And now, in German, the AfD.

The common thread that runs through all these events, beyond the racism, nationalism and xenophobia, is economic distress. The economies may be doing well, but a large proportion of the people are not. The gap between the rich and the rest was tolerated when everybody’s income was rising, but that has not been true for thirty years now, and patience among the “losers” has run out.

This is still early days, but the direction of the drift in Western politics is clear, and it is deeply undesirable. The only thing that will stop it is decisive action to narrow the income gap again, but that is very hard to do in the face of the currently dominant economic doctrine.

Houston, we have a problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The AfD…times”; and “That sort…of it”)

Putin on D-Day

4 June 2014

By Gwynne Dyer

The presence of President Vladimir Putin on the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was planned long before the current conflict over Ukraine, but it is a useful reminder of the fact that Russia is not some Asiatic tyranny on Europe’s eastern borders. It is a European country that has played a major role in the continent’s affairs for centuries.

Not only were the Russians on the same side as the “Western” allies in the Second World War. They did most of the heavy lifting in the war against Nazi Germany, and they paid by far the highest price.

While 850,000 American, British and Canadian troops were landing on the French coast in June of 1944, 6 million soldiers of the Soviet army were fighting massive battles with the German army in eastern Europe. The land war on the Eastern Front was already three years old, and by June of 1944 the Russians had won: the Germans had already begun the long retreat that ended above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin eleven months later.

The price the Russians paid for their victory over Nazi Germany was huge: at least 11 million military dead (compared to fewer than 1 million dead for the Western allies). No other country in history has lost so many soldiers, but in the end it was the Red Army that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht: 80 percent of Germany’s 6 million military dead were killed on the Eastern Front.

The main strategic significance of the Normandy landings, therefore, was not the defeat of Germany, which was already assured. It was the fact that Moscow had to accept that Europe would be divided between the victors down the middle of Germany, rather than along some line further west that ran down the Franco-German border, or even down the English Channel.

President Putin, who began his career as a KGB agent working in Soviet-dominated East Germany, will certainly be aware of the irony that he is commemorating a military operation whose main result was to contain Soviet power. And his presence will remind all the other participants that the Second World War was not really fought to defend democracy from tyranny.

Hitler never intended to conquer Britain, and was surprised when his armed forces conquered France in 1940. He was certainly not out to “conquer the world”, a preposterous ambition for a country of only 80 million people. His real target was Russia: the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union. And he couldn’t even conquer that.

Unlike previous great-power wars, the two world wars had to be represented as moral crusades against evil because new wealth and technology turned them into total wars that required mass participation. If people are going to be asked to sacrifice vast numbers of their children in a war, they must be told that it has some higher purpose than the traditional one of settling disputes among the great powers.

The people who lived through the First World War were fed that lie, but we no longer believe it now. To a remarkable extent, the Western countries that fought in the Second World War still believe that it was a moral crusade, because Hitler was a very evil man.

So he was, but almost nobody in the countries that were fighting him knew about the death camps until the war was over. Moreover, the country that was carrying the heaviest burden in the war against Nazi Germany was a monstrous tyranny led by Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly rivalled Hitler in terms of how many millions of people he murdered.

It seems churlish to insist that the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering to honour, probably for the last time, those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important that they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope that we could stop them just by changing the way that the international system works.

That was the real conclusion of the governments on the winning side in both world wars. It’s why they created the League of Nations after the first one, and the United Nations after the second. Both organisations were designed to break the cycle of great-power wars by criminalising those who start wars and taking the profit out of victory (because nobody will recognise your conquests even if you win).

The League of Nations failed, as first attempts often do, but the United Nations did not. There has been no Third World War, and no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. Putin’s presence in Normandy is an embarrassment precisely because he broke the UN rules by forcibly annexing Crimea, but the enterprise is still, on the whole, a success. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Unlike…murdered”)

Post-Traumatic Psycho-Babble

27 April 2011

Post-Traumatic Psycho-Babble

By Gwynne Dyer

American and British soldiers have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for about the same length of time, and their casualty rates have been about the same. More than thirty percent of the American troops subsequently suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that involves memory suppression and uncontrollable anxiety. Only four percent of British troops do. It’s a statistic that suddenly undermines long-held assumptions.

My own long-held assumption, in this case, was that the rise of PTSD in Western armies was mainly due to a major change in the way they trained their troops. Before 1945, like all the other armies, they just trained soldiers to shoot. After 1945, they started training their soldiers to kill people.

The change was triggered by a discovery that General S.L.A. Marshall made during the Second World War. He sent out teams to interview American infantry companies immediately after combat, with a guarantee that each soldier’s testimony would remain absolutely confidential – and he learned that up to ninety percent of those American infantrymen had found it impossible to kill enemy soldiers.

They did not run away, they may even have shot their weapons into the air – but they simply could not look down the sights and kill another human being. At the last moment, they became conscientious objectors.

Marshall had stumbled upon the single most important fact about the modern battlefield: most of the soldiers present were not really taking part in the battle. Moreover, this secret refusal to kill could not be solely an American trait, or else the US Army would have lost every battle it fought against the Germans and the Japanese. In fact, it was true of every army that fought in the Second World War.

Significantly, however, it was only the private infantrymen, alone and unobserved in their foxholes, who silently refused to kill (but never admitted it to their comrades). Men on crew-served weapons like machine-guns, whose failure to do their duty would be seen by their comrades, did what the army expected of them.

The lesson US military leaders drew was that while the soldiers’ private morality made it hard for them to kill, the right training could overcome their moral inhibitions. So they changed the training.

By the early 1950s, US Army basic training sought to lay down reflex pathways that bypassed the inhibitions, by training soldiers to snap-shoot at human-shaped targets that only appeared for a few seconds. They also addressed the problem directly, psyching their young soldiers up until they believed that they actually wanted to kill.

It worked: by the time of the Vietnam war, 90 percent of American infantry were firing their weapons in combat AND TRYING TO KILL THEIR TARGETS. Other Western armies adopted the same training techniques, with equally impressive results. But there is a obvious psychological price to be paid for all this, or so it seemed.

The Vietnam war in the 1960s was when the incidence of PTSD among American veterans began to soar. They had been tricked into doing something that was morally abhorrent to them, and that was why so many of them fell apart afterwards.

Veterans of earlier wars had suffered high-than-average levels of alcoholism, depression and suicide, but that was nothing to compare with the PTSD plague that infected the new generation of veterans. The psychological manipulation they had been subjected to seemed to be the key – but then along comes this statistic saying that American soldiers are seven times more likely to suffer from PTSD than British soldiers.

The research, led by Neil Greenberg, a Commando-trained naval officer and Professor of Mental Health at King’s College London, even points out that while the mental-health risk increases for American soldiers who do several tours of combat, there is no such link for British soldiers.

So what is actually going on here? American writer Ethan Watters’s recent book, “Crazy Like Us: The Globalisation of the American Psyche”, offers a highly subversive answer. It is that American society has been permeated by psychoanalytical beliefs about the fragility of the human mind.

This creates an expectation, he argues, that people who have been through horrible experiences will be traumatised. The veterans are simply falling in with that expectation, and exhibiting the symptoms that the theory says they should be showing. In Britain, where the psychoanalytical approach never got such a hold on popular culture, this expectation is much rarer – and so are the symptoms of PTSD.

Watters then goes on to speculate that the very high incidence of PTSD in American veterans is also due to the decline of religion, patriotism, and other belief systems that once gave a kind of meaning, however imaginary, to human suffering. This is just ideologically driven nonsense: Britain, where the PTSD rate is seven times lower, is also less nationalistic and far less religious than the United States.

But Watters’s core question remains. Is PTSD really caused by what happened to veterans while they served in the military, or by the expectations of the civilian society they returned to afterwards? Suddenly, there is a case to answer.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Marshall…war”; and “The research…soldiers”)

Gwynne Dyer is a former military historian whose award-winning book “War” was republished in a completely updated version in 2004 by Random House.

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

7 July 2005

London: Not Exactly the Blitz

By Gwynne Dyer

Tony Blair flew down from the G8 summit in Scotland especially to
be with Londoners in their time of trial, and you can hardly blame him for
that. It’s not that we needed him to take charge — it was only four
smallish bombs, and the emergency services were doing their job just fine
— but the tabloid newspapers would have crucified him if he hadn’t shown
up and looked sympathetic in public.

No doubt he was feeling sympathetic, too, but the words he used
rang false. The accent was British, but the words were the sort of thing
that comes out of the mouth of George W. Bush — all about defending
British values and the British way of life. He didn’t mention God, so he’s
still British under it all, but I’m pretty sure I even heard him use Mr
Bush’s favourite words, “freedom” and “resolve”. I’m also pretty certain
that this cut very little ice with most Londoners.

This is a town that has been dealing with bombs for a long time.
German bombs during the “Blitz” in September-December 1940 killed 13,339
Londoners and seriously injured 17,939 more. In 1944 this city was the
first in the world to be hit by pilotless cruise missiles (the V-1s or
“buzz-bombs”), and later that year it was the first to be struck by
long-range ballistic missiles (the V-2s, which carried a tonne of high
explosive).

During the whole of the Second World War, about 30,000 Londoners
were killed by German bombs and three-quarters of a million lost their
homes. Then, between 1971 and 2001, London was the target of 116 bombs set
by various factions of the Irish Republican Army, although they only killed
50 people and injured around 1000. And not once during all those bombs did
people in London think that they were being attacked because of their
values and their way of life.

It was quite clear to them that they were being attacked because of
British POLICIES abroad, or the policies of Britain’s friends and allies.
The people who organised the bombs wanted Britain out of the Second World
War, or British troops out of Northern Ireland, or the British army out of
the Middle East (or maybe, in this instance, the whole G8 to leave the rest
of the world alone). Nasty things, bombs, but those who send them your way
are usually rational people with rational goals, and they almost never care
about your values or your way of life.

Londoners actually understand that, and it has a remarkably calming
effect, because once you have grasped that basic fact then you are no
longer dealing with some faceless, formless, terrifying unknown, but just a
bunch of people who are willing to kill at random in order to get your
government to change its policies. We don’t even know which bunch yet. It
could have been Islamist terrorist, or some breakaway faction of the IRA
(that’s been waiting to happen for while), or even some anarchist group
trying to make a point about the G8. But that doesn’t matter, really.
The point is that they are only terrorists, and they can’t hurt all
that many people. In a large city the odds are very much in your favour:
it will almost always be somebody else who gets unlucky.

This knowledge breeds a fairly blase attitude to bombs, which was
much in evidence this morning when I had to go in to Harley Street at noon
to pick up my daughter from school. (They didn’t let school out early; it
was just the last day.) The buses and the underground weren’t running and
a lot of streets were blocked off by the police, but everybody was finding
ways round them, on foot and in cars. You pull over to let the emergency
vehicles pass, and then you carry on.

I do recall thinking, however, that it was a good thing that the
bombs had gone off here, not in some American city. Even terrorist bombs
in London will be used by the Bush administration as an argument for
locking people up indefinitely, taking away Americans’ civil liberties, and
perhaps even for invading some other unsuspecting country. One bomb in an
American city, and it would have a free run down to 2008.

Whereas in London, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, maybe it was
my imagination, but I thought that I could even hear a number of Londoners
muttering under their breaths: “Bloody terrorists. Always get it wrong. If
only they’d done this two days ago then we wouldn’t be lumbered with the
bleeding Olympics.”
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Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.