THE CULTURE OF DEFEAT by Wolfgang Schivelbusch


On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery
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A thoughtful examination, by a noted German social and “consciousness” historian, of what happens to victor and vanquished alike in the aftermath of war.

Why, wonders Schivelbusch (Tastes of Paradise, 1992), were Union officers so full of praise for the Southern cavaliers against whom they fought? Why did the Germans of 1918 so readily believe that Woodrow Wilson was an “honest broker in whose hands Germany entrusted its future”? Why were the defeated French, usually so quick to distinguish themselves from their neighbors, so eager to reform their educational system on the German model following defeat in 1870? Strange things happen to defeated countries, Schivelbusch responds, just as they do to bereaved individuals: first comes the denial, then the anger, and then the quest for a scapegoat (“the previous regime is held responsible both for leading the nation into the fateful misadventure of war and for directing it down a dead-end path long before the commencement of hostilities”). Finally, there’s some sort of accommodation that can involve the wholesale adoption of the former enemy’s customs. Similarly, conquerors often find themselves in tremendous sympathy with their defeated foe, so that, Schivelbusch writes, a generation of American intellectuals was inspired to move to France after WWI to become, for a time, Europeans. (But wasn’t the defeated foe Germany? Well, yes, Schivelbusch writes: but the real loser in WWI was Europe, the real winner America.) Schivelbusch tends to an essayistic, even impressionistic approach to history, but his pages are dense with documentable facts that speak to the horrors of war: one of every five Southerners died in the Civil War, one of every five Germans in WWII, one of every thirty Parisians in the ill-fated Commune. And some of his most interesting observations (such as his lengthy digression on the Volkswagen) come in the densely set, small-type endnotes, making every page worth a look.

A fine, discursive study of war and peace, and a worthy companion to the late German writer W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction (Feb. 2003).

Pub Date: April 16th, 2003
ISBN: 0-8050-4421-3
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 2003


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