Lost Causes

Lost Causes

Nations, like individuals, sustain trauma, mourn and recover. And like individuals they survive by making sense of what has befallen them, by constructing a narrative of loss and redemption.


Nations, like individuals, sustain trauma, mourn and recover. And like individuals they survive by making sense of what has befallen them, by constructing a narrative of loss and redemption. Writ large, this interpretive enterprise constitutes a “culture of defeat,” a collective response that makes it possible to live with failure in the greatest of national efforts–war–and ultimately somehow to snatch victory from defeat. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, an independent scholar who divides his time between Germany and New York, begins his polyphonic, brilliant study with the case of the American South after 1865, then turns to France after its losing war with Prussia in 1870-71 and ends with Weimar Germany.

The book does not, however, end with Weimar; an epilogue considers September 11. Our image of that day is not the hole in the side of the Pentagon, Schivelbusch reminds us, but rather the rubble of the World Trade Center. The reasons seem obvious enough: The real target was not military but economic; the real hatred of the attackers was directed against the symbol of American world dominance in the age of globalization; the loss of life and the gaping wound in the earth were on an altogether different scale in New York than on the banks of the Potomac. But there is another reason that touches the historical unconscious: The World Trade Center fell. A successful attack is not a defeat, of course, but this one embodies “something of the fall of Troy, the first of all defeats.” In the wheel of fortune, winners rise and losers fall; heroes “fall” in battle, they do not die; we remember the end of the Soviet Union not by the lowering of its flag in 1991 but by the fall of the Berlin wall. No one thinks of the end of the Vietnam War as the 1973 cease-fire signing but rather as the last, desperate effort of people clamoring to get on helicopters as they lifted off from the embassy roof for the last time.

Just as earthquakes and aerial bombardments can reveal layers of earlier ruined cities, might not, Schivelbusch asks, “the destruction of September 11 [have] uncovered the suppressed remains of Vietnam”?Could the internationalism and peacefulness of the United States during the past thirty years have been a sort of seemingly benign interim period, like that of Weimar, with its “pleasant illusion of a pacified Germany,” or of the last decades of the nineteenth century when French calls for revanche were expressed in cultural rather than military terms? In short, is “America’s post-September 11 war fever…really a response to an earlier and unresolved defeat?” With this question the epilogue ends. The book appeared before the denouement of that fever in Iraq.

But we can offer a response. It does not matter, Thomas Friedman reassures us, that the ostensible reason for the unseemly speed with which we rushed to war turns out to be indefensible. The “real reason” for war, he says, is that we had to make war on someone serious after a series of earlier attacks on United States interests that, in the post-Vietnam era, we let slide. Never mind that the object of our vengeance had so little to do with the insult at hand. We as a nation seem to long for a return to 1945, for the “Great Generation” and our last clear victory. It was reported that troops being sent to Iraq had been coached to hand out candies and other gifts to children as their tanks and transports passed by so that cameras could capture what was to be a remake of World War II liberations; saving Private Lynch was meant of course to be Saving Private Ryan redux. Iraq was a war waged by those who sat on the sidelines in Vietnam. Perhaps the illusory triumphs of the past few months represent our collective effort to lay to rest the “psychological and cultural fall-out” of defeat that is the subject of Schivelbusch’s book.

The claim that history is written by the winners is, at best, a half-truth. Writing a history of victory is relatively easy because what fortune smiles upon seems somehow natural, almost inevitable. But defeat, never expected by the loser, has to be explained and re-explained; it offers a real challenge. “Victories are often deceptive,” says a commentator quoted in a footnote, “but defeats are always instructive.”

Only something deep and troubling–a moral failing, a betrayal, the treachery of a stab in the back, madness, the sudden collapse of national spirit, a tragic, hidden, wrong turn in the past that pits a culture against some inexorable tide of human progress–can account, from the loser’s perspective, for something so terrible as defeat. The task is intellectually bracing, and some of the greatest historians of the Western tradition have labored in its shadow: Thucydides, in exile after losing a battle, writing of the collapse of Athens; Augustine reeling from the sack of Eternal Rome as he wrote The City of God; Guicciardini, also in exile, recounting the savage war that saw Italy in ruins at the feet of the German emperor; Tocqueville, who bears in his person traces of almost every political and cultural defeat the nineteenth century had to offer. There is a long tradition of thinking about failure. It has from the beginning had its tropes: Victory has dogged defeat, defeat victory, in a great cycle of birth and death, will and its negation. “The last shall be first”; the mocked, crucified Christ is resurrected and assures eternal life; winners will always face new challenges from rivals; all is change–sic transit gloria mundi. The culture of defeat–the sorts of stories a defeated society tells about its loss, the ways it borrows from its conqueror in order to someday be in a position to seek restitution, the ways in which victors appropriate from losers, the politics of reversal–are thus elemental. But they are also historically specific.

Schivelbusch’s first case study is the American South, whose crushing defeat by the Union fostered the myth of the Lost Cause. We follow this peculiar narrative of hopelessness and heroism from the South’s prewar identification with England’s seventeenth-century Cavaliers and with the defeated Scots of the eighteenth century up to Appomattox, where it became a kind of regional religion that soon acquired its saints and martyrs. Robert E. Lee became the saint, while James Longstreet, a much more successful general, became the villain who betrayed Lee at Gettysburg and ended Southern hopes for victory through his Judas-like behavior. By the late 1870s the myth of the Old South had spread north. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was turned into a play with nary a hint of its old abolitionist fervor; a spate of plantation novels culminating in Gone With the Wind made the dreamy Old South a model for an alternative and better life that, in turn, made the new South of Jim Crow a welcome member of the Union.

The French section of this book centers on the meaning of revanche for various constituencies and the many cultural forms it took. Despite the richness of Schivelbusch’s account, it is an idea waiting for an even fuller history. The word itself was new to English in the nineteenth century, a borrowing from the language of international diplomacy. But the notion that a nation and not just a ruler has to right the wrongs done to it, to take revenge and return matters to their proper state, was itself new. Revanchism as a political program, so attractive to many nations after World War I, came into its own after the humiliating defeat of France by Prussia in 1871. From the perspective of the Jacobin tradition, France had failed because it had deviated from the path of virtue into royalism, Bonapartism and religion. For devout Catholics and royalists of various stripes, defeat was the result of divine punishment for the secularization that had begun in the revolution. One side developed the cult of the wound, the sacred bleeding heart of Jesus as an image of counterrevolution that would save defeated France and restore it to glory. Republicans appropriated the wound image to mean the gaping wound of Alsace and Lorraine, which had to be recovered–although not through military efforts–for the national body to be made whole. There was revanche through secular education (Prussia, it was said, had won because of its schoolmasters); through the élan vital propounded by Barres’s cult of egotism (the nation had become soft and lethargic); and through the pompous and silly military theater that starred General Boulanger (bread and circuses can make things seem all right). Some people recalled Gallic resistance to the Romans, others Joan of Arc’s battle against the English. Sport offered hope for salvation, but more important, empire offered an even headier displacement of desire. Some of the greatest proponents of revanche, like Léon Gambetta, the statesman who more than anyone secured broad support for the Third Republic, came to believe that Algeria could substitute for Alsace; overseas triumphs dulled the pain of defeat in Europe with the pleasures of victory abroad. One should be suspicious in our day of those who look back nostalgically at the British Empire as the path forward for a new America.

By the time we get to Germany many changes have already been rung on the basic themes of the culture of defeat. But Schivelbusch is incapable of writing a dull page. Pieces fit together in the most unexpected of ways. There was, for example, the cult of life on the frontlines–Ernst Jünger is its most famous exponent–with its ritual of rebirth by fire for warriors but not citizens. Even liberal politics started to use the mythic rebirth-in-the-flames-of-war motif in their calls for national regeneration. Americanism–notably in the form of taylorism (factory design based on time-motion studies)–seemed the way forward for others, since it was dynamic and rational. The victor’s culture could be borrowed and transformed into something righteous by the loser without succumbing to the vulgarity of the New World. And of course, there was the National Socialist answer of creating a Volksgemeinschaft of those who belonged to the martyred nation of 1918, and expelling or suppressing those who stood outside it. If there was a class struggle in this narrative it was between a proletarianized Germany and a bourgeois West. Berlin in this period becomes a world city precisely because it was a city in defeat; like Paris after 1815 it sought to become capital of the modern. Locals were proud of Potsdamer-Platz and its heroic traffic jams because they represented concretely a new, no longer backward and defeated, nation.

Schivelbusch’s three case studies all come from the period after the “cabinet wars” of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when a whole people, and not just soldiers and rulers, suffered defeat or enjoyed victory. Combat itself did not directly touch civilians until the American Civil War–and did so unequally in subsequent wars as well–but whatever the real suffering on the home front, the wars themselves came increasingly to be seen as, and indeed to a large extent were, struggles between whole peoples and their civilizations. The nation as a whole went to war. The national psyche was on the line as one people’s culture and history faced another’s. This new understanding created new hopes; the people could save the nation if its army and government could not. The levée en masse–mass mobilization–saved the French Revolution from its enemies in 1792; it failed to stop the Prussians in 1871, but its efforts gave legitimacy to the republic born of defeat. Hitler in 1933 admired the energy of the people rising to rescue the tricolore from the humiliation of Sedan as precisely the sort of national fervor Germany so tragically lacked in 1918. The people can save the nation, if not literally, then in the world court of honor by how they respond to the events of the battlefield.

There are, according to Schivelbusch, patterns and archetypes that structure cultures of defeat. After the initial shock of defeat there is what he calls the “dream state,” a kind of unreality that is born of a sense that the nation has been cleansed, that the old and tyrannical regimes that had led to ruin are gone, that anything is now possible. This dreamlike condition–the loss of the reality principle–is manifested in many ways: dance crazes in France and Germany, for example, that were outlets for emotions of relief and an expression of the hope of oblivion; in delusional politics like the South’s belief for almost two years that the antebellum status quo was just around the corner; and even, arguably, in the German communist Spartacist uprising in 1919 or the Paris Commune of 1871.

Then there is awakening from the dream state, which produces new stories born of national myths, great epics and a dominant literature. So the embrace of der Dolchstoss–the stabbed-in-the-back theory–to explain Germany’s unexpected defeat in 1918 is experienced through Wagner’s Ring cycle, so well-known that it could become an allegory not just for the foibles of the gods but for the fate of nations. Germany is Siegfriedland, its enemies the perfidious Hagen. (He is, we might add, usually figured as a Jew.) Sir Walter Scott’s novels of chivalrous Highland clans, the martyrdom of Joan of Arc and the death of Roland fighting the infidel Saracens refracted loss and connected the unfortunate present with a glorious past, serving similar purposes in France and the American South.

There are many versions of the story of defeat, and Schivelbusch tries to catalogue them. In one of these, the vanquished manage to construe the victors as inferior where it really counts, and their triumph as the result of some spurious advantage. The winners collude in this; they worry about the cultural costs of their triumph and thereby give some credence to the loser’s story. Henry James and Henry Adams, for example, deflected their critiques of Gilded Age America onto the figure of the Southern gentleman “as a moral hero in a deeply immoral world.” In another variant the losers turn the sour taste of defeat into the sweet melancholy of unrewarded righteousness. Thus, Confederate defeat on the ground becomes the Southern Lost Cause; Germans insist that they hadn’t actually been defeated on the battlefield; the French turn loss into longing for Alsace and Lorraine. These kinds of stories often envisioned new and morally grander roles after defeat than before: France held itself out as the spiritual counterweight to German scientific barbarism, Germany as a bulwark against Bolshevism, the South as the savior of the white man. Losers also told themselves that they had gained something from the winners, and managed to keep for themselves the cultural treasures they had borrowed: “To invoke Karl Marx, one could almost say that the task of the downtrodden is to rescue innovation from its masters, delivering it from alienation.”

It would be hard to exaggerate the breadth and brilliance of the variations Schivelbusch plays on these themes over fifty years of history and two continents.This book is like the most intricate of jazz; the riffs are what matter. The last page is characteristic of the dizzying analytic connections that make it both pleasurable and unsettling. The journalist and critic Walter Dirks–no friend of the Nazis–understood, we are told, the attraction that speed held for his countrymen: the thrill of unimpeded traffic flow on the autobahns that Hitler had built, the seduction of being transported through space without any apparent resistance or any effort of one’s own, the comfort of being a member on the move of the new Volkswagen community. Movement resonated for a defeated people, and the Nazis knew it. These observations of Dirks’s recall the passion, Schivelbusch suggests, for the vélo in fin-de-siècle France, still smarting, after almost thirty years, from the loss of Alsace and Lorraine. Perhaps the car is the new version of the bicycle and for the same reason: the instinct for motion. It had been manifest in the levée en masse that had tried to save the nation in 1870 and more successfully before that, in the dark year of 1792, and also in the gymnastique, a project to build national strength through physical fitness, that the Prussians embraced after their defeat by the French in the Napoleonic wars. A dance mania, Schivelbusch observes, seems to follow defeats, the moments of national delirium before the bitter truth sinks in. “Perhaps, too, reclaimed motion is a form of revanche,” he suggests, adding that “the same energy may be at work in those revolutionary groups that since the nineteenth century have been referred to not as parties but as movements.” Schivelbusch does for culture what Freud on a good day did for his patients; he weaves a web of meaning out of seemingly disparate, in themselves minor and perhaps forgotten experiences.

Those of us who have read Schivelbusch’s earlier book, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century, can never again take a train into a European city or cross a trestle in quite the innocent way we did before. We think of Heine’s comment about the smell of the North Sea coming nearer to the smells of Paris, of the leveling of land as we go over hollows and through mountains, of the miraculous transformation of consciousness as we emerge from the train shed into the magnificent station itself and on into the city beyond. He is a brilliant reader of culture.

But in this book culture tends to take over to the point that politics appears to have no independent existence. Cultures of defeat seem to ventriloquize through politicians. They are, however, not just its mouthpieces. Class interests have a life of their own; there are alternative communities of memory; there are losers among the lost. Schivelbusch, of course, would not deny this, but he writes as if memory were its own agent. One might, alternatively, want to explain Northern complicity with Jim Crow less through the triumph of the Lost Cause in the land of the victors than through the carefully crafted strategies of politicians. William Howard Taft, for example, understood that the South had been willing to trade economic diversification for the maintenance of apartheid, and he sought its votes on the basis of its deeply rooted regime of racial dominance. The white man, he told white voters, was the best friend the Negro ever had; the federal government had no interest in social equality; the Fifteenth Amendment did not mean the South was to be dominated by an ignorant black electorate. This is not the Lost Cause triumphant but a politician playing to sectional interests. The Lost Cause made headway because it was good for national economic integration and hence for business; the culture of commerce spoke louder than the culture of defeat.

We might also question whether there really is such a thing as a culture of defeat even within one nation or would-be nation. Among the vanquished there were winners, and among the losers some did not succumb to outside conquerors but to internal foes. Black communities in the South continued to celebrate the Civil War and particularly emancipation as best they could. Some white elites suffered less from the defeat at Appomattox than from defeat by lower-class whites. One thinks of the magnificent bronze statue of Leroy Percy as a medieval knight that stands over his grave in the Greenville, Mississippi, cemetery; his is the lost cause of the aristocratic planter class overwhelmed by the Klan, the violent branch, as Schivelbusch calls it, of a very different interpretation of defeat.

We still need a history of how cultures of defeat die. Germany is now the pacifist heartland of Europe; France is a strong social democracy with only the dimmest memory of 1870-71. Few Frenchmen could tell a visitor that the hideous Church of the Sacré Coeur was built to expiate the sins of the Commune. But in the American South, the culture of defeat lives on with a kind of lunatic creativity. At rural state fairs one can buy the Stars and Bars with the head of a Native American emblazoned on the field. One majestic loser appropriates another. The battle over the Confederate flag in Mississippi in 2001 filled the Ole Miss student newspaper with debates still fresh from 1860. And perhaps the defeat of the South in the civil rights era has taken on some of the tricks of the old Lost Cause, as the victors are faced with new efforts to transform their culture. The resurgence of the death penalty in the states of the old Confederacy and their leadership in the culture wars may be another chapter in Schivelbusch’s story. Some defeats clearly die harder than others.

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