Whither the American Empire?

by Paul Gottfried

Equally to the point, and contrary to a flat assertion made by the Fox Network loudmouth Bill O’ Reilly (New York Post, August 8, 2002) Germans do not "owe" the American government to the point of being obligated to put themselves at risk in a neocon-fomented war against Iraq. O’Reilly repeats the fiction that the US "rebuilt" Germany after lots of devastation just happened to occur there. In fact the Germans rebuilt their own country, thanks to patriotic classical liberals like Ludwig Erhard, despite the fact the US, like the other occupying powers, set out to treat postwar Germany vindictively. Erhard worked around the American administrators, who enforced price-and-wage controls and in some cases deliberately injured Germany’s postwar recovery attempts, to create something like a free-market economy. He succeeded in doing so because of American inattention and because Erhard enjoyed deserved prestige as an anti-Nazi, although one who was equally a friend of freedom.

As for why Germany needed rebuilding, the U.S. and Britain did play critical roles here, by turning the country into a junkyard. They engaged in the later stages of the war in relentless saturation bombing of civilian populations, well beyond arguable military targets. As a result, large parts of almost all major German cities were destroyed, while Dresden, an overcrowded refugee and Red Cross center by the end of the war, almost disappeared from the map because of British bombing. Making this point is not to excuse Nazi brutality or Nazi conquests. It is simply to underline the obvious truth, that the relation of the Western "democracies" to Germany has not been a predominantly benevolent one, from at least the starvation blockade and the Treaty of Versailles onward. And the fact that we got nice to the Germans (when we needed them) during the Cold War does not negate the mutually unkind relations that preceded that turn.

Ironically, the sense that Germany is a moral pariah, which now fuels German pacifism, was also a gift of the American presence in Central Europe. Postwar American "re-educators" in Germany, with the assistance of the occupation government, undertook to help Germans "overcome the past," by filling their heads with negative thoughts about their entire national history. Nazism and Auschwitz were presented as the necessary culmination of a wicked collective past, which abounded in militarism and lacked the democratic spirit. If the fruits of this Umerziehung can now be seen in Chancellor Schroeder’s statements about how a repentant Germany is committed to abstinence from military force and to justice for the Third World, one must conclude that he has learned well from his American re-educators and their German assistants.

Attacking him, as neocons have begun to do, as an enemy of global democracy, is profoundly dishonest. Schroeder and his leftist pals are following the Teutonophobic script that American and German journalists, including neocon ones, expected his contrite (but never quite contrite enough) country to follow, until now. Schroeder wishes to keep Germans away from military operations, given their collective predisposition for mass murder, the way one tries to prevent alcoholics from smelling booze. Old habits can come back, with catastrophic results. Little did Schroeder know that by turning his back on the putative German past, he would soon be accused of doing exactly the opposite, showing the habitual German contempt for "democracy," as defined in the offices of the Weekly Standard and National Review.

Observing the neocon gasbags on Fox News, led by the apparently amiable Morton Kondracke, push American youth into what in all likelihood will be a bloody war, I am drawn back to a commentary recently published by John Laughland in The European Journal and written by London Daily Mirror journalist John Pilger. Contrary to the questionable assertion that the US is a stable conservative world power, Pilger explains in his book The New Rulers of the World that there is something frenetic and utterly destabilizing about American imperialism: "The Americans, in other words, do not mind whether their son-of-a-bitch is on the left or right, so long as he does what he is told. They are also quite capable of dropping an ally, even a long-standing one, when they feel like it. To describe present U.S. policy as right-wing is therefore a mistake, especially when the U.S. has devoted the last 10 years to bringing Communists back to power in Eastern Europe."

Pilger and Laughland, a favorite Australian and Englishman of mine, have given the reasons why no self-respecting European patriot would want anything to do with the American empire. As an American, however, I find the problem to be even worse. We are running after neocon journalists, who try to compensate for the facts that they are physically puny and don’t personally bear the hardships of their Middle-Eastern commitments, by pushing the US into bloodbaths. Even scarier, these militarists of the pen are getting away with this exercise in psychological compensation — and may be propelling the US into a war that we should not be fighting. At the very least, the Germans and the other Europeans would do well to stay out of it.