Donald and Me: The Iraq War and the 'Werwolf' Analogy

Article excerpt

Perry Biddiscombe is professor of history at the University of Victoria. An early version of this paper was presented at the Qualicum History Conference, 30 January 2004.

I HAVE SPENT THE LAST TWENTY YEARS OF MY LIFE researching the Nazi guerrilla movement, which the SS rather melodramatically dubbed the "Werwolf." Although I long toiled away in relative obscurity, in the last year a tremendous glare has been focussed on the Werwolf topic. This new interest is owed not to any fresh evidence coming to light, but to the fact that Nazi Werewolves have become an important point of comparison for the current guerrilla war in Iraq. A number of senior policymakers, including Donald Rumsfeld, have used my work in some rather creative ways, which has in turn led me to begin thinking about the merit of such comparisons and about the functional value of history in general.

My claim to fame--such as it is--consists of a pair of volumes, one a scholarly tome called Werwolf!, which was published in 1998, and the other a popular study called The Last Nazis, which appeared two years after its predecessor. What I had hoped to do with these books was to make a modest contribution to the history of the Allied conquest and occupation of Germany. Previous historians had never mentioned violent resistance as an aspect of the occupation experience, or if they did mention the Werwolf movement, they typically had said that it was a propaganda device developed by the collapsing Nazi regime and that it had never had an impact. I took issue with this assessment, arguing that the Germans had actually made some progress--albeit haphazardly--in launching the Werwolf movement. I contended that Nazi guerrillas and terrorists had manifested themselves in various ways and locations, and I argued that even if the Werewolves had failed to hinder the Allied occupation of Germany, they nonetheless had a major impact because they caused the occupying powers to toughen their control policies and get rough with the Germans, at least in the initial phase of the occupation. In addition, I pointed out that the Werwolf told us something essential about the nature of the Nazi regime, illustrating not only its ultimate lack of concern for German lives and property, but also its abysmal degree of disorganization. Such was the essence of my contribution to the historiography.

Since Werwolf! and The Last Nazis were published some time ago, I had assumed that by 2003 they would be in the bargain bins, winding up the span of their commercial existence, and that whatever I had been able to say about the nature of the occupation would be forgotten, except perhaps by a few specialists working in the field. Thus, one can imagine my surprise when some of my work began turning up on right-wing websites such as "Free Republic," the "Country Store," "Talking Proud" and "Sgt. Grit's Marine Forum." My work was also mentioned approvingly by Ezra Levant in the Calgary Sun and, on a broadcast of MSNBC's "Hardball," Bob "B-1" Dornan held up a copy of The Last Nazis on air. A brief article that I had written for History Today was included in the Wall Street Journal's "Best of the Web" list for July 2003. Naturally, the point in all of this was to show that there had been some scattered opposition to the Allied occupation of Germany, just as sporadic opposition to the occupation of Iraq was beginning to manifest itself in May/June/July of 2003. And the supposed lesson was that this type of thing was only to be expected: so-called die-hards would always go down swinging, even if bereft of the popular base needed for successful guerrilla warfare. This type of problem had been successfully dealt with in Germany, as would be the case in Iraq.

The logic of this argument appealed to policy-makers at the top of the neo-conservative pyramid. As early as 7 August 2003, Condoleezza Rice mentioned Nazi Werewolves in an address on foreign policy and she argued that Saddam Fedayeen and Baathist remnants were the same type of phenomenon. …