The Fatal Legend of Preemptive War: German History Shows the Perils of Washington's New Strategy

By Lawson, Maggie Ledford | National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Fatal Legend of Preemptive War: German History Shows the Perils of Washington's New Strategy


Lawson, Maggie Ledford, National Catholic Reporter


"Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

--Voltaire

The Bush Doctrine, offered by neo-conservatives in the White House as a unique response to a world changed by Sept. 11, is anything but new. Much of the ideology behind current American foreign policy parallels a belief system that took root in Prussia under Frederick the Great and bore poisonous fruit in the Nazi era. The notion that preemptive war is a legitimate tool of foreign policy, sold to the American public by the Bush White House, became increasingly popular in Germany in the period leading up to the Second World War. Likewise, the idea of exceptionalism, entitling the U.S. government to force its views on others because the American way of life is best, parallels a commonly held German belief in that nation's cultural superiority. The similarity to Germany goes even to the language and tactics the White House has used to convert the American people to its cause.

A real danger of a preemptive strategy is that it seemingly can succeed at first.

In fact, Germany's journey to the Third Reich started in triumph.

If modern polling had existed in the 18th century, Frederick the Great would have scored near the top. The Prussian king waged three protracted preemptive wars against Catholic Austria and got away with it. In fact, his Protestant subjects started calling him "the Great" in recognition of his success in wresting part of the rich province of Silesia from Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.

Frederick, lacking a compelling reason for preemptive war, invented one. He counted on spin to sell his unethical initiative, ordering his minister to "cook up some legal nonsense" to justify his aggression, as his biographer, Nancy Mitford, puts it. "That's the work of a good charlatan," Frederick reportedly said.

The inebriation of victory

Having manufactured a threat by implying that Austria and her ally, Saxony, were likely to attack, Frederick spurred his soldiers on, urging them to fight "for the fatherland." He singled but European governments he didn't like as "former great powers." He convinced his subjects that the Silesians would greet his invading troops with smiles and flowers, instantly recognizing the new regime as superior to the former one. That proved untrue, but Frederick's subjects soon forgot their disappointment in the inebriation of victory.

Frederick cultivated the arts and reformed the government, but his preemptive tactics worried his friend Voltaire, a frequent guest at the Prussian court. The French philosopher remarked that the Prussian king's triumph over Austria changed German destiny by putting nationalism into play for the first time. Klaus Wiegrefe, writing in the Jan. 22, 2001, issue of the German magazine, Der Spiegel, judges Frederick yet more harshly. The Prussian ruler's successful conquests persuaded the German public that preemptive war could have positive results; thus, says Wiegrefe, "a fatal legend was born."

Intellectuals such as Georg Friedrich Hegel, who held the philosophy chair at the University of Berlin in the early 19th century, encouraged the Germans' belief in their exceptionalism. He claimed German superiority justified that nation's drive to world domination through war and conquest. Soon there developed in the popular culture what historian Edward Crankshaw calls "a totalitarian mystique which glorified the community as standing above all law."

Prussia emerged as the most powerful German state. But it was left to Otto yon Bismarck, who became premier in 1862, to inspire even higher ambitions in his people. His aim was to unify Germany and turn it into a continental superpower, using any means needed. "The great questions of the time will be decided, not by speeches and resolutions of majorities ... but by iron and blood," Bismarck told the Prussian Diet in September of that year. …

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