The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery

The Culture of Defeat: On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery

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Focusing on three seminal cases of military defeat—the South after the Civil War, France in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and Germany following World War I—Wolfgang Schivelbusch reveals the complex psychological and cultural responses of vanquished nations to the experience of loss on the battlefield. Drawing on reactions from every level of society, Schivelbusch charts the narratives defeated nations construct and finds remarkable similarities across cultures. Eloquently and vibrantly told, The Culture of Defeat is a brilliant and provocative tour de force of history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312423193
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 04/01/2004
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 790,142
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.93(d)

About the Author

Wolfgang Schivelbusch is an independent scholar who lives in New York and Berlin. His books include The Railway Journey, Disenchanted Night, and Tastes of Paradise.

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The Culture of Defeat

On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery
By Wolfgang Schivelbusch

Picador USA

Copyright © 2004 Wolfgang Schivelbusch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312423195

Chapter One


The American Civil War squats in the middle of the nineteenth century like a monstrous irony. In Europe, the dominant powers had rationalized, even civilized warfare so that outcomes were reached quickly on precisely delimited battlefields, without great bloodshed-or even significant inconvenience-among civilian populations. Meanwhile, the United States, the nation that had been the embodiment of peaceful civic progress and republican reason, plunged into war with a bellicose fury that had not been seen since the Wars of Religion. It seemed incomprehensible that such a young, prosperous, and promising nation state could be determined to destroy itself so prematurely. Was this the work of an Old Testament God who, in disappointment or anger, had abandoned his people so soon after he had chosen them?

A few statistics suffice to illustrate the extent of the human and material destruction during the Civil War. The nation as a whole suffered 620,000 casualties, or 2 percent of its (white) population, more than in the two world wars and the Korean War combined. Add to that the destruction of territory and property: on the one hand, the systematic razing of cities,together with the burning of plantations and large stretches of agricultural land (the practice known as "Shermanizing"); on the other, the "disappropriation," in the form of the emancipation of slaves, of a capital resource whose estimated value was some four billion dollars.

It is clear from the statistics who the main loser was. The Confederacy bore the brunt of the wartime destruction. The 260,000 Southerners who fell in the war, out of a total white population of 5.5 million, represented a casualty rate of 5 percent, compared with 1.8 percent in the North. The South lost 20 percent of its white adult male population-an extraordinarily exact parallel to German casualties during World War II. The long-term damage these losses inflicted on the South's social and economic fabric is evident in such poignant facts as that a fifth of Mississippi's first postwar state budget was devoted to the production of prosthetic limbs for those maimed in the fighting.

Twentieth-century historiography has treated the American Civil War as the first example of total warfare and as a precursor to the two world wars. This view, while certainly true, obscures what is perhaps a more obvious comparison. Until 1861, the American experience of war was largely of the colonial variety. The military campaigns against Native Americans followed different rules from those governing a regular war between two armies. The goal of the Indian wars was not the destruction of the enemy's forces, but the destruction of the enemies themselves. The wars were as much a part of land clearing as the deforestation of primeval woodlands and the burning of the prairies. At the beginning of one such Indian campaign, General Philip Henry Sheridan issued an order to his sub-commanders: "Let it be a campaign of annihilation, obliteration, and complete destruction." Sheridan and his more famous colleague William T. Sherman would continue their scorched-earth policy during the Civil War. The only strategic component omitted when they transferred this practice from a colonial to an internal enemy (that is, one who belonged to their own civilization) was genocide.

A few years after the end of the Civil War, Sheridan was invited to meet Prussia's general staff during that country's war against France. He was astonished by the traditional tactics used by Prussian general Helmut von Moltke and recommended that the Prussians follow Sherman's and his own example: "The proper strategy consists in ... causing the inhabitants so much suffering that they must long for peace, and force the government to demand it. The people must be left nothing but their eyes to weep with over the war." Before embracing the practice of total warfare, however, most military commanders in the North had had to overcome ethical resistance similar to that of Moltke. The military high commander during the first phase of the Civil War, General George B. McClellan, was unwilling to draw the enemy civilian population into the fighting as a way of offsetting the South's military and strategic superiority. It was not until McClellan was replaced by Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant that the path was cleared for total warfare. As the side on whose territory the fighting was conducted, and that would therefore suffer most from total war, the South understandably rejected such practices. Nonetheless, it would be incorrect to say that the Confederacy refused to engage in total warfare just because it lacked the opportunity to carry it to the enemy. In the one instance when the South did operate in Northern territory, the campaign of Gettysburg, the Confederate army largely adhered to the rules of traditional warfare. The only exception was the destruction of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and even there Robert E. Lee authorized the burning of the town not to inaugurate a larger strategy but as an act of retribution for the Southern cities destroyed by the North. As the commander who carried out the action, General Jubal Early, stated: "I came to the conclusion that it was time to open the eyes of the North to [the barbarism of their methods], by an example in the way of retaliation."


Military ethics was only one of many areas in which North and South differed. The separate identities of North and South date back to the establishment of the first British colonies in North America. The distinct geography and climate of the two regions gave rise to both economic and mythological dissimilarities. The prevailing image of the North, with its harsh winters and largely Puritan settlers, was that of the wilderness: the world after the fall from grace and Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden. In contrast, the non-Puritan South with its friendlier climate became heir to the Elizabethan conception of the New World as a garden, an earthly paradise. Whereas New England Puritans devoted their lives to transforming the wilderness back into Eden through hard work, the purpose of life for the Virginians (as Northerners referred to all inhabitants of the South during the eighteenth century) was the epicurean enjoyment of the garden that Providence had bestowed on them. The social and economic systems that evolved in the two regions, free wage labor in the North and slavery in the South, resulted from the interplay of climatological, ideological, and mythological differences. It is moot whether the South "opted for" slavery in order to maintain its epicurean lifestyle, while the North valorized hard work as the key to salvation, or whether these mentalities developed out of the existing economic systems. By the eighteenth century, the separate economic, social, and cultural identities of the two regions were well established.

Upper-class European visitors found that the "Americanism" first identified by Alexis de Tocqueville applied above all, perhaps even exclusively, to the North. The South appeared by comparison more European and aristocratic. After the Civil War, one liberal English publisher and detractor of the Confederacy, William Hepworth Dixon, summed up what generations of European travelers since the eighteenth century had perceived as the cultural superiority of the South over the North:

A tourist from the Old World-one of the idler classes-found himself much at home in these country mansions. The houses were well planned and built; the furniture was rich; the table and the wine were good; the books, the prints, the music, were such as he had known in Europe.... The South was made pleasant to its English guest; for the people felt that the English were of nearer kin to them than their Yankee brethren. A sunny sky, a smiling hostess, an idle life, and a luxurious couch, led him softly to forget the foundations on which that seducing fabric stood. In the Northern States such a lotus-eater would have found but little to his taste. The country-houses ... were not so spacious and so splendid as in the South; the climate was much colder; and the delights of lounging were much less. He had nothing to do, and nobody had time to help him. The men being all intent on their affairs, they neither hunted, fished, nor danced; they talked of scarcely anything but their mills, their mines, their roads, their fisheries; they were always eager, hurried, and absorbed, as though the universe hung upon their arms, and they feared to let it fall.... In the ... sunny Southern houses, with their long verandas, their pleasant lawns, no man was busy, no woman was in haste. Every one had time for wit, for compliment, for small talk.

The hardworking, profit-obsessed, religious/moral-fundamentalist Yankee became the embodiment of New England, while the contemplative, cultivated gentleman-or "cavalier," as he would later be called-came to represent the South. As long as their respective regions functioned as a harmonious unit, the two types could coexist without rancor. There is nary a hint of distrust or distaste in James Fenimore Cooper's 1828 observation "that in proportion to the population, there are more men who belong to what is termed the class of gentlemen, in the old southern States of America than in any other country of the world.... I do not know where to find gentlemen of better air or better breeding throughout, than most of those I have met in the southern Atlantic States." The Puritan North did not resent the South for prizing the classics of antiquity above the King James Bible, nor did it object that the highest political offices in the land, from the presidency to the Senate to the Supreme Court, as well as the leadership of the military, were disproportionately occupied by Southerners trained in classical rhetoric. As Southerner James D. B. DeBow wrote in 1851: "The Southern slave states of Greece and Rome had given to the world all the civilization, laws and government which antiquity offered.... The civilization of the world has come from the South as all history shows." The South's conceit that it produced the Catos, Ciceros, and Scipios of the American republic and its insistence that its economic system was the extension of classical models attracted scant opposition as long as slavery was considered morally acceptable and as long as the South remained the superior within the national economy.

Beginning in 1830, however, the South was put on the defensive on both fronts. Under President Andrew Jackson, industrialization in the North took off at a furious pace, and the North soon outstripped the South economically. At the same time, slavery came in for increasing moral criticism. The South suffered a bout of collective panic after the bloody slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831, and within a year open debates on the morality of slavery had become taboo. The South's suppression of all discussion put an end to its traditional role as the national seat of enlightenment.

This double development upset the balance of economic and political power between the two regions, to the South's manifest disadvantage. The reaction there, as in other cases of historical decline, was varied. As cultural historian Rollin G. Osterweis puts it, the South was "slipping into the position of a minority people under attack." Until 1830, the North had acted as an agent of the plantation in all its significant economic activities, including the slave trade, the transportation of tobacco and cotton to Europe, and credit and finance. It was therefore no wonder that the South felt abandoned and betrayed by the North's sudden moral and economic turnaround. In the decades before the Civil War, Southerners were full of resentment at the moral hypocrisy of former slave-trade profiteers in Boston and at the selective memory of the North in general as to the origins of its wealth. There was also a mood of elegiac pessimism comparable to that of Don Fabrizio in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's novel The Leopard, who sees in the new relations of power the inevitable end of his civilization. "We, who once swayed the councils of the Union, find our power gone, and our influence on the wane," mourned one member of Virginia's traditional elite in 1852. "As the other States accumulate the means of material greatness, and glide past us on the road to wealth and empire, we slight the warnings of statistics, and drive lazily along the fields of ancient customs." Hugh Swinton Legari, an exemplary representative of the Southern politician-intellectual, remarked as early as 1832: "We are (I am quite sure) the last of the race of South Carolina. I see nothing before us but decay and downfall." Cynics remarked: "We occupy virtually the same relation to the Yankee that the negroes do to us."

Another reaction to the challenges suddenly posed by the North was evident in the yearning to secede. The roots of secession can be found in a new definition of slavery that began to gain currency among Southerners. Before 1830, slavery had been viewed in both the South and the North as a necessary evil. Within a few years, however, it had become nothing less than the basis of a new national doctrine, grounded in theology, philosophy, and sociology, of the Southern plantation system's superiority over the industrial capitalism of the North.

Slavery as "Socialism"

"We have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." Thomas Jefferson's words, spoken in the age of enlightenment and the rights of man, long epitomized the prevailing sentiment in the South toward the problem of slavery. Before the South broke off the slavery debate in 1830, quashing any further questioning of the system, the discussion was conducted there with an intensity that had no equivalent in the North. As historian C. Vann Woodward points out, Southern critics of slavery "spoke against the effect on the master as well as on the slave; they exposed the harm done to the manners and morals of the South as well as its economy and society. Nor were the critics mere misfits and radicals. They included men of influence and standing-politicians, editors, professors, and clergymen. Antislavery thought appeared in respectable newspapers.... In the 1820s the slave states contained a great many more antislavery societies than the free states and furnished leadership for the movement in the country."

Within a decade, however, all that had changed. Justifying slavery as its "peculiar institution," the South began its counterreformation against the antislavery agitation emerging in the North. The jesuitic cleverness applied to this task is fascinating even today. Strategically, the notion of the peculiar institution was a retreat into the offensive.


Excerpted from The Culture of Defeat by Wolfgang Schivelbusch Copyright © 2004 by Wolfgang Schivelbusch. Excerpted by permission.
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