Kevin Baker has a very interesting article in the current issue of Harpers entitled “Stabbed In the Back.” He writes,
Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That isHe traces the popularity of the stabbed-in-the-back myth to story of Siegfried who was assassinated by Hagen – a story popularized by Wagner in opera. Of course, the myth is much older with the story most Americans would be familiar with is the tale of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some
momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.
As the United States staggers past the third anniversary of its
misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being
The word dolchstoss—“dagger thrust”—had been popularized almost fiftyBaker then explains the importance of this myth in Germany following its defeat in WWI. The myth was an important factor in the rise of the Nazi party and its seizure and maintenance of power over two decades in the German state.
years before in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siegfried, is
fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillain, Alberich.
Wagner had himself lifted his plot device from a medieval German
poem, which was inspired in turn by Old Norse folklore, and of course the same
story can be found in a slew of ancient mythologies, whether it’s the fate of
the Greek heroes Achilles and Hercules or the story of Jesus and Judas. The hero
cannot be defeated by fair means or outside forces but only by someone close to
him, resorting to treachery.
The Siegfried legend in particular, though, has nuances that would
mesh perfectly with right-wing mythology in the twentieth century, both in
Germany and in the United States.
Baker then points to how the myth served the purposes of right-wing politicians in the United States following the end of WWII. “Betrayal at Yalta” became a rallying cry for post-war conservatives. Even President Bush shamelessly denounced his own country for Yalta in an effort to pander to Eastern Europe countries for support of the war in Iraq. The Yalta betrayal myth does overlook the fact that agreement was an important factor in the stabilization of the world following WWII – something that failed to happen following WWI.
The stabbed-in-the-back myth became standard fare during the Cold War. China, Korea, Vietnam, domestic dissent and more all gave rise to variations of the same theme. Political careers rose or fell based upon how leaders approached (or used) this myth.
In mid-2006, will this myth have much traction. Maybe, maybe not. Having failed to do the critical political work immediately following the collapse of the previous regime and having failed to put the military manpower on the ground to protect the population from criminals, insurgents and assorted terrorists, the situation is slowly deteriorating towards civil war. The administration’s grand strategy for Iraq is to just muddle along and hope empty rhetoric will somehow win the war. In the meantime, Iran is flexing its muscles and situation in Lebanon and Gaze is spinning out of control with the real possibility of an all out regional war. It may be only a matter of time before someone will point back to the period and ask, “Who lost ______?” (You fill in the blank.)
The problem is the public has been kept at arms-length from the war in Iraq. The leadership of the nation asks nothing in the way of sacrifice. Quite the contrary, the administration pushes through tax cuts in a time of war and urges the public to go shopping. If the public feels no connection with what is going on with its troops then the myth will hold little resonance. Baker explains,
What has really robbed the conspiracy theories of their effectiveness
is how the war in Iraq has been conducted. Bush and his advisers have sought to
use the war not only to punish their enemies but also to reward their
supporters, a bit of political juggling that led them to demand nothing from the
American public as a whole. Those of us who are not actively fighting in Iraq,
or who do not have close friends and family members who are doing so, have not
been asked to sacrifice in any way. The richest among us have even been showered with tax cuts.
Yet in demanding so little, Bush has finally uncoupled the state
from its heroic status. It is not a coincidence that modern nationalism dates
from the advent of mass democracy—and mass citizen armies—that the American and French revolutions ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century. Bush’s
refusal to mobilize the nation for the war in Iraq has severed that immediate
identification with our army’s fortunes.
Anyone who doubts that this is exactly what we have done need only
look at how little the war really engages most of us. It rarely draws more than
a few seconds of coverage on the local television news, if that, and then only
well into the broadcast, after a story on a murder, or a fire, or the latest
weather predictions. Even the largest and angriest demonstrations against our
occupation of Iraq have not approached the mobilizations against the war in
Vietnam, but a close observer will notice that we also have yet to see any of
the massive counterdemonstrations that were held in support of that war—or “in
support of the troops.” Such engagement on either side seems almost quaint now.
Who could possibly believe in a plot to lose this war? No one cares
that much about it. We have, instead, reached a crossroads where the
overwhelming right-wing desire to dissolve much of the old social compact that
held together the modern nation-state is irreconcilably at odds with any attempt
to conduct such a grand, heroic experiment as implanting democracy in the Middle
East. Without mass participation, Iraq cannot be passed off as an heroic
endeavor, no matter how much Mr. Bush’s rhetoric tries to make it one, and
without a hero there can be no great betrayer, no skulking villain.
You can read his entire article here.