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News, documents and analysis on violent extremism

Friday, September 10, 2004

Commentary: Bush Invites Comparison Between East Germany and South Iraq

By J.M. Berger

One of the most shocking statements during President George Bush's speech to the Republican National Convention last week was a historical comparison between the American occupation of Iraq and its post-WWII occupation of Germany:
America has done this kind of work before -- and there have always been doubters. In 1946, 18 months after the fall of Berlin to Allied forces, a journalist wrote in the New York Times, "Germany is -- a land in an acute stage of economic, political and moral crisis. [European] capitals are frightened. In every [military] headquarters, one meets alarmed officials doing their utmost to deal with the consequences of the occupation policy that they admit has failed." End quote.

Maybe that same person is still around, writing editorials. Fortunately, we had a resolute president named Truman, who, with the American people, persevered, knowing that a new democracy at the center of Europe would lead to stability and peace. And because that generation of Americans held firm in the cause of liberty, we live in a better and safer world today.
The comment has been widely criticized in the press for the spurious comparison between conditions in 1946 Germany and conditions in modern-day Iraq, which bear virtually no resemblence to each other.

But there's a much, much bigger problem with the comparison: The occupation of Germany in 1946 was a policy failure that cost American dearly by creating a major front in the 50-year Cold War.

The basic outline of the occupation, as summarized by the Columbia Encyclopedia:
A line formed mostly by the Oder and Neisse rivers was made the eastern boundary of Germany, as East Prussia and Upper and Lower Silesia were placed under Polish administration (except N East Prussia, which was awarded to the USSR). In the west, the Saarland was occupied by French military forces. What remained of Germany was divided into four zones, occupied separately by the armies of Great Britain, France, the United States, and the USSR. (...) By 1947, the Western occupation zones were increasingly coordinating their policies (especially in economics), whereas the Soviet zone followed an increasingly divergent policy. The split between the three Western Allies and the USSR became complete in 1948.
When the New York Times editorialized that the occupation was going badly in 1946, Germany was still (in principle) one country. Within a few short years, the occupation had collapsed completely and Germany was divided into two sovereign nations.

West Germany became the democratic success story that Bush was attempting to invoke in his speech. East Germany became an implacable foe dominated by America's most dangerous enemy for the next 50 years.

It's alarming that the President's grasp of history should be so selective, but what's even more alarming is the fact that Iraq could indeed go the way of Germany, in an entirely different way than the President intended.

Where Germany split into East and West, Iraq has a boundary running North and South. The still unresolved political struggle between the al-Sadr militias and the U.S.-dominated central Iraqi government could easily fracture the nation into two or more parts.

Deepening the problem, America has not yet defeated its primary enemy in the world today, al Qaeda, nor has its leader, Osama bin Laden, been captured or killed.

When the U.S. began its failed occupation of Germany, Hitler was dead by his own hand, an inglorious and shameful defeat that broke the moral back of the Nazi party. (In fact, bin Laden's demise is more likely to inspire his troops than demoralize them.)

The Third Reich's military might had been equally destroyed, and the U.S. was the only nation in the world that possessed the devastating atomic bomb. Despite all this, the country split into two nations, one which was a friend to America, and one which was its enemy.

Now imagine a Germany where thousands of suicidal military volunteers streamed into the country through porous borders, waging a guerilla campaign inspired by a defiant, surviving Axis leader who had escaped the Americans, like Hitler or Hirohito.

Then ask yourself whether a 50-year War with South Iraq is likely to be Cold.

The comparison between the occupations of Iraq and Germany may have been facile, misinformed and misguided, but it could also be unintentionally prophetic. As the old saying goes, those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.


Views expressed on INTELWIRE are those of the author alone.



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"Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger's new book, "ISIS," should be required reading for every politician and policymaker... Their smart, granular analysis is a bracing antidote to both facile dismissals and wild exaggerations... a nuanced and readable account of the ideological and organizational origins of the group." -- Washington Post

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"At a time when some politicians and pundits blur the line between Islam and terrorism, Berger, who knows this subject far better than the demagogues, sharply cautions against vilifying Muslim Americans. ... It is a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective." -- New York Times

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INTELWIRE is a web site edited by J.M. Berger. a researcher, analyst and consultant covering extremism, with a special focus on extremist activities in the U.S. and extremist use of social media. He is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, and author of the critically acclaimed Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, the only definitive history of the U.S. jihadist movement, and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror with Jessica Stern.


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