The Culture of Defeat: on national trauma, mourning and recovery by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, trans. Jefferson Chase

Victor vanquished: an analysis of defeat
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The fall of Troy was the first great military defeat of western civilisation and the prototype for all future national downfalls, argues the German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch. No defeat is ever quite straightforward, and many Greek heroes who triumphed at Troy were themselves later trounced. Agamemnon was gruesomely murdered; Odysseus suffered years of wretched exile. Moreover, the vanquished are often destined to be winners. Thus the defeated Trojan leader Aeneas was immortalised by Virgil as the ancestral founder of Rome. Aeneas left Troy humiliated but entered Roman mythology a hero.

In this unusual work of military history, Schivelbusch argues that downfall invariably brings its own kind of posthumous victory. He explores three key national defeats: the collapse of the Confederacy at the end of the American Civil War; the capitulation of France to the Prussians in 1870-71; and the defeat of Germany by the Allies in 1918. In each case, Schivelbusch contends, the loser seemed to have the last word.

The vanquished Confederacy remains the most interesting case. The slave-holding South was so utterly devastated by Union armies that it lost 20 per cent of its white male population; yet the Confederates managed to recast themselves as Christ-like victims who were exalted by defeat. A mood of spiritual defiance prevailed as the Southern gentleman was elevated above the money-grubbing Yankee.

The Jacobite uprising and other Scottish "lost causes" (Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy) became central to the folklore of the post-bellum South. Scottish "cavaliers" like Bonnie Prince Charlie were championed as the very antithesis to the Yankee, Roundhead North.

France dealt with the shock of defeat by the Prussians by finding convenient scapegoats. An indecisive general, Achille-François Bazaine, was held up for national opprobrium after he surrendered instead of leading his men back to Paris in triumph. Nations are often incapable of imagining their own defeat. Thus Germany claimed that its armies had not been beaten in the First World War, but "overwhelmed" by sheer weight of numbers. Germany's myth of having been stabbed in the back by "foreign" elements was a useful way of rebuilding national identity in the wake of catastrophe.

Unfortunately, Schivelbusch is not immune from psychobabble. At one point he sounds off: "Without the eternally negating spirit of Mephistopheles, or the Hegelian antithesis, or the Freudian reality principle, there can be no Faustian bargain, no dialectical understanding of history, and no construction of the ego from the id." Here, I fearthe author has been defeated by pretension; but overall The Culture of Defeat is a triumph of cultural and psychological analysis.

Ian Thomson won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award 2003 for his biography of Primo Levi