Thursday, July 08, 2004

Past Imperfect

The U.S. can invade Iraq, overthrow its dictator, and in time rebuild the country into a free, modern, secular nation living under the rule of law.

Those of us who assert this use Germany in World War II as a comparison. But is it the right one? Iraq today seems little like the Germany of 1945 -- a shattered nation that before its defeat had been tightly bonded by social organization and a strong nationalist tradition.

Instead, what I read and see from Iraq reminds me more of the Germany of 1815: Regionally fragmented, partially liberated from its native petty tyrants, with unresolved issues of religion and politics. It has a civil service in its infancy, systems still corrupt, and a growing middle class restive for rights and reforms. It's a nation vulnerable to neighboring powers, with citizens increasingly maddened by the clash of their foreign liberators' egalitarian rhetoric and the humiliating realities of occupation.

Americans, as we work to give Iraq to its people for the first time, would do well to look back, not to ourselves in 1945, but to the French of 200 years ago. There we can learn by example many mistakes to avoid, and at the same time we can take pleasure in learning them from our dear friends the French ruling class.

France in the Napoleonic era was not in the same superpower class as America today. It had achieved a sudden dominant position in the continental European power game, but still it could not fight all its enemies at once, or even certain combinations of them. Yet a brief description of the French experience in the Rhineland is bound to set off bells of recognition for a modern observer of the U.S. in Iraq.

The Grand Army poured into the German Rhineland in 1792, rolling up cities and individual states whose armies were no match for it. Prussia and Austria, the two regional powers that could have stopped the invasion, were preoccupied with carving up and digesting Poland, and made only half-hearted attempts to fight a two-front war. By 1797, the French conquest was complete.

Contemporary French accounts say they were welcomed as liberators by the Rhinelanders. The French made the Rhineland a laboratory for their experiment of exporting Enlightenment and French Revolutionary values. They rapidly transformed the political and social landscape of the conquered land. They suppressed the local nobility and abolished serfdom. They enacted universal male sufferage and installed elected governments. They secularized ecclesiastical principalities, reformed the legal system, spurred industrial development, and modernized the infrastructure.

"[T]he French rebuilt occupied Germany from its foundations, particularly the Rhineland," Steven Ozment writes in his excellent short history of Germany, "A Mighty Fortress" [2004, p.159]. "The Code Napoléon encouraged comparatively open societies with greater social equality and individual rights (peasants were emancipated throughout the Rhineland), free trade, and religious tolerance."

There was an element of pragmatism in the French project. Not all the old power-structures were overthrown; some were co-opted. Larger states, for instance, were consoled in their defeat by being permitted to absorb smaller neighbors.

The reforms even had a liberalizing effect on the Rhineland's neighbors -- France's rivals in central Europe -- especially Austria and Prussia. The leaders of those nations knew they could more readily mobilize their populations to resist the French if the freedom France offered were not so tempting, and if the people felt a greater stake in their homelands.

But the benefits of the French occupation were soon outweighed, in the minds of the occupied people, by its baleful aspects. And these were beyond anything the U.S. has done in Iraq or is likely ever to do there.

Unlike Iraq, the Rhineland found itself annexed outright to the nation that had delivered it. In many places, the French plundered outright, and overall they conscripted tens of thousands of Germans into the French army. International trade was restricted to focus on France's markets.

A powerful current in the Rhineland's turn against the French, according to Ozment, was "the personal treatment Germans received at the hands of the French ...." He writes that "the French army was its own worst enemy," and tells of "frequent contact with quartered French soldiers and high officials, who stood over Germans as lords and masters, disdaining native culture and religions," which had a corrosive effect on the locals' attitudes.

The U.S. army has been nowhere near as bad as the French were (that's not a claim of national superiority; the crudeness of the times and the desperateness of the French situation together can account for it). But even the best-mannered occupiers will become an annoyance at last.

Ozment also notes that the practical Germans were "historically ill-disposed to reforms that pursued impossible ideals and utopian goals."

Conscripted Germans made up one-third of the army of 700,000 that Napoleon led into Russia in 1812. When the remnant straggled back, defeated, the German states rose up against the French, and, joined by Napoleon's other enemies, they together broke his power at the Battle of Nations at Leipzig in 1813.

"For all their appeal to Germans, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Code Napoléon were not the cure-all for what ailed Germany. If Germans were to make a great leap forward, more French instruction was not what they required. What was needed most after 1813 was the freedom to make that leap out of their own history and on their own feet." [p.161-2]