Thursday, December 15, 2005

Return of the Nazi Werewolf urban legend
In his December 13 column, published at Townhall, Thomas Sowell attempted to muster some historical arguments in support of the war in Iraq. His first argument was contemptible and his second was simply a lie. In addition, both arguments were unoriginal, nothing more than tired old talking points that have been shot down again and again. I suppose one more time won't hurt.

First, the contemptible argument.
The two-thousandth death was similarly anticipated almost impatiently in the media and then made another big splash. But does media hype make 2,000 wartime fatalities in more than two years unusual?

The Marines lost more than 5,000 men taking one island in the Pacific during a three-month period in World War II. In the Civil War, the Confederates lost 5,000 men in one battle in one day.

Yet there was Jim Lehrer on the "News Hour" last week earnestly asking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about the ten Americans killed that day. It is hard to imagine anybody in any previous war asking any such question of anyone responsible for fighting a war.

We have lost more men than that in our most overwhelming and one-sided victories in previous wars. During an aerial battle over the Mariannas islands in World War II, Americans shot down hundreds of Japanese planes while losing about 30 of their own.

If the media of that era had been reporting the way the media report today, all we would have heard about would have been that more than two dozen Americans were killed that day.

The point that Sowell is trying to make through his whole column, is the well worn complaint that the evil liberal media only talk about the bad things that happen in Iraq, they never talk about the painted schools.* Political partisans are never happy with the press, but Sowell has mixed an ugly historical argument in with his routine complaint. Sowell is trying to create a favorable perspective for today's deaths by comparing them to the horrors of previous wars.

He says we shouldn't complain about the deaths of 2000 Americans today, because many times that many Americans died in a fraction of the time at Okinawa or Antietam (in respect for those historical dead, he could have at least named the battles). This line of argument is contemptible because it diminishes the deaths of those 2000. It doesn't matter whether you think they died in a noble cause or in a tragic farce, their individual lives deserve respect. Each life affected a broad circle of friends, family, and comrades. Those peoples' pain deserves respect. Sowell wants to brush those deaths off as only 2000 and not worth the fuss. Maybe he thinks he's being tough and manly, but it comes across to many of us as callous and unfeeling.

Now, the known lie.
Utter ignorance of history enables any war with any casualties to be depicted in the media as an unmitigated disaster.

Even after Nazi Germany surrendered at the end of World War II, die-hard Nazi guerrilla units terrorized and assassinated both German officials and German civilians who cooperated with Allied occupation authorities.

But nobody suggested that we abandon the country. Nobody was foolish enough to think that you could say in advance when you would pull out or that you should encourage your enemies by announcing a timetable.

This is the story of the Nazi "Werewolf" units. What an amazing coincidence that Sowell chose to introduce the Werewolf story with the words "[u]tter ignorance of history," because that's what he's demonstrating by bringing this up.

The Werewolf argument was first used by Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld in speeches before a VFW convention in Texas in August 2003. Rice described it this way:
There is an understandable tendency to look back on America's experience in post-War Germany and see only the successes. But as some of you here today surely remember, the road we traveled was very difficult. 1945 through 1947 was an especially challenging period. Germany was not immediately stable or prosperous. SS officers -- called "werewolves" -- engaged in sabotage and attacked both coalition forces and those locals cooperating with them -- much like today's Baathist and Fedayeen remnants.

Rumsfeld, as is his style, was more lurid in his details:
One group of those dead-enders was known as "werewolves." They and other Nazi regime remnants targeted Allied soldiers, and they targeted Germans who cooperated with the Allied forces. Mayors were assassinated including the American-appointed mayor of Aachen, the first major German city to be liberated. Children as young as 10 were used as snipers, radio broadcasts, and leaflets warned Germans not to collaborate with the Allies. They plotted sabotage of factories, power plants, rail lines. They blew up police stations and government buildings, and they destroyed stocks of art and antiques that were stored by the Berlin Museum. Does this sound familiar?

Daniel Benjamin writing in Slate described the anecdotes as "embellish[ing] the message with what former White House speechwriters immediately recognize as a greatest-generation pander." It's a familiar rhetorical device. By mentioning the obstacles that our parents and grandparents overcame, the speaker makes us feel inadequate and challenges us to rise to their level. It works best when the challenges were real. Werewolf is fiction.

There really was something called Operation Werewolf, but it bore no resemblance to the guerilla war Rice and Rumsfeld mentioned. Many historians and editorialists, including this blog (twice), took time to debunk their lie.
Before looking at the substance of her statement notice how [Rice} frames her parallel by anachronistically transferring modern terminology into the past. The Allies have become "coalition forces." By this rule I suppose we should start referring to John Wilkes Booth as a member of the Fedayeen Jefferson Davis.


There was some resistance by German soldiers behind the lines while the fighting was still going on at the end of WWII. Among these were the famous efforts by Otto Skorzeny in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge, the assassination of the collaborationist mayor of Aachen after the Americans occupied that town, and the less known efforts by Volkdeutsch leader Andreas Schmidt in Rumania against the Red Army. However, none of these were Werewolf activities in the sense that Rice and Rumsfeld mean. These were commando activities directed by Reich authorities in Berlin.

The real Operation Werewolf had a little reality and a lot of myth. The reality was a plan to train troops in guerilla tactics and sabotage, to create hidden supply depots in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps, and to make Germany ungovernable for the Allied occupiers. The reality was more like an unfunded Bush social program; the supply depots never materialized and the troops were mostly Hitler Youth boys who, as soon as the command structure vanished, ditched their guns and cyanide capsules and went home. In an ugly sequel, the Soviets, who had some understanding of partisan warfare, used the Werewolf rumors as an excuse to execute German POWs while the restored national governments of continental Europe used those same rumors to justify their expulsion of 14 million ethnic Germans from Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Werewolf has lived on as a great plot device for a hundred Ludlum wannabes and not much more.

This is not a matter of interpretation where one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There was no one there to call a terrorist, freedom fighter, or ice-cream vendor for that matter. No one.

To repeat myself, there was a limited amount of commando activity during the latter part of the war, conducted by German military troops under the command of the Nazi government. These activities ended as soon as the government surrendered. The occupation was remarkably orderly in the sense of resistance. The challenges faced by our troops were the humanitarian and economic challenge of dealing with millions of refugees and tens of millions of people living where the economic infrastructure had been completely demolished. There was no guerilla resistance in Germany. None.

Why did Sowell repeat this nonsense? Is he a willing liar, or just a lazy writer who didn't check his facts? I could unload my academic snobbery and point out that Sowell is an economist, not a historian. But even economists know their way around a library. He knows how to check facts, he chose not to. In this case, I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him lazy. There is nothing original in his column. It's a collection of recycled Republican talking points and nothing more. Maybe that day he was in a rush to get out of the office and do some Christmas shopping.

* Now that I think about it, the conservatives never mention painting schools anymore. Does that mean we finished painting them? And if so, isn't it time to hang out the "Mission Accomplished" sign and bring our troops home?

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