Gerhard Schröder as a Great Historian?

Is Germany’s Gerhard Schröder the most astute student of global war history?

November 1, 2003

Is Germany's Gerhard Schröder the most astute student of global war history?

In pre-war debates over Iraq, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder called the planned U.S. military action in Iraq “brinkmanship.” In light of recent events, this remark — while dismissed as ungrateful and disobedient by the Bush team — rings truer today than ever before. In hindsight, isn’t Mr. Schröder following the example of great German historians?

Germany acquired late its great European power status, having only emerged as a unified modern state in 1870.

As it tried to secure what it perceived as its fair share of colonial spoils in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it inevitably elbowed several existing powers out of the way.

Historians convincingly argue that during the half-century of the rule of Kaisers Wilhelm I and II, Germany was a recklessly adventurous state.

Under these two leaders, Germany antagonized its neighboring countries and created the tense international political climate that ultimately led to World War I. Interestingly, like imperial Germany, Mr. Schröder comes from an underdog background.

The son of a war widow who raised him on meager wages paid for with cleaning jobs, young Gerhard probably had to be an adventurer at heart to eventually rise to his current position.

The experience of growing up without a father — who was killed in Romania in 1944 during the German army's retreat from Russia — may also have given him a very clear perspective on war and its effects on ordinary people.

In contrast, George W. Bush — who was born into a patrician American family — had no such personal experiences with history while growing up, even though his father served in World War II as an aviator.

All of this helps explain why Mr. Schröder — during his fall 2002 reelection campaign — called the planned U.S. military action in Iraq “brinkmanship.”

In light of recent events in Baghdad and beyond, this remark — while dismissed by the Bush Administration as an errant remark by an ungrateful, disobedient ally — probably rings truer today than ever before.

Mr. Schröder’s remarks can be viewed in the context of a long tradition of German historians. In his stance on Iraq, he applied lessons and principles taught by some of Germany’s greatest historians. First, he used Leopold von Ranke’s ideas — a professor of history in Berlin from 1825-1871 — and the father of all modern historiography.

By applying the eternal wisdom of “balance of power” politics as a key realistic principle, Ranke assured the continual independence and security of states. Ranke documented this unchanging phenomenon in his classic essay “The Great Powers,” first published in 1833.

Mr. Schröder followed Ranke in his demand for total objectivity and intellectual integrity in assessing archival documentary evidence. In the current case, the issue at hand dealt with whether there was any credible evidence Iraq had — or was close to acquiring — a formidable WMD arsenal. Next, Mr. Schröder pushed for negotiations to avoid war.

In that regard, he was listening to the prophetic Friedrich Meinecke. This eye-witness and fearless commentator on the catastrophic experiences of World War I and Hitler’s Third Reich was a professor of history in Berlin from 1914 to 1932.

Mr. Schröder's clear preference for United Nations action was fully in line with Meinecke's recommendation of negotiating peace before the European catastrophe spread to become World War I.

In his criticisms of the unilateral determination to conquer an independent state without UN sanction, Mr. Schröder's actions also mimic the advice found in Meinecke’s 1924 book “Idee der Staatsräson.”

In this tome, the great historian warned of the dangers of relying upon Machiavellian “realpolitik” ideas alone — and to the exclusion of the competing claims of ethics and values.

Far from being anti-American, Chancellor Schröder seems to have recognized that the Bush Administration’s Iraq and Middle East policies — and national security strategy of preemptive attacks — is a dangerous and exceptional aberration from the traditional practice of U.S. statecraft. In this, too, he emulates Meinecke.

Of course, as far as German politicians go, the Chancellor is no Bismarck. Still, his perspectives on Iraq — and his subsequent actions — are quite sound.

They also contrast favorably with the way the Bush Administration has been conducting itself in the international arena. In his UN speech of September 23, 2003, President Bush seemed unrepentant — conceding nothing to his critics.

In effect, Washington continues its policy of brinksmanship. It is basically telling its allies to either fall in line on U.S. terms, or to watch one of the world's most important strategic regions disintegrate.

This is particularly interesting since the Washington neo-cons are all historians and political scientists by trade. Many had worked and taught at prestigious U.S. academic institutions before joining the Bush Administration.

Yet, they seem to have learned nothing from history — for instance, that flexibility is the mark of the strong. Mr. Schröder, for his part, has not sulked at Mr. Bush, or reveled in useless I-told-you-so rhetoric.

Instead, he has offered Washington German support in a number of areas — such as committing German troops to Afghanistan or offering to train Iraqi police officers. Of course, he has stopped well short of saying he would send German troops to Iraq. But that, too, may merely be a history-inspired act of prudence.