[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), March 28, 2006 at 9:46pm] Trackbacks
Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:

Many critics of efforts to promote democracy in the Muslim world claim that the successful occupation of Germany after WWII is not a relevant precedent because postwar Germans, unlike modern Arabs and Afghanis, supposedly had a strong cultural affinity for liberal democracy. As one of my commenters put it, Germany was "the land of Kant" and therefore (it is implied) highly receptive to liberalism and democracy. This claim is largely a myth.

The truth is that Hitler and Goebbels were much more reflective of German opinion in the immediate post-WWII years than Kant. According to a series of surveys conducted by the US occupation authorities in 1951-52, 41% of West Germans saw "more good than evil" in Nazi ideas, compared to only 36% who said the opposite. In a 1949 survey, 59% of West Germans said that National Socialism was a "good idea badly carried out," compared to only 30% who said that it was wrong. 63% in a 1952 poll said that German generals held on war crimes charges were innocent and only 9% said that they were guilty. Well into the 1950s, large numbers of Germans rejected liberal democracy and expressed sympathy for various forms of authoritarianism. By the time the 1951-52 surveys, were conducted, West Germany had been occupied by the Allies for 6 years, and had had its own democratic government since 1949. Thus, German support for authoritarianism and even for many aspects of Nazism was quite deeply rooted. For these and other survey data from postwar Germany, see Anna J. Merritt & Richard L. Merritt, Public Opinion in Semisovereign Germany (1980).

Indeed, Iraqi and Afghan opinion today is probably more pro-democracy than German opinion in the 1940s and early 50s. For example, a December survey shows 57% of Iraqis expressing support for a democratic form of goverment, compared to 14% who endorse an "Islamic state" and 26% who support "a single strong leader."

Nor was it the case that Allied occupation forces were highly popular in German eyes, another distinction that critics of today's democratization efforts try to make. To the contrary, many Germans hated the Western Allies for the understandable reason that Allied bombing had flattened virtually all of Germany's cities, killed some 300,000 civilians, and left 7.5 million homeless. Whether or not strategic bombing was morally justified, it certainly didn't endear the Allies to the average German. Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, the US has not done anything comparable in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Obviously, German opinion changed over time and today Germans are as supportive of liberalism and democracy as most other Westerners. But it was not German affinity for liberal democracy which led to its successful imposition. Rather, it was the success of liberal democratic institutions that gradually led Germans to support them - an important historical lesson that we would do well to learn.

This is not to say that there aren't any relevant differences between the democratization of Germany and today's efforts to democratize Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously, in Iraq (and to a lesser extent in Afghanistan) we face a stronger insurgency than existed in Germany, and Iraq and Afghanistan have so far failed to produce democratic leaders as effective as Germany's Konrad Adenauer. However, it is a mistake to argue that German democratization succeeded because German political culture supported it, while today's democratization projects are doomed to failure for lack of such support.

UPDATE: Many (including some of my commenters) also argue that Germany was better prepared for democracy because of the experience of democracy under the Weimar Republic. Given that the Weimar Republic was a disastrous failure and was perceived as proof of the undesirability of democracy by the vast majority of Germans (including many moderates and leftists), it was probably at least as much of a liability as an asset to efforts to implant democracy and liberalism in Germany after WWII. For what it's worth, Iraq had similar brief and unsuccessful experiences with democracy in the 1920s and 1950s. No one contends that they "prove" that democratization will succeed there.

UPDATE #2: I am aware that this post fails to systematically distinguish democracy from the protection of individual rights. To do so would have made it even longer! But the plurality of Germans who in the 1950s continued to express sympathy for Nazism very likely were not too fond of either democracy OR individual rights. Thus, the evidence cited has implications for both democracy promotion and the promotion of liberal values.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Promoting Democracy and Individual Rights III: The German Experience:
  2. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights II:
  3. Promoting Democracy vs. Promoting Human Rights:
And there was Himmler's "Werwolves", which engaged in terrorist activities for some years afterwards. (Sorry, I'm not old enough to remember how long they were around, just old enough to have heard they existed.)

OTOH, Nazism was a relatively recent fanatic cultural movement, of scarce two decades standing when it was crushed by the Allies. Islam has over a thousand years behind it, yielding greater social inertia and perhaps a longer life expectancy for the "resistance".

There's also the common observation that it takes two to make peace. Clauswitz's remarks about the defender starting the war might challenge that, but not helpfully.

I would also claim (based on earlier persuasive commentary on the Conspiracy) that the key is not "democratization", but "liberalization"; and claim (without evidence) that not keeping the two conceptually distinct may result in the failure of both.
3.29.2006 12:23am
MikeWDC (mail):
Disclaimer: I'm not anywhere near an expert in German history (I minored in history in college, but focused on American). I don't know who used the argument Germans "had a strong cultural affinity for liberal democracy" in contrast to Iraq. What others have said (and I agree) is Germany had strong precedents of democracy: a parliment in imperial Germany, rule of law, a bureaucratized civil service, and an experience as a full-fledged democracy in the Weimar Republic. Democratic institutions such as these are lacking in Iraq's history.

Never mind the issue of using public opinion surveys as a measure of "cultural affinity"--it makes the anthropology major in me cringe. Although the notion of "cultural affinity" is so problematic that any claims that invoke it are probably bogus stereotypes.
3.29.2006 12:34am
MikeWDC (mail):
I should clarify that the lack of past or present democratic institutions does not mean I beleive Iraq cannot become a democracy--it just makes it much more difficult. Generally, I would say it's the project of building a democracy from scratch that's not doomed, but in deep trouble from the get-go.

What's more, the failure of the Weimar Repulbic is a great example of how bad circumstances can doom an otherwise promising democracy. (Yes, I know small libraries have been written about the fall of the Weimar Republic. I'm just throwing it out there as it seems to support Somin's thesis.)
3.29.2006 12:45am
Splunge (mail):
Eh, I think concern over the habit of democratic "institutions" is just so much phlogiston. I suggest the key issue is simply whether a people are used to the idea of holding sovereignty in their very own hands -- whether they expect and demand that government will more or less reflect the wishes of the majority and not the whims of a strongman and his henchpeople.

Let us recall the National Socialists were elected to power fair and square, and without substantially deceiving people about their aims, and enjoyed broad general support thereafter, not only up to and through the war but,
as the surveys in the post show, for years afterward. That is to say, the Nazi government was in essence (if not in all particulars of its "institutions") a popular government, reflecting -- with notable exceptions (e.g. Treblinka, we hope) -- the general attitudes and wishes of the governed. It bears little comparison to the oligarchy of Saddam Hussein and his Tikriti tribemates.

It's not very surprising that the people of post-war Germany had the will and determination to stand rapidly on their own feet politically, and forge their own future. They'd never much gotten out of the habit of doing so. If they had to fiddle with some "institutions" -- rename them, reshape them, or otherwise slightly alter the ropes and pulleys of the political machine -- these are minor details, compared to the giant first step facing the Iraqis, of taking their future into their own hands.

The experience of Iraq is better compared, I'd suggest, to Russia in the aftermath of the sudden evaporation of the Communist oligarchy. Stripped of the imperative to passively obey the small cadre at the top, the Russian people have often floundered, politically speaking. They've sometimes allowed old ethnic and class divisions to harden, instead of bridging them with sense of a common national identity, and they've often forgotten the art of political compromise, been unable to forge national consensus on the desired directions of the country. There even appears to be a significant minority who just passively await a new strong man to tell them what to do. Transport these symptoms to the Tigris, and it all begins to sound rather familiar.

So I'd say it's the years of passivity, cynicism and hopelessness within the citizenry about their ability to govern themselves that are the real poison that must be purged. Whether or not a country has a history of courts and judges, election speeches and balloting, long dusty rows of lawbooks in the library, or other ornamentation strikes me as largely beside the point.
3.29.2006 1:53am
Positroll (mail):
(West) Germany was way better prepared for Democracy than Iraq, for diverse reasons:

First and foremost, the respect for the rule of law was deeply ingrained in Germans. In fact, it was one of the main reasons why the Holocaust could happen. Germans were brought up to follow "the law" (and orders based on it) whatever it's content. Psychologically, following the ordinances of the Allied Powers and the laws enacted after 1949 was therefore not too difficult for most Germans. Also, serious conflicts between neighbors used to be settled by means of civil procedure, not by clan feuds …

Second, democratic experience. Here I am not talking about the short intermezzo of the Weimarer Republic but rather the much longer experience on the regional and local level. Germans had been electing (state and federal) legislatures, city councils and mayors for a very long time even under constitutional monarchies. Most of the governing German elites after 1949 (mostly old men, including Konrad Adenauer, former Lord Mayor of Cologne) therefore could build on a longtime experience of democratic procedures, simply forgetting about the 12 "dark years" (as opposed to a 50 year "break" after a short democratic experience in Iraq). The same applies - mutatis mutandis - to the availability of well trained journalists and lawyers.

Third, speaking of lawyers: After getting rid of the Nazi laws and most (?) judges who were active Nazis, Germany could build on a well functioning legal system (whose contents were not too different from those of the occupying countries) with conservative judges readily applying the law (please note that this point is not supposed to take a stand with respect to the question whether the degree of de-nazification in the judiciary was sufficient).

Fourth, while it is true that many Germans harbored "authoritarian thoughts", lots of those were communists who accepted liberal democracy as a first step (history was supposed to be on their side, after all) towards a later communist regime (and were later convinced that communism isn't so great, either). And after the catastrophe of WW II, those on the fascist side were not in the position to appeal to the "masses".

Finally: Sectarian or regional divisions only influenced but did not trump political affiliations. No part of Western Germany wanted to secede (the French tried to create a separatist movement in the Saarland but failed miserably). No important group after 1949 except maybe the communists harbored grievances against the ruling German elites after 1949 (there were not enough Jews left in Germany to be politically influential as a group), and the communist could wait (see point 4 above).

P.S. Did I mention the lack of clan structures in Germany?
3.29.2006 5:09am
Bryan McGraw (mail):
It's worth remembering, though, that the allies, well aware that many Germans were none too friendly toward democratic life (even if they weren't Nazi supporters) controlled the democratic process. Parties couldn't just "start up" and contest elections - they had to be certified by the occupying authorities and that meant they had to be within certain political limits. No commies, no nazis, etc.

Perhaps the success of democratic politics around the world has blinded us to the value of a restricted democratic process to inculturating certain kinds of political values?
3.29.2006 8:23am
What worries me is that a weak, beseiged democracy in Iraq could become the Weimar Republic of the Middle East. i.e. if an attempt by neocons to build a democracy in the middle east were perceived to fail, it could backfire, serving instead as a deterrent to reform and a prop for authoritarians in other Middle Eastern countries.

The German example may teach us that when you try to democratize a country by force, you have a 50-50 chance of succeeding, and that failure can lead to genocide and war.

[Note I am saying "if"; I don't want to start an argument about whether Iraq is successful or not, but about the consequences of failure.]
3.29.2006 8:30am
Anon1ms (mail):
My father was stationed in Germany following the end of the war (maybe until 1947?). He had a number of photos taken while there -- pictures of him and his friends traveling throughout the countryside, just two or three unarmed American servicemen on their own. Plenty of damaged buildings, but also scenes of peaceful interaction with locals.

How many U.S. military personnel will be bringing back similar photos?
3.29.2006 8:49am
markm (mail):
One point of Ilya's post survives: It wasn't all that easy to get the German people to vote for a government acceptable to the victors. We've still got troops there, although for some decades they were there only in case the Soviets invaded, and there is no reason to keep them there now. I'm not sure when the role of our troops changed from occupiers to defenders, but the occupation certainly lasted longer than our occupation of Iraq so far.
3.29.2006 9:15am
Houston Lawyer:
I don't think you can discuss reconstruction of Western Europe after WWII without including the spector of the Soviet threat. Until the Berlin wall went up, there was a steady stream of refugees from East Germany who could testify as to the effects of the alternative to democracy.
3.29.2006 9:59am
Chris Wolfe (mail):
I agree with most of the commentators. THere are way, way, way too many differences between post-war germany and post-war Iraq to draw any useful conclusions.

And for me the whole Iraq/democratization exercise was a really bad bet. The odds going in were very long; the pay-off is (arguable) not comesurate to the costs; there are other better (arguable) bets on the table.

I'm not sure how much I really want my president gambling with US lives and resources, but if he is going to gamble, I think he should make better bets. I think this is one position where being conservative is absoloutely mandated, since the costs are so high and are mostly born by those with the least say in the matter.
3.29.2006 10:08am
Freder Frederson (mail):
Why don't we look at the things we did differently, not necessarily look for some difference between the national character of the Germans and the Iraqis.

First of all, after World War II we had the Marshall Plan. The administration started working on the plan for post war reconstruction of Europe from almost the start of the war. We had what most of you on the right would call confiscatory tax rates to pay for the war and the reconstruction of Europe. Then the government went even further and laid a guilt trip on the American people and convinced them to lend it money that it hadn't already confiscated in taxes to pay for the war. And the foolish American people, who should have pointed out that lower taxes would have actually generated more income for the government, went along with this.

Compare that situation with today. We went into Iraq with no plan for reconstruction and when it did finally start it was based on neo-con fantasies of a perfect capitalist state. After a disasterous year of that experiment, we were worse off than before, and the insurgency was in full swing. We have never recovered and we are unwilling and unable to commit the money necessary to rebuild Iraq.

And of course we have never had the number of troops necessary to ensure security in Iraq. At the end of World War II there was something like 9 million allied troops in Germany (5 million Russion and 4 million Western allies). This was enough to completely prevent any meaningful resistance by the Germans. The occupation by the Western Allies was mostly benign, while the Russians chose to use terror to suppress any potential rebellion to their rule. Right up until the end of the Cold War there were never less than 300,000 allied troops in Germany. The occupation forces always, right up until they handed power back to German civil authority always had 500,000 troops in West Germany (a country of about the same size and slightly larger population). I doubt the Russians ever had less than a million in an area less than one-half the size of the West Germany. We never had more than 150,000 troops in Iraq. We simply did not have enough troops to provide security after the conquest and now any number of troops is probably insufficient.
3.29.2006 10:27am
Glenn Bridgman (mail):
I am the author of the Kant comment, and I entered the comment section ready to write a real tirade. Luckily, the other commenters have done a great job of doing my work for me!=D

Naziism was primarly a *reaction* to modernity. I think Nietzsche does a good job of tracing the intellectual foundations of the Nazi's and similar movements--they were aspiring to fill the gap left by the diminishing importance of the spiritual with a "religion of the state." However, to react one must have something to react *against*--namely the modern formulation of the individual and the liberal state. This is what I was trying to capture in the Kant statement. Totalitarianism in the middle east is much more a problem of those concepts never being present in the first place.
3.29.2006 10:29am
Positroll (mail):
Speaking of the cost of the intervention, there is one important point that tends to get overlooked:
Saddam Hussein would have died or lost power sooner or later without the U.S. intervention anyway (ok, rather later; possibly at a point in time where available oil reserves will be way lower than they are now).
Does anybody doubt that the risks of a civil war in that case would have been bigger than they are now, with a serious possibility of military interventions by Iran, Turkey and maybe Syria or Saudi Arabia? Now, that would have been a REAL mess, bad enough to force the US to do something about it ...
BTW, I am not saying that this justifies the US invasion, but with (regrettably insufficient numbers of) US troops present at least there is a realistic chance that things turn out not quite as nasty as they did in Bosnia and Ruanda with hundreds of thousands killed, raped, tortured etc ...
3.29.2006 10:33am
William Swann (mail) (www):
Maybe the difference is that Germany had expended itself almost fully in the course of WWII, and so any sentiment in the post-war environment favorable to fascism wasn't likely to spurn much action. The people who wanted to fight for that cause had already done so, and most of them were dead, to put it bluntly.

A similar point could be made about the American south after the Civil war. The plantation culture was surely popular after the war, and yes there was a Klan revival and, in effect, and insurgency of sorts. But the war was so devastating economically, socially, and in terms of the number of men available to fight, that the insurgency couldn't gain sufficient force to challenge the new order. (It ultimately gained force politically, with the collapse of Reconstruction, but it didn't achieve those ends by force.)

Iraq, by contrast, had a quick war that toppled the leadership but saw most of the regime's forces melt away. Neither the Shia nor Sunni expended themselves militarily during the war, and their private armies are perhaps gradually gearing up to do so now.

Hopefully not. But hoping it's not true won't make it not true.
3.29.2006 1:02pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

P.S. Did I mention the lack of clan structures in Germany?
This is an important point. As I pointed out a while back, the Catholic Church attempted to break up clan structures in Europe by banning first-cousin marriage in the early Middle Ages. Iraq's clan structure persists because first-cousin marriage is so common. You only had to look at Saddam Hussein's cabinet meetings to see that family trees in Tikrit didn't branch much!
3.29.2006 3:34pm
Freder Frederson (mail):
Did I mention the lack of clan structures in Germany?

Obviously, you have never lived in Germany.
3.29.2006 5:21pm
Positroll (mail):
If you concentrate on former nobility and big industrial dynasties etc, they have some clanlike structures left, but Germany in general is no more based on clans than the US, while in Iraq most people belong to a clan and adapt their behaviour at least to some degree to its needs ...
P.S. Don't confuse clan structures with regional identity / ethnic origin (e.g. Bavarians) ...
P.P.S. Sorry for responding that late but I was out of town for a few days ...
4.2.2006 11:31am