Cover image for The culture of defeat : on national trauma, mourning, and recovery
The culture of defeat : on national trauma, mourning, and recovery
Schivelbusch, Wolfgang, 1941-
Uniform Title:
Kultur der Niederlage. English
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Metropolitan Books, [2003]

Physical Description:
403 pages ; 25 cm
Electronic Access:
Publisher description
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E468.9 .S3513 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



A fascinating look at history's losers-the myths they create to cope with defeat and the steps they take never to be vanquished again History may be written by the victors, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues in his brilliant and provocative new book, but the losers often have the final word. Focusing on three seminal cases of modern warfare-the South after the Civil War, France in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War, and Germany following World War I-Schivelbusch reveals the complex psychological and cultural reactions of vanquished nations to the experience of military defeat.Drawing on responses from every level of society, Schivelbusch shows how conquered societies question the foundations of their identities and strive to emulate the victors: the South to become a "better North," the French to militarize their schools on the Prussian model, the Germans to adopt all things American. He charts the losers' paradoxical equation of military failure with cultural superiority as they generate myths to glorify their pasts and explain their losses: the nostalgic "plantation legend" after the fall of the Confederacy; the cult of Joan of Arc in vanquished France; the fiction of the stab in the back by "foreign" elements in postwar Germany. From cathartic epidemics of "dance madness" to the revolutions that so often follow battlefield humiliation, Schivelbusch finds remarkable similarities across cultures.Eloquently and vibrantly told, The Culture of Defeat is a tour de force that opens new territory for historical inquiry.

Author Notes

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who has been called a master of cultural history, is an independent scholar who divides his time between New York and Berlin
Jefferson Chase's translations include the Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Other Stories. He lives in Berlin

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Winners write the history books, says the old adage, but the writer of this history book argues that the defeated ultimately emerge healthier, stronger, and smarter than ever before--that is, if they can avoid fantasies of denial and revenge and learn from their failure (and perhaps their conquerors). Examining the post^-Civil War American South, post^-Franco-Prussian War France, and post^-World War I Germany, this selection explores the recurrent patterns of the vanquished: the myths of cultural superiority surviving military failure, the accusations of battlefield betrayal, the inevitable renewal in the victor's image. In the background are the evolution of "total war" and the increasing influence of wartime propaganda. Schivelbusch is a German cultural historian who has written on such diverse topics as the history of spices and the history of artificial light (as well as a weightier history of postwar Berlin), and he is adept in articulating the psychology of conflict and its aftermath. And although at his best in the nineteenth century, his epilogue insightfully suggests that today's bellicose nations might also learn from their defeats. --Brendan Driscoll

Publisher's Weekly Review

This unusual study compares societies that lost major wars and survived, as opposed to being dismantled by their conquerors. Schivelbusch (Disenchanted Night, etc.) addresses the question of how the American South after 1865, France after 1871 and Germany after 1918 came to terms with what happened to them. He describes a two-level coping process, in each case directed by pre-war elites that successfully manipulated postwar mentalities in order to retain power. The first level involved creating myths that mitigated the psychological impact of defeat: the former Confederacy carefully tended the "Lost Cause"; France scapegoated the empire of Napoleon III; Germany turned to legends of an army undefeated at the front but betrayed by domestic weakness. A second structure of myths focused on regeneration and recovery. In America that involved industry and a restoration of white supremacy (eventually, Schivelbusch finds, acknowledged as appropriate by the North); for France, Republican government, military renovation and imperialism; Germany turned heavily to "modern" fashions (jazz and movies) and dreams of altering what was regularly described as the "disgraceful" Versailles peace settlement. Such dreams, Schivelbusch finds, were more passive speculation than active preparation for revenge: even after Hitler's accession to power, ordinary Germans were reluctant to consider treaty revision if the price would be war. For all three societies discussed here, the best revenge for defeat was seen not as payback but as living well and moving into a positive future. That the eventual results-the murderous lynchings of the Jim Crow South, the horrific scale of death in Nazi Germany-were far from "positive" is well-understood by Schivelbusch, but beyond the scope of this book. (Apr.) Forecast: For readers trying to envision a post-Saddam Iraq, this book provides both historical examples and theoretical tools. Expect this heavily footnoted title to have an impact on the punditocracy, if not a large trade readership. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Schivelbusch (Disenchanted Night) has produced an anthology of failure not unlike Barbara Tuchman's 1984 The March of Folly. Both books attempt to analyze national military disasters in light of national and personal psychological factors. But whereas Tuchman looks at military disaster as the result of twisted thinking, Schivelbusch uses defeat as a starting point in the transformation of the losers of three historic conflicts: the American South after the Civil War, France following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and Germany following its loss in World War I. According to the author, nations cope with colossal military failure by creating myths about themselves and their cultures and by recasting their defeat as a kind of vindication of their cultural superiority. In positing this analysis, Schivelbusch, without explicitly referring to it, evokes Freud's repetition-compulsion as a mechanism that nations use to metamorphose their military losses into moral victories. He also asserts that in each of these conflicts, the victor's attitudes and ways of doing things tended to become assimilated into the culture of its foe. An interesting and readable account of national character in military defeat, this is recommended for academic libraries.-Michael F. Russo, Louisiana State Univ. Libs., Baton Rouge (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Introduction: On Being Defeatedp. 1
1 The American Southp. 37
2 Francep. 103
3 Germanyp. 189
Epilogue: On Fallingp. 289
Notesp. 295
Indexp. 393