[This review appeared in the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2001, pp. 122-126.]
Dear Enemy: Germany Then and Now
James Bacque and Richard Matthias Mueller
Fenn Publishing Company Ltd, 2000
It is rare in life, and just as rare in books: a sustained conversation - articulate, sensitive, insightful, adult, caring, and carried on with never-failing courtesy, affection and mutual respect. Such a conversation as the one here, conducted in correspondence over a four-year period and reduced to letters that occupy not quite 200 pages, offers the reader one of life's truly luminescent moments, not unlike hearing Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony or Bruchs' Violin Concerto for the first time. I know of no book that matches Dear Enemy as an exchange of pure intelligence, delightfully expressed.
To the qualities just mentioned must be added those of honesty and good will. It may be that intellectual honesty is a rare alpine flower during any period of history; but in our "politically correct" time, during which an intellectual incubus lies so heavily over us, it is rarer still. That perhaps more than anything else is what makes this book so compelling.
James Bacque is a Canadian scholar who very much believed in the Allied cause in World War II, which was being waged just as he grew out of his infancy. Even now, many years later, he says, "I want, I desperately need, our Victory to mean and to have meant something. What? To save Europe, I suppose, to bring to life democracy, freedom, civility, truth...." Certainly it was this passionate conviction that moved millions on the Allied side. His inquiries led him, however, to a ghastly discovery: that those ideals had been mocked and shamed by Allied conduct during and after the war. Curtained off from reality by heavy layers of silence, few people in the United States and the other allied countries know of the atrocities committed in their name. Not as an expression of alienation against a civilization whose best ideals he embraces, but as an honest man's reaffirmation of those ideals, Bacque wound up writing Other Losses about the death of 700,000 German prisoners of war while they were in American hands, and Crimes and Mercies (reviewed in the spring 2000 issue of this journal) about the fate of German civilians under Allied occupation between 1944 and 1950.
Richard Matthias Mueller brings equal idealism and intelligence to the conversation, but from across a great divide. A slightly older man than Bacque, he had been old enough to belong to the Hitler Youth and then to have been a Nazi and a soldier in the Wehrmacht. At the end of World War II, he was one of the prisoners in the American camp at Remagen, which is one of the camps that Bacque wrote about and where Mueller was almost starved to death. Since the war, he too has been a scholar, and is author of On Germany (1965) and Normal-Null (in which he expresses a theory of moral expectation). His perspective is by no means pro-Nazi, but he does at least lend some insight into the thoughts and feelings of Germans before and during the war.
The two men met through a friend in 1991 and began a correspondence, "opening vast and verboten topics" that reflected their very different perspectives. It wasn't long before they saw that the correspondence was so substantive that it should be made into a book.
Needless to say, the very occurrence of a humane correspondence between these two former enemies, who once hated each other as their societies fought each other to the death, has at its heart a premise that is bound to receive increasing acceptance as more and more time passes, but that today, even 55 years after the end of the war, is "far ahead of the curve" so far as many people's sensibilities are concerned. A civil conversation between a Canadian and a former member of the Hitler Youth?! One in which they both seek truth and a sound assessment?! Impossible! To those who think that everyone who fought on Germany's behalf in World War II must necessarily have been congenitally bestial, this book of correspondence will challenge some long-cherished assumptions. It is precisely those who feel most strongly that way who should most assuredly read it. Eventually, the world will see that conflict, as all others, as a struggle among human beings. The caricatures will fall away. When they do, there will be much to learn, and a good place to start will be by rereading this book's conversation between the two former enemies.
The conversation between them is at times almost Dostoevskian, although without ever being heavy. It is preoccupied with questions of responsibility, guilt, atonement, forgiveness and reconciliation, speaking a moral language full of insight and poetry that is not often encountered amid today's secular preoccupations. It especially focuses on postwar Germany's decades-long culture of guilt, mulling over its psychology, its genuineness, and its mythology, although Bacque's discoveries and Mueller's personal experience interject elements of Allied guilt, too, giving an added dimension to what is already a very subtle comprehension.
If the discussion were even mainly quasi-mystical, however, it wouldn't long retain interest. Instead, the letters range over a vast array of related subjects, as friends corresponding with each other are apt to do. They include such things as the resistance movement against Hitler and whether it has been given enough recognition in the moral assessment since 1945; the Historikerstreit of the mid-1980s that saw German historians, particularly Ernst Nolte and Jurgen Habermas, quarreling among themselves about the respective natures of Nazism and Communism; the German constitutional provision admitting all asylum-seekers, leading to potentially limitless immigration; and whether the United States would have been willing to drop atomic bombs on German cities if the war had lasted long enough. A couple of the letters provide what is in effect a review of Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, which asserts that Germans had long held to a unique form of "eliminationist" antisemitism. To mention a few of the subjects doesn't, of course, do justice to the discussion, which ranges much farther than any list of specifics can suggest.
The praise I have given here to the authors' unencumbered mentality and honesty doesn't mean that if I had been a third correspondent I would not have had some critical interjections to make. Bacque and Mueller have pierced many of the shibboleths of today's ideological incubus, but others remain to be explored, and we can only hope that each has several more years in which to do so. We can be sure that if they do the results of their examination will be equally honest, whether the outcome of that reflection agrees with our own on any given point or not. I have my doubts about Bacque's acceptance of the conventional wisdom about whites' centuries-long displacement of the American Indians, about his acceptance of the usual justifications for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and about his criticism of Reagan's "Evil Empire" characterization of the Soviet Union as being yet another example of Americans' (very real) propensity to demonize their opponents. With a mind as alive as Bacque's, though, the process of intellectual discovery never ends. And that is the key to the compelling readability of the Bacque-Mueller correspondence.
Dwight D. Murphey