The Culture of Defeat On National Trauma, Mourning, and Recovery

Wolfgang Schivelbusch; Translated by Jefferson Chase




Trade Paperback

416 Pages



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History may be written by the victors, Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues in his provocative new book, but the losers often have the final word. Focusing on three seminal cases of defeat—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 responses of vanquished nations to the experience of military defeat.

Drawing on reactions from every level of society, Schivelbusch investigates the sixty-year period in which the world moved from regional to global conflagration, and from gentlemanly conduct of war to total mutual destruction. He 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 collapse of the Confederacy, the new 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.


Praise for The Culture of Defeat

"A book of detours, eddies, and fascinating asides . . . A feast of ideas, many of them strikingly appropriate to our own, bellicose times."—San Francisco Chronicle

"This work is one of considerably suavity. It is based on immense, but smoothly presented, scholarship, with a great deal of intelligent comparison of diverse events and sociopolitical forces."—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"It would be hard to exaggerate the breadth and brilliance of the variations Schivelbusch plays on these themes over fifty years of history and two continents."—The Nation

"Many things in life naturally evolve into something else, and defeat—particularly as experienced by a nation's people—appears to be one of them. Schivelbusch's inspired idea is to look at three historical losers—the 'Lost Cause' Confederacy of the American Civil War, France in the Franco-Prussian War that ended in 1881, and Germany in World War I—to understand the process . . . Schivelbusch's anticipation of so many current front-page issues—The Culture of Defeat first appeared in German in 2001—is only one of its many delights. Aside from its thorough revisitings of post-Civil War America, late-19th-century France, and post-World-War-I Germany, it overflows with splendid quotes and citations illustrating defeat's ever-ebullient mind-set . . . A sparkling continuation of conventional military history by other means, The Culture of Defeat shines light on such ever-present aspects of war and peace as the spirit of revanche (a simmering desire for redress on the part of losers) and the warning cry, Vae Victoribus! ('Woe to the victor!'). Its insightful author, in both small details and large, suggests that those who take the time to remember defeat are not doomed, but empowered, to keep it at bay."—Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer

0 "Learned [and] admirably researched, with many kinds of sparkling little finds amid its mass of notes."—John Lukacs, Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Compelling . . . It might seem strange, just after an American military victory, to submit to the brooding brilliance of this book, The Culture of Defeat. But that sort of irony is one of the book's points. In this wide-ranging study, Wolfgang Schivelbusch, a cultural historian who has in previous books teased hidden meanings out of the origins of coffee or the onset of domestic lighting, incorporates a cautionary note. He points out that if history demonstrates anything, it is that 'what triumphs today will be defeated tomorrow.' The arrogance of power can be tempered, he argues, by an 'empathetic philosophy of defeat.'"—Edward Rothstein, The New York Times

"With erudition, elegance, ease, reflective brilliance, and a consistently sharp eye, Schivelbusch moves through the cultural and political landscapes of three lands, all in search of a surprising quarry: the shape, human feel, and uses of military defeat. When you finish reading this original volume, your understanding of war itself will have changed."—Jonathan Schell, author of The Unconquerable World

"With impressive virtuosity, Schivelbusch ranges widely through the cultures of three very different and complex societies to compile a remarkable analysis of the meaning of defeat. Powerfully exploring how defeat can lead to its opposite, he not only offers an array of fresh insights into the 'lost causes' of France, Germany, and the American South, but also offers a sober warning against the giddy joys of contemporary triumphalism."—Harry Watson, Director, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

"Victory has a thousand fathers; defeat is an orphan—or at least it was before Wolfgang Schivelbusch's book. The culture of defeat is rarely portrayed since, as we all know, the victors write the histories. But the losers write the novels and poems, and the American South, France, and Germany produced great or at least controversial culture out of their battlefield defeats. Schivelbusch has written a brilliant, important book, especially for the United States, a nation so sure of its victories even after its defeat in Vietnam, and in the wake of the September 11 attacks."—s20Sander L. Gilman, author of Jewish Self-Hatred and Difference and Pathology

"The Culture of Defeat is full of fresh and provocative insights . . . Schivelbusch . . . has written a novel and thought-provoking book, one that deserves special attention at this historical moment."—Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle

"Provocative and eloquent. Displaying a dazzling mastery of the rich sources of high and popular culture, politics, and economics, Schivelbusch explores the surprisingly similar psychological and cultural responses of three seemingly different losers of highly charged wars. This wonderfully original study is essential reading for anyone interested in the culture and politics of defeat in the war-filled modern world."—Mary Nolan, author of Visions of Modernity

"Schivelbusch here offers us an elegant work of comparative history. He is nowhere predictable in his analysis and everywhere sensitive to the unexpected nuances of how men and women can extract success from failure."—Michael O'Brien, author of Rethinking the South and All Clever Men, Who Make Their Way

"Schivelbusch, always a tactical genius, has once again probed the innards of modern cultures, this time focusing, with fascinating and surprising results, on the complex and contradictory ways in which nations deal with humiliation on the battlefield."—William R. Taylor, author of Cavalier and Yankee

"Reader, beware! For Schivelbusch's latest—like all his earlier books, only more so—is one of those texts that’s almost impossible to skim. Every paragraph snags and holds you—holds and then dazzles with its insights and its wisdom, its surprising connections and (perhaps most astonishingly, given the book's subject) its manifold delights. Oh, hell: don't bother bewaring. Simply surrender and exult."—Lawrence Weschler, author of Calamities of Exile and Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder

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Wolfgang Schivelbusch is an independent scholar who lives in New York and Berlin. His books include The Railway Journey, Disenchanted Night, and Tastes of Paradise.
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  • Wolfgang Schivelbusch; Translated by Jefferson Chase

  • Wolfgang Schivelbusch, who has been called a master of cultural history, is an independent scholar who divides his time between New York and Berlin. His books include The Railway Journey, Disenchanted Night, and Tastes of Paradise.

    Jefferson Chase's translations include the Signet edition of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and Other Stories. He lives in Berlin.