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Iraq Is a Mess. But Germany Was, Too.

By David Stafford
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Smash the enemy, deliver victory, topple the dictator, destroy his regime, eliminate his evil ideology, and establish peace and democracy. Oh, and -- almost forgot -- do this several thousand miles away on a distant continent while also fighting another life-or-death struggle elsewhere. Meanwhile, make sure to keep in step with our allies. And one last thing: Bring the troops back home as soon as possible.

Mission impossible? Entering year six of the Iraq war, with 4,000 Americans dead in the conflict, the president's popularity hitting new lows and results of the troop surge still fragile, it may look that way for the administration of George W. Bush. But we may also be rushing to judgment.

More than 60 years ago, during World War II, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower didn't think that his similar, even more daunting, mission was impossible. By the time he had completed his crusade in Europe and thanked his staff for a job well done at a farewell ceremony in Frankfurt in July 1945, the German army, or Wehrmacht, no longer existed, Hitler was dead, the Nazi Party had been dissolved, war criminals were behind bars awaiting trial and retribution, de-Nazification had begun, and western Germany -- the part not occupied by the Soviet army -- was on its way to becoming one of the most successful liberal democracies of the Western world. The Third Reich was history.

So what did the United States do right 60 years ago that it has -- so far -- failed to accomplish in Iraq since the iconic toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad and Bush's "Mission Accomplished" declaration aboard a U.S. carrier on May 1, 2003?

The question is, of course, superficial. It would be harder to think of two more different societies than Germany in 1945 and contemporary Iraq. The former -- despite Hitler and the Third Reich -- had a long tradition of law, order, constitutional government and civic society to draw on in rebuilding democracy. Nor was it riven by deep-rooted ethnic and sectarian religious tensions that erupted to the surface once the dictator's iron fist was removed. And although Germany certainly had hostile neighbors -- especially to the communist East -- the threat they posed served to create, not crack, political cohesion.

Yet in looking at Iraq over the past five years, it's hard not to find poignant echoes of the post-WWII experience and to wonder whether a better knowledge of that history might have helped prevent some basic errors. Or even -- because there may be some small crumb of comfort for optimists here -- that it's too soon to declare that the mission has failed. Sen. John McCain's 100-year horizon for a U.S. presence in Iraq may be stretching things. But let's not forget that the postwar occupation of Germany lasted for a full decade.

In 1945, the Allies had a carefully thought-out plan for what would follow victory. For two years before his forces crossed the German frontier, Eisenhower and his staff at Allied headquarters worked on detailed plans for the occupation. The lines of command were clearly drawn, and everyone agreed that the military would be in charge. Thousands of soldiers were trained in the tasks of military government. Compare that with the chaotically devised schemes for Iraq that were cobbled together at the last minute amid squabbling between the Pentagon and the State Department. Or with the confused and confusing mandate handed to the hapless Jay Garner, the first administrator of postwar Iraq, to devise a comprehensive plan for its administration in a matter of weeks.

Nonetheless, plans, however thorough, are worthless if they cannot be implemented. For that, establishing law and order is a minimal and basic condition. There was plenty of looting and disorder when U.S. forces entered Germany. In fact, it was on a scale far greater than anticipated or now remembered, most of it due to the rage that millions of slave laborers who'd been deported to Germany from Nazi-occupied countries, chiefly Poland and the Soviet Union, vented on their captors upon liberation.

As in Baghdad five years ago, the disorder also engulfed cultural institutions. When U.S. forces entered Munich, Hitler's spiritual home and the seat of Nazi Party headquarters, scores of works of art simply disappeared from museums and art galleries. For two or three days, the northern city of Bremen was "probably among the most debauched places on the face of God's earth," wrote one witness of the frantic looting that took place after Allied soldiers entered its bomb-shattered streets.

But this anarchy was quickly and forcefully stamped out, and enough Allied forces remained in the country and in all major cities to impose stringent and often ruthless order. Military tribunals promptly disposed of Nazis who were inclined to continue the struggle by executing them or imposing severe terms of imprisonment.

The way victory was declared was crucial. Immediately after entering Germany in September 1944, Eisenhower issued a proclamation that declared: "We come as conquerors, but not as oppressors." The emphasis on conquest meant that military government ruled. There was no glib talk of liberation, and no dealing, either, with the large number of anti-Nazi exiles who had jockeyed for recognition as some sort of government in exile. Too many of them were long out of touch with realities on the ground or had axes to grind.

Critics of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq point to the decisions by L. Paul Bremer, Garner's replacement, to dismiss Baathists from public office and to dissolve the Iraqi army as critical and disastrous turning points that created a vast legion of the unemployed and disaffected. Yet in 1945, the Allies implemented a similarly draconian policy in Germany. They dissolved the Nazi Party, carried out a thorough purge of Nazis in public office and even abolished the ancient state of Prussia, which they believed was at the root of German militarism. Millions of Wehrmacht soldiers languished in prisoner-of-war camps while their families struggled to survive.

None of this, however, had the catastrophic consequences seen in Iraq. One reason is that pragmatism almost immediately took hold. It quickly became clear that Germany could be rebuilt only with the help of numerous people who had been members of the Nazi Party.

The Allies entered Germany with a strict policy of "non-fraternization" that forbade their forces to have any but the most minimal and formal dealings with Germans. "Don't get chummy with Jerry," urged the G.I. newspaper Stars and Stripes. "In heart, body and spirit every German is a Hitler." But by July 1945, the policy had been abandoned as unenforceable. It was also alienating the very Germans needed to rebuild the country and establish democracy.

As for de-Nazification, it sounded good, and indeed was morally and politically necessary. But distinguishing between real and nominal Nazis often proved extremely difficult. Small officials who'd joined the party out of necessity were thrown out of office, while big businessmen who'd profited under Hitler were left alone. The policy generated growing hostility to the occupiers, and its implementation was soon handed over to the Germans themselves. This caused its own bitterness as the Germans were often seen as being too lenient.

Even so, despite this willingness to rethink and adjust, occupation policy floundered. Two years after Allied victory, Germany was in desperate straits, facing an economic crisis that threatened to nip democracy in the bud. Only the Marshall Plan, with its massive program of financial aid, saved the country from disaster. Self-government did not come until 1949, and Allied troops remained in West Germany as occupiers until 1955, a full decade after the defeat of the Third Reich. Unrepentant Nazis stayed active on the extreme fringes of West German politics for years, and a few ex-Nazis held high positions even in mainstream politics until the 1960s. The Christian Democratic politician Kurt Georg Kiesinger, who had joined the Nazi Party in 1933, was chancellor of the Federal Republic from 1966 to 1969.

Rebuilding a nation is possible. But even in the best of circumstances, it takes effort, time, patience and pragmatism. As 1945 confirms, liberation from a dictator in itself offers no easy path to peace or democracy. Battlefield victory is the easy bit. Building peace is a constant struggle -- and it's a matter of years, not weeks.

David Stafford is the author of "Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II."

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