Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wargames, politics and ethics #2: Politics? You can run, but you can't hide

Broad-brush polemic ruffles feathers
A book I picked up on sight from a recommendation on the WW2 SS Counter Colours thread, Ronald Smelser and Edward J. Davies II's 2008 scholarly study, The Myth of the Eastern Front: the Nazi-Soviet War in American Popular Culture was going to become an article even as I first read it – avidly – over xmas last year. Researching for this series- in which The Myth of the Eastern Front was going to feature centrally, I found the military hobbyists' inevitable internet hot flushes in its wake. Inevitable? In response to an academic tome?

The biggest invasion of the
biggest war in history:
a lot there to forget
Yes, because The Myth of the Eastern Front is part analytical historical deconstruction, and part broad-brush polemic against the 'romancers'- promulgators of an idealised vision of the Wehrmacht and the SS as honourable soldiers fighting a 'Lost Cause' against the Red horde. Smelser and Davies root this mythology in the Wehrmacht's 'last campaign': the ex-generals' postwar years of networking and spin aimed at rehabilitating the image of the German armed forces on the Eastern front.

Enemies after a mutually
embarrasing past affair?
As Cold War tensions rose, the wartime memories of the Soviet people's heroic resistance against Nazi Germany became a propaganda casualty. A remarkable act of historical forgetting was engineered, apparently rapid and profound enough to turn around the war generation's own perceptions of the Eastern front's importance in the Second World War largely before they reached middle-age.

Cold War myths deconstructed
Uncle Joe
Smelser and Davies start with the mainstream suspicion of, and hostility to the USSR in America in the 1920s and 30s. They demonstrate how- through massive media coverage of the Red Army's resistance to the onslaught unleashed by Germany with Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd 1941, the American people were won over to widespread sympathy and active support for the Soviet people during the Second World War. Pride of place among the breadth of media sources Smelser and Davies cite should undoubtedly go to TIME, March 29, 1943, the 'USSR Special' featuring Stalin on the cover.

Evil genius,
or just genius?
In over 100 pages of what was then cutting-edge reportage, the magazine celebrates Russia's history, its economic achievements, the diverse peoples and their love for art, culture and sports, and spotlights some key personalities from the Soviet war effort. There's even an article styling Lenin 'The Father of Modern Russia', which credits him as "Perhaps the greatest man of modern times" and telling us elsewhere that "Lenin's genius brought order out of chaos and saved the USSR." You don't have to hold a torch for the former Soviet Union to see that these pages glowing with enthusiasm for the Soviet cause are tantamount to an endorsement of the Soviet regime. 

Criminals no more: the German generals in the Cold War
Defeated & dishonoured
in front of the world
In the years immediately following Germany's surrender on 8th May 1945, the Nuremberg Trials and the Nuremberg Military Tribunals make plain the full nature of the war crimes of the German war machine in its genocidal war of conquest and enslavement on the Eastern front. German generals are in the dock, on the scaffold; the General Staff tout court might be next. As the authors explain, these trials weren't even finished before the new realities of the postwar world began to make their impact felt. The emerging crisis in relations with the Soviets meant that political pressure to exculpate the accused and the convicted began to come to bear.

Halder (left) with
'the boss' meeting
Finland's Mannerheim
A significant turning point came when the American army rescued General Franz Halder from a possible war crimes trial on the grounds that he played an indispensable role in the Operational History (German) Section of the United States Army Historical Division. Halder in fact went on to direct the History Section for several years, gathering around him a group of politically reliable former officers to provide the US Army with an appropriate account of German operations on the Eastern front. Then, after the Korean War, the realisation grew that a new German army was needed as part of an anti-Soviet alliance in Western Europe. The surviving German generals became a major asset to the American military.

'The boss' visits
Von Manstein in the
Ukraine in 1943
Figures like Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein enjoyed great authority in US army circles because of their experience fighting the Soviet army on the Russian front. The authority these men and their wartime fellows enjoyed ensured an uncritical, even adulatory, reception for their self-serving memoirs when these were published. The ex-generals' mythologised account of the Wehrmacht's 'clean war' on the Eastern front established as the authoritative version, the way was open for a flood of popular histories, personal memoirs and even pulp novels, all straightforwardly pro-German; all of which in sum contributed to the reimagining of the German attack on the USSR as a war in which German soldiers were cast the main victims, whether of the Russian hordes, the climate and terrain, or the megalomaniacal folly of Hitler himself.

Learning (from) history?
When wargamers confront the political and ethical implications of our hobby, a common argument heard is that wargaming is educational, that it teaches the horror and folly of war by giving hobbyists insight into the human costs of battle. There's more than a grain of truth in this, even if actually anti-war wargamers still appear thin on the ground. For example, I think that the rehumanisation of the enemy is valuable in and of itself because dehumanisation of the enemy is an essential element of war propaganda on all fronts- home and fighting.

But of course, wargames themselves are so abstract and wilfully decontextualised that they themselves can't really contribute much to rehumanising the enemy, or to generating any other insights into warfare as a grotesque human folly. That side of things typically stems from reading around the subjects which most interest you on the tabletop. And insights of this ilk can arise in peculiar ways. For me as a teenage tankie, pictures were particularly influential.

Context is everything
Just regular guys?
Take the picture here on the right (from Brian L. Davis' authoritative German Army Uniforms and Insignia, 1933-1945). This is a less gruesome sample of several pictures which used to fascinate me as a youngster. What drew me to this picture was its sheer mundanity. The contrast between the flanking NCOs' cheesy grins and central officer's forced smile is a very human touch, and the photo looks for all the world like a tourist snapshot. I used to find myself wondering if these guys had any notion of what their futures would bring them.

The German Question: old
& very important
Smelser and Davies' convincing deconstruction of how the German view of the Eastern Front became the official American view after the war casts my youthful musings in a new light. Why? Because I was then simply unaware of how my otherwise perfectly reasonable interest in rehumanising the enemy was conditioned by the pro-German bias Smelser and Davies explain. That is to say: I always assumed that picture was taken on the Eastern Front. I don't know why, but I did. And when I wondered what might've happened to those three men, I never seriously imagined that they might've been active agents of genocide. For me they were always hapless victims. If that's not an example of the myth of the 'clean Wehrmacht' in action, I don't know what could be.

The fundamental point that Smelser and Davies make which is of importance to wargamers is this: an entire branch of our hobby was founded on the bill of goods sold by the German ex-generals during the Cold War. Their agenda- to sanitise the role of the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, was both personal and political. The legacy of those efforts still infuses our hobby today. I say this not to point the finger at wargaming as a den of romancers. Instead, I think that this poses challenges to wargamers: to be more critical of those politicised myths; and to find a role for that critique in inspiring new approaches to designing games. It is challenges of this ilk which make me believe that The Myth of the Eastern Front is uniquely useful to wargamers who are interested in new insight into the hardy perennial of our hobby- the 'German question'. ;)

Wargames, politics and ethics
- #1: Ah, that old bugbear
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