Gone with the Wind: Gone in the Head

06/21/2011 03:36 pm ET | Updated Aug 21, 2011

Civil War re-enactors take heed. I have perfected the Rebel yell: Oweeeeeeyaaahhooooo!!! That's me after reading Yoni Applebaum's piece, "Confederates on the Rhine". The article is a hodgepodge of strained reason in which Applebaum tries to cobble together an analysis of German reenactments of the Civil War, a conflation of thematic political and perspectival individual ends in war generally and the Nazi's alleged obsession with Gone with the Wind.

First, to argue that feelings of racial superiority have influenced Germans to don Confederate gray rather than Union blue is tantamount to connecting the numerous images of Native Americans adopted by American sports teams to Eurocentric or Caucasian prejudices of the players and their fans who wear team uniforms and headwear emblazoned with "Indian" logos. German Civil War reenactors and American sports fans are largely not racial bigots in search of attire to broadcast their prejudice and hatred. Rather, Germans, like many observers, have a general tendency to side with the underdog and rebel, which is most often connected to some romantic interpretation of freedom.

The horrors of Nazism have led to a total amputation of many German historical traditions associated with National Socialism such as the state of Prussia, which was officially dissolved in 1945 following the total defeat in the Second World War. With the abolition of Prussia, an almost 300-year-long rich military history came to an end. Today, the German Bundeswehr is the single exception to this historical amnesia when it seeks inspiration from the uprising against Napoleon and the "Befreiungskriege" (Wars of Liberation from 1812-1814).

The most famous unit among the German troops rising against Napoleon was the Königlich Preußisches Freikorps von Lützow, the legendary Luetzow Freecorps, consisting of volunteers from all over Germany, among them the romantic poet Karl Theodor Koerner, whose death in combat in 1813 proved to be a rallying cry for the liberation of Germany. The corps was a ragtag force; its members wore no uniform, and the volunteers equipped and supplied themselves. After victory in 1814 and 1815, this unit became a founding myth of the German empire and started a passionate German romance with "Freischaerler" or rebels. Today, however, the taint of National Socialism is still pasted too heavily on Prussia, which is perceived as an inevitable steppingstone in the rise of the Third Reich. Prussia's traditions involving the Liberation Wars are too far removed to stir any warm feelings among Germans. As a consequence, and ironically, the Germans turn to the US Confederates to fulfill a romantic urge to celebrate rebellion in an apolitical environment, yet they distinctly focus on the soldiers and the field of battle, which brings me to my next point.

Enactors, like most soldiers, are distinctly apolitical or even disinterested in the wider political implications of their struggle. If people reenact the US-Mexican War of 1846-1848 -- a blunt war of imperialist aggression -- does this make them automatically condoners of imperialist actions and attacks of stronger states on weaker states?

The defense of Rorke's Drift in 1879 by a small company of British soldiers against a force of Zulus 40 times greater than their own resulted in the award of more Victoria Crosses than for any other single action in British martial history. Should British imperialism and inhuman treatment of the Zulus diminish the glory of this action? Hardly so; rather, individual heroism and brilliance in battle can be separate from political aims for which battles are fought. While there are political soldiers (e.g., the Waffen SS), not every soldier is political. The field of battle is conspicuously apolitical -- its only cause, victory, its only redemption, survival. Thus, to infer a political agenda from individuals engaged in apolitical activities, let alone reenacting them, appears ludicrous at best.

Third, there is no logical correlation between the popularity of Gone with the Wind and sympathies for the Old South in Germany, but rather the popularity lies in the intrinsically human attraction to the inherent theme of the work. Margaret Mitchell herself states about the book: "If Gone with the Wind has a theme, it is that of survival. What makes some people come through catastrophes and others, apparently just as able, strong, and brave, go under?" The movie distinctly struck a chord among the millions of displaced Germans and Austrians after the war, my grandmother among them, who re-read the book three times. Flipping through the novel, one is much more reminded of Jane Austen than Leo Tolstoy, and the political message, if there is any, is drowned by the individual drama of Scarlett and Rhett's doomed liaison.

People are aware, however, that Gone with the Wind is part of the (in)famous "lost cause literature," among which is William Faulkner's 1948 novel Intruder in the Dust, where he describes Pickett's doomed assault during the battle of Gettysburg:

For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet, it not only hasn't begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances which made more men than Garnett and Kemper and Armistead and Wilcox look grave yet it's going to begin, we all know that, we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself to crown with desperate and unbelievable victory the desperate gamble, the cast made two years ago....

The political consequences of the Confederates ever reaching the golden dome of Washington would have been immense, yet I doubt that any of Pickett's men lined up along the ridge were thinking about states' rights or slavery when the cannon fire started. Perhaps Yoni Applebaum's piece should be listed among the lost cause literature. With his sweeping -- albeit unromantic -- Clausewitzean assertions about the nature of politics and war, he would fit right in, as a "post-modern lost cause" writer; but this would prompt Mr. Faulkner to howl like a rebel. Rather, his piece is just lost.