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My country, right or wrong?
May 03, 2003
On July 20, 1944, a briefcase exploded under a conference table in Rastenburg, Germany. At the table, holding a war meeting, were Adolf Hitler and several officers. The explosion wounded Hitler, but did not kill him. Joseph Goebbels, his propaganda minister, moved swiftly against the men who had plotted this assassination attempt. By evening, most of them had been shot, including Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of the conspiracy and the man who actually left the briefcase bomb under the table. Hitler also believed that his finest war officer, Erwin Rommel, was part of the July 20 plot and later drove him to suicide.
The conspirators were executed as traitors; shot by men defending their fatherland and leader against these traitors. In other words, men who believed they were doing their duty as German patriots. No matter that well before 1944, Hitler's crimes were apparent to anyone -- including German patriots -- who cared to look. But that didn't matter, because wasn't Hitler simultaneously chanting 'Deutschland über alles', or whatever is the German equivalent of 'my country, right or wrong'? Wasn't he also restoring, or claiming to restore, German pride and honour after the disgrace of the First World War?
Doing those things, and Hitler and Goebbels were masters at this charade of German pride, they were hailed as staunch German patriots. After all, in 1935 -- before Hitler wreaked his worst destruction, true, but he had already shown evidence of his intent -- even Winston Churchill described him as charged with 'patriotic ardour' and 'a passionate love of Germany' (from 'Hitler and his Choice', in Great Contemporaries). Did Churchill still call it love, I wonder, when the man went on to slaughter millions of his fellow citizens and destroy Germany?
But today, we can ask: Who were the patriots? Those who rallied to the defence of a murderous madman who, less than a year after the plot, had completed the job of leading his country into devastation? The madman himself?
Or were the patriots the men like Stauffenberg, who tried to rid their country of the disease of Nazism and died trying? What about Rommel, who fought hard and with immense distinction in North Africa even as he grew disillusioned with Hitler? Was he a patriot?
Sixty years on, another war has come and gone. As wars do, this one has left in its wake many of the same questions about patriotism that Stauffenberg raised when he slipped that briefcase under that table.
During the weeks of war in Iraq, we heard a lot about Iraqis -- not just soldiers, but ordinary citizens -- fighting hard for Saddam and country. Some had even returned to Iraq from abroad, leaving behind jobs and family to 'defend the fatherland'. Many hated Saddam, but nevertheless believed that their duty as Iraqis was to battle the invaders from Britain and the US: 'my country, right or wrong', haven't we heard that before? Patriots all: in various Indian corners, what these warriors -- particularly the men who came back to fight -- felt for Iraq was hailed as patriotism distilled to its purest. There was much wistful yearning for India to be filled with such patriotism. Again.
But juxtapose that patriotism with the scenes as Saddam's regime finally crumbled. Euphoric Iraqis poured into the streets to kick at his fallen statue, to celebrate in myriad other ways. You need not support George Bush in what George McGovern called a senseless and immoral campaign in Iraq -- and I was repulsed by it -- to recognise that euphoria for what it was: the joyful relief of release from the grip of another murderous tyrant.
So let's ask again: who are the Iraqi patriots? The men who fought to defend a regime like Saddam's? Or the ecstatic hordes who dragged his bullet-ridden bust through Baghdad's streets? The non-resident Iraqis who rode into battle for God and Saddam and country? Or the grateful Iraqis who welcomed victorious foreign troops with hugs and kisses?
Or let's ask variations on those questions: is it patriotic to support a tyrant and killer solely because your country is under attack and he rules it? Is it traitorous to long for your country to be rid of that killer by whatever means: yes, including Bush's 'senseless and immoral' invasion across your borders?
Back in India, many were appalled by Bush for this reason more than most: what if he decided on a similar venture into India? But if he did, how should a patriotic Indian react?
Stand and fight, of course! Naturally.
But let's make the questions a little harder to answer. Leave aside the hypocrisy Bush and his cronies have flaunted. Let's build a hypothesis instead: that, like Iraq, India is ruled by a despotic regime.
Suppose it has ignored -- and by ignoring, aggravated -- the suffering of millions of miserably poor Indians, many of whom go to sleep hungry and sick every single night. It has stoked hatreds among Indians, hatreds that have led to regular massacres all over the country. Too often, state machinery has participated in these great crimes. It has paid no attention to the need to punish the perpetrators of such massacres. Too often, it has rewarded them with power and protection, status and wealth. It has snuffed out any public faith in the rule of law -- not just by perverting the courts and police, but by installing criminals as the makers and keepers of the law. And, in this thought experiment, the greatest criminal of all heads the regime.
Remember: just a hypothesis.
But now, still in this hypothesis, how must a patriotic Indian react? Does she defend this ghastly junta to the world, because after all and always, it's 'my country, right or wrong'? Does he take up arms to fight its wars, to defend it to the death against foreign aggression, because of his love for India? (Does this love mean you must die for criminals?)
Then what do we say about those who might plot against the obscenity that blights their land, as Stauffenberg did, who fight to free India of it? Are they patriots? If so, what if they welcomed a force from abroad that toppled this hypothetical regime, as many Iraqis did? Are they still patriots?
In his superb history of the Second World War, John Keegan writes that Stauffenberg recognised the mortal danger of defeat into which the Führer had led the fatherland and anticipated the disgrace and punishment that the iniquity of Nazism would bring to his countrymen in its wake. Stauffenberg's motives, in short, were patriotic.
Churchill called Hitler a patriot. Keegan calls Stauffenberg a patriot. You can make your own call. But think of this: If Stauffenberg had succeeded that July day, he would have saved Germany from the ruin Hitler left in 1945. From the crumbling wasteland of 'my country, right or wrong'.
That's why he was a German patriot. That's why he died.
You can send your comments directly to me firstname.lastname@example.org Dilip D'Souza