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What is Defeat?

What is defeat?  Is defeat merely losing or is it something deeper?  Does the difference, if any, define inform possible wise peace requirements to place on a defeated enemy.

I have been watching the Time Ghost series Between Two Wars.  One of the items it tracks is the German myth, used by the Nazis but far from exclusive, or even original, to them, that German had not lost World War One, but been stabbed in the back.  In the episode on the rise of Hitler to the Chancellery, Indy Neidell states it this way:

It is the stab in the back conspiracy, hat Germany was not genuinely defeated in World War One and is being dealt an unfair blow through the effects of actually losing that war, which they definitely did.

Rise of Evil – From Populism to Fascism

This quote struck me because I have long said to understand the rise of this myth you need to understand that while Germany lost the war it was not defeated yet was treated as a defeated nation.  It is the difference between the two that provides the tiny grain of truth that the myth was built upon.

What’s the difference between losing the war and being defeated?

The tiny grain of truth I mentioned above is this: the German army was still in France when the war ended and occupied essentially all of Belgium.  A tiny piece of Germany was occupied by France.  Yes, if the Entente had launched the planned 1919 Spring offensive instead of signing the Armistice France and Belgium would have been cleared and the devastation of the war carried onto German soil.  I am not claiming Germany would not have suffered defeat and occupation.  I am pointing out the German offered an armistice to avoid that fate and the Entente accepted the offer.

In addition, a German army was still operating freely in East Africa.  Its commander, Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, would be celebrated as a war hero on his return to Germany.

But the Entente made a conscious choice not to do that.  They decided the cost, to them, was too high and thus signed the armistice.  That is a laudable choice, but only if you choose to not then try to treat Germany as a defeated nation.

Now some of the grievances Germany had post war could not have been avoided.  The territorial reorganization in the east was going to happen regardless of the final peace in the west.  However, thre principle items, the transfer of Alsace and Lorraine to France, large war reparations, and the forbidding of Germany have a real military, were punitive measures that could be taken against a defeated enemy that should have been avoided against an enemy who merely lost.

It has been pointed out that the first two were done to France by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War.  The territorial swap was the same in Europe, but much greater overseas.  The war indemnity against France in the earlier war was 5 billion francs, equivalent to 1.45 billion grams of gold.  The war indemnity against Germany was 20 billion marks, equivalent to 7.19 billion grams of gold.

In contrast to German armies still mostly in France at the end of World War One at the end of the Franco-Prussian War the French head of state and head of government, Emperor Napoleon III, was a prisoner of the Germans.  The last mobile French army had been destroyed in the Battle of Sedan where Napoleon was captured.  New armies formed by the new French Republican government were either prevented from mobilizing or quickly turned back.

There were no French troops on German soil.

France had been defeated.

That is the difference between defeating an enemy and the enemy losing the war.

In a bit of irony, the Allies of World War Two drew one and one half lessons from the failure to defeat Germany, yet imposing the terms of a defeated nation on them, leading to post war conflicts growing into another world war.  First, Germany was defeated.  There could be no question of Germany’s defeat.  No German army operated with any effectiveness outside of Germany.  In most of German, except for the base of the Jutland peninsula, no German authority existed. The army was occupied was Allied forces.  That lesson, the need to defeat the enemy, not just win the war, the full lesson.

Then, after the war, the western Allies did not impose open ended terms of defeat on Germany.  De-Nazification did take place.  Germany was not permitted a military for a few years, but the humiliating limitations of Versailles, size and type restrictions, were not imposed with the rebirth of the German military.  The United States invested vast sums in rebuilding West Germany.  The Soviets were not quite as generous after defeating Germany, hence the half lesson.

Yes, I understand much of the western changes, especially around the new German military, were part of Cold War maneuvering, but that is still an application of the lesson of not treating a defeated enemy as such.

So, looking at the initial question, is defeat the same as losing.  My answer is, no it is not.  Defeat is losing to such a degree that you cannot, under any reasonable or even most unreasonable set of facts argue things could have been different.  A team that loses a football game by one point on a missed field goal as the clock has run out loses the game.  A team that gives up a touchdown in the last two minutes of play to make the final score 49-13 is defeated.

Defeat is also losing to such a degree that any terms can be imposed on you regardless of how much you cooperate or oppose them.  The Germans had to voluntarily sail the High Seas Fleet to Scapa Flow for internment.  When it became clear the entire fleet was to just be given to Allied navies, the sailors on it were free to attempt to scuttle the ships to prevent their falling into enemy hands.  After the Second World War, German sailors were either prevented from scuttling the few surviving ships because the Allies occupied the ports or given a “surrender or die” order by Allied navies that had insane superiority over them.

If you wish to punish someone after winning, you must defeat them.  In defeat you destroy their ability to undertake the natural desire for revenge if you punish them.  That inability will force them to turn inward and either change to fit the new world or wither   and die.  Even today, in the case of Germany and the Second World War, it is unclear which has happened.

If you choose not to defeat them, and make no mistake it was a choice by the Entente in 1918 to not defeat Germany, and end the slaughter when the outcome is clear, you cannot punish them without blow back.  I understand why the armistice happened and why revenge was sought.  I believe it would not have been politically possible to eschew revenge given the length and horror of the war.


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