Generals of the damned


Over the past few days two public figures have received flak for acknowledging the military talents of historically incorrect generals. The first case was a typical fake news beat-up, the other one less so, but both raising similar issues about our attitudes to and judgments about the past.

First, the outrage storm erupted over Donald Trump’s remarks at a political rally in Ohio where he described Confederate General Robert E Lee as a “great general”. Neither NBC, which was the first to cast a stone, nor other mainstream media outlets which subsequently joined in, have bothered to report on the context of Trump’s speech. The President was telling a story about one of Ohio’s favorite sons, General and later President Ulysses S Grant, who faced against the “great general” Lee and succeeded where all the other Union generals have failed for years, namely in defeating him and bringing the Civil War to a victorious close. The point of Trump’s story, on my reading of it, was that it’s often the unlikely heroes – Grant, after all, was a failed businessman, a depressive and an alcoholic, who had left the army disillusioned before being recalled from the cold to eventual glory – who surprise everyone and deliver results that the more credentialed and traditional players can’t. In that regard, rightly or wrongly, Trump probably sees himself in a similar mould.

Context or no context, many are angry that a Confederate military leader can be described as “great”. This is a very shallow way to think of history. Arguably, in choosing to serve his state and therefore the Confederacy rather than the legitimate government of the United States, Lee and all the other officers and soldiers who fought for the South had committed treason. They were also supporting the wrong cause – the preservation of slavery. But to describe a general as great does not imply a sympathy for his cause, merely an acknowledgement of his military talents. It’s beyond dispute for any rational individual that Robert E Lee was a great military leader in that he had kept an objectively much weaker side on the field of battle for four long years, most of that time victorious against the odds. I’m as Union as they came but I have no problems acknowledging Lee’s martial skills while at the same time despising slavery. And fortunately for history, this great general was eventually defeated by an even greater one, which was the point that Trump was making all along.

Meanwhile in Germany:

A senior official at Germany’s defence ministry has sparked an uproar with a tweet commemorating the death of Erwin Rommel, a favourite general of Adolf Hitler who was later involved in a plot to kill the Führer.
“Erwin Rommel, who was forced to commit suicide by the Nazis, died 74 years ago today,” wrote Peter Tauber, a former close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, on Twitter.
The tweet unleashed an outcry on social media, with some condemning the conservative politician for rehabilitating the Nazi general while others defended Tauber saying Rommel’s record was mixed.

Here the situation is more complicated. The tweet says nothing about Rommel as a man or a general but for commenting on the anniversary of his death. This alone seems to be a historical crime now, presumably on the basis that to remember is to celebrate.

Rommel, of course, served another wrong cause, one even more evil that slavery. In this the tweet in question is somewhat misleading. Rommel was a long-standing and enthusiastic supporter of Hitler for most of his senior career; it is only very late in the war, as the tide had decisively turned against Germany, that he seems to have developed some doubts, enough to tangentially connect him to the Von Stauffenberg conspiracy to assassinate the Fuhrer (the subject of Tom Cruise’s OK movie “Valkyrie”) – and enough to be given a rare choice of facing the Nazi “justice” or committing suicide to spare his family the shame. These are pretty thin grounds to consider him a hero, with his late hesitations somehow counter-balancing his prior record of faithful service. On the other hand, let’s recall that most of the anti-Hitler conspirators in Wehrmacht were likewise only relatively late converts to the opposition.

Though Tauber did not call Rommel a great general, there is again no doubt that Rommel was one on any objective military grounds. He was recognised as such not only by his German contemporaries but also by the Allied military leaders he had faced throughout the war, from Churchill down. Previous generations seem to have still possessed the ability, now increasingly lost, to make nuanced judgments about others. Churchill in fact did call Rommel a “great general” and in 1942, at a time when the Afrika Corp commander was still whipping British butts across Libya, but it would be difficult to argue that for Sir Winston this also implied the admiration for or approval of the cause that Rommel was serving. For that matter, Red Army leaders like Zhukov, Chuikov, Konev and Rokossovsky were likewise great generals of men on the field of battle, even though they served a dictator as evil as Hitler and an ideology as evil as Nazism.

History is full of good people occasionally doing bad things and bad people occasionally doing good, just as it is full of bad people with gifts and talents and good people with faults and failings. Let’s not infantilise it by trying to banish ambiguity, which is an integral part of our human condition.