History may be written by the victors, but as Wolfgang Schivelbusch argues in his brilliant and provocative book, it is the losers who often have the last word. Focusing on three case studies - the American South after the Civil War, France after defeat by Prussia in 1871, and Germany following the First World War - Schivelbusch reveals the complex psychological and cultural responses of vanquished nations to the experience of military defeat. He shows how defeated societies come to question their identities, rewrite their histories, and often strive to emulate the victors: the American South to become a 'better North'; the French to militarize along Prussian lines; and the Germans to seek regeneration by adopting the American model. He charts the losers' paradoxical equation of military failure with cultural superiority as they generate myths to glorify their past and explain their defeat. The Culture of Defeat, drawing its evidence from the fall of Troy to the collapse of the Twin Towers, presents a powerful historical argument and constitutes a dazzling tour de force.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch's books include Disenchanted Night and Tastes of Paradise. He divides his time between New York and Berlin.