Americans and much of the world have been treated lately to the specter of war and the theater of brinkmanship. There also have been seemingly no end of experts on the Mideast who tell us things such as, “It’s a culture of honor and shame.” “They have to save face.” “You have to be the tough guy not to get taken.” When a passenger jetliner appeared to have been shot down near an amusement park outside Tehran, President Trump said, with an invisible shrug, that it was a “rough neighborhood.”
They could as easily be talking about the north side of St. Louis or Chicago’s South Side, yet these observations are made almost as though Iran and the Mideast are intrinsically more primitive than the West, less fully human – ignoring the grandeur of Persia, for one thing, which is a longer story than the Americans’. Wouldn’t it make more sense to start with the proposition that the people of Iran – who are ultimately the only source of regime change – are foremost just like us?
Notions of honor and shame have played an outsized role in modern Western history, too.
Look at railway dining car No. 2419D, which was built in 1914 in France for use by the Belgian Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits line. The car was seized by France in 1918 and used as a mobile headquarters for WWI Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch. A month later, the German Empire capitulated to the allies, ending World War I. The last ceasefire was signed in that car, which was parked in the Forest of Compiègne, about 40 miles north of Paris.
The German defeat on paper left Adolf Hitler, a 30-year-old soldier who had been decorated for bravery, ashamed. There is no other word for it. But shame will often find an outlet to be lifted into bitterness, anger and reprisal and still not be quit. Hitler blamed the politicians, the Jews, the Marxists; anyone within reach.
The rail car was returned to service as a dining car for Wagon-Lits for a year. Then it was donated to the French Army Museum in Paris, where it was displayed for six years, before being restored and put in a specially built museum in Compiègne just yards from where the armistice was signed.
All the while, Hitler was building armies and a people to avenge Germany’s shame. Experts in France and England said one had to understand the German culture of saving face. They had the right diagnosis and the wrong cure, as they belatedly realized when Hitler invaded France and forced it to surrender, in 1940. For the occasion, he had the Compiègne car moved the few feet to precisely where it had stood in 1918, left Germany for Compiègne and made the French sign the armistice in the car while he sat in the same chair Foch used in 1918.
William Shirer, the American correspondent, said Hitler’s face that day was “afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph.” Everything but shame.
The Germans took the restored dining car home and exhibited it at the Berlin Cathedral while the German army, on Hitler’s orders, destroyed everything at the Compiègne museum except a statue of Foch, leaving him to gaze upon a wasteland.
In 1945, in the face of the advancing U.S. Army in central Germany, the SS dynamited the rail car. Almost like clockwork, German prisoners of war were sent to Compiègne to restore the museum and reassemble its other monuments. In 1950, Wagon-Lits donated an identical car to the museum, even renumbering it 2419D, where it sits. For now.