A Squalid End to Empire


September 06, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO. — Chicago -- When the Third Reich fell, the first American officials given access to its leaders came from the Strategic Bombing Survey. The hope was that this group of scholars could learn something about the effect of air raids that would be useful in the continuing war with Japan.

But the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, serving on the staff of that study group, says that the defeated Nazis were of no use at all. Most were drunk or drugged, waking only to the symptoms of withdrawal, incoherent when not actually in the grip of delirium and the after-effects of alcoholic poisoning.

The mythical view of the fall of the Roman Empire is that a jaded people toppled over in riotous luxury and orgies. That is not true of the Roman Empire; but if one removes the note of gaiety, it describes the last minutes of the Third Reich, whose leaders, foreseeing defeat, numbed themselves to the inevitable. The Reich, which began with celebrations of pure Aryan healthiness, ended in the raving of sots.

Reports from Moscow make it look as though the whimpering last moments of the communist empire may have dissolved in the same liquid way. I was reminded of Mr. Galbraith's account of his attempts to poke some sense out of Hermann Goering when I read how Veniamin Yarin tried to wake a babbling Gennady Yanayev from his coma after the coup he led had failed.

Another leader of the coup, Valentin Pavlov, was so pale and rambling as he presented the motion for a state of emergency at a secret session of the Council of Ministers on August 19 that people present concluded he was drunk, too. He went home to do some more drinking with his son.

The Russian Revolution, symbol of hope to many when it proclaimed a workers' government, ended in the ineptitude of people who could not even work their own limbs.

Empires fall faster now than in Roman times (when a centuries-long metamorphosis changed the old empire into the two Christendoms, papal and Byzantine). The pagan empire was transformed, not simply obliterated; but there is nothing left to claim from the two main empires of our century. They go out unlamented, unredeemable, too ugly even for their own last representatives to look at them with clear eyes. The whole thing is so squalid that there is nothing worthy of lament.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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