Sunday, May 8, 2005

The West and the Past

Today is the 60th Anniversary of the surrender of Nazi Germany. If you’re interested in the cataclysmic events surrounding the fall of the Third Reich, there are hundreds of excellent books: In particular, I’d recommend John Toland’s The Last 100 Days, Cornelius Ryan’s The Last Battle, Christopher Duffy’s Red Storm on the Reich, or the recent book by Max Hastings, Armageddon, which is really superb.

But, as is obvious, all that’s past history. What’s more interesting to me today are the media and political world’s current reactions to this event, and what they say about our own view of how we got to the modern world. Ignorance, self-indulgence and just plain weirdness are much on display this week.

Three sets of issues call for comment: first, current views of the consequences for eastern Europe of the Soviet Union being one of the victorious allied powers; second how the Germans are dealing with their defeat; and, finally, the related question of how the Russians are coping with the fall of the Soviet Union – which amounted to the end of the World War II political settlement.

Take President Bush. I’ll give him that he had a tough course to navigate this week, but his comments on the Yalta agreement (the wartime agreement between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt on the division of influence in post-war Europe) were just silly.

At Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt, among other things, essentially conceded to Stalin that he could keep his ill-gotten gains in Poland and along the Baltic from his earlier deal in 1940 with Hitler, and acknowledged that in the post-war world, Stalin would have the most to say about which Polish factions would govern what was left of Poland and other parts of eastern Europe

This week, President Bush said that the United States shared some blame for what happened to the Poles, the Estonians, the Latvians, and everybody else who wound up behind the Iron Curtain at the end of the war, calling it part of an “unjust tradition” of earlier treaties such as the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1940.

Well, I suppose. But saying that Roosevelt and Churchill, let alone the electorates that employed them, were at fault for what happened in eastern Europe seems pretty asinine to me. Of course the Soviet Union was going to dominate eastern Europe. Of course eastern Europe was going to go communist. The Soviet Union did the bulk of the fighting and dying in that war, and in 1945 the Soviets had 400 divisions sitting on the real-estate in question. Yes, Yalta was bad, and the fate of eastern Europeans dreadful, as Bush, very gently, and others, more loudly, such as Pat Buchanan, have pointed out. But possession is nine-tenths of the law. Just what do safe, happy well-fed editorial columnists think we should have done about Stalin in 1945 ? Fight another war ?

There was no way to prevent a communized eastern Europe, from the moment Madman Hitler got it into his head to lose a war he had already won by invading Russia. Nobody can be blamed for what happened in eastern Europe except the Germans and the elites in that country who mortgaged everything to Hitler and his crackpot party. The Germans, and nobody else, opened eastern Europe to the communists.

None of this should precisely be an education to anybody. But it just gets irritating to see so many people who should know better blame statesmen for not thinking like ivory-tower professors. There are not always choices or good options.

Then there are the present Germans, who seem to me to be, well, strange. Today’s New York Times has an article about a bunch of nice liberal Germans who want to honour deserters from the German Army in World War II. I don’t get it. That’s like the Germans who want to send representatives to the periodic ceremonies in Normandy on the anniversary of the D-Day landings or to the present event in Moscow celebrating VE Day. A segment of the German commentariat likes to claim that the fall of the Third Reich liberated Germans too.

Maybe it did, but I’m glad I’m not a German. I could never be comfortable embracing such a view. Hitler was certainly a monster, and everyone should be glad he is dead, but, thinking as a German, that’s a long way from celebrating the laying waste of one’s own country, or honouring people who deserted the colours and left others to carry on and die in their places, (the German Army was draftee -- Nazi or anti-Nazi, you had to go). I’ve got a great deal of respect for real dissidents, like Colonel vonStauffenberg, who tried to blow up Hitler, but it’s hard for me to find much emotional common ground with people who think that the invasion of their own country could ever be a good thing.

Don’t get El Jefe wrong. I’m an American, I think our cause in the Second World War was among the most righteous for which people ever took up arms, and I’m glad Americans invaded Germany, kicked the tar out of the German Army, and saw that Herr Hitler and his pals were made stone, cold, dead. It just confuses me a little that Germans could be totally okay with this, no matter how good it was to see Hitler gone. Not cricket not to care for your own side.

In a similar vein, Right Thinking People’s hearts are all a’flutter because Russian President Vladimir Putin recently characterized the demise of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” This is cited as evidence of Putin’s tyrannical tendencies.

Well of course Putin thinks the collapse of the Soviet Union (the Russian Empire by any other name) is a disaster. Why shouldn’t he ? Mr. Putin’s a Russian for goodness sake. The collapse was a disaster for Russia. Thanks to the events of 1989-1993, the Russians must suffer America setting conditions for fair elections in Ukraine, and NATO troops within 100 miles of St. Petersburg. How would Americans feel about the Russians sticking their noses into, say, Mississippi elections ?

Why shouldn’t the President of Russia be concerned with the power, standing, aggrandizement and international standing of Russia ? Of course, Putin will do what he can to rebuild the power and position of his country. Putin will try to rebuild the Russian military, and certainly try to grab back various pieces of real-estate that used to be part of the Soviet Union. This is normal, and is the way nation-states operate.

Just because Right Thinking media elites think nationalism is passé doesn’t mean that it actually is. Certainly, Putin doesn’t think so. He will certainly try to rebuild Russia. Where Russia's interests and aims do not collide with ours, we may even help Putin. It is for us, and others acting in the international system, to set down markers, so that other actors know where the limits are, and what actions, specifically will not be tolerated. But why so many seem to find it shocking that other countries and powers actually have foreign policies of their own is a complete mystery to me.

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