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Nazi Germany

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Putin’s Plea

Donald Trump writes in tweets, with more exclamation marks than a thirteen-year-old girl’s diary. Nobody knows for sure whether his very limited vocabulary is due to concern for his intended target audience, or to his own gradual mental decline. (Look at interviews from 20 years ago, and he was still using long words and speaking in complete sentences.)

China’s president, as witness his philosophical masterpiece, “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism With Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, is a fluent writer of the ‘langue de bois’, the ‘wooden language’ of abstractions, slogans, bad metaphors and cant used by sub-Marxist thinkers and other ideologues. The Chinese call it ‘konghua’ (empty speech), and Xi is a master of the art.

They speak a non-Marxist version of the langue de bois at the École nationale d’administration ( ÉNA – National School of Administration), the finishing school for most French politicians. It’s still stilted twaddle, and President Emmanuel Macron is an énarque, so he sometimes sounds out of touch – but he can also speak and write human.

So can Boris Johnson, part-time prime minister of the United Kingdom. He even wrote a whole book about how much Winston Churchill resembled him, and he can talk just like a character in a P.G. Wodehouse novel, so he’s no slouch in the literary department either. But none of these world leaders can hold a candle to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The Russian president has just done something none of these other men would or even could do. He has written a 9,000-word essay on the risk to world peace to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, and published it in the leading American foreign policy magazine The National Interest.

Putin called it ‘The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II’, which presumably refers to the end of the war in early May of 1945, but that was obviously last month. Instead, he scheduled publication for this week, because 22 June is the date when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. He wanted to write this piece so badly that he deliberately mixed up the dates.

One of his objectives is to rectify the ignorant omission of any mention of Russia’s leading role in defeating Nazi Germany in the Anglo-American celebrations of the anniversary last month. Russians are sensitive on this subject, because, as Putin points out, one out of seven Russians was killed in the war (27 million people) compared to one in 127 British (less than half a million) and one in 320 Americans (the same).

He also spends some time defending the Nazi-Soviet pact to conquer and share out Poland, the three Baltic states and parts of Finland and Romania, which fired the starting gun for the Second World War in 1939. This is a futile, thankless task that every Russian leader is condemned to perform for at least another generation.

There were extenuating circumstances, certainly. Britain and France rejected repeated Soviet offers of an anti-Nazi alliance, hoping that Hitler would attack Russia instead, or at least playing for time while they raced to re-arm. There was still no excuse for what Stalin did, nor for the fact that he was taken by surprise when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union anyway less than two years later.

So far, so predictable, you might say, but the concluding third of Putin’s essay is quite different. It is an almost desperate plea for the preservation of the international order embodied in the rules of the United Nations and especially of the Security Council, which has kept the peace between the nuclear-armed great powers for such an astoundingly long time.

He writes: “The victorious powers…laid the foundation of a world that for 75 years had no global war, despite the sharpest contradictions….What is veto power in the UN Security Council? To put it bluntly, it is the only reasonable alternative to a direct confrontation between major countries.”

“(The veto) is a statement by one of the great powers that a decision is unacceptable to it and is contrary to its interests and its ideas about the right approach. And other countries, even if they do not agree, (accept this position), abandoning any attempts to realize their unilateral efforts. So, in one way or another, it is necessary to seek compromises.”

Putin is right: the United Nations is not a naively idealistic organisation, and the Security Council is brutally realistic about how to keep the peace between nuclear powers. It has done so successfully for 75 years, but it is now threatened by the rival, non-negotiable nationalisms of many countries and the growing isolationism of the United States.

Rather like the 1930s, in fact. Putin is not older or naturally wiser than the other leaders, but he is Russian and KGB-trained, so he remembers the history a lot better. He is actually scared, and he’s probably right to be.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“He also…later”)

Georgette Mosbacher’s History Lesson

The row started when Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was asked about the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 during his annual press conference on 19 December, and gave a deliberately evasive answer.

Or maybe it started in September, when the European Union’s parliament passed a resolution describing the Second World War as “an immediate result” of the Nazi-Soviet deal. That was done to placate the Polish government, which wants to remind everybody that both the Germans and the Russians invaded Poland in 1939.

However, that infuriated the Russians, whose 20th-century history holds little that they can be proud of apart from their victory over Nazi Germany in 1941-45, after Hitler broke the Pact and invaded the Soviet Union. Yet here was the European Parliament effectively saying that it was their own stupid fault for making an alliance with Hitler.

Russian propaganda output since then has tried very hard to blur what actually happened in 1939 – and then last Monday Georgette Mosbacher, the US ambassador to Poland, entered the fray, sending out a tweet that said: “Dear President Putin, Hitler and Stalin colluded to start WWII.” Even the Poles haven’t been that crude: she might as well have poked Putin with a stick.

Georgette Mosbacher holds an undergraduate degree in education from Indiana University and had a distinguished career in the cosmetics industry, so she clearly knows what she’s talking about, but the United States does not really have much standing in this argument. It didn’t start fighting Hitler until more than two years later, after it was dragged into the war by the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour.

Anyway, she said it. Was she right? I used to be a professional historian until I discovered that journalists have more fun and make more money, so here’s my best estimate.

Nobody actually ‘wanted’ the Second World War: it was only twenty years since the First World War ended, and memories were too fresh. But Hitler wanted certain territories, he was willing to fight some small wars to get them, and he was a gambler, big on bluff. He probably did intend to attack the Soviet Union too, in the end – but only later.

Putin makes much of the British and French decision to give Germany the German-populated border regions of Czechoslovakia in the Munich agreement of 1938. This allegedly showed Stalin that they would only appease Hitler, not fight him. And that, says Putin, is why Stalin made a deal with Hitler.

This is nonsense: the dates don’t work. The Munich agreement was one last try by Britain and France to satisfy Hitler’s more-or-less reasonable demands by letting him have German-majority territories that had been given to other countries at the end of the First World War. But the British did not believe that Hitler was actually reasonable.

Britain, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, had actually started high-speed rearmament in early 1938: British weapons production doubled in 1938, and again in 1939.
And when Hitler started talking about seizing part of Poland in 1939, Britain and France both said specifically that they would go to war to stop him.

Stalin knew perfectly well that Britain and France were ready to fight Hitler in 1939: there were actually British and French diplomats in Moscow trying to negotiate an anti-Nazi alliance that August. He simply got a better offer from Hitler: Germany would invade Poland, but give Stalin the eastern half – and throw in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia for free.

So the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed in Moscow on 23 August, 1939, and Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September.

Britain and France declared war on Germany, as they had promised, but they couldn’t save Poland. The Soviet Union invaded Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at once, but waited two weeks, until the Germans had destroyed the Polish army, before occupying its half of Poland. And all those territories remained part of the Soviet Union until it finally collapsed fifty years later, in 1989.

That’s what actually happened. Stalin was a complete idiot to trust Hitler, but went on supplying Germany with oil and various other scarce goods until the day before Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. It’s not a story that reflects well on Russia, so it’s no wonder that Putin keeps trying to change the narrative.

You can see why the Poles want to keep the story straight, too. But Putin is not Stalin, and Stalin was not planning to conquer the world, just trying to recover territories that Russia had lost at the end of the First World War. In fact, nobody was planning to ‘conquer the world’, or even to start a second world war. They just miscalculated, as usual.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“Georgette…Harbour”)

Germany: The Rise of the Right

Angela Merkel’s slogan in her campaign for a fourth term as Chancellor was terminally bland and smug – “For a Germany in which we live well and love living” – but it did the job, sort of. Her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is back as the largest party, so Merkel gets to form the next coalition government. But the neo-fascists are now in the Bundestag (parliament) too, for the first time since the collapse of Nazi Germany.

It’s not Merkel’s fault, exactly, but the numbers tell the tale. The CDU had its worst result ever, down from 40 percent of the vote at the last election to only 33 percent this time. And it looks like the 7 percent of the vote that the CDU lost went straight to the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the neo-fascist party, whose support was up from just under 5 percent last time to 12.6 percent this time.

That makes the AfD the third biggest party in the Bundestag. All the other parties have sworn to have nothing to do with it, so Merkel’s party will have to seek its coalition partners elsewhere. It will take at least a month to make the coalition deal, which will probably link the CDU with the business-friendly Free Democrats and the Greens, but that is not the big story. The rise of the hard right is.

‘Rise’ is a relative term, of course: only one German in eight actually voted for the AfD. But that is still shocking in a country that thought it had permanently excised all that old Nazi stuff from its politics. And if you look more closely, the AfD’s support was strongest in the same parts of the country that voted strongly for the Nazis in the 1933 election that brought Hitler to power.

The AfD was founded by an economics professor who just wanted Germany to leave the euro currency, but in the past four years it has been taken over anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant ultra-nationalists, and they do sound a little bit like You-Know-Who at times.

Alice Weidel, the AfD’s co-leader, has described Merkel’s government as “pigs” who merely serve as “marionettes of the victorious powers of the Second World War, whose task it is to keep down the German people.” And the party’s other co-leader, Alexander Gauland, said in an election speech last week: “We have the right to be proud of the achievements of the German soldiers in two world wars.”

That sort of comment might be interesting to debate in a university seminar on German history, but 72 years after Hitler’s death it is still too soon to say out loud in a Europe that was ravaged by German armies in the Second World War. Gauland, Weidel and their AfD colleagues are playing with fire and they are well aware of it.

The truly alarming thing, however, is not the occasional echo of the Nazis in AfD rhetoric. It is the fact that Germany is conforming to a general trend towards the authoritarian, ultra-nationalist right in Western politics.

Each country does it in its own historical style. The pro-Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom last year was actually led by isolationist “Little Englanders”. Their implausible promise of a glorious free-trading future for the UK outside the European Union was just a necessary nod in the direction of economic rationality – but the Brexiteers won because enough people wanted to believe them.

Similarly, Donald Trump fits comfortably into the American tradition: he is channelling American demagogues of the 1930 like Huey Long and Father Coughlin. The economic situation of American workers and the lower middle class today is close enough to that of the 1930s that they responded to his mixture of nationalism, dog-whistle racism and anti-big-business thetoric by voting him into the presidency.

In France, Marine Le Pen appealed to nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and the resentment of the long-term unemployed to win almost 34 percent of the vote in last May’s presidential election. She lost, but the more important fact is that one-third of French voters backed the neo-fascist candidate. And now, in German, the AfD.

The common thread that runs through all these events, beyond the racism, nationalism and xenophobia, is economic distress. The economies may be doing well, but a large proportion of the people are not. The gap between the rich and the rest was tolerated when everybody’s income was rising, but that has not been true for thirty years now, and patience among the “losers” has run out.

This is still early days, but the direction of the drift in Western politics is clear, and it is deeply undesirable. The only thing that will stop it is decisive action to narrow the income gap again, but that is very hard to do in the face of the currently dominant economic doctrine.

Houston, we have a problem.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“The AfD…times”; and “That sort…of it”)

Putin on D-Day

4 June 2014

By Gwynne Dyer

The presence of President Vladimir Putin on the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings was planned long before the current conflict over Ukraine, but it is a useful reminder of the fact that Russia is not some Asiatic tyranny on Europe’s eastern borders. It is a European country that has played a major role in the continent’s affairs for centuries.

Not only were the Russians on the same side as the “Western” allies in the Second World War. They did most of the heavy lifting in the war against Nazi Germany, and they paid by far the highest price.

While 850,000 American, British and Canadian troops were landing on the French coast in June of 1944, 6 million soldiers of the Soviet army were fighting massive battles with the German army in eastern Europe. The land war on the Eastern Front was already three years old, and by June of 1944 the Russians had won: the Germans had already begun the long retreat that ended above Hitler’s bunker in Berlin eleven months later.

The price the Russians paid for their victory over Nazi Germany was huge: at least 11 million military dead (compared to fewer than 1 million dead for the Western allies). No other country in history has lost so many soldiers, but in the end it was the Red Army that destroyed Hitler’s Wehrmacht: 80 percent of Germany’s 6 million military dead were killed on the Eastern Front.

The main strategic significance of the Normandy landings, therefore, was not the defeat of Germany, which was already assured. It was the fact that Moscow had to accept that Europe would be divided between the victors down the middle of Germany, rather than along some line further west that ran down the Franco-German border, or even down the English Channel.

President Putin, who began his career as a KGB agent working in Soviet-dominated East Germany, will certainly be aware of the irony that he is commemorating a military operation whose main result was to contain Soviet power. And his presence will remind all the other participants that the Second World War was not really fought to defend democracy from tyranny.

Hitler never intended to conquer Britain, and was surprised when his armed forces conquered France in 1940. He was certainly not out to “conquer the world”, a preposterous ambition for a country of only 80 million people. His real target was Russia: the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union. And he couldn’t even conquer that.

Unlike previous great-power wars, the two world wars had to be represented as moral crusades against evil because new wealth and technology turned them into total wars that required mass participation. If people are going to be asked to sacrifice vast numbers of their children in a war, they must be told that it has some higher purpose than the traditional one of settling disputes among the great powers.

The people who lived through the First World War were fed that lie, but we no longer believe it now. To a remarkable extent, the Western countries that fought in the Second World War still believe that it was a moral crusade, because Hitler was a very evil man.

So he was, but almost nobody in the countries that were fighting him knew about the death camps until the war was over. Moreover, the country that was carrying the heaviest burden in the war against Nazi Germany was a monstrous tyranny led by Joseph Stalin, a man who certainly rivalled Hitler in terms of how many millions of people he murdered.

It seems churlish to insist that the Second World War was just another great-power conflict on the day when the last survivors of the generation who fought in it are gathering to honour, probably for the last time, those who died on the beaches of Normandy. But there is no other time when people will actually pause to listen to such an assertion, and it is important that they understand it.

If the world wars were moral crusades against evil, then our only hope of avoiding more such tragedies in the future (probably fought with nuclear weapons) would be to extinguish evil in the world. Whereas if they were actually traditional great-power wars, lightly disguised, then we might hope that we could stop them just by changing the way that the international system works.

That was the real conclusion of the governments on the winning side in both world wars. It’s why they created the League of Nations after the first one, and the United Nations after the second. Both organisations were designed to break the cycle of great-power wars by criminalising those who start wars and taking the profit out of victory (because nobody will recognise your conquests even if you win).

The League of Nations failed, as first attempts often do, but the United Nations did not. There has been no Third World War, and no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years. Putin’s presence in Normandy is an embarrassment precisely because he broke the UN rules by forcibly annexing Crimea, but the enterprise is still, on the whole, a success. So far, so good.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Unlike…murdered”)