World War Redux
I confess, I am a World War II buff. I like history, but nothing quite tempts me as much as a tale of the triumph and tragedy of the Great War.
Which is why I felt just a little pleased when so much bitterness suddenly welled up during the events to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of the war. (Purists will argue that the Mukden incident was the starting point — but let’s admit it, the Sino-Japanese conflict always seemed to be a separate struggle that only later converged with the Real Thing.)
The Russians complained the Western Allies still don’t give them credit for pretty much fighting Germany alone in the period between the fall of France and the Reverse Norman Conquest. The Germans apologized to everyone and then spoilt it by saying how bad Poland and Czechoslovakia for tossing out their German minorities after the war. The Poles pretty much abused everyone — but didn’t, unless I missed a whispered footnote somewhere, say anything about their own anti-semitism.
It almost felt like the good old days when politics was war by other means and Geneva Conventions and human rights commissions existed only in the crystal balls of Gypsies.
But that is exactly the reason why there was such an anachronistic ring about the whole fingerpointing exercise at the commemoration event. What the European powers did at the start of World War II was the kind of hard-nosed dirtiness that 19th and 20th century nations did all the time. And it was treated as perfectly normal in those days.
Germany and the Soviet Union having a secret treaty to carve up Poland was no big deal at the time. Secret treaty clauses abounded and it was one reason that today the world insists that all treaties be deposited with the United Nations.
The expulsion of the German minorities was almost humane by the standards of the time — a century earlier and they would probably have been sold into slavery. Many Poles may have hated Germans invading but they cheered the Nazis when they began herding Jews and Gypsies into death camps. Seeing such minorities as aliens deserving of maltreatment rather than fellow citizens was also a pre-modern (more accurately pre-Enlightenment) sentiment.
Which is why it is so easy for everyone to find fault with everyone else today when it comes to World War II. It is more than just about the fact nations are not angels. It is that the international standards which nations are measured against these days are so radically different from what they were 70 years ago that it is pointless to look for angels.
That perhaps is what World War II should be remembered for the most: it so traumatized Europe and the world that it moved humanity to a different plane. Well, most of humanity and most of the time.