Thursday, March 10, 2022

Imperfect Heroes and Defeating Hitler: A Brief Survey of World War II and Lessons for Ukraine Conflict

Too often in life we don't get saints to defeat grotesque villains. We often get mere mortals and sometimes villains too who are mere shades better than a more dangerous kind and those compromises save lives, by the thousands and sometimes by the millions. A brief survey of World War II teaches us those very lessons. Those lessons are worth recalling in the context of the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Ukraine. 

Let us consider the duplicitous claim of Vladimir Putin that he's denazifying Ukraine. In the run up to World War II the only man who was implacably opposed to Adolf Hitler was Winston Churchill. Other than Churchill no leader shared such a loathing of Hitler. Nations and leaders, including Soviet Union, were only too ready to make deals with Hitler, driven by self interest. 

Charles Lindberg, an American legend, was a cheerleader for the Nazi regime and happily scared the Americans about the prowess of the Luftwaffe. Americans viewed the brewing Nazi threat as a European conflict that Americans need not be bothered about. Anti-semitism and racism was quite rampant in American society and FDR's New Deal, pacified Southern legislators, by encoding racial policies. 

Neville Chamberlain of England is now remembered for his inglorious capitulation to Hitler at Munich. The Western powers happily bartered away Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler thinking that that'd satisfy his bloodlust. Both American and British appeasement of Hitler was largely driven a pathological hatred and fear of Communism. Of course, Lenin and his successor Stalin threatened the world with global communism. Soviet Russia's puppets in Germany did more than their share in enabling the rise of Hitler by antagonizing other players. Non-Communist parties in Germany, like other nation states too, refused any accommodation to Communists. In all this each party had defined its own interest and pursued it blind to any other factor. 

Alarmed by the West appeasing Hitler Soviet Russia's leader Joseph Stalin deputed his foreign minister Molotov to negotiate with Reich's foreign minister Ribbentrop. Called the "Non-Aggression Pact", also called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the treaty secured peace between Germany and Russia. Having secured his Eastern front with a peace pact Hitler attacked Poland on September 1st 1939 and formally launched World War II. Along side the German aggression of Poland another front to the war was opened by Soviet Russia. Stalin and Hitler, it was revealed later had not merely assured each other of peace but also had reached an understanding to plunder Poland together. Also covered by the secret pact was division of Latvia, Estonia, Finland etc between the two nations that were prepared to unleash armies on the unsuspecting nations. While Hitler pulverized Poland from the West, Stalin pummeled it from the East. Is it any wonder that Poland today fears Putin? Per the pact Soviet Russia literally supplied the Nazi army with materiel. Yes, Stalin supplied Hitler's army. So much for Putin's claims of denazifying Ukraine.

Ah yes then there's Winston Churchill, the bull dog warrior. Battling his personal demons, he called them black dogs, Churchill railed against his country's complacency and called upon his nation to defend freedom from Hitler. He mocked tyrants for being afraid of free speech. All this while he cheered his country holding down India and prosecuted 'sedition'. 

Much as Zelensky and Ukraine stand today so did Winston Churchill and his island nation stand alone against Hitler's blitzkrieg. Just as Zelensky is pleading with the West today for arms so did Churchill. FDR, hamstrung by Congress, provided feeble support. Taking office in May 1940 Churchill promised his country that he had nothing to give except "blood, toil, tears and sweat" and cautioned them that they are set to wage war against a "monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crimes". Until June 22nd 1941 Churchill and Britain braved Hitler all alone. On June 22nd 1941 Hitler who in his 'Mein Kampf' had laid out clear plans to occupy and exterminate populations in Russia put his desire into action by launching Operation Barbarossa. Then came Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941. Calling the attack on Pearl Harbor a "day that will live in infamy" Roosevelt declared war against Japan and soon after on Germany too. The world was at war against Hitler and Nazism.

Churchill, together with FDR and Stalin, now formed a triumvirate. An imperial colonialist, a President of a country riven by racism, a totalitarian who had murdered all his colleagues now joined hands against Adolf Hitler. Oh, let's not forget that FDR had also imprisoned Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. 

We are today armed with hindsight and knowledge of the unprecedented killing machine that the Nazi state was and can we even contemplate a Nazified world? Hitler's enemies were not saints but they saved the world. While the allies saved the world from Nazism the post war world carved up by the victorious powers created new contradictions.

Britain had declared war on Germany because Hitler attacked Poland. Yet, in the new world order the Allies negotiated Poland was bartered away to Soviet Russia. Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz later bemoaned how easily Poland was given away to Stalin. While the world was rid of Nazism Poland had to wait for another half century to be free. 

The hypocrisies and competing self interests did not stop with merely the division of Europe. Holding war criminals to account had its share of hypocrisies. Nazi generals hauled up before the Nuremberg trials would've wondered if their accusers were saints. They were not but can we even contemplate a world in which the likes of Himmler walked free? Can we contemplate a world where Adolf Eichmann slipped into death aged and shuffling his mortal coil like any other? In a fair world better nations and better human beings would've judged Himmler but can we begrudge the justice that flawed countries delivered. The Nuremberg trials raised and then answered the question of whether illegal orders, orders that were human crimes, could be followed unquestioningly. 

Justice Radhabinod Pal who was part of the Tokyo trials that mirrored the Nuremberg trials that sought to bring Japanese army leadership to justice for war crimes used the argument of whether Allies were saints to prosecute the Japanese to frustrate any attempt to hold the criminals to account. For want of saints to accuse criminals Justice Pal played a key role in letting criminals walk scot free and for that he is fondly remembered in Japan today. General MacArthur, the highest authority of the occupying American force, saw to it, for political expediency and perhaps sagaciously, that the Emperor was shielded from charges of war crimes. Prosecuting the Emperor as a criminal would've devastated the Japanese. So even within the history of Japan I am livid about letting the Generals go but I can understand the shielding of the Emperor. 

Nazism did not die with Hitler it continues to mutate today and societies combat it. Sure a section of Ukrainians may be Neo-Nazis but America too has them, Germany and Hungary have them. The West, led by America, are trying negotiate compromises and doing everything they can to not go to direct conflict with Putin and set in motion World War III. Those compromises include ensuring that Poland's rashness to arm Ukraine does not involve USA lest Putin, justifiably, interpret it as America at war with Russia. 

A geopolitical struggle of this nature is labyrinthine and needs patient reflection and more than a little knowledge of history. Fueled by clips floating on Youtube and WhatsApp and googling for factoids many rush to ask gotcha questions. Of course what is a momentary glee of stroking one's ego on social media is no match for the real humanitarian tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine. The moral case against Putin's aggression is plain and simple. Holding the forces trying to defend Ukraine to a moral standard that is not applied to Putin only speaks of the illiteracy, wanton or intentional, of such detractors.

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