Posts Tagged 'World War II'

Pity is superfluous

Brexit thoughts: I’ve just come back from Warsaw, where I was attending a symposium on Ukraine at the College of Europe. It hit me at the airport of course, where I walked straight along the EU passport line while most other passengers off the plane from Ukraine shuffled along the winding ‘other passports’ queue. Soon I’ll be in that second line; ‘Take back control’ will have put me in line with the Ukrainians. (And if you think that sentence sounds offensive, I’m wondering if you voted for brexit).

The symposium was a truly European event where speakers switched effortlessly from Polish to French to Ukrainian to English to German – European in the best sense of the word: multilingual, tolerant, open-minded, interested, informed, outward-looking (and possibly just the tiniest bit smug). It was the anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. We met at the college’s beautiful campus in a former royal palace, while Crimeans were busy being forced to inform their employers or the administrations of their children’s schools that they had done the required and voted in the Russian presidential elections. Corbyn was busy saying yes it is Russia’s fault that there was a chemical weapons attack on British soil but no, we still shouldn’t jump to conclusions. A few more soldiers were busy dying in east Ukraine, a few more civilians on the frontline were busy shivering with no water and electricity as the snow fell again. The Russian state was busy lying as usual. A pilot falsely accused by Russian propaganda of shooting down MH17 committed suicide. We sat and talked about things that scare me, and I felt a part of this conversation but also not a part, because soon my country is not going to belong to this group that is already in Europe or that wants to be. Soon my country will not have the backing of 27 allied member states next time Russia decides to attack. We’ll be in that other, shuffling and winding line.

After the symposium I went to the Museum of the Warsaw Uprising. On display were cherished personal possessions donated by people who survived those two months of 1944 when the Polish Home Army took on, and were destroyed by, the German occupying forces while the Soviets watched from the other side the Vistula. Among the children’s dresses and PoW identifying tags and family photos and home-made medics’ armbands stained with seventy-year-old blood, there are British army uniforms worn by Poles from the Home Army trained in Britain.

The Warsaw uprising is not a beautiful and tragic and stirring story of heroism and alliance; the uprising was probably declared too early by the Polish government in exile, and Britain and the other allies didn’t do much to help, they were too concerned about agreement with Stalin while the British press followed Soviet propaganda (George Orwell wrote at the time that the media and left-wing intellectuals “know no more about Poland than I do. All they know is that the Russians object to the [exiled Polish] London Government and have set up a rival organization, and so far as they are concerned that settles the matter […] Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not ‘Is this policy right or wrong?’ but ‘This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?’ And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power. The Russians are powerful in eastern Europe, we are not: therefore we must not oppose them. This involves the principle, of its nature alien to Socialism, that you must not protest against an evil which you cannot prevent.”)

But I felt so sad looking at those British uniforms, that had been preserved and treasured by their Polish owners and our allies, because they seemed to symbolise something that was good amid the horror of war, and which we are now wilfully losing. Now we are self-pityingly complaining about Poles and everyone else taking our jobs as we turn our backs on the peaceful alliance that is the EU, and Poles are turning their backs on democracy and rule of law that are the founding principles of the EU.

warsaw museum uniforms

British army uniforms donated to the museum by Poles from the Home Army

The photos of Warsaw in 1945 look like Aleppo 2018. I walked back through the city centre along streets of rebuilt 18th century housing, rebuilt palaces, rebuilt churches; newer built blocks of flats and monuments, even newer shiny skyscrapers. Coffee shops; tourists; the obligatory band in Peruvian ponchos playing Leonard Cohen on panpipes… Absolutely everything in Warsaw is new, or new pretending to be old, and in a way it’s incredibly encouraging because it’s taken seventy years to do this. Just seventy years; less than a person’s lifetime, to completely rebuild a city. Maybe it’ll take less than that time to rebuild Aleppo. But you’ve still lost something forever. Someone, someone, a thousand, a million.

When World War 2 ended – I learned this after visiting the museum –  the British were worried about the more than hundred thousand Poles who had come over as part of the Polish government in exile and Army in the West. There was concern they would take British jobs. At least they were not sent back to Soviet-controlled Poland, where Home Army members were executed or put into prison camps.

These days, Poles are among the most vociferously opposed in the EU to letting in Syrians or refugees from any other destroyed country that might resemble their own seventy years ago. Poland often justifies this refusal by saying it has already let in over a million Ukrainians (as workers, not as refugees from annexed Crimea or the warzone in east Ukraine). More than 50 percent of foreign students and 60 percent of foreign workers in Poland are from Ukraine. These are the people who should have a fast track at Warsaw airport, not me.

Yet at the same time Poland is waging a self-pitying memory war with Ukraine, over atrocities committed against Poles in World War 2 while Britain was providing Poles with training and army uniforms and signing agreements with Stalin to divide up their country. Brexit is a memory war about the control Britain supposedly had back then, under Churchill who signed that agreement.

History; memory; all of this: airports and passport queues, European colleges in rebuilt aristocrat’s palaces, museums and coffee and croissants and multi-lingual debates and nationalist marches and annexation and wars by proxy and refugees in tents and International Humanitarian Law and the EU and brexit, to have come out of the history of total devastation of World War 2. All this in just 70 years. So much was built and rebuilt and yet we all ended up being victims – of immigration, of Brussels technocrats, of historical massacres, of faceless international corporations, of NATO, of conspiracy theories. We got lost in pitying ourselves, and we forgot pity.

“But pity is superfluous wherever a sentence is pronounced by History” – Czeslaw Milosz.

warsaw milosz

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Don’t mention the war

I didn’t manage to fit all the material I have into this article, which ended up focused on Odessa.

In Donetsk, one woman who wants independence from the ‘fascist’ Ukrainian government said to me “What do we have here? We used to have jobs. Now all we have is the graves of our grandparents who fought for us.” An anti-Ukrainian government militant on a roadblock in Gorlivka, who had picked up a gun to protect his land from ‘fascists’, gestured to the cemetery a few metres away: “that’s where my grandparents are, who fought the fascists. How can I let them down?”

donetsk graves

I don’t even understand what these people mean by ‘fascist.’ I don’t understand why it isn’t possible to move on from something, however terrible, that happened before they or their parents were born. But then, my country was never invaded. In my country, people did not have decide whether to collaborate or whether to fight.  My grandfather never told me tales of wartime death and suffering, although he did fight in the war.

Witnessing what seems to me the incredibly destructive influence of the Second World War on the current conflict in Ukraine, the one hopeful sign I see is the young people who, the Odessa Catacombs guide says, are not interested in history and cannot say what happened seventy years ago when Soviet partisans fought Axis troops from here. I think it’s better not to know history at all, than to know a simplified version of history that is being used to incite hatred and violence in Ukraine.

I mean no disrespect to anyone who fought in the war. I never thought I would champion ignorance.

From the Odessa catacombs museum: pictures drawn on the walls by Slovak troops who defected from the Axis side near the end of the war, and came over to the Soviet side. It is alright to remember this piece of history in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia. it is not alright to remember the many, many Red Army soldiers who defected to the Axis side.

odessa catacombs1

Maybe I don’t want to champion ignorance. I want to champion deeper, more nuanced knowledge.

Blood for blood, death for death, says the soviet partisan slogan scrawled on the walls of their underground hideout in the Odessa catacombs, from which only 30 percent emerged alive at the end of the war. I understand that they were heroes. I also understand they must have done terrible things, because that’s what war demands.

But those defecting Slovak troops did not draw death and hatred on these walls. They drew a picture of Easter traditions in their country, of boys and girls in springtime.

odessa catacombs

 

On both sides in war are just people; boys and girls who want to live in peace.

 

 

 

 


previous posts

A novel about the Crimean Tatars' return to their homeland

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