Posts tagged ‘Eastern Europe’

Putting Neville Chamberlain in Historic Context

One of the hardest things to do in history is to read history in context, shutting out our foreknowledge of what is going to happen -- knowledge the players at the time did not have.

Apparently Neville Chamberlain is back in the public discourse, again raised from the dead as the boogeyman to scare us away from any insufficiently militaristic approach to international affairs.

There is no doubt that Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czechs at Munich, and the Munich agreement was shown to be a fraud on Hitler's part when he invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia just months later.  In retrospect, we can weep at the lost opportunity as we now know, but no one knew then, that Hitler's generals planned a coup against him that was undermined by the Munich agreement.

But all that being said, let's not forget the historic context.  World War I was a cataclysm for England and Europe.   It was probably the worst thing to happen to Europe since the black death.   And many learned folks at the time felt that this disaster had been avoidable (and many historians today might agree).  They felt that there had been too much rush to war, and too little diplomacy.  If someone like Britain had been more aggressive in dragging all the parties to the bargaining table in 1914, perhaps a European-wide war could have been avoided or at least contained to the Balkans.

There simply was no energy in 1938, no collective will to start another war.  Even in France, which arguably had the most to lose from a reinvigorated Germany, the country simply could not face another war.   As an illustration, one could argue that an even better and more logical time to "stop Hitler" occurred before Munich in March of 1936 when Hitler violated the Versailles Treaty and reoccupied the Rhineland with military forces.  France had every right to oppose this occupation, and Hitler's generals said later that their forces were so puny at the time that the French could have stopped them with a brigade and sent them running back across the Rhine.  And the French did nothing.

In addition, Britain and France had very little ability to do much about Hitler's ambitions in Eastern Europe anyway.  How were they going to get troops to the Sudetenland?  We saw later in Poland how little ability they had to do anything in Eastern Europe.

And finally, everyone was boxed in by having accepted Woodrow Wilson's formula of "self-determination of peoples."  Building the entire post-war realignment on this shoddy building block is what really led to disaster.  Emphasizing this essentially nationalist formulation as the fundamental moral principle of international relations -- rather than, say, the protection of individual rights of all peoples -- really empowered Hitler.  In the Saarland, in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in the Sudetenland, it lent him the moral high ground.  He was just fulfilling Wilson's formulation, wasn't he?  These were all majority-German lands coming home to Germany.

Postscript:  Years ago in my youth I used to excoriate FDR for caving into Stalin at Yalta, specifically in giving away most of Eastern Europe.  I still wish he hadn't given his moral authority and approval to the move, but even if we stood on the table and screamed at Stalin in opposition, what were we going to do?  Was there any appetite for extending the war?  Zero.  That is what folks who oppose the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan get wrong in suggesting there were alternatives.  All those alternatives involved a longer war and more American deaths which no one wanted.

D-Day More Important in Containing the Soviets than Defeating the Nazis

Over time, my understanding of the importance of the D-Day invasions has shifted.  Growing up, I considered these events to be the single key event in defeating the Nazis.  Listening to the radio this morning, this still seems to be the common understanding.

Over time, I have had to face the fact that the US (or at least the US Army) was not primarily responsible for defeating Germany -- the Russians defeated Germany, and what's more, would have defeated them whether the Allies had landed in France or not.  Check out the casualties by front, from Wikipedia:

click to enlarge

The Russians defeated Germany.  Period.   And I don't think the western allies would ever have had the stomach to inflict the kind of casualties on Germany that were ultimately necessary to defeat her without Russian help.  To me, this is the great irony of WWII, that it was not ultimately a victory for democracy.  Only totalitarian Russia could defeat totalitarian Germany.  This thought often bothers me a lot.  It doesn't fit with how we want to view the war.

However, D-Day did have an important effect -- it kept Western Europe out of Soviet hands.  We did not know it at the time, but I would argue in retrospect that from mid-1944 on we were competing with Russia to see how Europe would get divided up after the war.  D-Day allowed the western allies to overrun most of Western Europe and keep it out of Soviet hands, perhaps an even more important outcome than just speeding the defeat of the Germans.  Sure, FDR gets grief for giving the farm away to Russia at Yalta, but what could he do?  The Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe at that point was a fait accompli.  What would have been FDR & Churchill's negotiation position at Yalta if their armies were not even on the continent (excepting Italy, where we might still be fighting in 2014 and getting nowhere)?

Differing Perspectives

I have been taking a course in World War I, something I know little about relative to the rest of the 20th century.

We often think of WWI as a horrible, wasteful, pointless war that solved nothing and WWII as an expensive yet "good" war that achieved positive aims.  But as we approach the 75th anniversary of the Munich conference, it is interesting to note that if you ask someone in Eastern Europe, you are likely to get the opposite answer.  Most Eastern European countries can date their modern statehood from the end of WWI, while WWII led to 50+ years of Soviet subjugation.  WWI was their good war.

Happy Lenin's Birthday

Nothing better illustrates the succesful rebranding of most of the principles of socialism into environmentalism than Earth Day, itself a rebranding of Lenin's birthday.

It is no accident that all the things we supposedly have to do to fight climate change are the exact same things socialists used to demand under the banner of Marxism.

After the failure of communism in Eastern Europe, promoters found their message -- to give up our freedoms for the collective -- didn't really have much power.  I guess they deserve some credit as marketers to have successfully gotten so many people who rejected the socialist message to buy into the plea that they need to give up all their freedoms for a 0.01% change in atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Non-Surprise of the Day

Wow, who would have predicted this (other than everybody)?

The latest French utopia (Vélib', Paris's bicycle rental system) has met a prosaic reality: Many of the specially designed bikes, which cost $3,500 each, are showing up on black markets in Eastern Europe and northern Africa. Many others are being spirited away for urban joy rides, then ditched by roadsides, their wheels bent and tires stripped.

With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program's organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche, as not everyone shares the spirit of joint public property promoted by Paris's Socialist mayor, Bertrand Delanoë.

At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced "” nearly 80 percent of the initial stock. JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine.

It is commonplace now to see the bikes at docking stations in Paris with flat tires, punctured wheels or missing baskets. Some Vélib's have been found hanging from lampposts, dumped in the Seine, used on the streets of Bucharest or resting in shipping containers on their way to North Africa. Some are simply appropriated and repainted.

I guess I can understand why there might be some confusion. After all, it only has been for about 200 years or so that we have really understood this kind of problem in economic terms and about 4000 years that we have understood it in practical terms. Maybe the French have not heard of it because they are still debating what French word to use for "the tragedy of the commons.'

Yalta

GWB seems to have riled lots of folks up over his reference in a recent speech to Yalta.  If you have read any of the comentary from the left, you might be imagining he said all kinds of wild things.  I read much of the commentary before I ever read Bush's words, so I was prepared for a real gaffe.  After reading his speech, I was left wondering if those attacking Bush heard the same speech.  Here is the key paragraph:

As we mark a victory of six days ago -- six decades ago, we are
mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For
much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of
another empire. V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but it did not end
oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of
Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Once again, when powerful
governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow
expendable. Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of
stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of
millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the
greatest wrongs of history.

I am not sure how you can disagree with this.  I think the US owes Eastern Europe a big appology for selling them out at Yalta.  Now, one can argue that we had some reasons for our actions at Yalta.  First and foremost, we were exhausted from the worst war in history, and no one had the energy to gear up for a new confrontation.  Also, one can argue that it may be 20/20 hindisght that causes us to be more aware of Soviet hegemonic intentions than the actors at the time might have been (though certainly Churchill was fully cognizant of the dangers).  But, no matter how you cut it, small countries like Latvia were wiped out of existance and handed over to the Soviet Union by the Yalta agreement, and Bush's audience was made up of people still stung by this.  I think the comparison to Munich is very apt - the US post-WWII was exhausted and was more than ready to suspend disbelief and hope that appeasing Soviet territorial ambitions would head off a fresh confrontation no one had the will to fight.  Reason's hit and run has a nice roundup and further analysis.

The only explanation I can come upfor the uproar is that FDR, like Reagan and Kennedy, has an incredibly powerful though informal legacy protection society that leaps into action at even the smallest attempt to besmirch his historical halo.  In this case, Bush rightly does not even mention FDR; however, since FDR was the main advocate for pandering to Stalin at Yalta (against Churchill's vociforous but ultimately ignored objections), his defense forces feel the need to jump into action.  I would have hoped that with 3 generations separating us from FDR, we could finally look at him objectively.  He fought a fabulous war, in some sense carrying the whole free world on his shoulders for four years.  But he fumbled the peace, though, and screwed up at Yalta.

UPDATE:  Professor Bainbridge has this nice quote from Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga a few days before Bush's speech:

In Latvia ... the
totalitarian occupation ... of Nazi Germany was immediately replaced by
another "“ that of Stalinist totalitarian communist Soviet Union and was
one that lasted a very long time. The day we shall be commemorating
does have double significance and by coming to the Baltic States
President Bush is, I believe, underscoring this double meaning of these
historic events. 60 years ago when the war ended it meant liberation
for many, it meant victory for many who could truly rejoiced in it.

But for others it meant slavery, it meant occupation, it meant
subjugation, and it meant Stalinist terror. For Latvia the true day of
liberation came only with the collapse of the Soviet Union as it did
for our neighbours Lithuania and Estonia.

Sounds a lot like what Bush said.  Seems like Bush is in pretty good touch with the sentiments of the Latvian people he is speaking to.