Tuesday, September 1, 2009

September 1, 1939

World War II "officially" began on this day 70 years ago. The lead article today in the Times of London calls Poland "the great survivor" and commends the country for having emerged from rival totalitarianisms and become an integral part of a free Europe. Recently I have read Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes, a marvelous novel about Russian oppression under the tsars. It reveals that, under the Soviets, Russians only changed the names of their oppressors. As a warning to us today, it also shows the kind of fanaticism that grips people who live under tyrannies.

Neville Chamberlain is usually ridiculed for his "peace in our time" appeasement of Hitler, with the Munich Agreement of September 1938, but, as the Times remarks today, the "ailing and politically quiescent Prime Minister, who had been outmanoeuvered on the international stage, belatedly did the right thing nonetheless. For the next six years Britain's fate was integral to Poland's prospects."

A ceremony in Danzig today commemorating this date in history included the presence of the Polish president Lech Kaczynski, German chancelor Angela Merkel, and Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin (above). Putin looks like he would prefer to be elsewhere.

As a former student and now scholar of German literature and of Goethe, one is hard put to explain why totalitarianism developed in Germany. Herblock's cartoon expresses something of that puzzlement. Certainly German history in no way approaches the barbarism of Russian rule, whether under the tsars or the Soviets. It may be the very intellectual achievements and cultural heritage of Germany that makes the Nazi period stand out and continue to exert a rather perverse fascination. In contrast, when a tyranny like that of Stalin kills millions of its own citizens, we shrug our shoulders, as if such behavior is to be expected, thus not holding that regime to the standards of civilization. Such a reaction, however, is a disservice to the millions of people all over the world who would prefer to live in a free society. Let this date be a reminder of what our fathers and grandfathers fought for. And don't forget to read Conrad, on the dangers of quiescence.

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