They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.
-Jeremiah, 6:13, KJV.
My grandfather Bill, who passed away recently, once opined to me his over 70 year conviction that “Man’s natural state is War” while driving home from the airport on one of his many visits. I can remember thinking how over-simplistic that assessment was, even at my young age. I had also been taught to value the power of cooperation over the value of competition, so I innately mistrusted any signs of justified militarism. My grandfather also believed that history would absolve George W. Bush and strengthen the national resolve to honor Reagan as a Saint, so we had palpable political differences even in my youth.
But sometimes I must say I think my grandfather was on to something, however without qualifier. Today is the 69th anniversary of VE, Victory in Europe, Day, and the usual fanfare of press statements confirms the still potent sense of pride Americans and Brits still feel about the exploits of Brokaw’s “The Greatest Generation” of citizen soldiers. On this day, the knot of National Socialism was finally cut by the armies of the allies, who had arisen to restore the dignity of mankind, liberty, and freedom, while rejecting and crushing ethnic-politics and the submission of nations for the altar of war. By the sword, and not by paper at Munich, had we finally achieved “Peace in our time.” Fascism was in abatement and the hope and promise flowed from liberal democracy, unshackled from the ideas of racial hierarchies and a prophecy of racial destiny.
Yet, it was not, nor would ever truly be peaceful. Post-war Europe may have seen the disappearance of the war’s minions, but not its ghosts. On the maps held between the allies at Yalta a few weeks before, lines were redrawn, curtains put up, and spheres of influence defined. The process of tidying the world to conform with the margins set by diplomacy and political imperative is inherently a messy one. Peace did not reign, not least because of rising tensions over the dismemberment of Germany and Berlin which promised that the the dogs of war would remain, ever so gingerly, leashed. Yet more so, there was the old ethnic politics at work. While a brave new world was promised, there was still the arithmetic of communities and peoples. Who was to be arrested, who executed, who deported, who imprisoned? Recriminatory justice followed on from this momentous day, as it was always bound to, given the stakes gambled in the ethnic and national needs of the war. While people everywhere still craned eyes skyward for fear of the next monstrous and potentially apocalyptic contest, the open wounds of the dead war still ran with blood.
The ghosts of Europe: so old, but always fresh. Like fine wines, they grow richer with age. Today we see the Europe the Second World war made it, both in the commitment to popular democracy (even if in word only) and achieving commercial viability in free trade. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, all the liberal achievements stemming from that deluge of fire seemed to have come to some beautiful fruition.
Yet, Europeans had been fighting, and still fought each other, over what that deluge of fire had left for them. The world is still struggling to heal the divisions the great polarization caused intellectually and among the fury of popular imagination. Much of this, due to the taint of fascism by association, led to mass bouts of ethnic reorganization. German populations outside Germany, whose presence drove the rhetoric of Hitler’s expansionist policies, often found themselves suffering rich vengeance for the sins of the Nazi occupation of Europe. Germans forcibly repatriated after the war may constitute one of the largest forced migrations in European history, a tale which is too often forgotten in the aftermath of the crimes of Hitler and the men who dreamed his mad dream. Many people otherwise ambivalent about the supposed composition of their ‘Aryan’ blood suddenly found themselves forced into trains and into long marches away from their homes to uncertain futures in the care of men embittered by war and ready for revenge. The process of re-education was long, straining, and done without apology. Re-education for youth, long internment and imprisonment, women and children in danger of mass war-rape. American troops stationed in Germany were told not to associate with Germans and continued to treat them as enemies. Fear and boiling ethnic propaganda on both sides made the scenes on the other side of the Oder river horrific by comparison: entire villages wiped off the map by Russian soldiers and mass suicides from those fearing the arrival of the Red Army.
Timothy Snyder, author of the book The Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler is quick to remind us that the war did not end mass killing and deportation. The process of ethnic cleansing, even in the supposedly socially-harmonious eastern block, followed with frightening speed as ethnic majorities, Poles and Ukrainians especially, purged respective minorities from their newly-understood borders by flight and by killing. While these represented a drop in the bucket statistically compared to the horrendous slaughters of the German invasion and the prior Soviet purges, each was still a markedly personal tragedy.
Men and women throughout the years following this day in history would be beaten and abused for signs of complicity and affection to the occupiers. Women were shaved and shamed in city streets, countless men and women murdered by populations now eager for vengeance. Entire ethnic groups were pushed into the hands of their willing murderers, like Russia and Ukraine’s cossacks delivered to Stalin. Those who knew their futures were bleak under the new prospective governments of central and eastern Europe, who were often the men holding the tools of execution, either fled or took to the hills. Ukraine suffered a prolonged insurgent movement from former Nazi and/or Nationalist sympathizers, which was put down with ruthless force. Today, such memories inform the tensions running high in Kiev as well as they informed the awful ethnic slaughter in Yugoslavia after the death of Tito. Serbs in 1991 were still killing Croat Ustase in their own minds.
Likewise, with the coming of the Iron Curtain, the secret wars continued as both sides attempted to infiltrate and attack the other in factories, cities, and banks. Propaganda fed from the US and USSR led to vicious battles within labour unions and assembled paramilitaries and even entire infrastructures like NATO’s Operation Gladio, a whole army designed to organize resistance if and when the Russians overran Western Europe. These actors threatened their governments, targeted each other, and put bullets in heads and planted bombs in offices. European colonies abroad too observed spates of violence over the slow implementation of the ideals of the Atlantic Charter and seeing an opportunity to strike for their own destinies with the slow erosion of control from the war weary colonizing states. These too saw scenes of wretched violence, from Indonesia to Vietnam, Algeria to Kenya, with all the brutality that defined the struggles of 1939-1945.
Victory in Europe? Yes, certainly. Yet as Ukrainians wave posters bearing hammers and sickles and swastikas at their respective oppositions, perhaps it is easy to say man naturally is at war. The Second World War was a war of national hopes and agendas built on the foundations of national identity, and these principles continue to act as loaded weapons, even as the abandoned tanks rust and bombers gather dust in museums. The victory of arms in World War Two was just one part of a long chain begun in the existential wars of modernity, and the great toll the war had in life and continues to have in memory ensures that this victory, like all victories, was a finality in name only. The scabs are easily torn off and the open wounds which informed the war continue to bleed.
Yes, Grampa Bill, I will admit it: man may not naturally at war, but you could’ve fooled me.