World War II's Unfinished Business

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, the BBC ran a charming story about a small but beautiful Ukrainian Catholic church near Lockerbie, in Scotland.

Built in 1947 by POWs brought from Italy to the UK after WWII, the Beeb’s story about it told no lies. Ukrainian churches are beautiful, with their distinctive construction, decoration, and intricate altar-cloth embroidery. The structure deserves its heritage listing for those reasons alone. Large numbers of Ukrainian POWs did indeed finish up in these Islands after WWII, typically after imprisonment on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Those who did not stay in the UK often immigrated to Canada and elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

What the BBC piece—and others like it published since Europe awoke on the morning of February 24th to news of an invasion the like of which has not been seen since WWII—obscures, however, is notable. The men who built that chapel fought for the Third Reich, not Britain’s then-ally, the Soviet Union. After systematic and deliberate brutalisation at the hands of Stalinist Soviet Communism, significant numbers of Ukrainians threw their lot in with Hitler. Surely, they reasoned, he couldn’t be any worse than Stalin.

For anyone unfamiliar with the contours of Europe’s last great conflict, that detail is not obvious from the BBC article.

Bloody Borders

In 1992 and 1993, I wrote a novel about ancestors of people like those who use Lockerbie’s lovely Ukrainian chapel today. The Hand that Signed the Paper, I called it, for the Dylan Thomas poem of treaties and lines on maps. In Ukraine, constant wrenching around of borders without regard to the people who live inside them or on either side of them had and continues to have terrible, bloody consequences.

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.

Between 1932 and 1945, Ukraine was the most dangerous place on earth. If you’ve ever watched Doctor Who and accept its underlying premise, then a swift way to kill a man would be to take him in your Tardis, time-travel to Ukraine in that period, and leave him there.

At the time of writing, I did consider using Marya Mannes’s Gaza Strip for the book’s title and frontispiece. She makes the same point as Thomas, albeit in a poem of shorter compass:

Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed, we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.

I plumped for the Welsh writer not only because I think The Hand that Signed the Paper a better poem, but also due to the long association between Wales and Ukraine.

In 1869, a Welshman, John Hughes, founded the city of Donetsk, so much in the news now. There were valiant attempts by Russians and Ukrainians alike to honour the connection by naming it after him, necessitating awkward transliteration: sometimes Hughesovka, sometimes Yuzivka. Welshmen from Hughes’s hometown, Merthyr Tydfil, immigrated to run its factories.

By the time Yuzivka became Stalino but before it became Donetsk, another Welshman—Western Mail reporter Gareth Jones—travelled there in secret. He documented the 1932-33 Ukrainian Famine then denied by Walter Duranty of the New York Times, eventually paying for his honesty with his life. His story is movingly told in the 2019 Agnieszka Holland film Mr. Jones, here reviewed by Law & Liberty’s own Titus Techera. Yes, “the lying New York Times” long predates Donald Trump’s well-known jab at the paper.

The Hand that Signed the Paper (my novel, not Thomas’s poem) went on to win Australia’s equivalent of the Booker or Pulitzer Prize and become a bestseller. At the same time, I was embroiled in a national controversy. A significant part of this controversy took the following form: This book portrays Ukrainian collaborators with Hitler too sympathetically and excuses their anti-Semitism.

I think this claim is wrong and said so at the time. My novel is clear both on the extent to which bits of the Final Solution simply would not have been possible without Ukrainian assistance, but also that some of those perpetrators blamed Jews for communism’s depredations in their country. This was not in the “Marx and Trotsky were both Jews” sense, an argument one still encounters on the loopier reaches of the far right. The bulk of Ukrainian ire was directed at Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin’s Commissar during the Ukrainian Famine.

Both while I researched the book and continuing long after it was published, I had Ukrainians tell me they supported Hitler because only Fascists were fighting Communism, and Jews tell me they supported Stalin because only Communists were fighting Fascism. It was as though Winston Churchill and the United Kingdom did not exist.

One thing, however, is clear. Even in a sixty-thousand-word novel—where of necessity one should provide plausible background and depict believable characters with real motivations—at no point am I as kind about Ukrainian collaborators as the BBC, just this month. Sometimes, if you live long enough, a defeat turns into a victory, as my dear old dad used to say. My ever-cynical partner puts it like this: “ah, but Ukrainians are our friends now.”

And so, I’ve done the rounds of the studios since February 24th.

In one place, I explained that Vladimir Putin’s invasion has roots in the widespread Russian belief that Ukraine has always been part of Russia; in that sense, there are parallels with China and its claims over Taiwan and Tibet. Elsewhere, I pointed out that one can have a desire for imperial grandeur—as Putin clearly does—without being a rug-biting nutter. Was Julius Caesar delusional? Clive of India? Catherine the Great? In another place again, I observed that Ukrainians electing a Jewish president is more significant in historical context than Americans electing a black president.

Putin is using this terrible history in a disingenuous way to feed his obsession with “Ukrainian Nazis.” This even though the far right won only two percent of the vote in Ukraine’s 2019 elections and hold but a single seat in the country’s Rada. Locals do not deny what is well-documented historical fact, either, including at the (now bombed) Babi Yar memorial outside Kyiv. For Putin, Ukrainians are always and everywhere the worst version of themselves.

The Road to War

The path to Russia’s invasion runs through successive US presidential administrations; it is not only a failure of the UK or European Union. Bush the Lesser destroyed the possibility of a NATO-Russian alliance against the jihadis. Obama was serially ineffectual: neither a plausible ally to Ukraine nor a coherent deterrer of Russia. He had warm words for Ukrainian aspirations but little else, managing to say just enough about potential NATO membership to alarm Putin and, it must be said, many Russians.

When Germany and Italy buy Russian gas, the hard currency they fork over has its parallels in the hard currency the world paid Stalin in 1933 to buy Ukrainian wheat—as Ukrainians were deliberately starved by the millions.

Trump’s policies were quite anti-Putin (he armed Ukraine far more than Obama did, for example) but his rhetoric was not. He gave every appearance of being a strongman who liked other strongmen.

In his turn, Biden slowed Trump’s arming of Ukraine, waived sanctions against Nordstream II, and offered concessions to Iran to keep oil prices down. At no stage was US Ukrainian policy coherent. It neither embraced Ukrainian neutrality nor armed Ukraine well enough to deter Russian attack.

The Russiagate farrago, moreover, turned American discourse about Russia and Putin into culture war fodder, prompting some people who should know better to repeat Putin’s talking points—that Ukraine hasn’t changed since 1941 and is full of Nazis; that Putin is worth supporting because he loves his country and knows which loo to use—simply because they despise wokery and all its works and all its ways. Their invention of Volodymyr Zelenskyy the Jewish Nazi is a fiction to behold.

Unfortunately, at least some of this fantastic nonsense has roots in widespread resentment of hysterical reporting throughout the pandemic and the attempted cancellation of anyone who dissented over lockdowns (whether on scientific or civil liberties grounds). Putin’s latest propagambit—allegations concerning US biolabs in Ukraine—forces a media that spent two years shouting at us COVID-19 didn’t leak from a Wuhan lab to explain that Ukrainian labs weren’t doing whatever it is the Russians say they were doing. Without resorting to trite observations about stopped clocks, I think most sensible people can see that the world’s media were duplicitous throughout the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean nothing is real.

Mind you, no American misstep was as utterly stupid as Germany closing its nuclear power stations, funding Putin’s arms build-up by dint of gas purchases, and systematically running down German military capacity. Angela Merkel could talk with Putin in fluent Russian and really did know better, and yet the Energiewende came on top of her doing more than anyone else to generate Brexit. When she admitted a million refugees in 2015, she rubbed it in British faces that the UK would be unable to control its borders if it remained in the EU.

So, WWII’s unfinished borders business washes up on our doorsteps in blood and treasure: Ukrainian blood, and Western treasure. This helpful ready reckoner has the numbers. When Germany and Italy buy Russian gas, the hard currency they fork over has its parallels in the hard currency the world paid Stalin in 1933 to buy Ukrainian wheat—as Ukrainians were deliberately starved by the millions.

It’s fair to say that the US and its allies have often failed to enquire into the backgrounds of those they’ve armed—Afghanistan’s mujahadeen come to mind. While Ukrainians are not neo-Nazis or fascists, at this point it’s also worth mentioning that they’re absolutely not woke, no matter how much wokies may now love them. They’re probably closest to what economic historian Stephen Davies calls “national liberals.” That is, they evince the sort of liberalism that animated 19th-century figures like William Gladstone or John Stuart Mill.

Most relevant for my purposes here is that national liberals acknowledge the conservative distinction between civilisation and barbarism (it’s right there in Mill). This makes universal/cosmopolitan liberals and wokies alike queasy, because it means conceding that some cultures are better than others. Zelenskyy’s obvious comfort with patriotism is also of a piece with 19th-century ideals around national self-determination. This unusual ideological orientation perhaps explains why Ukraine’s government ordered male-to-female trans people—despite identification to the contrary—to take up a Kalashnikov and fight.

Cancelling a Country

All that said, were it not for Germany—in the words of risk engineer Chris Bond—“constructing a barrel-shaped pipeline and then obligingly bending over it,” Russia would be flat broke. Bonkers Net Zero policies in the West are all that’s standing between it and sovereign default.

The regime of sanctions imposed both on Russia and, separately, on Putin’s cronies is of quite staggering intensity. Traditionally, sanctions either didn’t work at all or did so only slowly, such that establishing causality when a tyrannical government fell was difficult. This time, however, the integration of global financial markets and innovative methods targeting individuals pioneered by the likes of the Magnitsky Campaign have created a new and startling reality.

The temptation with cancel culture weapons is that, knowing how effective they can be, we’ll reach for them first. After all, “they don’t kill anyone.”

Western commerce and woke capital have also learnt to deploy the tools of cancel culture, sometimes on a state-to-state basis but often privately with nodding government approval. And yes, they’re well on the way to cancelling a country (in historian Stephen Kotkin’s words). People forget Russia’s economy is deeply integrated with multiple European economies and that while some flagship organisations—Chelsea Football Club, for instance—are more visible, there are also many of which you’ve never heard. When foreign companies withdraw, not only are local shopfronts shuttered: supply chains break entire, followed by shortages and unemployment.

In parallel with positive effects—already, Russia has run out of the imported chipsets it needs for many of its weapons and is running out of conventional spare parts—sanctions also mean the country is running short of medicines and companies no longer have cash to make payroll. As Justin Trudeau did with Canada’s protesting truckers, both states and the private sector have figured out how to target ordinary Russians’ ability to live—to pay bills, to shop, to eat.

More familiar South African-style cultural and sporting sanctions—truly the buckshot approach to geopolitics—alarm me in the same way they did when I was a teenager and Nelson Mandela had pole position on nightly news bulletins. Some go further than anything directed at the apartheid regime and are redolent of WWI’s anti-German hysteria, when German composers were banned and German books burnt. We’ve seen an Italian university threatening to stop teaching a course on Dostoevsky, the Cardiff Philharmonic taking Tchaikovsky off its programme, and the Polish Opera scrapping its production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. I struggle to see what good any of this does for Ukraine.

The temptation with cancel culture weapons is that, knowing how effective they can be (something I did not expect), we’ll reach for them first. After all, “they don’t kill anyone.” Never mind that if you can’t buy food or pay for utilities with your hyperinflated currency and you’re in Moscow in March, you’ll likely freeze.

“I Hate You; Don’t Leave Me”

Putin says Ukraine has always been part of Russia and its inhabitants are brother Russians. In July 2021, he published a lengthy essay, “On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians.” In it, he aired multiple grievances against Ukrainians as a population and yet denied the country’s existence as a nation, effectively telling forty-odd million people I hate you, don’t leave me. “Genuine sovereignty for Ukraine is only possible in partnership with Russia,” he claimed.

And in the last three weeks, this contradictory rhetoric has been given substantive but horrifying content. Putin’s desire for ethnic brotherhood is underscored by a willingness to shell Ukrainian cities into rubble and depict the country as wall-to-wall with wrong ‘uns—Nazi wrong ‘uns.

If you want to understand the true horror of fascism, Poland has always been your study; if you want to understand the true horror of communism and imperialism, look to Ukraine. If the Balkans produce more history than can be consumed locally, then the flatland of the European plain is where the contentions of ideology are written in oceans of blood.