Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Remembering how the Second World War Began ...five lessons that apply today

70 years later


Seventy years is a long time. The span between the outbreak of World War II and today is about equal to the period between the first powered flight of the Wright brothers and NASA's Saturn V rocket launch of Skylab.

Men and women in their 20s today can't but relate to the Second World War as something that happened in their grandparents' generation. People in their 40s and 50s relate to WWII as something their parents may have experienced. Take President Barack Obama, who at 48 has only heard stories about how his great-uncle Charles Payne helped to liberate Buchenwald.

THE PASSAGE of time notwithstanding, controversy over the war remains vibrant. Revisionist historians, for example, falsely claim that there is no difference between the victims of communism and the victims of Nazism.

A more serious debate revolves around who, apart from Hitler, was most responsible for starting WWII?

Russia blames Poland for being Hitler's accomplice to the partition of Czechoslovakia in 1938, thus setting the stage for the conflict. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania along with Ukraine are marking the anniversary by spotlighting the evil committed by Josef Stalin and arguing that he and Hitler shared responsibility for the horrendous consequences of the war. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev calls this view a "flat-out lie."

Stalin, as we know, was responsible for the deaths of an estimated 20 million people within the borders of the Soviet Union until his death in 1953. His authorization of the August 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact provided Hitler with the breathing space needed to launch Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The pact allowed Moscow to annex Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, two-thirds of Poland and a chunk of Romania.

The Russians point out that their pact with Hitler would not have been necessary if not for the Munich agreement Britain and France signed with Germany. That September 1938 deal obliged Czechoslovakia to trade land for peace and turn over its Sudetenland region to the Nazis. Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, heralded the accord as delivering "peace for our time."

Hitler betrayed Stalin and in one of the fuhrer's greatest blunders ordered the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941. With the Soviet Union fighting on the side of the Allies, the Nazis were decisively defeated.

Whatever the miscalculations and moral deficiencies of Chamberlain, Stalin and the other leaders of that era, the unalterable fact is that Hitler alone instigated World War II.

The war made it possible for the Nazi leader to fulfill his "prophecy" that European Jewry would be destroyed. Indeed, implementing the systematic, industrial-scale murder of the Jews was a raison d'être for launching the conflict - and a critical German war aim.

BUT AS we said, 70 years is a long time ago. Today, a quarter of Germans, according to Stern magazine, believe there were positive aspects to Nazi rule. And as The Associated Press recently reported from Gaza, a Hamas spiritual leader considers it a war crime to teach Palestinian pupils that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews.

Despite a myriad of Holocaust films, museums and books that have made the Final Solution synonymous, in many minds, with the war itself, only 37 percent of British high school students knew that 6 million Jews were killed in the Shoah. A staggering 83% of Dutch people surveyed in 2006 thought the Allies fought WWII because of the Holocaust.

As the world marks the anniversary of the outbreak of WWII this week, and with the Iranian leader set to address the United Nations next month, those who make fateful decisions for the international community need to draw the appropriate lessons from history.

These include, we submit:

• Leaders will appease tyrants when confrontation is costly, only to pay a greater price later.

• Purely pragmatic yet amoral policies directed at a tyrant broadcast weakness.

• When a tyrant prophesies a world without Jews (or Israel), he is revealing his intentions.

• Rational decision-making models may not apply in polities where crucial choices are made by a strongman and his sycophants. Such leaders are inherently unpredictable.

• Appeasement emboldens autocrats convinced they have a special aura and messianic mission.

History does not repeat itself. But people have been known to make the same mistake twice.

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