Well, the Slavs Aren’t Like the Germans. . . but. . .

This is an audacious post – that is one built purely upon a moment’s connection of dots that may mean nothing. I’m hesitant to put it out there next to the high level of discussion of the ongoing posts about military strategy and history. But, then, this is blogging, too – bullshitting late at night.

Lately we refer to the thirties: not just in America, but throughout the world. Times are likely to get rougher in some places than here – and perhaps more here than in yet others. Parallels abound. In the twenties and thirties, we saw chaos & nihilism in Germany – humiliation, stubborn pride, fear of chaos as governments failed. But, we forget that the Cold War also ended with a defeat. Russia’s pride was insulted, its governments chaotic and then Putin took hold with a strong hand. We forget that war – perhaps because it didn’t seem all that much a triumph for Russia’s foes. For one thing, Europe didn’t feel like a victor and it was their territory: our contribution to NATO and cowboy example were important. (I wonder if their disproportionate and early gut reaction to Bush comes from a lack of ease with our role in that long peace from 1945-1990 – his cowboy style, his father’s presence in 1990.) Russia isn’t all that delighted because, well, why would they be? And we – well, we crow about it a bit, but it doesn’t feel like much of a triumph because by 1990 we didn’t feel we were really at war.

Analogies don’t make arguments, but prompt understanding. In Russia now, as in Germany then, lies a reservoir of bitterness. Russia saw itself as an international power, it would like that heady feeling again. It felt it could challenge America and held its own against lesser powers. It would like that position again. Meanwhile, however, the price for oil falls. Russia tries to find a footing. It bullies, plants its flag beneath the ocean, assassinates. And lest we think the old apologists all died off, we find new ones arising at places like The Nation. The Russians aren’t crazy: they don’t want to take us back to, what, the 7th century? They don’t preach irrational hatred. We are more likely to understand them and they us than we do a suicide bomber or a Taliban enforcer. What would be the point, I suspect they’d ask, of planting a dirty bomb in New York City. But as we nationalize our automotive industry, as we diss England, as we accept their perspective that defending countries around Russia is really launching attacks upon it, as we “reset” our relationship, we might keep in mind that Putin is not a leader who has surrendered the old way of thinking. It isn’t a cold war that seems likely; even less, perhaps, a hot one. But it might be good to keep in mind that pride, raw and tender, leads to its own irrationality.

14 thoughts on “Well, the Slavs Aren’t Like the Germans. . . but. . .”

  1. National and ethnic pride is a much more powerful driver of international events than most people these days would like to admit. Aggrieved entitlement is the most dangerous of emotions. People who feel they were cheated out something feel justified in retaliating. People who feel they were cheated out of status feel the most entitled and the most aggrieved.

    The Germans felt cheated of their “place in the sun”. Hitler could sell his “the jews betrayed us” bit because so many Germans believed that there was no way they could have been defeated by honest force of arms. The Palestinians have the same sense of being cheated at every turn. The entire Arabic/Muslim world feels the very existence of Israel is an insult to their collective pride and just status of the political rulers of their lands. Their rulers exploit this to hide their own brutality and incompetence.

    Russians to have a fierce sense of their “place in the sun”. Russians have always believed themselves a special people. The Orthodox church and the nobility have for centuries pushed the idea that Russia and Slavs in general held a special rough and earthy morality the rest of Europe lacked. The Communist played this cultural belief up even higher. Even Solzhenitsyn argued for this view in his later years.

    Due to several centuries of massive invasions form both the west and east, Russian feel they have an innate right to interfere with and occupy any country they border. They do view any attempt to prevent their domination of their neighbors as form of attack. Combined with their sense of moral superiority they readily fall into not only aggrieved entitlement but also paranoia. Anyone who does not submit is seeking to actively subvert them and deny them their rightful place.

    Given that Russia does not seem able to function without an authoritarian government, they do present a danger for the future.

  2. Sorry to disagree Ginny but I have never bought that analogy with Weimar Germany. The latter had been defeated and humiliated; it found itself paying huge amounts in reparation and when it was not forthcoming the French occupied the Ruhr and behaved appallingly. (OK, let’s not go into whose fault the war was.)

    Russia, on the contrary, was not only allowed but encouraged to believe that it had not been defeated. Vast amounts of Western money (mostly American so you ought to know about it) was poured into the country to provide help in various ways, such as ensuring the safety of various rather unsteady nuclear devices and structures (much of the money disappeared to no good purpose). Yes, there were Western businessmen who moved in to make a fast buck but that is nothing compared to Russian and other post-Soviet businessmen who were asset-stripping their own country. Despite her economic and political shortcomings, Russia was taken into organizations it had no business to be, such as the G7 that became the G8 to accommodate her. NATO set up all sorts of special committees and relationships to include Russia in all sorts of deliberations and we all saw how successful it was.

    Russia was humilated in the nineties and can now stand up straight (give or take an economic crisis because the price of gas and oil has fallen and a complete destruction of any form of democracy inside the country) is the Putinite narrative. We must not fall for it.

  3. Helen,
    I would immediately agree with you – and accept your greater knowledge.
    I would, however, also observe that it wasn’t that I was buying Putin’s narrative nor believing Russia was like Weimar Germany except in one way – they thought themselves a world power, they weren’t. This is not an easy thing to accept. Arab fantasies about, say, Spain, indicate how long term such feelings murmur in a country’s ear. That the West forgives fast – and sees the Marshall plan as an archetype more often than wants reparations – can be our strength. That doesn’t mean Russia will forget quickly.

  4. Ginny:

    -Russia thought itself a world power because, well, it was. Otherwise who America was fighting the cold war with, a “specter of communism”? Half a world was influenced by Russia, half of countries had pro-Soviet socialist/communist governments and policies. The pride you talk about doesn’t come directly from that fact, but what was behind that fact: that 3 generations of Soviet people were born and raised in confident belief that “our cause is the most righteous and true. Our victory over the world is inevitable because the victory of truth and righteousness is inevitable”. Ideology is the source of the pride. National pride without ideology degenerates into ethnographic festivals with costumed reenactment toy battles.

    -“West” doesn’t forgive fast (see Helen’ example of French occupation of Ruhr – hell, all history of Franco-German wars. History of ALL regional unrest in Western Europe). America does. There are many reasons for it; the main one – I think – is that USA never in its history experienced mass foreign occupation of its territory. Yes, our guys died overseas, but nobody’s wife was raped by foreign soldiers in her hometown in rural Missouri. Excepting American Indians, of course.

  5. Well, the mass foreign occupation of Britain (except for the Channel Islands) was a long time ago. Henry VII, I believe, brought over French soldiers and teamed up with a pack of traitors to overthrow the rightful king. However, I digress.

    There is a genuine problem about Russia’s identity, which is different from Putin’s narrative that he has used to bolster his power. Tatyana is right – there was the Soviet upbringing, which merged with a Russian pride, though in some ways the Soviet ideology also worked agaisnt that. When you think about it, the collapse of the Soviet Union hit the other republics harder as, by no stretch of the imagination, could they now be said to be part of a world power.

    The problem is that Russia as a country with a definable sense of national identity developed as the Russian empire grew in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In that she was very different from the usual imperial powers like France, Britain, Portugal, Netherlands and even Spain who had created a certain identity for themselves before they set out to conquer other lands. When the Soviet Union broke up Russia found herself with borders that she had never had before in history and that was understandably confusing.

  6. There are many reasons for it; the main one – I think – is that USA never in its history experienced mass foreign occupation of its territory.

    The American southeast experienced defeat and occupation in the aftermath of the civil war and the resentment over lingered for three generations. Even today, it exist as a kind of cultural bonding joke.

    Even during the civil right movement, a lot of whites who previously supported integration switch to opposing it after it became seen as not an internal reform but reform imposed on by others.

  7. Shannon, there was a reason I specifically said “foreign” occupation.

    There were civil wars, bloody peasant uprisings and inter-regional fighting in Russian history – very possible, in hard numbers more devastating, over the centuries, than the American total. So this kind of bonding, be it class/regional/race is known to Russians, too. Still, the South was not devastated by hordes of aliens with incomprehensible language and mentality.

  8. Helen – yes, Britain didn’t experience foreign occupation for a long time. But it doesn’t forget fast (see “Irish-English relations” and “Bombing of London in WWII”); it’s an interesting topic, why.
    I can’t imagine Brits instigating their own Marshall’s plan towards defeated parties.

  9. I can’t imagine Brits instigating their own Marshall’s plan towards defeated parties.

    No money after WWII, not least because of the amount owed to the Americans, which they extracted in full. Marshall Plan was for all Europeans, not just the defeated enemy, for various reasons: create a market, help defeat Communism as well as help people in need.

    As for the Irish Question – it’s the Irish that go on and on about it. We don’t like terrorists planting bombs or murdering police officers and soldiers and, indeed, many civilians, especially in Northern Ireland during the last thirty years but I don’t call that historical obsession. It’s the reality of terrorism. Even with the Irish, there is more whingeing from Americans of Irish descent than people in Ireland itself.

  10. Helen,
    In the context of this conversation all other recipients of the Marshall’s Plan besides the defeated party don’t matter(Ginny said “West forgives fast – and sees the Marshall plan as an archetype more often than wants reparations”. Allies of the victor and neutral countries don’t pay reparations and they have nothing to be forgiven for).
    I said I can’t imagine Brits instigating a plan similar to a Marchall’s plan exactly because they’d find it hard to forgive – even if they did have money. Germans did brought the War to British territory – that was the point I was making.

    What I noticed about Irish/English and Irish/American relations is the opposite to what you say. I’m not touching the terrorism topic, that’s a red herring. I’m talking about underlying ethnic tension, a fruit of centuries of grievances between two neighbors in former case – just or unjust, versions vary. The fact that I personally noticed, was a St.Patrick day’s celebrations: there is no parades and green carnations in London on March 17, are there? No leprechauns on the streets, the Mayor of London and catholic Church figures at the head of the parade, are there? In New York they are. Whole city celebrates, not just the Irish.
    I was on a train going to NY 10 days before the holiday, and at one of the stops along the way, in a small town called Winter Park, saw their own St. Paddy’s parade, complete with vintage green cars, local beauty queen float and school orchestra. Do small English towns put on festivities like that?

    Again, my point is: when the country’s own territory is affected by fighting, it has a tendency not to forget and not to forgive so “fast”. Western Europe included; Britain included.

  11. there is no parades and green carnations in London on March 17, are there? No leprechauns on the streets, the Mayor of London and catholic Church figures at the head of the parade, are there?

    Yes there are, ridiculously enough. We shouldn’t have any of these parades because it is not the way London lives, unlike New York, but we have had the wretched St Patrick’s one for years with people complaining about St George’s Day not being recognized. So now we have some stupid thing going on for St George’s Day as well. All very dumb. It should be left to individuals or various groups not the Mayor of London or anyone like that.

  12. Nothing good about taxpayers’ money being spent on stupid parades. We don’t actually get asked so I’ll thank you for not patting my head with approval. And never, never, never listen to professional Irishmen in Portobello Road. Oh dear, if I had known!

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