Monthly Archives: April 2013

On Not Blaming Putin

Throughout his three terms as Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin has always found clever ways to use media coverage for his advantage. Whether he is shown wrestling, hunting tigers or riding with his shirt off, everything is done to leave Russians with the impression that their President is a strong and fearless leader. About ten days ago, the following news reached the US-press:

In a video that was putatively leaked, posted on a pro-government website and later shown on a state television news channel, Mr. Putin was shown berating the ministers in harsh language, saying they must do more to fulfill his election pledges on social policy. “If we fail to do it, it means that either I’m ineffective or you are, and I tend to believe the latter,” he said.” (WSJ, April 17)

It is fairly obvious that the video was planted rather than leaked, and intended to bolster Putin’s popularity. The message is clear: The President is doing all he can and has everyone’s best interest at heart. If things are going wrong, it has to be the fault of incompetent bureaucrats. What makes this message so effective is that it builds on a tendency to not blame leaders for government failure that has been fostered in Russian collective consciousness for hundreds of years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tsar was revered by large parts of the peasant population as god-like. Any crises and hated government policies were generally attributed to evil advisers and ministers. After all, the thinking went, the Tsar himself wanted only the best for his people and surely had no idea what policies ministers maliciously implemented in his name.

Stalin built on this tradition in the 1930s. Whenever one of his policies backfired, he swiftly blamed it on overzealous followers or supposed foreign agents in the state apparatus. Most famously, he had Nikolai Ezhov, head of the Secret Service during the great purges, tried and executed, claiming that the mass killings were entirely his doing. They weren’t, Stalin had signed off on them, but blaming unpopular policies on someone else worked. Many letters from the time testify that people honestly believed that Stalin had no idea about the horror going on in the country. The purges themselves were officially justified by arguing that Stalin’s wise policies had been sabotaged by foreign agents, who had to be removed.

Today Putin is following the pattern and surveys show that people are buying his message. While his party is highly unpopular and generally blamed for the sluggish progress in the still impoverished country, Putin’s approval ratings are comparatively high.

In most Western states, people tend to blame their heads of government for almost everything that goes wrong, often even for those things that are beyond her or his control. In Russia, a large part of the population does the opposite. Rather than blaming Putin for his terrible record, they prefer to believe in their strong leader and instead see his party and the bureaucracy as the problem. This is not to say that this state of mind is universal. Many Russians criticise Putin for his failures, as the protests of late 2011 show. Yeltsin and Gorbachev have been blamed by many for their ill-fated reforms and few people today think Stalin was completely innocent. And yet, there is a certain popular tendency to adore a leader while despising his ministers. The explanation for this can be found in Russian history.

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Kissinger on North Korea

Yesterday Henry Kissinger was at Yale to share a bit of his wisdom at a conference on American diplomacy. He had something to say about pretty much every part of the world, but what intrigued me most was his take on North Korea. The real danger, he argued, lies not in a possible attack from the North, but rather in the consequences of a collapse of the regime in Pyongyang. He is certain that North Korea will never start a war, because doing so would be suicidal. Its military capabilities are enough to inflict damage on Seoul, but a war would certainly lead to defeat and an immediate overthrow of the regime. The latter, he argues, will inevitably happen within the next 15 years or so, war or not. The regime is simply too inefficient and lacking in legitimacy.

Once the regime is gone, South Korea will be unwilling to accept a Chinese client state to replace the Kim-dictatorship. China, on the other hand, will certainly not accept a unified, pro-American Korea. This is not only due to security concerns, but also because of the sacrifices China made during the Korean War. According to Kissinger, this constellation could be a classic case of a regional crisis becoming a global one by sucking in China and the United States. Right now, Washington and Beijing should not get too distracted by Kim Jong-Un’s threats and use the crisis to start talks on the real problem: What to do with post-dictatorial North Korea.

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Reading Tip

Interesting article by Cambridge historian Brendan Simms, in which he argues that the “German Question” has dominated European politics since the 15th century and is at the heart of the EU’s current crisis. By that he means the fact that Europe’s countries were almost always preoccupied with the fact that Germany was either too strong or too weak. I am not entirely convinced, after all a similar argument could be made that all of European politics has always revolved around the French or Russian question, depending on your perspective. But an interesting read nonetheless.

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Why We Need a More Critical Perspective on Polish Partisans in World War II

I case you missed it (I guess you probably have), a little diplomatic row has been going on between Poland and Germany over the past two weeks or so. Bone of contention is a three-part TV film that recently aired on the German channel ZDF, called “Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter” (Our Mothers, Our Fathers). The film follows the lives of five young Germans between the years 1941 and 1945. Two of them become soldiers and end up committing atrocities in the Soviet Union, one of them sleeps with a Gestapo-commander to advance her career, one of them signs up for the red cross, where she denounces a Jew, and the fifth, a Jew, escapes from the train to a death camp, joins Polish partisans and survives the war. The film’s message is simple: War can bring out the worst in people, and in some way or another, it fundamentally changes everyone.

The film has caused a positive stir in Germany because it urges people to critically reconsider the role their own grandparents played in the war. In Poland, however, it led to an angry outcry. The reason is the film’s depiction of the Polish partisans of the AK (Armia Krajowa, Home Army), the largest nationalist partisan group in Poland. In the film, AK fighters go on anti-Semitic rants, claiming to “drown Jews like cats”, decide to let Jews die in a stranded train rather than open the doors and let them out, and kick the newly admitted Viktor out of the group once they realise he is a Jew. The Polish ambassador to Berlin expressed his “shock” over such a “grotesquely one-sided” depiction of Polish resistance, claiming that the movie is trying to blame other nationalities for the destruction of the European Jews, thus somehow lessening German guilt. Multiple TV networks and newspapers have joined in on the criticism, largely echoing the ambassador’s arguments.

A look at the historical facts indicates that the filmmakers have done their research diligently. Numerous official statements by the AK leadership made it unequivocally clear that Jews were not considered to be part of the Polish Nation. On November 10 1942, the AK’s commander-in-chief set out the group’s position vis-à-vis the Jews: Active resistance against Nazi mass murders would only begin once they systematically targeted Poles (i.e. not Jews).  Although some exceptions are known, Jews were generally deemed unreliable and not admitted into the AK, and the group’s leadership similarly refused to absorb Jewish partisan groups. Antony Polonsky, a well-respected historian of Jews in Poland, argues that the leadership “was not sympathetic to the plight of individual Jewish fugitives, seeing them as security risks likely to endanger its own position.” Furthermore, AK-commanders often referred to Jews as “Bandits”, echoing Nazi-terminology. In his survey of over 9000 testimonies of Jewish survivors after 1945, Polonsky finds that a majority of the encounters Jews had with the AK were negative. Several statements claim that AK-fighters searched for Jews and murdered them. A Jewish man called Zelman Baum claimed that he “feared the Poles no less than the Germans”.  Karolina Kremer saw her entire family murdered by Polish partisans, only to face them again a year later, in 1944:

AK  bandits hunted us like wild animals … I came across a wall of AK people. (The leader) asked me to come closer to me and came up behind me with a rifle. “Now you’re a dirty Jewess who has fallen into my hands. From my hands you will surely not escape.” I started to cry horribly pleading with him to spare my life. I knelt down and started kissing his legs hoping he would not kill such a young person. “No one will help you. Your dead body will be lying here”, he said, showing me the place. I started screaming at the top of my lungs, got up and ran into the nearby shrubs. He shot at me several times unsuccessfully.

There were also cases in with AK fighters helped Jews, but they seem to be the minority. In sum, it would have almost been a distortion of history had the film not depicted the AK fighters as anti-Semites.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles risked their lives during the war hiding Jews, and their heroic acts must never be forgotten. However, it is equally clear that anti-Semitism was rampant in Polish society, and nowhere more than within the ranks of the AK. The film does not blame the AK for the Holocaust, not one bit. It simply points out that the AK’s anti-Semitism made the destruction of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis easier to carry out.

The unwillingness of many Poles to accept a negative depiction of the AK is part of a dangerous trend in Eastern Europe: The nationalist hero cult. While Poles are unwilling to see the AK-fighters as anything other than knights in shining armour, Russians have increasingly reverted to the old Stalin cult, ignoring his mass murders and praising him for his role in defeating Nazism. The surprising popularity of proposals to change the name Volgograd back to Stalingrad is just the most recent example. This cult is dangerous because it leads to a propensity to glorify totalitarianism (in the case of Stalin) and racist nationalism (in the case of the AK). Some of the women and men who bravely fought against the Nazis murdered Jews. Accepting this may be painful for some, but refusing to do so only makes things worse in the long run.

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