Everything Old is New Again

Via Instapundit, we delve into the wayback machine to April, 2002, back before Matthew Yglesias learned to hate George Bush.  Ol’ Matt tosses out for consideration a — I don’t think “time-honored” is really an apt expression — resolution of what we might call the “Palestinian Question.”

This is what Matt submits for consideration:

I think we have to start asking just how inhumane it would be for Israel to just expel the Palestinians from the occupied territories.   * * *  All forced population transfers are humanitarian disasters, of course, but so is the current situation. It’s not like there’s not any room in the whole Arab world for all these Palestinian Arabs to go live in, it’s just that the other Arab leaders don’t want to cooperate.

He’s right, of course; forced expulsions of mass population groups are humanitarian disasters.  It’s not by accident that I phrased it as “the Palestinian Question,” with its echoes of “the Jewish Question.”  It was, after all, on this day in 1941 that Hermann Goering instructed Heinrich Himmler to began preparations for the Final Solution.  That instruction resulted in the Wannsee Conference in January of 1942 and . . . well, world history knows the rest.

On the other hand, and this is a sobering Other Hand to contemplate:  Among the less fortunate consequences of Wilson’s, Lloyd George’s, and Clemenceau’s fiddling with the borders of Eastern Europe in 1919 was the existence of enormous groups of — shall we say — ethnically inconsistent groups in the new countries established by the treaties that ended the Great War.  The Sudeten Germans are only the most historically infamous.  In truth there were pockets of people all over that part of the world who were linguistically and culturally distinct from their surrounding populations.  Poland, which was re-created for the first time since 1795, was a mish-mash of Poles, Germans, Jews, Ukrainians (I did a will a number of years ago for a Polish-Ukrainian fellow), and sundry other groups.  Hungary was speckled with non-Magyar populations.  The Slovaks themselves were tack-welded together with the Czechs.  And those are just the examples I can think of sitting here at my computer.  Yugoslavia, the Kingdom of the South Slavs, had Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, and Albanians.

The result was pretty much as you might predict.  Politics, in addition to absorbing the poisonous brew of communism and class conflict unleashed by the war’s end, also broke very strongly on nationalistic and ethnic lines.  Not to be too blunt about it, but it hamstrung the new societies.  All the strife and mutual suspicion that had been — and not entirely successfully, either — bottled up by the crushing weight of centuries of Habsburg, Romanov, and Hohenzollern rule exploded over the land.  Precisely at the time when the world was radically changing beneath everyone’s feet, and by “everyone” I include the United States, and new and creative thinking became an even greater necessity, those countries were mired in bogs of ethnic conflict.

It is, I will suggest, a nearly universal phenomenon that conflict brings to the forefront the most extreme positions of all factions.  This is true of purely political conflict (witness what’s going on in the United States today); it’s true of military conflict (in conflicts as divergent as the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Great War, and the communist take-over of China you can observe the steady rise, with the length and desperation of the struggle, of the most hard-boiled, ruthless, and unscrupulous commanders and factions); it’s true of class conflict (Hayek outlines the process in The Road to Serfdom).  And sure enough, it’s what we can observe unfolding across Eastern Europe during the inter-war period.

Not that any particular population group escaped a scorching in the Second World War, but, as is also depressingly typical, the ones across whom the storms lashed most fiercely were those perennial outsiders: the Jews and (to a much lesser extent because there were so many fewer of them) the Gypsies.

Americans, and even Western Europeans, tend to entertain the fond recollection that The War in Europe Ended May 8, 1945.  Well, the war may have ended, but the fighting and the suffering sure as hell didn’t.  The Poles turned on the few surviving Jews.  Pretty much everyone who wasn’t German turned on the pockets of Germans.  And the Soviets bestowed their ministrations on everyone.  And then it started.  Long lines of civilians, pushing prams, hand-carts, or wagons.  Or just carrying a battered suitcase, with everything they owned that wasn’t on their backs in it.  Young and old, off they marched, away from places where their ancestors had lived for centuries.  The Sudeten Germans had settled in Bohemia something like 800 years before.  The Poles in what became the western reaches of the Soviet Union had been there even longer.  The sundry ethnic groups spattered across the former Austro-Hungarian empire had been on their lands for similarly impressive periods.

No matter.  In 1982 I went to the Deutsches Museum in what was then still East Berlin.  I remember seeing one of the placards the Poles put up in Prussia.  Every German had 24 hours to leave town, taking only what could be hand-carried.  Just like that.  In fairness to the Poles, the exact same thing was happening to their east, as millions upon millions of them were kicked out to make room for the Soviets.  The numbers involved were prodigious.  Just among the Germans, somewhere between 12 and 14 million people were on the move in 1945-47.  Add to them millions of Poles, sundry Slavic groups, and of course the forced repatriations to the Soviet Union, and it’s easy to believe the figure I saw once (my memory is a bit fuzzy and I can’t recall where I saw it) that something like ten percent of the gross population of Europe was on the road, mostly on foot, and uniformly on a one-way trip.  In contemplating the physical reality of that process, we ought not forget that the winter of 1945-46 was one of the coldest in recorded European history (George Bush hadn’t invented global warming yet, after all), and the fighting had absolutely played hell with the planting and harvest for well over a year.

All in all, I think Yglesias’s point about it being a humanitarian disaster is fully justified.  In fact the only reason we don’t remember it more is because of what it immediately followed.  With the smoke — metaphorically — still rising from the ovens at Auschwitz, and the rubble still smoldering at Dresden, Warsaw, and dozens upon dozens of other Eastern European cities, what are the tribulations of a couple dozen million refugees?

But behold!  For all its post-war trauma, the one thing that Europe has not had to deal with since 1945 has been the ethnic strife that plagued it before the war.  All that civilian suffering at least produced largely homogenous populations which had the social cohesion to work through their challenges.  Just by way of example, it is no accident that it was the Poles who in the Solidarity movement set the first charges that exploded Soviet rule . . . nor should we underestimate the importance in that development of their adherence to their Roman Catholic faith, a church headed by (I’ll suggest this is one of the most fortunate coincidences in recent Western history) a Polish pope.  With one exception — the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and the Slovaks — the lands that formerly relished nothing so much as a street fight between the Party of Ethnic Group A and the Party of Ethnic Group B, all to be followed by a quick pogrom through the Jewish Quarter, have been freed of at least the endless ructions and violence of ethnic strife.  And notice what’s now happening:  As Europe has been over-run with unassimilated adherents of the Religion of Peace, who periodically turn out to shoot at the police and burn cars and buildings, all the while sucking on the public tit of the European Welfare State, the ethnic strife is returning.

It’s almost as if there’s a pattern to what happens when you have significant populations of non-assimilated ethnic groups embedded in societies that uphold irreconcilable value systems.

The unassimilated Arabic populations of Israel’s territory (and I expressly include Gaza and the West Bank as Israeli territory; they conquered it from countries trying to destroy Israel: when you pick a fight and lose it, that’s what happens, viz. you lose territory and you’re entitled to zero sympathy) harbor for their chief ambition the physical destruction of Israel and the physical extermination of its Jewish population.  They are willing to stop exactly nowhere in the pursuit of this goal.  They put rocket launchers in schools and hospitals.  They use their own population as human shields.  And they will never give up.

So however awful it may be to ask the question, and whatever may be the implications for us all in contemplating the issues raised by that question, I think Yglesias’s question deserves a hard-boiled look:  Which humanitarian disaster is worse: the present one or one involving the forcible removal of these people?

[Updated (05 Aug 14)]:  In fairness I ought to observe that the former Yugoslavia in fact has experienced traumatic and bloody ethnic strife since 1945.  And the reason?  Well, after World War II it did not go through the “ethnic cleansing” process that Eastern Europe did.  So when communism collapsed and there was suddenly no longer a common boot on everyone’s neck, all the checkerboard population groups looked about and . . . got down to business.  All of which would suggest that what we’re witnessing in Israel is not unique to the peoples involved or the specifics of their conflict.  Depressing.

Leave a Reply