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December 1, 2015 / 19 Kislev, 5776
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Posts Tagged ‘world war I’

What A Century Has Wrought

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

A century ago, on August 1, 1914, World War I broke out. The date in the Jewish calendar was Tisha B’Av, the annual fast day marking destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem as well as other Jewish national calamities. No one could have forecast the horrific conflagration that eventually took over 16 million lives and devastated great swaths of Europe.

Officially, hostilities ended on November 11, 1918. But they weren’t yet over. The economic and political malaise the war caused in Russia provoked the 1917 revolution, soon followed by the Bolshevik October Revolution that toppled the czar. The Soviet state took over, a cruel dictatorship that over the next 70-plus years terrorized its citizens and murdered at least 20 million of them, brutally incarcerating and torturing many millions more.

Following World War I, civil war broke out between the Soviet Red Army and pro-czarist forces joined by marauding bands that together massacred as many as 100,000 Jews in Ukraine. The civil war lasted until 1921. Simultaneously, war broke out with newly independent Poland, which fought to gain territory that once belonged to pre-partition Poland back in the 18th century.

After the war, the huge Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist, divided now into several states, with much territory annexed to neighboring states. Vanquished Germany also lost territory to the new Poland, and was deprived of all foreign colonies.

So demoralized were Germans by the combination of ignominious defeat, humiliating peace terms, and economic collapse that they became easy pickings for the scapegoat-seeking ideology of the Nazi party, which blamed the Jews for the world’s problems and would, once in power, unleash a conflagration far more horrific than the First World War.

Meanwhile, World War I had sown chaos throughout the centuries-old Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Many Jews fled or were forced to evacuate the war-zones; most chassidic courts of Galicia (the Austro-Hungarian part of Poland), for example, now relocated, at least temporarily, to Vienna.

The Russian commander-in-chief, the czar’s uncle, sought a scapegoat for Russian defeats and accused the Jews – who spoke Yiddish, closely related to German – of being a fifth column favoring Germany. Accordingly he expelled millions of Jews who lived close to the war zones – in Lithuania, Latvia, Russian regions of Poland, western White Russia and Ukraine – forcing them to find refuge deeper within Russia.

The evacuations and hostilities wrought havoc on the traditional Torah education system, and boys and young men now often grew up in a spiritual vacuum. Of course, for much of the previous century, the secularist Haskalah movement had already made serious inroads in Jewish communities throughout Eastern Europe, its influence constantly growing. But now the situation was exacerbated. Even after hostilities ended, it was already too late to revive many young people’s loyalty to Yiddishkeit, which was replaced by the spread of attractive secular ideologies.

As the new regime consolidated its hold on the Soviet Union, most public expressions of religion, including Torah schools, were banned. Russia had long been the world’s greatest fortress of Torah Judaism, but now Yiddishkeit was forced underground. Before long, most Jewish youth there were weaned from loyalty to their religion, although the deeply engrained anti-Semitism of their neighbors served to remind them of their Jewish roots.

Meanwhile, most Jews who had emigrated to Western Europe and North America, although not persecuted, cast off religious observance. Even those who remained faithful usually did so by making compromises.

The situation in Germany deteriorated and the Nazis came to power in 1933. Immediately they instituted official anti-Jewish persecution, which intensified year by year. Everyone realized this would soon spread throughout Europe; it was only a question of time.

Democracy is Not the Answer

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

To understand how we got to the point that spending hundreds of millions of dollars to support a government run by people who have been at war with us for almost a century is a policy that most foreign policy experts endorse, it helps to take a brief trip back in time.

In the last century, our big three wars, the two we fought and the one we didn’t, were against enemies who were seen as being distinguished by a lack of democracy, with the Kaiser, the Fuhrer and the Commissar embodying the antithesis of the American system.

The Democratic Party, which stood at the helm during both hot wars, was able to link its brand to the wars by defining them as struggles for democracy. The process of de-nationalizing war from a conflict between nations and ethnic groups was only partly realized in WWI, where invective against the “Huns” still simmered, but was largely achieved in WWII; with some exceptions made for Japan.

This idealization of war made post-war reconstruction and alliance easier. National and ethnic grudges were set aside and replaced by ideological platforms. If the trouble was a lack of democracy, then all we needed to do was defeat the tyrant’s armies, inject democracy and stand back. Focusing on democracy made it possible to rebuild Germany and Japan as quasi-pacifist entities expressing their grievances toward the Allies from the pacifistic stance of the moral high ground, rather than  through  military rearmament and revenge.

The United States had traded Hitler for Gunter Grass and while both hated the United States, Gunter Grass would write nasty essays about it, instead of declaring war on it.

And democracy made it easier to turn liberals against the Soviet Union, which had tossed aside every pretense of being a bottom-up system for what was clearly a top-down tyranny. The liberals who had believed in a war for democracy in Europe had difficulty tossing it aside after the war was over. And that emphasis on democracy helped make a national defense coalition between conservatives and liberals possible. Both might have fundamental disagreements, but they agreed that democracy was better than tyranny. And if that was true, then America was better than the USSR.

This strategy was effective enough against existing totalitarian systems. It however had a major weakness. It could not account for keeping a totalitarian ideology from taking power through the ballot box.

The assumption that because the Nazis and the Communists rejected open elections that they could not win open elections was wrong. Democracy of that kind is populism and totalitarian movements can be quite popular. The Nazis did fairly well in the 1932 elections and the radical left gobbled up much of the Russian First Duma. The modern Russian Communist Party is the second largest party in the Duma today.

Democratic elections do not necessarily lead to democratic outcomes, but the linkage of democracy to progress made that hard to see. The assumption that democracy is progressive and leads to more progress had been adopted even by many conservatives. That fixed notion of history led to trouble in Latin America and Asia. And it led to total disaster in the Arab Spring.

Cold War America knew better than to endorse universal democracy. Open elections everywhere would have given the Soviet Union more allies than the United States. The left attacked Eisenhower and Kennedy as hypocrites, but both men were correct in understanding that there was no virtue in overthrowing an authoritarian government only to replace it with an even more authoritarian government; whether through violence or the ballot box.

As time went on, Americans were assailed with two interrelated arguments. The left warned that the denial of democracy was fueling Third World rage against the United States. By supporting tyrants, we were conducting an occupation by proxy. And on the right we heard that tyranny was warping Third World societies into malignant forms. The left’s version of the argument directed more blame at America, but both versions of the argument treated democracy as a cure for hostility.

September 11 appeared to confirm one or both of the arguments as policymakers and pundits found themselves confronted with an unexpected wave of hostility from countries that they had not spent much time thinking about.

Where Did the Green Line Go?

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2013

The map of the World War I campaign, from page 12, of “With the Judeans in the Palestine Campaign” by Lt. Col. John Patterson:

Do you see “West Bank”?

Do you see a Green Line?

Visit My Right Word.

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