I spent the evening of February 24 consoling my 89-year-old mother who was reeling from the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Through her sobs, she stammered in her German accent “It’s 1939 all over again.”
Erna Pohl was born in Germany in 1932. A few months after her birth, the National Socialist Workers’ Party won control of the government in a country humiliated by the defeat following the First World War. In 1939 Hitler, using a pretext of rescuing a German minority population, invaded Poland. The ensuing conflagration that was World War II wound down for my mother as the Red Army marched across eastern Germany. Many a German woman and girl paid the price at the hands of Soviet soldiers exacting revenge for Hitler’s slaughter of innocent Russians.
Once again, in Ukraine, innocents are paying the price for the fetishes of a megalomaniac who is leveraging the geopolitical and historical complications of a region to fulfill his own obsession with power.
A Russian-born colleague was visibly distressed by her own parents, in Moscow, who still supported Putin up through last week. They believe his contortion of history, told to the Russian public, to whip up public support for yet another war. Russian mothers and fathers will give up sons to die on the battlefield as soldiers, sacrificed for the vision of a Motherland, conceived of by a soulless tyrant, devoid of humanity.
My mother had her own take on the topic of propaganda. A refugee from communist East Germany, she is no apologist for the crimes of humanity carried out by Germans. She insisted that her young daughters visit the Buchenwald Concentration Camp so that they understood that Germany was a country of both the genius, Goethe, and the monster, Hitler.
Erna recalled the well-meaning and somewhat naïve, if not smug, comments of Americans who after World War II marveled at the ignorance of the common German. How could they not know about the terror of the Nazis? The Final Solution. The fate of their Jewish, Gypsy, handicapped, and homosexual fellow citizens. My mother, as a schoolgirl, believed what she was told by her teachers, the newspapers, and the radio. How was she to know otherwise? Her parents questioned the official version but fearing the consequences of the slip of a child’s tongue in public, never dared share their doubts in front of their daughter.
Where does this leave us? We live in world of the power-hungry who care little for the modest hopes of the common world citizen for sustenance, security, and the desire to make their children’s lives just a little better than their own. We are in a time and place where ignorance of facts and history, combined with a sense of entitlement and superiority, can create a toxic world view that diminishes the humanity of others. This is not “their” world. It is our world. In Milan and Milwaukee and Managua and Mumbai.
We condemn the actions and inactions of the Russian leaders. Let us not forget to turn our gaze inward and critically examine our own legacies, both beautiful and beastly. Civilization is a very thin veneer that depends on the constant efforts of the good, wise, and righteous over the ignorant, arrogant, and indifferent.
Who is responsible for preventing 2022, all over again?
Margit Schatzman, President