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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #106

One of the longest-lasting and most visceral curses of civil war is hatred. It is natural, in wartime, to hate your enemy for the death, destruction, injury and impoverishment they are bringing upon your country, but the hatred that war can yield between different nations or groups of people can last for generations or even for centuries. In both World War I and World War II, British collective hatred of the German people (known as “the Boche” or “the Krauts”) lasted for at least a generation after the end of World War II. It was thought that the Germans collectively were responsible for the terrible losses that the Allies suffered, and there were themes within the politics of the Allied Powers both at the end of the First World War and the Second World War that the Germans ought to be penalised for the harm they had inflicted upon the world: as though Germany had not already suffered enough through her complete and wanton destruction. The desire that Germany be punished arguably fed into the punitive peace terms imposed upon Germany at the 1919 Peace Treaty of Versailles, itself regarded by historians as a substantial cause of the subsequent social and political unrest in Germany that ultimately led to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Second World War.

Nevertheless the Allied Powers, in particular the British and the French, had to come to rapid reconciliation with (what became West) Germany and the Germans over the years following the Second World War in the interests of developing the League of Nations; resistance to Soviet expansionism; the development of NATO; and the formation of the Economic Coal and Steel Community, that would eventually develop into a community of nations pooling their sovereignty in the name of pan-European peace and that we now call the European Union. Hence the ethnic and nationalist hatreds that had developed during the course of the two World Wars, perhaps inevitably as a form of morale-boosting and to keep the national war efforts concentrated, had to be abandoned and the concept of collective responsibility had to be abandoned.

Now the concept of collective responsibility has become quite unfashionable as it is understood that the actions of governments - or even individuals within governments - cannot be attributed to the individual citizens in a country. This is recognised by the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court, which renders collective punishment an international crime; and by the jurisprudence of the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, which has emphasised on more than one occasion that a whole unit within an army cannot be held criminally liable for the war crimes of individual members of the unit. The commanders can be held vicariously criminally liable for the acts of their subordinates, in certain circumstances, such as when they issued instructions which must have been likely to be interpreted as a licence to commit war crimes, or where they knew of the commission of war crimes and failed to take actions to prevent their recurrence. However individual soldiers are not responsible for commission of war crimes by a unit of which they are a member if they themselves took no part in the war crimes and did not encourage them in the usual ways attracting culpability, recognised by criminal law across civilised nations.

By contrast the Western Balkans is a region in which recurrent conflicts have been fuelled by concepts of collective responsibility. Serb animosity against Croats, which to an extent persists to this day in Serbian culture, is sometimes justified by references to Jasenovac, a concentration camp in the so-called Croatian Free State (a Nazi vassal state) during World War II in which a number of Serbian civilians and others were interred and many died. The idea that this atrocity, terrible as it was, somehow justified Serbian aggression against Croats and their mistreatment and murder in the course of the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s is quite misconceived. Likewise Bosnian Muslim (“Bosniak”) hatred of Serbs for the atrocities committed against them in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995 would not justify the recommencement of war, which is the most terrible of manmade afflictions. The problems facing Bosnia and Herzegovina must be dealt with by nonviolent political means, and if necessary the international community must deploy military force to prevent the parties in that conflict from returning to arms.

When we apply these insights to the current conflict in Ukraine, it is easy to be sympathetic to the sentiment common amongst Ukrainians that they hate the Russian people for what they have done to their country. This is a natural and even helpful sentiment for the Ukrainian people to embrace as they resist their common enemy. But it is not desirable if this sentiment becomes so vigorous that it creates fissures within Ukrainian society, such as between those whose first language is Ukrainian and those (possibly as much as 30% of the population) whose first language is Russian. Nor is it helpful if it creates contempt for the Russian conscripts on the battlefield who are dying or being maimed no doubt in equivalent numbers to the Ukrainians and who also have family and loved ones who care for them. To trivialise the deaths of other people is inhuman, and contrary to the value system of the European community nations into which Ukraine now seeks entry and which same community seeks to embrace the Ukrainian people.

In war, death is inevitable and people kill one-another. Nevertheless it is a terrible evil and it is not something about which anyone should obtain satisfaction, glee, pride or amusement. At some point in the future, Ukrainian and Russian nations are going to have to live in peace once again as they are neighbours with an enormous common border. For now we go to war but with heavy hearts, and we must not so steel our emotional responses to the deaths of our opponents as ourselves to become callous. Russians live in a totalitarian society in which their freedom of thought is severely restricted and paranoia is rife because the social system that created modern Russia, the Soviet Union, was profoundly dishonest and corrupt and was held together by a system of internal security oversight that was arbitrary, capricious and sought to control people’s thoughts. That is the definition of totalitarianism, and in their war with Russia Ukrainians are learning to escape that style of thinking in favour of western values of democracy, tolerance, individual accountability and human sympathy embedded within our polity. This means that in due course Ukrainians will have to abandon their animosity for the Russians, in the interests of their own national unity and in order to recreate relations with their neighbour.

The same applies to us all. At the current juncture Russia’s actions are beyond the pale, and nobody can imagine doing business of any kind with Russia at this moment. But there is a silent section of Russian society - and because Russia is a totalitarian state we can barely guess how large it is - that rejects Vladimir Putin’s war and lives in fear of his domestic security apparatus. They too want to live as free Europeans. Russia will still be there at the end of this war, and as the world’s largest country we in the West will have to form a policy to address Russia and her periodic acts of military aggression. What that policy should be, it is too early to say; but it is essential, even amidst the horrors of the current war, that we do not close our hearts and minds entirely to the Russian people who in their own ways are also suffering under the weight of the monstrous system directed by a single, possibly unhinged, man that has caused them to lurch into a catastrophic war.


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