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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #122

Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston is said to have remarked in the early 1860’s: “The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.” Reflecting upon the war in Ukraine, I rather feel like Lord Palmerston - or maybe the mad German professor. I certainly hope I don’t end up like Prince Albert. This war is so complex in all its minute details, with a competing underlying problems in the Ukrainian government; cultural complexities between Ukrainians and the foreigners who have come to the country en masse to help them; cultural issues within Ukraine relating to the distinction between those who speak Ukrainian as a first language and those who speak Russian (who include many of those affected by the fighting on the front line); in short, this war is so intensely complicated that it is virtually impossible to keep track of all the different moving parts. However there is one important difference between the war in Ukraine and the Schleswig-Holstein question: the latter was an almost intellectual dispute in its intricacy, whereas the former is an unequivocal and straightforward act of unwarranted and unlawful aggression on the part of the Russian Federation in tearing up the rules of international law and the European polity in invading a neighbouring state that presents no danger to Russia.

The Schleswig-Holstein question was a curious question of international diplomacy in the nineteenth century that derived from the coincidence that a common duchy of two pieces of geographically contiguous territory, Schleswig (with a predominantly Danish population) and Holstein (with a predominantly German population) had been run by a single Duke who was also the King of Denmark for some centuries, peaceably, enough, so that Schleswig-Holstein retained some autonomy from Copenhagen but at the same time fell under Danish suzerainty. The problem arose when the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in 1806 and was replaced with the German Confederation in 1815, which the people of Holstein wanted to be part of but the people of Schleswig did not. When the Duke of Schleswig-Holstein sought to implement a progressive new liberal constitution, the people of Holstein, who one would imagine might have approved of such a thing, rose up in revolt, because they saw a modern European constitution as being inconsistent with their assertions that they were properly part of the German Confederation and what was hoped would eventually become a unified Germany. There was a brief war about the matter in 1864; at the Peace Treaty of Versailles it was agreed that Schleswig-Holstein should be partitioned according to plebiscite, and that is how the problem was resolved.

I am not a great fan of plebiscites, as they can be manipulated. The plebiscites partitioning Schleswig-Holstein were creatures of convenience, and the other country that has more recently been organising self-justifying plebiscites has been the Russian Federation who has arranged various votes and elections of a grossly fraudulent and opaque character to justify their illegal annexation of various Ukrainian provinces in the south and east. The people who remain in those parts of Ukraine, including in Crimea and Luhansk, and parts of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk Oblasts, are reported to have voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the Russian Federation in plebiscite-style votes earlier this year, although it is of course impossible independently to verify these preposterous elections because independent media organisations are not allowed into the Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine. Indeed all media information is controlled with meticulous care by the Russian state security and intelligence services in the occupied territories, with state-run television pumping out relentless pro-Russian propaganda about the humanitarian acts of the Russian Armed Forces: nonsense I have myself witnessed on prior visits to Transnistria, the breakaway region of Moldova, before they banned me from entering.

In such circumstances, votes and elections become meaningless because the population have access to only a single source of information - Russian government propaganda - and hence they are incapable of making informed choices. It is not proper to blame people who do not have access to a diversity of viewpoints for making the choices they make in voting in a rigged election. After all, these elections are rigged. The people who vote, vote as they do because they are scared. If they do not vote, then their abstinence may be registered with the FSB, Russia’s feared internal security service; and they may receive unwelcome attention including harassment, detention, arrest or worse. The FSB can be notoriously ruthless in enforcing Russian ideological purity and they expect the people under their surveillance not only to act but to think in accordance with Russian ideology. Hence people are afraid. I have known many people living under the Russian system or systems influenced by the Russian one and they have explained to me the paranoia inherent in a society governed in this way, and the impossibility of speaking out. In the plebiscites and various elections the Russian government has organised in occupied Ukraine, voting slips were placed into transparent boxes in front of Russian government officials, assumed to be FSB officers. This is the Russian way, and of course an election is not free or fair in such circumstances. This is what we call “managed democracy” and it makes a mockery of the western institutions that it imitates, that intend to promote freedom of and competition between ideas that enable the people to choose their governments and indeed their national affiliations.

While the endless complexities involved in organising international resistance to the Russian occupation of Ukraine can seem baffling, exhausting and perplexing, we must keep our heads high and our minds clear. We must continue to follow all information and leads to understand how the conflict is progressing each day; to understand how best to spend the funds available for military and civilian support; and to keep focused upon the morass of different issues so that western policy towards Ukraine remains coherent, focused and resilient. We must not feel exasperated, as Lord Palmerston did of Schleswig-Holstein, such that we are inclined to give up and imagine that it is all too complicated and we should forget all about it and sweep it under the carpet. Instead we must continue actively to engage with Ukraine and all her complexities so that we proceed towards victory against this the greatest threat to the peaceful European polity in modern times.


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