IN BETWEEN THE WARS
The situation, in which the centenary of the end of the Great (First World) War is celebrated [in Russia], causes as many questions and bewilderment as the anniversary of the revolution in Russia. The unwillingness of the Russian authorities to discuss the crisis of the csarist autocracy and the terrorist essence of Bolshevism is understandable and expected. They are the heirs of the Bolsheviks with imperial ambitions, for whom the celebration (precisely the celebration) of the one hundred years anniversary of the Cheka [the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution, further the KGB] and the Komsomol [the young communists organisation] is much more important than understanding of the tragedy of the dispersal of the Constituent Assembly [the representative body in Russia elected in November 1917 and dissolved in early January 1918] or the execution of the imperial family [of the Romanovs]. Furthermore, they also celebrated at the highest level the “century of the military intelligence”, which in the light of the events of recent months looks very much grotesque, much more than Halloween.
However, the centenary of the end of the First World War has not only an internal Russian, but also a global context. When in 2014 the world recalled the beginning of that war, it was mainly about the importance of drawing lessons from the past for the sake of the future. But already four years later, the President of France admitted, ““I am struck by similarities between the times we live in and those of between the two world wars… In a Europe divided by fears, the return of nationalism, the consequences of economic crisis, one sees almost systematically everything that marked Europe between the end of World War I and the 1929 (economic) crisis… Europe faces a risk — that of being broken up by nationalist leprosy and of being pushed around by foreign powers. And thereby losing its sovereignty.»
Today it is already clear that Brexit and the Trump’s presidency are not a “system failure”, but rather represent its different quality, which triggers a series of events that snowballing involve new countries into the process and change the world. The successes of the right-wing populists in the parliamentary elections in Europe and the USA, the presidential elections in Mexico and Brazil are proof of this.
«EVERYONE IS PROUD OF BEING RUSSIAN»
«FOR ME, THERE ARE ONLY GERMANS NOW»
«AMERICA ABOVE ALL»
«LET US RETURN BRITAIN TO THE BRITISH»
What characterised Russia and Europe a century ago and brought the world to the nightmare of the two world wars?
First of all, there was nationalism. Such nationalism, when a nation, its people, is opposed not to a corrupt monarchy or an empire in political impasse, but to other countries and peoples. It was this kind of nationalism that was fostered, encouraged and used by the authorities of all the leading countries of a pre-war Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Russia, for example, could not «just live like some kind of Denmark,» it assigned itself a mission — the liberation of Slavic Christian brothers.
All this familiar. Putin’s «multipolar world» with the division of the globe into zones of influence, the «new Yalta» [summit deciding how to divide the world], restricting the sovereignty of the states arbitrarily taken under patronage, — all this is a direct follow-up of the imperial pro-nation state thinking that caused enormous damage to our country in the 20th century. As for the “Panslavism” of a hundred years ago, today it has been transformed into “Eurasianism”, supplemented by the nostalgic concept of a superpower.
The messianic imperial ideology in tsarist Russia was shared and largely imposed by the ruling circles, however, objective public support was quite tangible, especially after the participation of Russian volunteers in the hostilities in Serbia in 1875 – 1876,r the Russian-Turkish war of 1877 — 1878 and the liberation of Bulgaria. The tsarist government believed that the main task of foreign policy was that after the liberation of Serbia and other South Slavic lands, the young states would find themselves in the sphere of Russia’s influence, and not of Austro-Hungary. It is indicative that the Austro-Hungarian regime was quite liberal with respect to national-cultural identity, while the Ottoman Empire, in fact, remained medieval. But in Russia it was considered that it would be better for Orthodox Balkan peoples to be “under the Turks” a little longer than to move to the zone of influence of Austro-Hungary.
In 1914, the decision not to yield to Austro-Hungary in the Serbian crisis and the beginning of the war were met by public enthusiasm, one might say, a tide of joyful delight from a significant part of the European public, Russian inclusive. The ideology of national division and war as the only way to achieve goals seemed then the same feature of the new era as the development of science or technological progress. In August 1914, Russian writer Leonid Andreyev wrote, “I am in a wonderful mood — truly resuscitated, like Lazarus… The upsurge is really huge, high and unprecedented: everyone is proud of being Russian… If the war suddenly end now, there would be sadness and even despair… «. Now this statement is often cited as an example of a kind of madness that engulfed the educated public, but how does that exaltation differ from the current one caused by the annexation of Crimea and the armed seizure of a part of Donbass?
Further there was the “sublimation” of the allegedly slighted national feeling. Renaming of Petersburg, so named by the founder of the Russian Empire, into Petrograd was a symbolic episode demonstrating a significant part of the absurdity that has been still inherent in Russian state nationalism today (quite recently the Russian president spoke about what modern nationalism should be, “we are correct and not goofy nationalists; Crimea is ours; we are not afraid of anything at all, if we are attacked, we will respond and, like martyrs, we will go to heaven, and they will just die, everything is bad in Ukraine; there are almost 146 million of those who share our views”).
And further all hell broke loose then. There were allegations from the top of the Russian authorities that Germans controlled the Russian economy. The authorities banned the use of weapons against the pogromists of the German Embassy and shops with German signs. The military command did not prevent participation of soldiers in this. Then there was expropriation of the lands of German peasants in Russia. Poles, Jews and even Orthodox brothers-Bulgarians were subjected to forced resettlement for the alliance of their king with Germany. Repressions began against Muslims in the Kars and Batumi regions.
The land issue was not resolved in the least. But the authorities had demonstrated that the right to private property could be neglected. Pogroms in the cities became commonplace – there emerged a feeling that one could beat and rob with impunity all “foreigners”, and indeed all “aliens” who were “not ours”.
Naturally, very soon, especially at the very first failures at the front, the domineering elite and even the imperial family became those who were considered “not ours”. Actually, as early as the beginning of the war, when Nicholas II was seen as an unconditional symbol of national unity, the origin of his wife gave rise to rumours and caused irritation, which soon transformed into open hatred.
An atmosphere of suspicion and malice permeated the whole society. This concerned far not only the masses. On 1 November, 1916, Pavel Milyukov, leader of the Cadet party, asked from the Duma rostrum the famous question about the actions of the autocratic government, “Is this stupidity or betrayal?” If one reads the whole speech, it becomes clear that the question is not at all rhetorical. Milyukov deliberately used the “august espionage” that was becoming more and more common in society. There was betrayal, by the way, and it consisted in the refusal of the elite to recognise the senselessness and purposelessness of the war, based solely on nationalism; exploitation of heroism and selflessness of Russian soldiers, sailors, Cossacks, officers, nurses and military doctors (which has been still hardly mentioned); in the mean, self-serving exhaustion of the patriotism of the people who sincerely responded to the call to protect the interests of the motherland, and feeling the falsity and deception, turned out to be morally devastated and confused.
Certainly, the Russian sovereign nationalism and the path it was paving to the war were not a unique phenomenon. All of Europe was filled with the same – concentration of each of the countries on their own interests, in the light of these interests all other things seemed shallow, distorted and caricatured. This made any attempt of thinking big, pan-European, into extrapolation of exclusively one’s own, narrowly national ideas about how to live.
In Germany, preparation for the First World War was accompanied by nationalist euphoria, a call to forget social and party differences in the face of the enemy. This idea was presented under the cynical title Burgfrieden (“civic peace”). On 4 August, 1914, Wilhelm II declared, “I don’t recognise any parties any more, for me there are only Germans now”. We can assume that the Emperor of Germany expressed in this way the innermost thoughts of many of his subjects (it is noteworthy that in October 2018, in Houston, US President Donald Trump almost repeated the words of the Kaiser, «We put America first, we will take care of ourselves»).
At the same time a similar nationalist hysteria, accompanied by the decision of the left parties to stop fighting the government during the war was observed in France (called the «Holy Alliance» — Union Sacree).
REPETITION WITHOUT LEARNING
Very soon, a huge gap between people’s moral conception, about sacrifice in the name of their homeland and senseless and purposeless slaughter caused a profound mental shock to all the nations that fought without exception. In Russia, this led to the collapse of power and a criminal coup d’état. The Bolsheviks coming to power and holding it for many decades was possible not owing to the Tsar’s abdication of the throne and the fall of the monarchy, but because of the inability of the Russian political elite, who took up the responsibility for the country, to see and feel the qualitative change that was taking place. Militant nationalism, in its turn, opened the way for the populist exploitation of malice, hatred, the worst sides of human nature, which also played a significant role in pushing Russia into Bolshevism.
In Europe the elite could not draw serious political conclusions after the end of the First World War, although the catastrophe of aimlessness and cruelty gave rise to philosophical and artistic reflection. Neither the winners nor the losers. The winners laid all the blame on Germany and appointed punishment for it. In the Old World, where after the collapse of Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, as well as after the separation of the Baltic states, Finland and Poland from Russia, a number of national states emerged, nationalism fully continued to remain the leading ideology.
Demonstratively defective position of Germany in the Versailles system powerfully fed the ideology of national revenge. The rest of Europe, until the last, put up with the policy of annexation and the Anschluss, carried out by the Nazi leadership of Germany, not only because they did not want a new war, but also because, by and large, there was nothing to oppose to nationalism and the thesis about «collecting lands».
The Second World War began.
«BEYOND THE FLADRY LINES — STRIVE FOR LIFE IS STRONGER!»
Only creation of a new, non-nationalist strategy for the development of Europe helped to break out of the circle of the predestination of war. Moreover, this was done not at all in Yalta and Potsdam [conferences] by the decisions setting up another division of the world, but despite them by a qualitatively new European political elite already in the post-war decades.
The European Union did not simply grow out of national reconciliation, but was created as a fundamental construct guaranteeing the prevention of nationalism and war in the tactics and development strategy of Europe, regardless of who is the winner and who is defeated. It was actually recognised and institutionalised that Europe was a single historical, cultural, economic and political space, and its future can only be determined by consensus and compromise, and that the right to life and other human rights are above any sovereign barriers.
One of the main consequences of the Bolshevik catastrophe in Russia and transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war was our country’s falling out of the European development in general and comprehension of the results of two world wars in particular. First, in the period between the wars (1920-1930), devaluation of human life and a destructive social experiment in the country took place instead of instead of understanding of war as a human tragedy. And only after the catastrophic losses of 1941-1945 (and even then not immediately) our country began, though with difficulty, coming to an understanding of the human dimension of war. At the same time, the achievement of great heights of awareness of the tragedy in literature and cinema was adjacent to the concealment of the historical truth about the war and direct lies about the loss.
In the USSR, at the very beginning of the 1990s, the realities of the actual single economic, cultural, and living space, in contrast to the rapidly deteriorating Soviet ideology, contained the potential for both economic reform and European integration on grounds that were qualitatively closer to the state of the European Union. The 500 Days reform project and the Treaty on Economic Union, a strategy for the preservation of the single economy and the single currency envisaged maintaining and using of this potential included.
But the ignorant Belovezha Accords [signed by the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on the dissolution of the USSR and establishing the Commonwealth of Independent States instead] destroyed this potential.
Only the idea of the European way of life and an example of European integration could further resist nationalism. However, the anti-European, isolationist course, the apogee of which was the “Russian Spring” of 2014, and the attempt to impose this course on the accessible part of the post-Soviet space led to a rapid slide of the state and society into nationalism which existed a hundred years ago.
CONSTANTINOPOLE AGAIN — FROM VALDAI TO HOUSTON
Even today, the discussion about the First World War (a topic which, by the way, is extremely relevant) often reduced to longing for the possession of Constantinople and the straits. These considerations, neglecting the tragic experience of the 20th century, also nourish modern revanchism. Why does Russia conducts two wars? What do people die for? Why is our economy being destroyed? Do we want to subjugate Kiev and manipulate Ukraine? Are we creating an instrument in the Middle East and Africa so that to blackmail Europe with refugees and migrants? What is this all for? Ultimately, everything again comes down to the redistribution of the world in their own interests. This is the essence of nationalism.
If such developments took place only in Russia, it would be bad for our country, but it would not pose a threat of a big war. However, it seems that almost everyone has their own “cherished Constantinople”. The main component of this phenomenon is not even territorial claims (although they have been pulled out of the chests of history becoming an instrument of populist politics), but a desire to seek for the future in the past. “Make Again” is the slogan of national populist politics that spreads from country to country like wildfire. Now, the new president of Brazil, the far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro, promises his compatriots «to make then happy again».
Nationalism has been pulling Europe apart in to archaic units. We say that a united Europe is the only real reference point for building the future for the post-Soviet countries. Meanwhile, in Poland and Hungary, long-time members of the European Union, considered by their eastern neighbours a model of their future for decades, the right-wing are trying to make nationalism the centre of the domestic political agenda, while in foreign policy discourse in these countries is dominated by talk of walls, fences and barbed wire (as if all this can protect against global threats).
The “New Right-Wing” publicly rejoice at the success of their brothers in the view of the world, but this is a stupid, short-sighted joy — like a standing ovation from Russian members of the parliament in honour of the election of Donald Trump as President. It is obvious that the more countries are guided by nationalism in their foreign and domestic policies, the more frequent will be conflicts, clashes, quarrels and scandals. Right-wing populist Karin Kneissl, Minister of European, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria, at whose wedding the Russian President was a guest at the end of the summer, cancels her visit to Russia in connection with the espionage scandal and says that if the suspicions are confirmed the Russian-Austrian relations will be seriously aggravated. The Russian Foreign Ministry, certainly, repraoches her sadly, “It is puzzling why our Austrian partners…”
Other future threats are becoming increasingly obvious, first of all, the sharply increased likelihood of a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the quite possible new large-scale global economic crisis, which has been increasingly often spoken about recently. One of the main prerequisites of these threats is the growing division of the world, which dramatically reduces the potential for countering the crisis, even in comparison with what it was ten years ago. But even then, in 2008–2009, world economic leaders had hardly driven the disease inside, but, by and large, did not address the causes of the crisis.
A glaring result of not understanding the dangers of nationalism and populism is Brexit (see the article “Great Britain Has Proved That It Is the Most Important Part of Europe”, June 2016). In early November, Jo Johnson, British Minister of State for Transport, resigned and called for a new referendum. “The reality of Brexit has become very different from what we were once promised,” he explained. And it is a member of the government of one of the leading countries of the world saying this! Who promised?!
The number of those giving promises and those believing in promises has been growing around the world. The reality will, certainly, be very different from the promises, but the euphoria from the policy of rude actions, simple decisions and “cutting the knots” overpowers all reasonable arguments. It seems that politicians who are passionate about the smoke, thunder and tinsel of a political carnival (see the article “Turning: from carnival to collapse”, October 2018) simply do not understand that a weekday will come — and you they will have to deal with the consequences. And people just want a holiday and do not want to believe that bad things can happen. After all, «it will not happen, they will not allow it, this is not all seriously…»
A hundred years ago, there were also enough facts, knowledge and information, so that educated people of that time, and even more so the military and politicians, had an idea of the nature of a future war, the scope of losses and unpredictable consequences that could change the world beyond recognition. But the connivance of nationalism, populism, political clowning led to the fact that the step into the abyss occurred uncontrollably, almost automatically – under the thunder of orchestras and the cheers of the public.
“WE CAN REPEAT IT?”
And now nationalism is again preparing a war for Europe, a defeat in the global competition and a provincial future for it in the world of the 21st century, where the North America and the South-East Asia will dominate.
The possibility to escape the traps of the First and Second World Wars still exists. And if one were smart enough not to trail along in the back of triumphant trampism, Russia would have historical opportunities. The Russian state, based on truth and honest historical identification with the prospects of entering a united Europe, would be a resumption of the creation of what began after the Second World War. Russia is an organic part of the European world, which is the essence of the modern global civilization. That is how it should be.
Otherwise, everything can happen again in the coming years.