Waking Up to History: Putin’s War and the Historical Precedent of WWI
By Todd S. Gernes
via the EVN Report web site
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
W.B. Yeats, 1916
On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress, requesting a declaration of war against Germany. Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare against commercial and civilian targets, he claimed, was “a challenge to all mankind.” “We have no quarrel with the German people,” Wilson famously said. “We have no feeling for them but one of sympathy and friendship.” After excoriating “Prussian autocracy,” Wilson pointed to Russia as a beacon of hope: “Does not every American feel that assurance has been added to our hope for the future peace of the world by the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening in Russia?” The most enduring sentences in one of the most important American presidential speeches in US history have echoed—at times sincerely and at times hollowly—for more than a century: “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty.” 1917, the height of the Great War, was also the year in which Ukraine briefly became a republic, independent of Russia. A headline in the New York Sun of Sunday, July 22, 1917, shouted, “Ukraine Reborn as a Nation after 263 Years in Serfdom.” Historical hindsight is so often tinged with irony.
Media commentators, analysts, pundits and historians have all scrambled to draw historical parallels to make sense of Putin’s most recent aggression toward Ukraine, but there have been relatively few nuanced references to World War I. At times, viewing Putin’s war in Ukraine is like glimpsing history through a postmodern kaleidoscope: early Ukrainian tribal origins, Tartar and Mongol invasions, Prince Vladimir accepting Orthodox Christianity, the Russian Empire, the birth of the Soviet Union, the rise of fascism, World War II, the creation of NATO, the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, the horrific battles in Chechnya, and the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula—historical reference points employed, somewhat randomly, to explain cause and effect or to assign blame. Putin went so far as to compare events in separatist-controlled Donbas with genocide and he justified his war in Ukraine as “denazification,” even as Russia proceeds to flatten entire cities, damage hospitals, a maternity ward, schools, town halls, apartment buildings, a nuclear power plant and even a Holocaust memorial site, marshaling crushingly asymmetrical firepower against a much weaker but more passionate volunteer army of born-again nationalists. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, Nuclear Armageddon, seems always to lurk in the shadows.
Ukraine gained a short-lived independence from the Russian Empire between 1917 and 1920 before it was absorbed into the Soviet Union. Novelist and scholar George Raffalovich (1880-1958), writing in the New York Sun in 1917, pinned his hopes for the Ukrainian future on an emergent internationalism, the foundation of which was peaceful coexistence, cooperation and individual state sovereignty. Raffalovich was a British national born in France of German-Jewish-Ukrainian extraction who was fiercely committed to Ukrainian independence. Because of his internationalism, political engagement and forthright advocacy in lectures and print, he was accused of having German sympathies and was exiled from Britain during the war. “There is now in Kiev a Ukrainian Parliament with a responsible Government which has complete executive power within Ukraine,” he wrote in the New York Sun in July 1918. “Ukraine elects her own representatives and controls her own Cabinet. The Ukrainian Ministry will discuss with Russia all points that need to be discussed. The peace, amity and cooperation will be strong. It is, in short, a partnership, but henceforth, Ukraine is to be a partner, not a subject.” Raffalovich argued idealistically that, although people (and empires) were resistant to change, Ukrainian independence from Russia represented a change for the better, not for the worse. “It means that, [in] having her liberty, Ukraine will take her part in the fight for worldwide liberty. The Allies should welcome this new proof of Europe’s liberation from a great nightmare.” Raffalovich went on to discuss the history, geographic features and ethnic composition of his homeland.
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