Passchendaele and Poland; How we remember war

passIt’s July 31, 2017 and as I am prone to do on a morning in which there are no more boxes to move, no more doctor appointments to attend, and the house is empty, I sit back and spend an hour or so with the BBC online.  It’s not the only place I get my news, but when I really want to read well-written stories about news that doesn’t make it onto American media, it’s the place I go to remind myself that we live in a complex world with not only great suffering, but also great achievements.  And for these few hours I don’t have to dwell on the champion of shameful buffoonery that our country has become in the eyes of thinking people all over the world.  We are the fading empire and our emperor rides blissfully naked through the streets while a Republican Congress clears the obstacles that lead to the cliff.  Parts of the world watch in horror; parts watch in smug celebration.  Only the emperor and his baffling supporters still see him dressed in the regal clothing once reserved for the leader of a country widely respected…even by our enemies.

But I digress.

Two stories on the BBC this morning got me thinking a lot about how we frame and remember the darkest times in human history.  As a world history teacher, I don’t spend a lot of time on individual battles and military history.  It’s hard to see Western human history as anything but an endless battle punctuated only by those moments that we get to mop up the blood, retool the weapons, and plan for the next way to kill each other in the most efficient manner.   Generally lost in this endless stream of horror are millions of young men and women who had very little at stake…except their own lives.

It is right to honor those lives, but too often we can only do it if we simultaneously glorify the folly that led to their deaths.  It is understandable that countries would want to make sure that in the process of remembering the dead and wounded, their loss is justified by some strategic victory.  Without that, it gets harder to convince the next generation of young men and women to join the slaughter.

There may not be a greater folly in human history than World War I.  Over the next couple of years, the world will continue to mark the hundredth anniversary of this or that battle.  For Americans, this process which started in 2014 for Europeans, will ramp up soon as we begin to commemorate US activities after our entrance into the war in April of 1917.

In this story, the BBC covers the ceremonies commemorating Passchendaele, during which hundreds of thousands of men died in another pointless battle in another pointless war.  The horrors of Passchendaele were not limited to things we normally think about when we recall WWI trench warfare.  What separates this battle are the hordes of men who drowned in the mud because it just wouldn’t stop raining.  As many as 54,000 bodies were never found or identified in the battle that started on July 31, 1917 and ended in November of that year.  Pardon the pun, but let that sink in.

In the end, no one could claim a strategic victory, though the British tried.  Over 500,000 soldiers died, and the battle lines moved only a couple of kilometers.  For British royalty standing in the cemetery today, there is nothing for them to celebrate in terms of this meaningless slaughter.  Instead, they could only do what was proper and honor the bravery of the men who died in what soldiers called the “Mud War.”

Contrast this scene with a place like Gettysburg, which was the bloodiest battle ever fought on US soil.  Over the several days of the battle, over 3,000 men were killed and nearly 40,000 were wounded or went missing.  If you have visited Gettysburg as I have, standing over the cemetery and solemnly gazing across thousands of graves, you cannot avoid being affected by the losses suffered.  But it is possible, as Abraham Lincoln famously did, to justify these losses from a military standpoint.  Many historians consider Gettysburg the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.  So Lincoln could stand at the cemetery and claim that government of the people, by the people, and for the people had been preserved by the sacrifice of these several thousand men.

Across the Atlantic on July 31, 2017, no one was making such claims.  Passchendaele is the one place you can go and honor the bravery of those who died while legitimately screaming into the hollows of history at the pointlessness and treachery of those who ordered this fight.

The second BBC story comes from the aftermath of World War II.  Very few people could argue that World War II was a “pointless” war.  Whatever the motivations of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese, it is quiet easy to support measures to end fascism.  Even if you believe the war might have been prevented, as some naïve historians do, there’s no doubting the necessity to meet force with force in both Europe and Asia.  As Americans, we understandably reflect on our losses at Pearl Harbor and D-Day, and we rightfully honor the lives of the 400,000 men and women who died fighting that war. This represents about one-third of one percent of our population.

Contrast this with Poland who lost a full 17% of their population in the war.  That’s nearly 1 in 5 Poles, civilian and military, who died in that war.  You could argue, I suppose that the Soviet Union, who lost approximately 25 million people paid a higher price, but even that is “only” 13% of their population.

Regardless of how you look at the numbers, Poland was arguably the country most devastated by the war.  In addition to the casualties, Poland was forced to “host” some of the more infamous of the Nazi death camps.  This was a country indelibly scarred by a war they earned entrance into simply because they were situated between Hitler and Stalin.  And after the war, they were rewarded with 45 years of dominance by the Soviet Union.

For their part, today’s Russia claims that they liberated Poland from the Nazi’s.  And to some extent that argument seems reasonable.  As many as 600,000 Russians died pushing the Germans out of Poland, and for that the Russians seem entitled to Polish gratitude.  The Polish, however, don’t exactly see it that way.  In 1939, Stalin and Hitler got together and drew a line on a map giving half of Poland to Germany and half to the Soviets.  Until 1989, the Polish people had little or nothing to say about their destiny and lost 17% of their population as their two neighbors criss-crossed their country.

It is no surprise, then, that as Communism was eradicated from Poland, the Polish people didn’t feel so great about the monuments honoring Soviet troops all over their country.  The Russian claims that they liberated Poland and deserved these monuments seemed disingenuous to the people whose freedoms were crushed during the Cold War.  These monuments seem a lot less like tributes to liberation than they do like tributes to being conquered by a historical enemy.

So like Passchendaele, monuments and memories in Poland mean something.  They can never just be about the bravery of the men and women in arms, the civilians, and the medical personal who died.  Most of those people had no choice in the matter.  They also have a political context which calls into question the decisions and character of those who sent those boys to die…and those boys to decimate the citizen populations on either side of the line.

As the monuments in Poland are removed, and the Russians raise threats against the Poles for doing so, and as British royalty scurries away from Passchendaele without looking back, we are given an opportunity to see our history as not just the sum of the brave acts of our soldiers…but also as the horror and treachery caused by men who did not value human life enough to prevent these tragedies in the first place.  That’s worth keeping in mind as our naked emperor begins playing with the military toys we handed him in November, 2016.

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