Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Dogs of War

Review of "Savage Continent", about post-war violence in Europe.

We have, typically, a very positive view of Europe, as home (though not exclusively) to philosophy, literature, classical music, enlightened politics, science, socialist government (more or less), capitalism, human rights, the UN, and the whole package of first world development. But then there are World Wars 1 and 2. What happened? Were they some kind of aberration, or a deeper expression of our humanity? Are we finally "civilized" now, able to keep the genie in the bottle forever more?

And are Europeans, and developed countries in general, different from other peoples of the world? Obviously not. That is one of the most important messages of this book, for better or for worse. We are all human, and the systems that keep inhumanity at bay are delicate social structures, unspoken virtues of civic morality, and prodigies of carbon-fueled prosperity that are probably much less robust than we take for granted.

What happens when those structures are blown away, and armies rape and pillage their way over the land? Everyone is traumatized, and long-cultivated morals fall away. Tribal affinities, long subsumed under nationalist, or even internationalist ideologies, resurface, because the basic question is.. who is left that can I trust? Injustice begets further injustice, as those who have been violated, or live in fear and desperate straights, rationalize retaliation and pre-emption without great care as to the targets. Rumor and hatred run rampant. Those who can get away with murder and robbery, do so. We are in a dog-eat-dog setting, as social circles and controls contract dramatically, down to practically nothing.

Author Keith Lowe describes this process in the wake of World War 2, when countless scores were settled, more people were dispossessed and killed, and new wars started, all after VE day. He brings tremendous detail and narrative flair to an enormous story, spanning the continent. A recent blog post mentioned how perilous it was for Jews miraculously spared from the holocaust to return to Poland, where their homes and property had long been taken by others, and where, more significantly, German-radicalized antisemitism was alive and well.

Another example is the widespread ritual shaming of women who had slept with the enemy. A few were killed, but most were stipped and shorn for their participation in the emasculation of their own country's men and honor. Their children often had a far more difficult time, shunned both in the home country as well as in Germany, if they turned in that direction. There were vast movements of refugees, as the slave labor force of Germany was freed to return home, concentration camps emtied, and new ones were set up. Germans were kicked out of the newly West-shifted Poland, and out of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, almost 12 million in all. And even those who were not driven to move crawled out from under the rubble of war, in Germany and especially in Eastern Europe, which had been brutally overrun two or more times.

Of eleven million prisoners of war, one million died in the Soviet gulag, while 100,000 died in camps of the other occupying powers, according to Lowe. On the other hand, formal efforts to hold the perpetrators of the war accountable were virtually toothless, due partly to the continuity of fascist power structures, incensing populations across the continent, who often, particularly in Italy, took justice into their own hands.

Lowe gives particularly welcome attention to the new wars that broke out in Greece and Yugoslavia, as the new reality of an east-west cold war began to set in. In Greece, the Western allies shockingly tended to side with what had been the fascist right over the communist left, who had constituted the resistance during the war. In Yugoslavia, Tito and his communist partisans had long prioritized winning the civil war over winning against Germany, and made no bones about shooting whoever needed to be shot when it was all over. They had no time for prisoners at all.

So this is an important book, however cursorily I treat it. Right now, we are tiptoe-ing backwards into European history with Russia's "protection" of its ethnic comrades in Ukraine. Ukraine was one of the "burned-over" regions of World War 2, as if its own prior holocaust from Stalin's starvation campaign wasn't bad enough. Now Putin wants to dismember it, if he can't corrupt the whole of it into servility. Shades of German policy at Hitler's height, which brought on the previous horrors, one has to say.

But what to do? How do we respect and learn from the tragedies and mistakes of yesteryear? By starting wars more expeditiously when lines of international civility are crossed (modelled by World War 1, perhaps)? Or by foreswearing all war, until we are at the wall and must, perforce, start World War 3? Or by threading some kind of diplomatic middle way between the would-be dictators and the apathetic democracies? Putin is no Hitler, but follows the same fragile logic of bullying to power, internally and externally, with a side of external revanchism. Lowe's book does illustrate that avoiding war, even at some moral and other cost, does have enormous virtues. It also re-animates the virtues of having a decent, and powerful world government that would reign in the lawlessness of international relations.


  • The nuts and bolts of the mortgage fraud machine. How Goldman got away with buying insurance against losses it itself engineered, and then got the government to pay out the policies via bankrupt AIG.
  • "Eight Rich Americans Made More Than 3.6 Million Minimum Wage Workers". Why, exactly?
  • Fundamentalist Biblicalism: putting head in sand.
  • Wall Street- even worse landlords than regular old landlords.
  • Krugman on Piketty and inequality: it's the wealth, stupid, not just the income.
  • Who is running things, anyhow? "... the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important."
  • Police pay. Self-dealing doesn't just happen in board rooms.
  • Economic quote of the week- Felix Salmon, reviewing Flash Boys:
"After all, the fact of the matter is that of all the various actors screwing your mom and pop out of the money in their retirement account, high-frequency traders are at the very bottom of the list. If, that is, they’re on the list at all."
  • Economic graph of the week, on age-ism of the recession. Another chance for the free market to defeat the public good.
Weeks unemployed, different age groups, over recent years.

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