EUROPE, OLD AND NEW
Remembering France's Betrayal of Poland
Warsaw days - a perspective from the 'new Europe'
Sunday, March 9, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle
On a mid-February weekend, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of major cities across the world to protest the U.S. administration's policy on Iraq, I was in Warsaw -- the city that Hitler once decided to erase from the map of Europe.
In Warsaw, too, most people hope war can be prevented. But Poles seem to understand the price of appeasement, inaction and never-ending debate much better than the French, the Belgians or the Germans.
As I walked through the neighborhoods where, as a child, I played in the rubble, I recalled how very few of my playmates had known their grandparents.
We were, after all, growing up in a country that lost one out of every six of its citizens in World War II -- a war that would have never happened if the international community had shown more unity, courage and respect for its own words.
In March 1935, when, in open and obvious violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler reintroduced conscription, the League of Nations responded with "condemnation." A year later, an encouraged Hitler ordered his troops into the demilitarized Rhineland. A few months later, during the Olympics in Berlin, the Nazi regime presented to the world the picture of peace-loving Germany.
"Why do our boys have to die in a distant country that we know so little about?" asked British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, returning triumphantly from Munich after signing the deal with Hitler that sealed the fate of Czechoslovakia. His popularity in Britain soared. A year later, Hitler invaded Poland. Several months later, Wehrmacht troops paraded on the Champs Elysees, and soon bombs were falling on London.
Different motivations -- good and bad, rational and stupid -- informed recent demonstrations in Europe against the war in Iraq. Some anarchists, Trotskyites and communists -- a smaller contingent than in the past, but still very vocal -- demonstrated because, faced with a conflict between democracy and tyranny, they take the side of tyranny.
Many others took to the streets because of justifiable fear of the horrors, destruction and pain of war.
Yet another contingent was driven by simple anti-Americanism. Sometimes, this is mindless hatred of the United States: America is strong, rich and self- confident and, therefore, deserves to be despised. Other anti-American sentiment is fueled by a belief that current U.S. policy is hypocritical, that the name of the game is oil rather than eliminating weapons of mass destruction and bringing democracy to the region. A number of demonstrators in Europe view the United States as a nation of cowboys eager to fight but unwilling to rebuild, a nation lacking commitment, patience and endurance.
Some of my Turkish friends, who, like a vast majority of their countrymen, are against the war, ridicule the argument that one outcome of regime change in Baghdad would be a democratic Iraq. They are skeptical about the compatibility of democracy and Islam. It will not work, they say.
So how come it works in Turkey? After a long silence, they provide the answer: Turkey had Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the father of the modern Turkish state. But the notion that unless and until a leader of the stature, wisdom and following of Attaturk emerges in the Muslim world, hundreds of millions are destined to live under tyranny, is deeply troubling.
In a passionate speech on the Senate floor last month, Sen. Robert Byrd, D- W.Va., launched a harsh attack on President Bush's foreign policy, pointing out "huge cracks emerging in our time-honored alliances" caused by the arrogant rhetoric of some top administration officials. Yes, the bellicose and often insensitive language from Washington didn't gain us friends, and the doctrine of pre-emption remains controversial. But our position on Iraq can and should be viewed more as a way, perhaps the only way, to enforce compliance with the U.N. resolution.
As far as the rift in the Western alliance, harsh words from Washington may have inflamed, but did not create, anti-Americanism among some of our fair- weather European friends. And in terms of arrogance, French President Jacques Chirac clearly outdid Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Unhappy with the pro-U.S. stand of several Central European nations, he questioned their aspirations to join the EU. And without consulting with Lithuania, Chirac promised Russia that the EU would secure for Moscow a corridor through Lithuania to the Russian military base on the Baltic Sea.
The NATO crisis about whether to provide Turkey, an old and loyal member of the alliance, with defensive weapons in face of potential conflict with Iraq, caused Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Latvians -- new or aspiring NATO members -- to wonder what would happen if they needed support, should Vladimir Putin's successor decide that after the time of Russian giving, the time had come for Russia to take back.
People in Warsaw remember France's betrayal of Poland in 1939, its quick surrender to Germans in 1940 and the collaboration of the Vichy government with Hitler -- at a time when Poland, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were losing millions of citizens in the fight against the Nazis. As Polish commentator Stefan Bratkowski has put it, the experience of the 20th century taught Poles that its only true friends in Europe are Americans.
Rumsfeld's remarks about "old Europe" and "new Europe," so offensive to Paris and Berlin, may have been poorly timed and worded, but it is true that Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Lithuanians, Romanians and Bulgarians take a much more pro-American, hawkish stand on Iraq than the French, the Germans or the Belgians. And not just because they're the new kids on the block trying to get kudos from Washington and American largesse in return. Their support comes because they understand better than most of their Western European neighbors what repression and tyranny mean.
Thirty years ago, a Danish tax lawyer named Mogens Glistrup, head of the Progress Party, promised that when his party came to power, it would cut the nation's military expenditures to $500 a year. All Denmark needed, according to Glistrup, was an answering machine with a message in Russian saying, "We surrender." One can only hope that the noble anti-war movement of mostly well- intentioned people will not become such a party.
Polish writer and economist Andrzej Lubowski was a Senior Fulbright Scholar and a Knight Fellow at Stanford. He is now a banker in the Bay Area.