It is essential reading to understand what is going on today — everywhere but especially in Eastern Europe (and Ukraine in late February 2022). Also essential to help one overcome the tendency to become a robotic mindless “anti American imperialist” who is quite happy to “virtue signal” their ideological purity and supposedly higher moral standards (from the comfort and safety of our First World ‘homelands’) by acceding to the sacrifice of any victim population (Ukrainians, Syrians, Palestinians, Libyans, Uyghurs…) that any tin pot dictator, autocrat or “power pentagon,” who promotes himself/itself as “socialist” and a stalwart fighting against “American imperialism,” wants to conquer, crush, displace and enslave economically (and even worse).
Certainly being against imperialism — American or otherwise — is to the good, but we Western safely anti-imperialists must absolutely never accept the sacrifice of another people’s right to safe national independence, in order to signal our anti-imperialist “moral purity.” NATO has expanded into Eastern Europe precisely because Eastern Europeans vividly remember how much their nations suffered under the Russians (for about a century most recently), and they want insurance policies against such catastrophes in the future, even if the insurance company selling those policies — NATO — is itself far from perfect, or “socialist” or “enlightened.”
The essential and fundamental point is to honor and protect the right of all people to safe lives within independent states of THEIR OWN choosing.
“The lands of today’s Ukraine were the center of both Stalinist and Nazi killing policies throughout the era of mass killings. Some 3.5 million people fell victim to Stalinist killing policies between 1933 and 1938, and then another 3.5 million to German killing policies between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat or as an indirect consequence of the war.” — [Timothy Snyder, ‘Bloodlands’, p404] — The 1939 population of the Ukraine was 32,425,000 [total morality over 11 years = 31%].
The biggest neo-nazi center in Eastern Europe today is actually Putin and his band of oligarchs, who want to recreate the Tsarist/Stalinist Russian Empire. Don’t let yourself become a useful idiot to them and others like them because you want to unintelligently and reflexively preen your “leftist” anti-capitalist, anti-imperialism-by-the-U.S., and anti-NATOism ideological purity for your own self-satisfaction. Camus said to identify with the victims, not the perpetrators, and that is the best guide to your allegiances with humanity.
27 February 2022
ON DELUSIONAL “LEFTISTS” (not the real ones like Louis Proyect):
“I really don’t understand ‘leftists’ who dance around the fact that Putin is a dangerous kleptocratic goon. Makes no sense to me. They act like what he’s doing isn’t equivalent to other imperialistic incursions.” — [my friend E.]
They are stuck in their self-regard as “anti-imperialists”, and feel “brave” because they oppose US war-making and imperialism (as am I: opposed not brave), and so reflexively “pro-Russian” (pro-Soviet) as a mental inertia from the glory days of the Russian Revolution (1917-1922, the euphoria of John Reed’s ‘Ten Days That Shook The World’ — a great book), and for the worst of them (the most pathetic) as a lingering unthinking indoctrination to Stalinism.
“To believe that great suffering must be associated with great progress is to accept a kind of hermetic masochism: the presence of pain is a sign of some immanent or emergent good. To advance this sort of reasoning oneself is hermetic sadism: if I caused pain, it was because there was a higher purpose, known to me. Because Stalin represented the politburo which represented the central committee which represented the party which represented the working class which represented history, he had a special claim to speak for what was historically necessary. Such a claim allowed him to absolve himself of all responsibility, and to place the blame for his failings upon others.” — [Snyder, ‘BLOODLANDS’, p401]
The “most pathetic” include the lunkheads who gained instantaneous engineering-physics PhD’s watching the flaming NYC Twin Towers collapse on TV (11 September 2001) and within milliseconds knew that G.W.Bush and Dick Cheney had tiptoed up and down staircases in the World Trade Center buildings the weekend before, planting cakes of C4 timed to go off (forget the planes) and let them go on to conquer the world. The “most pathetic” also include the equally turgid-minded pseudo leftists who, in the comfort of their own safe First World consumerist-internet lives, swell with righteous pride by thrilling to the rush of their inner Stalin, as above, in accepting the pain of remote anonymous “others” because there is a higher purpose known to them as vanguards of the working class, which represents history, so these cadres have a special claim (within their own minds) “to speak for what was historically necessary” and absolve themselves of all responsibility, placing the blame for the obvious failings of their delusions upon others.
In pointing all this out I am sincerely trying to be a good friend (like when calling a cab at 1 AM to prevent a buddy from driving home drunk from the bar you both favor). But, I am forthright about stating what I see as true, because otherwise I would not be a good friend. Since that independence is important to me, I accept becoming friendless, and being “unfriended.” Substance over superficiality, always.
I expect the EU and NATO Allies will do as much for Ukraine (regarding Russia) as their predecessors did for Poland in 1939-1945. I’m sure Putin thinks the same. Stalin starved Ukrainians to death (~3M) between 1932-1933. Hitler, between 1941-1944, shot (mainly) and gassed (also) Ukrainian Jews (mainly), many civilians (in reprisals, or just to clear territory, often herded onto buildings set on fire with escapees machine gunned, see the movie ‘Come and See’), antifascist partisans (shot on capture), and starved Soviet war prisoners to death, for a total of at least 1.6M (battle field deaths of soldiers not included).
So neither the German Nazis nor the Communist Russians are remembered too fondly as “liberators” (the Nazis in 1941, from the Russians/NKVD; the Red Army in 1943-1945, from the Nazi SS and Order Police and Ukrainian fascist partisans). Only for Jews were the Soviets better than the Nazi’s in the Ukraine, but still far from “good” (especially if they were suspected by the NKVD of being Polish intelligentsia or having any “political” past; and some of those Ukrainian Jews of 1945+ had somehow survived both the Holodomor as well as the Holocaust-by-bullets, but there weren’t too many Jews left in Ukraine).
Since German Fascism and militarism seem to have been stamped out long ago, and Stalin/USSR ruled Ukraine from !945 to 1991, and few Ukrainian Jews remained after 1945, I suspect most Ukrainians (Orthodox Christians) “remember” their last century of history with a jaundiced eye to the USSR and now Putin’s Russia, and the most extreme of such attitudes is held by the “Ukrainian Nazis” (a legacy of the antisemitic Ukrainian collaborationists with Nazis 1941-1945), but I can’t imagine theirs is a majority bias in today’s Ukraine, who I’m guessing would have liked to be part of NATO as “insurance” against Russia, but would be happy to settle into a stance like that of Finland or Switzerland: independent and yet “safe”.
At the moment I am in the last pages of Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book, ‘Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin’. The history of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine between 1932 and 1945 form a very large part of this book. It was in these three countries that the overlap in mass killings by the Nazis and Stalin was most intense and massive and prolonged; between 1939 and 1941 it was cooperative (Molotov-Ribbentrop Poland), from 1941 to 1945 it was antagonistic in separate zones of control that shifted back and forth (1941-1943 Nazi advance from MB Line in Poland to Stalingrad, 1943-1945 Red Army and NKVD advance from Stalingrad-Moscow line to Berlin).
Prior to 1939, the Soviets had perpetrated the Holodomor starvation (forced collectivization of agriculture, 1932-1933) that was mostly focused in the Ukraine, and then the Great Terror purges of 1937-1938 in the USSR, which also had many Ukrainian victims.
The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) were also in the center of these “bloodlands” (like Poland, Belarus and Ukraine), and suffered relatively equally, but total numbers of victims for them were smaller because they had smaller populations.
People in those countries today are quite aware of this history, and it is not difficult to understand their politics and foreign relations as regards the West (Poland’s allies: England, France, and later the U.S., did NOT send troops into Poland and the “bloodlands” during 1939-1945), and NATO (whose nations have pledged NOT to send troops into the Ukraine), and as regards Russia. The Melian Debate (in Thucydides) remains our template of international relations and “solidarity.”
Putin, as a child of the USSR who was well placed to cash in when the game changed in 1991 (and making money and becoming a capitalist oligarch was the rage, which it still is for some), has nevertheless retained the 1930s Stalinist memory of fear of encirclement and invasion; in the 1930s by Germany, Poland and Japan, now updated by Putin to NATO and the U.S. In both cases a fear of the Soviet/Russian sphere of influence and state and economic system collapsing.
The modern “Russian” fear of encirclement and invasion has some validity in that the US-led NATO along with the EU have been moving “in” and absorbing former EAST BLOC states, which “Russia” had sought control of since the 1930s (and had from 1945 to 1989-1991) and those former satellites, borderlands, and buffer zone states have little reason to retain warm memories of the years “behind the Iron Curtain,” so might not be entirely benign neighbors so close to Moscow, as NATO states; the “buffer” would be entirely gone.
I wrote the ’The Power Pentagon’ on 22 February 2022, before the shooting stated in Ukraine itself (beyond Donbas), and I still think the analysis of Putin’s motives is accurate and useful. But, I was also aiming at other global concerns.
The Power Pentagon
Yesterday (21 February 2022), Vladimir Putin, the Russian Premier, recognized the separatist Donbas regions of Ukraine as independent states, and ordered Russian troops into them to forestall a Ukrainian invasion to reassert its sovereignty there.
Why? Putin’s action is a defensive threat display to resist the steady encroachment by the US-dominated NATO political alliance into, and diminution of, Russia’s western sphere of influence in the external borderlands and historically sought-after buffer zones against German invasions (and now “German” equates to Western European and Anglo-American); and it is a reaction driven by the fear of ultimate inaccessibility to the Baltic Sea for Russian naval forces, in the north, and the Azov Sea and Black Sea (and from there to the Mediterranean and the Levant) in the south.
The Donbas is comprised of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine and is the very easternmost tip of that country, lying just above the Azov Sea, which sea is to the northeast of the Crimean Peninsula that juts south into the Black Sea. The Donbas has a rich coal basin that has supported the development of heavy industry such as coal mining and metallurgy since the 19th century (the word Donbas is a portmanteau formed from Donets Basin, an abbreviation of Donets Coal Basin).
Crimea was taken from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 and annexed to the Russian Empire, later being attached to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the existence of the U.S.S.R (1917-1991), and continuing as a region of independent Ukraine from 1991 to 2014, until Russia occupied and then annexed Crimea during the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014.
Both the Donbas and Crimea have large ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations, and those people favor annexation with the Russian state. Donbas has 57% ethnic Ukrainian and 38% ethnic Russian people, but with ~72% of them identifying as Russian-speaking. The proportion of native Russian-speakers is higher than ethnic Russians in Donbas because some ethnic Ukrainians and other nationalities also indicate Russian as their mother tongue. Crimea had 77% Russian native speakers according to a 2001 Ukrainian census, and 84% Russian native speakers according to a 2014 Russian census.
The Donbas and Crimea were major targets of sought-for permanent conquest by Hitler’s invasion of Russia (launched on 22 June 1941) precisely for their fossil fuel mineral wealth and heavy industrial infrastructure, and their maritime avenues of accessibility southwest to the Mediterranean and the Levant, and land avenues of accessibility east and southeast to the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf.
What I see in Putin’s action of 21 February is another example of the geo-politics (or imperialism) that I call the Power Pentagon. A Power Pentagon is the following closed cycle of ego-driven ambition for personal power:
fossil fuel —> economic power —> military power —> political power —> war power —> fossil fuel.
The continuing existence of Power Pentagons as the foundation of our international relations is the reason that we are not making, nor will make, the socio-economic alterations to our civilization needed to effectively slow the advance of Global Warming Climate Change (GWCC), and to arrive at a stable balance between the workings of our industrialized civilization with the cycles of Nature.
Fossil fuels enable combustion-based energy-intensive industrialization that creates economic power (“prosperity,” convenience, things, “wealth”) that in turn can build up military technology and military forces, whose threat potential creates political power and thus foreign political influence, which in its sharpest form is formidable war-making capability that can be used to acquire more energy resources for its own cyclic enlargement as well as to deny access to fossil fuel and mineral resources to rival Power Pentagons, which are thus diminished and dominated.
This is the story of the rise and fall of empires old and new, and of the inflation and bursting collapse of the egos of potentates and ruling classes.
Because GWCC is a planetary complex of geo-physical phenomena it will require a globally cooperative, integrated and permanently sustained response from humanity, if it is actually to be slowed and eventually stabilized. The obvious image for this desired future state of human affairs would be World Eco-Socialism: a world socialism powered with “green” energy (infrastructure not emitting greenhouse gases, toxic wastes, and pollutants), and with both poverty and extreme wealth made history.
For any such green utopian reformulation of human civilization to occur, it will be necessary for us humans to remove the limitations we place on our own species’s societal development by remaining mired in the fractious international politics of the clashes of Power Pentagons — “the Great Game” — which has been the case since long before the days of Lawrence of Arabia.
I have no idea how the grand consensus needed for joining together globally to make that civilizational advancement can be achieved contemporaneously in the minds of “all” people worldwide. But without it I see no effective action being taken in response to GWCC, and hence a steady decay of planetary habitability and environmental purity, of international political stability, and of personal quality of life.
A first tiny step in the direction of that grand consensus would be not seeing yourself as a partisan for “our good” Power Pentagon at war with “their bad” ones, however you define “us” and “them.” All these cycles of ambition for personal power and for exclusionary economic domination are bad because they are exploitative political machinations that multiply and destructively divide human society while unavoidably merging into that one vast thermodynamic catastrophe we call Global Warming Climate Change.
It is easy to see the problem as I have stated it here to be so infinitely multi-faceted with human concerns and conflicts and obduracy, that it is insurmountable and our human species is “doomed.” But that is no excuse for stopping any of the myriad of individual efforts people are making for improving human society. Calling things by their proper names — our tiny first step — may lead to some justifiable pessimism, but more importantly it anchors the mind in realistic critical thinking, which is essential for any worthwhile human endeavor to proceed with the best chance of success.
Today it is the Donbas, perhaps next time it will be the South China Sea, or back again to the Middle East, or regions of Africa or South America, but in any case all our conflicts are rooted in our contentious joint tenancy of this single beautiful planet. We have to overcome always forgetting about the long-term essential that unites us, by continuously being distracted by the serial immediate that divides us. Willful unforced unity as our best selves, however impossible and ridiculously utopian that idea may seem, is the world paradigm we need to ensure our enduring and fulfilling survival.
Peter Byrne’s review of a new collection of newly translated stories by Tadeusz Borowski (1922-1951) is presented below. The book reviewed is ‘Here in Our Auschwitz, and Other Stories’, translated from Polish to English by Madeline G. Levine, given a historical context in an extensive Forward written by Timothy Snyder, and is published by Yale University Press.
This Way to Death by PETER BYRNE
‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’ is a story by Tadeusz Borowski of 60 pages. It’s published followed by 80 pages that deal in long or short form with the same subject, life in concentration camps, but from a different angle. At the very last are several short pieces written from a post-war viewpoint. One of these is ‘The January Offensive’. Borowski thinks he is through with the camps and is working out what his position will be now. He and Polish friends discuss an anecdote of a tenacious Russian woman soldier who gives birth on the way to liberating Berlin.
“Then, after we had several glasses of Polish vodka to toast the Russian girl, we all agreed that the story was obviously made up”.
‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen’, is also made up, but with more art. That’s why it’s so enlightening, giving us a new perspective on the concentration camps of WWII. We already have a library of testimony on the camps, some of it unforgettable. But Tadek, Borowski’s double in his story, isn’t a witness, he’s a participant. For him, the camps aren’t merely a prison. They are a whole functioning society of which he’s a hyper-active member. We see how things work in the only world Tadek has had a chance to know. Power rules, of course, as in what we think of as our world. The lines are more direct, with less clutter between life and death. Arbitrary demonstrations of power and riffs of sadism are taken for granted whereas we in our space close our eyes to them. To hold on to your own life at all costs is the goal even if, as in ‘The Supper’, it means eating the brains spilled on the pavement after an execution by bullets to the head.
That particular glimpse of horror, we feel, is made-up but, all the same, distilled from what Borowski has known. By making his experience a story, fiction, he sketches camp life’s mechanisms for us. People interact. They differ amongst themselves even though consumed by the same overriding drive for survival.
“It meant staying alive. In a concentration camp, true, but alive.”
They are never simply examples of King Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal”. Tadek’s society is full of hierarchy and exceptions to hierarchy. Some people are cunning, some stupid, he himself, on one level, is, as it were, ‘a self-made man’ in the making.
The master storyteller, Borowski, knew better than to have Tadek wear his ideals on his sleeve. Indeed, at times we wonder where they have gone. We sense hints of them in a sarcastic aside or in his bruised silence in the face of brutality.
Tadek is asked, “And you, would you do good if you were able to?”
To his relief, it’s a rhetorical question. Balance is impossible. In the competition to survive how far can he go in helping others without spoiling his own chances? Given conditions, he can hardly take a step. The camps, among much else, are a machine to create remorse. Tadek, like a sparkling youth in a picaresque novel, skips and dances above camp life. Borowski’s poetry is instructive here. It wants to take wing, yearns for the far horizon and the measureless sky, talks of a love lived in the camps but ignoring them like insignificant flaws in the landscape. Borowski is straining all the time to keep Tadek up high, out of the blood and muck, fixed on his goal. And all the time, Tadek is adding to his unspoken remorse.
“I have kept my spirit […]”, writes Borowski to his lover while still at Auschwitz. But he was speaking for his character Tadek. No one should be surprised that Borowski, the creator of Tadek, killed himself in 1951, settling his survivor’s debt.
What did his mockery cost him in spirit to describe the camps as summer resorts? To tell us of Tadek’s game as goalkeeper when behind his back a file of arrivals trudged to the crematoria? Borowski’s story has moments of farce. Did he laugh or weep at the two bumpkins who couldn’t march in step? Someone had tied staves to their ankles to mark right from left. A dyspeptic S.S. guard sees them stumbling about. It offends his sense of decorum and he has them removed from his sight and from life. ‘This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman’ is a sacred text suitably downgraded from the spiritual heights to suit humanity as it has proven itself to be.
Borowski’s personal experiences in German-occupied Warsaw during 1939-1942, in Auschwitz and other German concentration camps in Poland during 1942-1945, and in an American-run Displaced Persons camp near Munich in 1945, inspired his haunting, terrifying and illuminating stories, but could only capture into human memory a small part of the massive regime of evil that existed in “the bloodlands” between Berlin and Moscow, where Hitler and Stalin between them saw to the intentional murder (by shooting, gas, starvation, and worked to death) of 14 million people — all civilians or war prisoners — during the years of 1933 to 1945 (combat fatalities are a different category, but also of large numbers). The scholarly grand perspective on that regime of evil is historian Timothy Snyder’s book: ‘Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,’ (2010), published by Basic Books.
My own reflections on the Borowski book that Peter Byrne reviewed, above, are given as
Tadeusz Borowski was a student of literature and a dedicated poet who was driven to prose in order to process his concentration camp experiences, and express them as literature between 1946 and 1951. While in the camps he wrote love poems to his also incarcerated fiancee. A number of Borowski’s poems, translated to English, are posted at