'Hi, Bush' to `Heil Boche'

Published : Oct 25, 2002 00:00 IST

"HISTORY," says T.S. Eliot, "has many cunning passages." What an irony that the Germany which destroyed the 20th century is poised to save the 21st. The people who voted the Third Reich have now voted "No" to the invasion of Iraq. For if Gerhard Schroeder has won a surprise second term it is entirely because his rival first raised Iraq and Schroeder chased him to say "No" to Bush. Europe now has its John Foster Dulles to stall another Suez in the West Asia.

The Bush Doctrine has elevated "regime change" as the foreign policy alternative to national sovereignty and collective security under the U.N. Charter. Saddam must go. Arafat must go. The US will decide who is a good `un and who a Bad Boy. And if they will not do as told, the entire population will be bombed to smithereens.

We have been here before. "Regime change" is what Hitler insisted on in ordering the Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to quit in favour of the Nazi quisling Artur Seyss-Inquart when the Chancellor committed the outrage, in Hitler's eyes, of ordering a plebiscite to ascertain whether the Austrian people wished to be absorbed into the German Reich.

"Regime change" is what Hitler then demanded in Prague. President Edouard Benes held out in the hope of his allies France, Britain and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) coming to his rescue. The Soviet Union was willing but France refused unless Britain obliged. Instead of mobilising, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew (twice) to Hitler's feet. Waving a piece of a paper, he landed back in London proclaiming "Peace for our time". Germany then marched into Czechoslovakia without a shot being fired (an example Bush would wish to emulate by threatening Saddam into submission). Hitler then personally supervised regime change in the Hradacny palace.

Next was Poland's turn. Hitler demanded that Colonel Josef Beck go and Berlin decide who will rule in Warsaw. Beck demurred. The Brits suddenly discovered their resolve. And the Second World War began. Some fifty million died in the cause of "regime change". That is why the German Minister of Justice bluntly compared the actions of Bush to those of Hitler. Bush is readying to do to Baghdad what Franco and his Nazi allies did to Guernica. Listen to Churchill College, Cambridge, historian Piers Brendon in his masterly panorama of the 1930s, The Dark Valley:

"Waves of aircraft flew abreast to carry out the first European exercise in carpet bombing." The first flight dropped six bombs containing a ton and a half of explosives in the center of Guernica. It "caused havoc among passengers waiting for the Bilbao train, gashed open the front of the Hotel Julian and left the station plaza strewn with smashed bodies and smoking debris. A cloud of dust mushroomed skywards and witnesses heard the `wild shrieking of a terrified people.' Every fifteen minutes the raiders returned. They pulverised the town, creating a miniature fire-storm in its ruins. They destroyed three-quarters of the buildings." Priests in the Santa Maria church tried to extinguish an incendiary bomb "with communion wine. Whether the inhabitants prayed or screamed, fled or cowered, they were purused by flights of fighters which, `like flashing dancing waves on shingle', machine-gunned them from as low as 200 feet."

The unbounded horror of it all was captured by Pablo Picasso on canvas.

What Bush is threatening Iraq with if Saddam does not go the Benes way is what Mussolini did to Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then called) when Emperor Haile Selassie refused to yield up his nation as an Italian colony. Here is historian Brendon again on the terrible consequences which followed from the technology of the Western war machine unleashed on a lesser breed:

"[The Ethiopians] swarmed like a feudal host, some with spears and swords, others with antique rifles and colourful bandoliers. They lacked almost everything a modern army needs. They had no supplies save what they and their camp followers could carry mainly bags of millets. They had no medical services apart from a few Red Cross volunteers in tents, which the Italians eventually bombed. They had no war-planes, hardly any artillery and little mechanised ground support. They had no proper communications and since their code was never changed the Italians could decipher the few wireless messages that were sent. The Ethopians had no coherent strategy and no fixed chain of command. All they had was a common purpose and boundless courage."

What followed might well follow in Iraq:

"though generally ill-led these warriors showed Spartan contempt for danger, throwing themselves bodily at machine guns, fighting tanks as though they were wild animals. `It was an incredible spectacle,' said Haile Selassie, `men in cotton shammas attacking these steel monsters with their bare hands'."

When tanks and machine guns failed, Italy resorted to poison gas and saturation bombing from the air. The poison gas left its victims looking as if "someone had tried to skin them, their sores caked with brown scabs, men and women alike, all horribly disfigured, and little children too." As for the attack from the air, Vittorio Mussolini, the son, like George Bush, of the man who started it all, had this to say of a bombing raid he personally led: "A little group of Ethiopian cavalry was blooming like a rose when my fragmentation bombs fell in their midst. It was great fun and you could hit them easily."

Will Saddam surrender without a fight like Benes in Czechoslovakia or fight to a terrible end like Beck in Poland? No one knows. But as at Munich, one concession is being used to extract another. Collective security is being torn up as comprehensively as when Hitler occupied the Rhineland and Mussolini marched into Abyssinia and Imperial Japan invaded Manchuria and Stalin entered the Nazi-Soviet pact. We are summoned to the bar of history.

The U.S. features agency which distributes world-wide a weekly column by me has baulked at carrying the piece that follows. After 225 years, American democracy, it seems, is still not resilient enough to take it on the chin. But I am in excellent company. For George Orwell, who finished his blistering attack on Communism under Stalin, Animal Farm, in 1943, could not find a British or American publisher because `Uncle Joe' was then their war-time ally. I am grateful to Frontline for agreeing to put itself, second only to Saddam Hussein, in the American line of fire. Incidentally, ``Boche'' is the French pejorative for German soldier, in use since the First World War. However, the resemblance between Bush and Boche is not merely onomatopoeic!

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