"What's New? How Is the World Treating You?"

In 1939 Johnny Burke (1908-1964) composed the music and Bob Haggard (1914-1998) wrote the lyrics for the hit song "What's New?" whose first line serves as the title of this blog.  To listen to Linda Ronstadt (born 1946) perform "What's New?" with Nelson Riddle (1921-1985) and his orchestra (Asylum, 1983), click here.  A new window will open, allowing the music to play in the background.

Check this web page for occasional posts containing news and commentary, mainly about events in Central Europe.  To read the article of your choice, either click on the title that appears in the table of contents or scroll down the page.
For news and commentary from the most recent past quarter, click here.  For earlier quarters in the year or previous years, see the Introduction and Index for "What's New?"

Table of Contents for the Fourth Quarter of 2018

America’s Illiberal Democracy    10 October 2018

Christopher Browning, the author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperCollins, 1992), is one of America’s preeminent historians on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  Before his retirement, his most recent position was at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his prior position was at Pacific Lutheran University.  In the 25 October 2018 issue of The New York Review of Books, Browning published “The Suffocation of American Democracy,” which ranks among the most well-reasoned comparisons between America today and Weimar Germany.

The picture Browning paints of the current state of American affairs is anything but flattering.  The Republican party, according to Browning, has eroded democracy through a variety of methods, including gerrymandering, voter suppression, dark money for campaigns, and court appointments.  Like the conservatives of Germany, they sought to bolster their own dwindling position in society by allying themselves with a demagogue they expect to control.  Browning likens Donald Trump’s attacks on the international order that kept America at peace since 1945 to Adolf Hitler’s efforts to destroy the post-Versailles Order.  Consistent with authoritarian figures, Trump praises dictators around the world and improves America’s relations with them.

Browning sees Mitch McConnell as having a significant role in this process and draws parallels between him and Weimar’s aged President Paul von Hindenburg.  “As with parliamentary gridlock in Weimar, congressional gridlock in the US has diminished respect for democratic norms, allowing McConnell to trample them even more.  Nowhere is this vicious circle clearer than in the obliteration of traditional precedents concerning judicial appointments.”

Browning finds other similarities with the past.  When those on the right in France criticized the Popular Front government, under the socialist Léon Blum, a Jew, their slogan became “Better Hitler than Blum.”  Browning then surmises the following:

Faced with the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the US election and collusion with members of his campaign, Trump and his supporters’ first line of defense has been twofold—there was “no collusion” and the claim of Russian meddling is a “hoax.” The second line of defense is again twofold: “collusion is not a crime” and the now-proven Russian meddling had no effect. I suspect that if the Mueller report finds that the Trump campaign’s “collusion” with Russians does indeed meet the legal definition of “criminal conspiracy” and that the enormous extent of Russian meddling makes the claim that it had no effect totally implausible, many Republicans will retreat, either implicitly or explicitly, to the third line of defense: “Better Putin than Hillary.” There seems to be nothing for which the demonization of Hillary Clinton does not serve as sufficient justification, and the notion that a Trump presidency indebted to Putin is far preferable to the nightmare of a Clinton victory will signal the final Republican reorientation to illiberalism at home and subservience to an authoritarian abroad. 

Given America’s turn to an illiberal democracy, Browning concludes that “Trump is not Hitler and Trumpism is not Nazism, but regardless of how the Trump presidency concludes, this is a story unlikely to have a happy ending.”

Bad Chemistry    4 October 2018

The Dutch government reported that it expelled four Russian GRU spies for having tried, in April of this year, to crack the WiFi of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague.  Shortly thereafter, British diplomats revealed that Russians tried to hack the British Foreign Office this past March.  It is no surprise that Russia has denied the charges.  See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-45746837; and https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-45744822.

Munich at 80    3 October 2018

On 30 September 1938, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain, and Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement that gave Nazi Germany territories of Czechoslovakia, known collectively as the Sudetenland, where the population was 50 percent or more German.  Munich was a British and French betrayal of democratic Czechoslovakia, in an effort to satisfy Hitler’s demands and prevent another world war, which Germany started, just the same, 11 months later.

Edvard Beneš (left), Czechoslovakia’s president, with Milan Hodža (right), the prime minister, on 31 December 1937, nine months before the Munich Agreement.  Photo by ČKT.

There is much speculation about whether Czechoslovakia should have fought, even without the backing of France and Britain.  The French told the Czechoslovak government that Paris would not honor its mutual defense commitment to Prague if the latter did not accept the Munich Agreement.  The Soviet Union, also an ally of Czechoslovakia, hinged its military support of Czechoslovakia on French action, in accordance with the 1935 treaty that Moscow and Prague had arranged.  The Soviets also claimed that Poland and Romania would not let the Red Army cross through their territory to protect Czechoslovakia.  Many Czechs and Slovaks argue that Edvard Beneš, the Czechoslovak president, should have decided to fight Germany alone because Britain and France would have been embarrassed and would have entered the fight.  Others believe that it would have been better for the Czechoslovak psyche had the country struggled against German aggression.

Beneš viewed such possibilities as risky and hopeless.  The Czechoslovak spy network made him well aware of German military capability, including the fact that Prague may have been subject to intense aerial bombardment, in the event of a German-Czechoslovak conflict.  Beneš declined to fight, capitulated, resigned the presidency, and left the country.  In March 1939, Germany invaded the western portion of Czechoslovakia, annexing it as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.  The Germans backed Slovaks independence and gave the Hungarians what remained of Ruthenia (Hungary already had received portions of Ruthenia and Slovakia, where there were large concentrations of Hungarians, in the November 1938 First Vienna Award, which Hitler had brokered).  On 11 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War.

Czechoslovakia’s decision not to fight in October 1938 supported the belief that the Czechs (not the Slovaks) were a nation of Švejks, a term originating from the unfinished novel The Fate of Good Soldier Švejk during the World War by Jaroslav Hašek.  Josef Švejk bungled his way through the First World War as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, and it is up to the reader to decide whether Švejk was merely dimwitted or intentionally lazy.  The decision of the Czechoslovak Communist party and government not to mount a large-scale resistance to the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion further fueled the Švekian interpretation of Czech character, which persisted until the Velvet Revolution of 1989 overthrew Communist-party rule.

Debates will continue to rage about whether Beneš made the right decision in 1938.  The British historian A. J. P. Taylor, in The Origins of the Second World War, recounted that, after the war, Beneš looked out from the Prague Castle and said, “Is it not beautiful?  The only central European city not destroyed.  And all my doing.”  Beneš recognized that Hitler’s appetite for territory would be his undoing.  His decision not to fight in 1938 perhaps spared Czech lives and prevented the destruction of Prague–historians never can know for certain–even though it was at the expense of national pride.

Beneš quotation is from A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1961), 185.  For a perspective on Munich from Yoav J. Tenembaum at Tel Aviv University, see https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170122.