Working Through World War II

East Berlin border guards stand atop the Berlin Wall. Brandenburg Gate, 11 November, 1989.

At first glance, the Germans clambering over the Berlin Wall were a welcome sight. Finally, the DDR had imploded, and the countdown to reunification had begun.  But, the Cold War wasn’t over just yet, and my distrust of the coverage made me wonder about the darkness that might yet follow the protestors West.

This was television news in 1989, after all. Like most US media at the time, it obsessed with communism, to the near exclusion of anything else. For typically media sensitive leftwing college students like myself, it was almost as fun watching to note what it left out as what it covered.

Still, this was an undeniable step towards democracy for the Germans. Not just in the East, but also in the Federal Republic. The entire country had spent the last four decades divided by the legacy of fascism, physically and ideologically. Now, Germans could move forward together for the first time since the 1930s, when the Nazis assumed power and laid the foundations of the world now crumbling on my TV.

But it wasn’t the remnants of Hitler’s world that preoccupied me so much, as that of the legacy of the Russians, who had assumed control of much of his former empire in 1945 and repurposed it to their own ends. For four decades, the USSR had served, at least as far as the Jewish people were concerned, as the Nazis’ stand-in, with their rebranded concentration camps (AKA gulags) and their Stalinist anti-Semitism.

Whether it was the persecution of Jewish dissidents in the USSR, or the Soviet Union’s backing of Arab states in their conflict with Israel, by the early 1970s, Russia had come to replace the Third Reich as the primary impediment to Jewish freedom, or so it seemed.

What was Soviets’ problem? Unfortunately, their professed anti-colonialism was of little use in explaining Moscow’s seeming animus towards all things Jewish, as the USSR had become an imperial power itself, through the Warsaw Pact and its tiring conflict with the Americans.

But why couldn’t Zionism be an acceptable phase of nationalism? It could be overcome, eventually and be tolerated as an interim phenomenon.  Besides, weren’t Jews amongst the most influential critics of capitalism? Karl Marx, after all, was Jewish, and so were most of the prominent 20th Century leftist intellectuals who followed him.

Israeli or not, the pressure the Soviet Union exerted on Western Jewry created a sense of political continuity between communism and fascism. You didn’t have to be on the right to recognise that. Unfortunately, the twin effects of fostering political conservatism in the American Jewish community, and in Israel, as an instrument of Washington, are undeniable. 

It wasn’t until the Russian military’s arrival in Syria, in September 2015, to prop up the government of Bashar al-Assad, that I recognised what it was that I hoped would ideologically follow the collapse of the Berlin Wall three decades before.

What my young mind could not put a finger on in 1989 was the antagonism between Jews and Russia. I couldn’t help but intuit an opening to ending the anti-Semitism I had been raised to associate with communism, as well as that of the Nazis. This would be the ideal conclusion of the period beginning with the Holocaust, not Hitler’s defeat in 1945.

Certainly, the warmth shown to Jews by Vladimir Putin over the last decade helped affirm that I was not wrong to hope for such. Never before had a Russian leader gone out of his way to make them feel more at home in Russia, and part of its national fabric, and, never before had one been so keenly embraced by Jews, either. At least by Israel’s current rightwing political leadership.

Yet, as Putin is wont to prove, there was always something untrustworthy about such assumptions, as his paranoid statement to a US TV network in March, blaming Jews for meddling in the 2016 US election, reminds us. A nationalist, his racist words were unsurprising, particularly in the context of the populist parties Russia had aligned itself with in the West.

Nonetheless, Putin’s outburst still came as a surprise to many in the Jewish community, who have always regarded Russia’s president as an exception to the reactionary rule. Repeatedly praised by Benjamin Netanyahu as though he were an ally, particularly in reference to Russia’s alleged cooperation with Israel in Syria, the reality of the situation has always conflicted with Bibi’s self-serving take.

Unsurprisingly Russia not only turned the war in Syria around for Assad, with its ground troops and air power but, most importantly,  by making possible heightened Iranian military involvement in the country, together with Israel’s other arch-enemy, Hezbollah. Judging by the number of strategic installations Israel claims to have hit alone, the amount of heavy weaponry the parties have positioned in Syria is huge. And, as most analysts will point out, also made in Russia.

Not exactly a testimony to Bibi’s pull with Putin. But this is why Israel finds itself repeatedly attacking Iranian and Shiite military targets throughout the country on near weekly basis. When Israel strikes any target in Syria, it is also striking Russia, albeit through its proxies.

It would be easy to explain away Russian-Israeli tensions as symptomatic of Israel’s parallel role as a proxy for American power in the Middle East. As long as Israel plays that part, it will always find itself in the sites of weaponry supplied to its regional adversaries by Moscow.

However, to focus on that, without taking into account what Israeli-Russian violence historically means, however abstracted in local conflicts, nearly thirty years after the end of the Cold War, not to mention seventy-three years after the end of the Second World War, would be to miss the point.

Whatever part of WWII the collapse of communism actually ended never had any impact on Europe’s conflict with its Jewish population. The only difference is that it got displaced abroad, to the Middle East, where the antagonism has only grown worse since 1989.

As easy as it would be to turn the Iranians into the latest incarnation of the Nazis, (or the Palestinians before them) the close proximity of the Russians will forever be a dead giveaway. Here’s hoping that when the next separation wall comes down, all the conflicts that informed its construction truly die alongside it.

Photograph courtesy of Carlos GQ. Published under a Creative Commons license.