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The Pseudo-Churchills: Why are Politicians Playing Fast-and-Loose With WW II?

Photo by THE LITTLE OLD CAMERA SHOP (THE LITTLE OLD CAMERA SHOP) | CC BY 2.0

What in the name of God prompts our pseudo-Churchills to play fast and loose with the Second World War? First of all, it was Theresa May saying that “not since” the Second World War had nerve agents been used in Europe. Then Boris Johnson did his poseur act against Russia under the wing of a replica Battle of Britain Spitfire – when he wasn’t poncing around next door in the wartime RAF underground operations room at Uxbridge.

Is this childish stuff really convincing the people of Britain? Or does it merely betray ignorance? Or is it merely making political use – all over again – of the epic tragedy of the 20th century?

Now Johnson is at it again, comparing the Russian World Cup this summer with Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. But the Berlin games excluded German Jewish and Roma competitors and was intended to smother – however briefly – the Nazis’ anti-Semitic and racist policies as a propaganda coup for Hitler’s dictatorship. The Russian World Cup will be exploited by the Kremlin, but has no anti-Jewish or any other racist restrictions on competitors.

When Johnson expressed concern for the safety of British fans, was he suggesting they might be victims of Hitler-style anti-Jewish violence? What nonsense. The 1936 Olympics were held almost exactly three years before the Nazi invasion of Poland. Is Johnson now suggesting that Russia is going to start World War Three in 2021?

The Russians have a lot of questions to answer about the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, his daughter Yulia and police sergeant Nick Bailey. But what on earth has that got to do with the Second World War? The truth cannot have had much to do with it.

Take nerve agents. In the 1930s, the Nazis discovered that agricultural pesticides could be used to make nerve agents. But they were never used in the Second World War – so much for the “not since” bit – because the Germans decided that the Allies probably had even more Sarin and Tabun compounds than they had. The Japanese carried out inhuman experiments on all kinds of gases at the Harbin experimental plant in occupied China – but the war criminals there were spirited away after the war to assist the Americans. Prisoners of both Japanese and Germans died during experiments.

Chemical agents – gas warfare, in fact – were used. Never in battle – but in the Nazis’ greatest crime against humanity, against the Jews of Europe, dispensed by the Nazis as Cyclon-B crystals at Auschwitz and other extermination camps. At a minimum, this gas slaughtered a million souls. Was this what Messrs May and Johnson were really talking about when they referred to “nerve agents” in the Second World War? And if so, why didn’t they say so? Or did a comparison between the poisoning of three innocent people in Salisbury not quite stand up to the Holocaust?

Of course Moscow should not be trying to assassinate an exiled Russian in Britain, allegedly on the personal instructions of Vladimir Putin. Yet in August 1940 – when the real Battle of Britain was already under way – the Russian government assassinated an exiled Russian in Mexico. His name was Trotsky and he was murdered by a NKVD agent called Ramón Mercader who stabbed him in the brain with an ice pick, on the personal instructions of one of Putin’s predecessors, Joseph Stalin. Moscow denied any involvement (déjà vu!) but later honoured Mercader after he spent 20 years in a Mexican jail. Yet within just two years of Trotsky’s murder, after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Churchill was accepting Stalin as a loyal ally in the struggle against Hitler.

True, Churchill loathed Trotsky – the feeling was mutual – but he was ready to do business with the Russian dictator because it was in Britain’s national interest, despite Stalin’s penchant for assassinating his former (and treacherous) colleagues. Quite by chance, I was the other day watching footage of the Soviet air battles against the Germans in the Second World War – and there, on a muddy Russian airstrip, were some of Boris Johnson’s favourite Spitfires, being painted over in Soviet colours with a red star on the tail – a gift from Britain.

 

 

The parallels are not, of course, exact, although the media have played along with the Second World War scenario. Reuters, for example, picked up the British line on the poison used in Salisbury, describing it as “the first known offensive use of such a nerve agent on European soil since World War Two”. But, as I ask above, is that actually true? Chemicals, yes. But nerve agents? If you think this is a bit finickity, just look at how the Hitler/Second World War analogies have played out.

We used to claim that Saddam was “the Hitler of the Tigris”, but this week Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, a hitherto unknown student of the 1939-45 war, is telling Americans that the territorial ambitions of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, can be compared to Hitler’s, warning that he did “not want to see the same events occurring in the Middle East”. So which of these two Muslim nations, one might ask, is currently blitzkrieging a neighbouring country?

But specious historical parallels have no end. By chance, I was passing through Turkey at the weekend where I learned that President Erdogan – on the 103rd anniversary of the Battle for Gallipoli, no less – was comparing this epic First World War engagement with Turkey’s current “fight against terror” in Afrin. The ANZAC troops in Suvla Bay might have been obscurely flattered had they known that they would one day be compared to the Kurdish YPG (or PKK, for that matter) but surely Erdogan couldn’t be serious when he compared his Turkish army invaders of northern Syria – not to mention their Syrian/Islamist allies who were busy looting shops and homes in Afrin – with the courage of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at Gallipoli.

Alas, Erdogan was very serious indeed. “The waves of terror against Turkey,” he said on the site of the Gallipoli battlefield at the weekend, were nothing other than efforts to revive the invasion of Allied forces in 1915. Both had tried to create “a territorial corridor along our border”.

By contrast, the Russians today have avoided all mention of their own World Wars – an infinitely greater sacrifice in the second than all the other allies put together – and have shrewdly marketed their response and RT’s propaganda around our own failure to ask obvious questions. Why are Russian exiles only murdered in the UK? Why wasn’t Moscow given access to the poison details from the start? Why no photographs of Sergei Skripal and Yulia in hospital (as there were of former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko when he was actually dying of poison in a British hospital in 2006)? Why were British scientists walking around in space-suit protection clothes in Salisbury within metres of totally unprotected UK citizens?

Good questions – for which there must be excellent replies. And anyone who thinks Moscow plays by a rule book can take a look at Ukraine, and then remember Finland in 1939. Or recall Trotsky’s assassination. But instead, we got the Second World War all over again. Pitiful. Puerile. Is this really the best May and Boris can do? Must we really be taken for children once more? Why not wrestle with the real danger to Britain itself – Brexit? Or did this wretched couple simply regard the outrage in Salisbury as just another way of dodging the real tragedy they are themselves inflicting on Britain, a development which many critics have described – yes – as the greatest danger to the UK since the Second World War?

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Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared. 

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