The razing of the Warsaw Ghetto: Are our leaders incapable of learning from history?

Oct 26, 2023
Israeli and Palestinian flags on a brick wall with blood splatters.

If we are looking for historical parallels to the current destruction in Palestine, then the razing of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis is unfortunately one that comes readily to mind. While we would all agree that this was appalling, inhuman and unfathomable, is blowing women and children to pieces in Gaza any less so?

The one thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. Not an especially original observation, perhaps, but one with depressingly renewed relevance at this historical juncture. Ironically, despite that the fact that we do study history—and piously commemorate the blood-soaked variety—we still seem doomed to repeat its most appalling catastrophes.

One might have thought it would have dawned on Russians and their leaders, for example, that wars are probably best avoided where possible, especially considering something like 27 million people died during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ of 1941-45. And yet despite the fact that the Soviet Union was then fighting for its very existence, this hasn’t stopped Vladimir Putin from suggesting that the current war against Ukraine has a similar logic and necessity.

Great powers are especially prone to starting wars of choice rather than necessity. No country does this more frequently than the United States. Part of the explanation for this, no doubt, is not because its leaders are exceptionally bellicose, but simply because they can. Having by far the most powerful military in the world allows the US to act in ways that other countries simply cannot, or not without risking an unwinnable, cataclysmic conflict, at least.

Paradoxically, for enthusiastic supporters of American grand strategy, like Australia, this helps to ensure global stability, keep the world safe for democracy, and much else—despite the fact that the US has repeatedly launched pointless and unnecessary wars, such as those in Iraq and Vietnam, to name only the most consequential.

No one thinks those conflicts were a good idea in retrospect. Many thought so at the time and said so. Then as now, however, it is impossible for those outside the security establishment to influence policy or the self-referential groupthink that determines matters of life and death at moments of supposed national crisis or threat.

In America’s case the nature of its relationship with key allies means that subordinate partners generally have little influence on American strategic thinking either. On the contrary, rather than injecting a much-needed note of caution, the United Kingdom under Tony Blair and Australia under John Howard urged American on to yet another self-induced and unnecessary catastrophe in Iraq.

We are currently being reminded that there is one noteworthy exception to this rule, however. The activities of the Israel lobby have had a profound impact on US foreign policy and, according to John Mearsheimer, a prominent ‘realist’ scholar, undermined America’s own national interest by poisoning relations with much of the Middle East. The baleful consequences of this relationship are becoming clearer by the day.

While it is easy to understand why Israelis, especially under the increasingly autocratic but unpopular leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, might want to exact retribution for the appalling attacks on its citizens, it is not clear that full-throated, unconditional support for Israel is in America’s best interest.

While the historical persecution of the Jewish people may have given them something of a blank cheque when it comes to defending their state, it is in America’s interest to urge restraint, not to provide them with the arms and authority to rain down indiscriminate vengeance on Palestinian civilians.

And yet White House security spokesperson John Kirby claimed that it was too soon for a ceasefire in Gaza, as there was still ‘work to do to go after Hamas leadership’. Given that this has principally involved levelling the crowded suburbs that make up what former British prime minister David Cameron surprisingly but accurately described as ‘a giant open prison’, it’s an astoundingly cold-blooded judgement, to say the least.

Indeed, if any people in the world ought to realise that the indiscriminate slaughter of innocents is never justifiable, it is the Jews. While we should acknowledge the unprecedented suffering they have endured, we also have a duty to ensure that it never occurs again if we can—no matter to whom it may be happening.

If we are looking for historical parallels and lessons, then the razing of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis is unfortunately one that comes readily to mind. While we would all agree that this was appalling, inhuman and unfathomable, is blowing women and children to pieces in Gaza any less so? Don’t we have an obligation to protest against the wilful annihilation of any people whose principal crime is being of a different religion?

The good news is that some countries can and do learn lessons, albeit at staggering cost. Germany and Japan, unsurprisingly perhaps, rejected the disastrous militarism that destroyed their people and economies during World War 2. The bad news is that now they are being cajoled into doing their share of ‘burden sharing’ and rearming. History suggests how that may play out, too.

I shall not repeat the clearly futile pleas for Australian policymakers to play a more imaginative, constructive, independent and humane role in international affairs. While historically-informed voices of reason may be sorely needed at times like this, they are not going to come from Canberra. 

Reflexively failing into line with the US and Israel is not going to do us or them any favours in the long run, however. The only question is how many people will have to die needlessly to make this point uncontroversial.

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