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Our own folly may yet lead us to a second dishonourable Yalta

13 March 2014

10:39 AM

13 March 2014

10:39 AM

‘He was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour.’

Those words are taken from Officers and Gentlemen, the second volume in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, his trilogy about the second world war. The words describe the disillusion of the protagonist, Guy Crouchback, as Britain sides with Soviet Russia to defeat Hitler: an alliance with an atheist tyranny to defeat an atheist tyranny, an alliance that led to the betrayal – perhaps necessary – of Eastern Europe at Yalta.

The words resonate as the Ukrainian crisis prompts a moral question of the peoples and governments of Western Europe: should we answer the call of those Ukrainians who want to join modern Europe? Daniel Finkelstein wrote a heartfelt article (£) on the subject yesterday. His headline was clear: ‘After Yalta, we can’t betray Ukraine yet again’, and his argument was rooted in personal history:

‘Yalta meant that my family could only ever see the end of the Second World War as a partial victory. The Polish people were enslaved by Stalin, and my father’s home with it… President Ostrowski, once Mayor of Lwow, [was] destined to live in London as the head of a government in exile.’

All of that is true and lamentable; but there is more. Lwow is emblematic of wider regional complexity. Lwow became Lviv when it was brought into the Soviet/Russian orbit; but for a long stretch of time it was Lemberg, under Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) suzerainty. One of Lemberg’s greatest sons (give or take a few miles) was the novelist Joseph Roth, author of The Radetsky March – a book that is both an elegy to and a satire on the dying Hapsburg empire. It takes its name from the march composed by Johann Strauss Senior to mark the victory of General Radetsky at the Battle of Novara in 1849. This emphatic Austrian victory and the grandiose composition were not met with universal joy across the Hapsburg Empire; the Poles and Ukrainians of Lemberg, for instance, wrote some doggerel to accompany Strauss’s march:

‘Radetzky’s lying in his bed
 With beloved wife Elizabeth,
 They lie so calmly
 Nose to nose
 And play with little rubber hose! 

‘Radetzky’s lying in his bed
 With beloved wife Elizabeth,
 They lie so calmly
 Ass to ass
 And whistle the Radetzky March!’


This smutty ditty has been cited as evidence that Ukrainian and Polish identity pre-existed the first world war – and it should be repeated to damn the claims of tyrants from Frederick the Great to Putin who have argued that Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland lack integrity and belong under their influence. The ethnic and cultural identities are as plain now as they ever have been. Yet that cuts both east and west. Rightly or wrongly, Russians went to Lemberg.

Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv is not a frontier town between two cultures; it is a kind of alchemy: the glorious result of historical accidents. It embodies the lesson of modern European history: that ethnicity, culture and politics are the servants of power. Lwow became Lviv, as Finkelstein concedes, because Roosevelt and Churchill were too weak or distracted to resist Stalin. Are we clear enough in our minds and strong enough in ourselves to avert a second Yalta? Finkelstein thinks so:

‘Unlike at Yalta, where, perhaps, the situation was beyond salvage, we now have to stand by those who want to join — rejoin, actually — modern Europe. The arguments aren’t complicated, Putin just wishes them to be seen like that.’

Alas, the situation is more complicated than Mr Finkelstein allows. Aside from the ethnic and cultural complexity, we need strength behind our simple arguments because righteousness alone is not sufficient. Cash and materiel are but two sources of power where we are deficient. In last week’s Spectator, our business columnist Martin Vander Weyer described the full scale of our inadequate energy infrastructure and the predicament in which this leaves us:

‘There would have been more market turmoil this week if it wasn’t for the fact that, after a mild winter, our continental neighbours are sitting on their biggest stockpiles of fuel since 2008. Most have invested heavily in gas storage capacity, equivalent in Germany to 100 days’ supply, in France to 15 weeks, in Austria to six months. But let us remind ourselves just how completely prescience, investment and ministerial action have failed to cohere in UK energy provision. Here we can hold just a fortnight’s gas (only Belgium has as little capacity as we do), and last September, for want of a subsidy deal, Centrica abandoned a project to re-use the depleted Baird gas field off the Norfolk coast which would have doubled that capacity. 

‘Meanwhile, in the face of green hysteria and rampant nimbyism, the likelihood of shale gas coming on stream from domestic UK sites any time soon is remote; and there’s barely a spade in the ground at Hinkley Point, where the sole new nuclear station so far signed for, at giant cost, won’t be keeping anybody’s lights on until at least 2023. Whatever happens next in the Ukraine crisis, we too depend on the mercy of Mr Putin.’

Martin might have added that, as described by Mark Mardell on the BBC this morning, European countries chose not to negotiate when the Americans recently offered their abundant gas reserves for export (India and Japan bought the order). Much has been made of the divergence between Europe and America; but there is no greater chasm than this: while we fret about keeping the lights on, Obama’s America is talking about using energy as a weapon in foreign policy.

The ‘Great Powers’ are meeting over the next couple of days and they aim to cajole Mr Putin. There are reports that Europe is poised to support the Americans’ proposed sanctions regime. Such a strategy may work, because, as Owen Matthews wrote in these pages some weeks ago, Putin’s oligarchy runs on a diet of material excess and money laundering. But, nevertheless, Putin is alarmingly close to the light switch. That we have allowed him to get there, while paying through the nose for the privilege, ought to be a source of national outrage. As Waugh wrote: ‘led blundering into dishonour’.


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