Honor and the Ukraine Crisis

Honor is an easily overlooked aspect of international relations among post-moderns. Although Thucydides told us that the three big motivators for war are fear, honor and self-interest, in recent decades the West has found little use for honor, while still grasping some of the importance of fear and self-interest. Indeed, to mention honor as a serious motivation for conflict, even war, is sure to generate mystified looks and perhaps snickers among the smart set that passes for our foreign policy-making elite of late.

This has not always been so, and until recently honor was indeed a serious motivation for war among European countries. One example was Poland in 1939. Remember that Hitler, like Putin now, did a commendable job of smash-and-grabbing regions and then whole countries under the guise of “restoring sovereignty” and “protecting ethnic kin.” First came the Rhineland, which Hitler reoccupied with the Wehrmacht in March 1936, getting little push-back because it was German territory anyway, and who in the West needed a fuss? The swallowing of Austria whole two years later, tactfully remembered as the Anschluss, didn’t get a rise out of London and Paris because, well, Hitler was an Austrian and the Austrians didn’t resist anyway (top generals who did want to fight back, hopelessly as a point of honor, were brushed off by scared politicos in Vienna), so what was to be done?

In the fall of 1938 this culminated in the Munich crisis, which has been mis-cited countless times in recent decades by jumpy neoconservatives, seeing Czechoslovakia give up its ethnically German territory, the so-called Sudetenland, in exchange for guarantees that, of course, this was all that Hitler wanted. To be fair to London and Paris, Prague was weak at the knees anyway, so buying off Berlin seemed reasonable, or at least the least-bad option on the table then. Except, of course, the following March the Wehrmacht took over the rest of Bohemia and Moravia, meeting no resistance, spelling the end of Czechoslovakia.

After that, it was clear to all that Poland was next, as it, too, had a German minority and Hitler was making noises about the mostly German Free City of Danzig, which the Versailles settlement had left awkwardly half-pregnant, belonging to neither Germany nor Poland. Having just seen the fate of Czechoslovakia, nobody in Warsaw took seriously Hitler’s assurances that a bit of land here and there was all that Germany wanted.

Besides, Poland was different. Having fought hard to reestablish their country in 1918, after having it disappeared from Europe’s map for almost 130 years thanks to rapacious neighbors, Poles were unwilling to give up their country again without a hard fight. Although there was little hope that Poland could defeat rearmed Germany, Warsaw did not shy away from the conflict that Hitler was forcing. Honor was enshrined in the national consciousness, often considered old-fashioned by Westerners, and was part of the national slogan emblazoned on all army colors: God, Honor, Fatherland (Bóg, Honor, Ojczyzna).

By the spring of 1939 it was clear that Hitler would keep pushing until he was stopped. London and Paris, finally frightened by Germany’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, gave Warsaw vague security guarantees in the event of war. When Hitler again pressured Warsaw about coughing up territory in exchange for “peace,” Poland’s foreign minister, Józef Beck, went to the floor of the Sejm, the parliament, on 5 May to give his country’s answer. This famous speech left no doubt where Poland stood. It concluded in a rousing fashion (which you can hear here in its native language):

Peace is a precious and a desirable thing. Our generation, bloodied in wars, certainly deserves peace. But peace, like almost all things of this world, has its price, a high but a measurable one. We in Poland do not know the concept of peace at any price. There is only one thing in the lives of men, nations and countries that is without price. That is honor.

Less than four months later, on 1 September, the Wehrmacht stormed across the border and commenced the annihilation of Poland. Although outnumbered and outgunned and harassed constantly from the air by the Luftwaffe, the Polish Army put up a tremendous fight and the situation did not truly become hopeless until 17 September, when Stalin joined the war as Hitler’s ally. The entry of the Soviet Army sealed Poland’s fate, and by the end of the month major resistance was crushed. Thus began Poland’s horrific ordeal of occupation that would last decades. Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939 but did nothing to actually help Poland. One-fifth of the country’s population was murdered during the Second World War, and Poland would not regain its freedom until the end of the Cold War, a half-century later.

Beck died in exile in 1944, a broken man. His stirring words made no difference to the military outcome in 1939. But those words would matter enormously in the decades after as an inspiration to the Polish men and women who battled against occupation and oppression, against hopeless odds, often at the cost of their own lives. Beck’s invocation of national honor would stir resistance not just in 1939, but for decades to come, and had something to do with Poland’s remarkable national fortitude, unparalleled in recent European history, in resisting and eventually overcoming oppression.

Looking at the sad scene in Kyiv today, where an interim government is in chaos, inspires little hope that the country can effectively resist Kremlin pressure and bullying. It’s easy to overdraw analogies between Putin and Hitler, but I am confident in stating that they share an inclination to get away with what the weakness of others allows them to.

A dearth of civic virtue and patriotism has been a regular theme in Ukraine’s history, as is so often the case in countries that have spent most of their history as the playthings of others. Poland demonstrated that it is possible to rebirth powerful patriotism, and an unshakable sense of national honor, even after more than a century of non-existence. Just as in 1939, we are hearing from Westerners eager to wish away the current conflict with incantations much like “Why die for Danzig?” Ukrainians should have no illusions. For the moment, they stand against rapacious Russia virtually alone. They have lost Crimea, and may soon lose much more of their country if they do not seriously prepare to resist Kremlin aggression.

How Ukraine responds to this aggression will determine not just the next weeks and months, but how much Ukrainians in decades to come think their country is worth saving and recreating in the aftermath of war and occupation. Honor matters more here than dry theories of international relations or theoretical appeals to human rights. There are some things worth dying for. If you don’t think your country’s existence is one of them, you probably won’t have a country for long, at least if you live next to Russia.




14 comments on “Honor and the Ukraine Crisis”
  1. markottawa says:

    At Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Insitute’s “3Ds Blog”:

    “Philippines, or, “Mourir pour la mer de Chine du Sud? 2ème partie””

    “Some Still Care About the Poor Bloody Afghans”

    Mark Collins

  2. mrmeangenes says:

    You are quite right about the disappearance of “honor” and “patriotism” . Even “responsibility” has been kicked into the corner : to be replaced by craven self-service.

  3. mrmeangenes says:

    Reblogged this on mrmeangenes and commented:
    A sad addendum.

  4. Dan says:

    So John, sincerely, what is the appropriate response to Ukraine? Rather than be dismissive, how about the broad-strokes of some actionable measures. Am I reading too much between the lines of your words when I summarize your position as we – the US (NATO) – should go kinetic on Russia and show Putin where the line is that he crossed was?

    Or is your position that we – the US (NATO, IMF) – should extend a HUGE loan to an already insolvent state whose largest export market (60%) is Russia? Ukraine would then remit the loan proceeds to said largest export market and creditor – Russia? Should we then loan even more funds to purchase weapons systems and hardware and then send in SF to organize the supposed “700,000 reservists” who haven’t signed-up? I think the actual number that have signed-up is closer to 40k, but who is to trust the MoD?

    You, sir, sound like the one “showing a lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.”

    On one hand you talk about: https://twitter.com/20committee/statuses/448486384949792768

    and then you come in with this: https://twitter.com/20committee/status/448542662015332352

    Clearly, there is no western edge in Ukraine beyond the capability to foment civil unrest. Civil unrest is the easy part as all governments preside over peoples that do not want to be subjected to their order. No doubt you know the escalation in Ukraine is not about Russian imperialism, it is about protecting existing Russian interests in the face of low-intensity warfare. Busting Tymoshenko out is exactly the stupid kind of idea these moronic women calling the shots would do. Should we reinforce the FEMEN and Pussy Riot special forces? This is embarrassingly-bad diplomacy.

    So what is your prescription? We get that you’d fight a strapping 5’5″ 61 year-old man with a judo-chop, but what should be done with respect to the actual bear? With your prescription it would be great if you could incorporate a loose timeline and some measurable actions that should be taken. As you are not one of the women in charge, you can approach this as any competent academic or consultant does.

    Dispense with your wisdom so us naive folks may become as enlightened as you.

    1. Terry Smytheson says:

      In your reply, you don’t ask questions. You preach rhetorically. Your position is already made, but you forget yourself. You do not represent the honest, truly compassionate and honourable of the ‘western’ world. You bring up only costs. There are many ways to determine costs. And there is only one life afforded to us all.

  5. Jacques Hennequet says:

    Thank you for this reminder and for all the useful thoughts you provide on this site, and on twitter.

    I suspect Self-Interest has long superseded Honor since Thucydides wrote. The modern version should probably read “Fear, Self-Interest and Greed”.

    As to the thirties, I have a great deal of sympathy for Poland but your article overlooks the less-than-stellar attitude of the Polish government when Czechoslovakia was on the chopping block. They and several other neighboring countries, behaved like jackals. This does not excuse what the Nazis did, but is – in my opinion – a stain on the Poles’ honor. Then again not many countries behaved with honor while crossing the “Dark Valley”.

  6. Douglas A. Perkins says:

    Great point. I go back to The Righteous Mind; Americans have allowed most of their moral muscles atrophy. That’s why we don’t understand Russia et al (and understanding doesn’t mean agreement).

  7. Schindler says:

    I recommend to read the novel “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass. A lively snapshot around WW2 breaking out at Danzig Westerplatte.

  8. tomislav says:

    Living next door to Russia is like living next door to Serbia, both are evil empires.

  9. markottawa says:

    More on honour and Afghans at end here:

    “…I believe the West has a bond of honour to maintain founded on our earlier actions and words. Canada sadly has essentially abandoned that bond. One does hope the US does not follow.”

    Mark Collins

  10. Alex says:

    Fear still here. Putin fears China. He definitely think that West’s close economic ties to China will leave him alone against China. And the only way to survive is to restore Soviet Empire’s power. I.e. he thinks that West will do their blah-blah-blah (as they do now when Crimea gone to Russia) when Syberia will be controlled by China.

    Obama – is the man who are out of reality. He thinks that laws are work everywhere. That’s not true – laws do work only if they’re enFORCEd.

  11. Kroll says:

    The example of Poland is the worst possible path for Ukraine to follow.
    Defending honour in a reckless way we have lost the best genetical
    material not to be rebuilt over many next generations. And what is our prize?
    The political class to be ashamed of and the switch of the ownership of the
    country from Soviets to EU.

    1. 20committee says:

      You are quoting A J P Taylor, really.

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