It would all be comic if it weren't happening in real life -- and real deaths. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin made his comedy, "The Great Dictator," about a not so fictional fuehrer, Adenoid Hynkel of Tomania, and the little barber who runs afoul of his New Order. It was good, slapstick fun. Till it proved all too real in light of the horrors Hitler unleashed, and Chaplin regretted ever making the movie. Because some things just aren't funny. And this real-life version of "Springtime for Hitler" was one of them. There is just something about not so naked aggression that doesn't lend itself to comedy.
Even the unsophisticated, maybe only the unsophisticated, can see through all the diplomatic doubletalk and oh-so-subtle analyses of the Crimean Crisis now in the news. What we have here is just another barbarian acting out while the over-civilized make excuses for him and deliver urbane tours d'horizon for the enlightenment of us laymen.
At such times, a vision of my Bubba Rosa -- my grandmother Rose in her kerchief, long dress, and full array of medieval superstitions -- comes back to me. As she still occasionally does in my dreams.
Bubba Rosa came from the back of the back of beyond -- somewhere on the edge of the Pripet Marshes in the vast hinterland vaguely between Russia and Poland as the movable border between them moved with every war and revolution. She was brought to Paris by a couple of her daughters when she was widowed, and then to America by another, my mother. She got here just in time to escape the Holocaust, arriving on these shores August 31, 1939, the day before the Second World Calamity broke out.
Bubba Rosa looked after me while my folks worked at the store, and once I heard her dismiss the French as barbarians. Which greatly amused me, for even as a little boy I knew Paris was the world capital of fashion and sophistication -- everything my illiterate Bubba wasn't. The basis of her judgment was summed up in the Yiddish phrase she used --Zey essen affen gasse. They eat in the street. Maybe even without saying grace. Shocking. She must have been referring to the picturesque sidewalk cafes of Paris in the Twenties, or maybe French boys bicycling through the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter chewing on a delicious, just baked baguette. Pretty funny, my peasant grandmother's idea of what was barbarism.
And then one Sunday afternoon, some fool must have let slip what was happening to Europe's Jews. I heard an unearthly sound from the back of the house, Bubba Rosa's bedroom. It was a brief but eternal scream, and it is still with me as an old man. As I came to understand the full dimensions of what she must have been told that day, and the fate of her two French daughters and their families, my aunts and cousins, I also came to understand who are the barbarians and who the civilized in this untidy world, who the cultivated diplomats who make excuses for violence and who the simple people who suffer it.
Now, once again, as Between the Wars, the crises come and go, and the world is assured that each will blow over -- till one doesn't.
In the meantime, the party goes on. Along with the international conferences and joint communiqués. Cossacks in uniforms marked and unmarked appear again, capes swirl, tensions are heightened and then eased as in any other costume drama, and the band plays on. There are times when you have to wonder who's orchestrating this production -- Franz Lehar or Vladimir Putin.
If this show were a musical, the score might be Ravel's "La Valse," written as the First World Bloodbath was ebbing. The composition begins like any other Viennese waltz and pastry, and then, as the tempo grows ever more mad, it descends into a wild danse macabre. Like so much of modern history.
The saddest/funniest part of this road show in Crimea may be all those oh-so-serious discussions on NPR, in the New York Times and Foreign Affairs and any number of other terribly serious fora, about the mind and character of one V. Putin. What's his diplomatic strategy, his inner motivation, his complex calculus of political and military calculations. ... But what's to discuss? He's less a reckless ideologue plunging into war than a classic Great Russian imperialist out to restore the old empire, but more than either of those, he's just a common thug, like any other old KGB man. If you ask what he'll take next, the answer is simple: Whatcha got?
The show must go on. For the roles have all been assigned, the usual rigged plebiscite arranged, and the actors recite their all too familiar lines as this farce proceeds on schedule. The aggressors act like aggressors, the appeasers like appeasers, and the rest of us are expected to dance on, oblivious to just when comedy no longer is.