And the Band Plays On

Posted: Mar 17, 2014 8:27 PM

She noticed. Talking about Moscow's not very disguised invasion of Crimea, Hillary Clinton made the obvious comparison with Hitler's seizure of one piece of Europe after another in the 1930s:

"Now if this sounds familiar," she told a fundraising luncheon out in California, "it's what Hitler did back in the 1930s. Hitler kept saying, 'They're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people.' "

It was the same line Herr Hitler took whether he was talking about Germans in the Ruhr, in Rhineland, in Austria or the Sudetenland or Poland in turn. The parallel with Vlad the Annexer, and the justification he offers for his repeated aggression, first in Georgia and now in Crimea, is hard to deny. And to her credit, Hillary Clinton didn't.

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Having made the obvious comparison to Hitler's tactics, Ms. Clinton immediately denied she was doing any such thing: "I am not making a comparison, certainly."

My favorite part of that dubious assertion is the "certainly." It's a thing of beauty in statements like hers, a decorative fillip that adds a final touch of irony to its obvious falsity. A detail, maybe, but a crowning one. Or as a character in Gilbert and Sullivan explains when caught in a flat-out lie, it was "merely corroborative detail, intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative."

But for a moment, a sliver of light had penetrated Hillary Clinton's usual fogspeak. And for that let us be grateful.

. . It's an old dodge: In Hitler's time as in ours, aggression must be described as self-defense by the aggressor. For now as then, hypocrisy remains the tribute vice pays virtue.

Even when Der Fuehrer set off the Second World War by invading Poland -- with the active and premeditated collaboration of his fellow dictator Stalin, who was eager to share the spoils -- the Nazis took pains to first stage a phony invasion of German territory (the Gleiwitz Incident) by troops wearing Polish uniforms. Just as Comrade/Gospodin Putin had his troops remove the insignias from their uniforms and convoys as they moved into Crimea. The protocol in these matters is as well and long established as the villainy of men.

The costume change didn't fool anybody, but form -- and historical precedent -- must be observed. If and when the Russians invade more of Ukraine, it's a safe bet they'll claim Ukraine invaded Russia. It's all there in the Between the Wars script from the Thirties. All today's leaders have to do is dust it off. The cast and costumes may have changed, but the plot line hasn't.

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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.

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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.

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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.