Reflections on Ukraine and What History Has Taught Us

What can I say about the war in Ukraine? And why should I say anything, when  I have little knowledge of the history of that part of the world, and even less understanding of geopolitics, and when so many with vastly more credentials and  experience seem utterly confounded by what has happened? And conversely, when so many others, with precious little familiarity with the situation, still feel emboldened to loudly proclaim their two cents worth. A quote by Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian physicist, comes to mind. “I don’t mind you thinking slowly. I do mind you publishing faster than you think.” Bearing that firmly in mind, here are a few thoughts… 

First of all, as we’ve been told, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a war; in Orwellian doublespeak it’s a “special military operation.” Right. A war by any other name would stink as foul. 

Second of all, who knows what will be when whatever-you-want-to-call-this is over? Will there be both war and peace? Almost certainly. Will there be a best of all, and a worst of all? Undoubtedly. 

I’ve seen this before, though with much younger eyes and with even less comprehension than the little I claim now. I was seven years old in Budapest when the Soviet Union ruthlessly crushed the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. While that event was not remotely the equivalent of what is happening now in Ukraine, it is still in some ways comparable.  

The Hungarian Revolution lasted a little less than three weeks. Several thousand  Hungarians died, over 200,000 fled the country, our family among them. It’s been a week since Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Already hundreds of Ukrainians have died, and nearly three quarters of a million have escaped from their native land. As in Hungary in 1956, today ordinary Ukrainian citizens are taking up arms to defend their homeland, despite the overwhelming odds against them. As then, more than six decades ago in Hungary, the Ukrainian people today are hoping the rest of the world will come to their aid. And, in the case of both of these wildly mismatched battles, much of the rest of the world has looked on in horror, in sympathy, and with admiration for the invaded people’s courage; in Ukraine’s corner the West has applied unprecedentedly severe sanctions, sent arms and supplies, and a number of businesses, arts and sports organizations have excluded Russians. All that has, so far, left the fighting and dying to Ukrainians. Will might once again crush right, as it has so often before. Or will right prevail, as it also often has before. 

Ever since the start of the war in Ukraine I’ve been thinking about the Spanish Civil War and of the International Brigades, the approximately 50,000 people from 52 countries around the world, including almost 3,000 from the US, who in the years 1936 to 1939, made their way to Spain and volunteered to fight alongside Spaniards who  were battling the fascism of Franco, and his allies, Hitler and Mussolini. (Ironically, in  that conflict the Soviet Union was on the side of the anti-fascists.) Fascism won that  brutal war—remember Guernica—at a cost of more than half a million lives, 200,000 of them in combat, with more than half of those dying on the anti-fascist side. The International Brigades lost 15,000 people on the battlefields.  

Historians now see the Spanish Civil War as Act One of the monumental tragedy that became WWII. It is likely a very small consolation, but possibly still a source of  great pride for the families of those killed in that first conflict—particularly of those in the International Brigades—to know that they were on the right side of history.

I am hoping against hope that the Ukrainian war does not become, the way the Spanish Civil War did, a prelude to something even worse, a much larger war that  drags in many more on each side—or even the unthinkable—a nuclear conflagration. I am also fervently hoping that the Ukrainian people, and for that matter, even the Russian soldiers, do not end up being sacrificed due to the grandiose delusions of yet another megalomaniac in the mold of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. We will have to wait and see what the judgment of history will be.

Sandor Slomovits is a  musician, writer, and woodworker/musical instrument maker, in Ann Arbor.