This week marks the 70th anniversary of the capitulation of Nazi Germany. Such a historical date provides an opportunity to ponder the past and to contemplate the future. “Long live the cause of freedom! God save the King!” proclaimed Winston Churchill, the ultimate hero of the war, on the 7th of May 1945. Back in January 1942, Churchill declared in front of the US Congress: “If we had kept together after the last war, if we had taken common measures for our safety, this renewal of the curse would never have fallen upon us. Do we not owe it to ourselves, to our children, to all of mankind, to make sure that these catastrophes do not engulf us for a third time?”
Seventy years later, can we confidently say that the renewal of the curse will never fall upon us? The victors of 1945 are nearly as divided today as they were after the surrender of their common foe. The leaders of America, Britain and France will pointedly be absent from Russia’s victory celebrations on May 9. Russia and the West are at odds over Ukraine and Iran, and Russia’s celebrations will turn into a show of might and defiance. Britain has become a marginal international player, France is struggling with economic paralysis, and America is wary of military confrontation.
Critics of the emerging agreement over Iran’s nuclear program often compare it to the 1938 Munich accords. The 1925 Locarno Treaties are probably more accurate an analogy. In those treaties, Britain and France agreed to “reintegrate” Germany into the international community in exchange for a German commitment to stop challenging the borders imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In truth, however, Germany was only asked to recognize its western borders but not its eastern ones. As Polish diplomat Józef Beck declared at the time: “Germany was officially asked to attack the east, in return for peace in the west.”
Germany’s then-foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, brilliantly fooled the West. On the one hand, he claimed that a weak Germany would expose Western Europe to the dangers of Soviet bolshevism. On the other hand, he initiated a policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Were Britain and France not aware of Stresemann’s deviousness? They were, and yet they decided not to confront Germany. The ultimate reason for this self-imposed restraint was provided by French foreign minister Aristide Briand: “My foreign policy is dictated by our birthrates,” he famously said. In other words, France felt too weak to confront Germany. Yet France had no illusions about the Locarno Treaties; indeed, it started planning the Maginot Line shortly after their signature.
Ultimately, the Second World War erupted because Western democracies did not have the will to confront Germany even as they had the power to do so. The Jewish people became one of the main victims of this unfolding tragedy. Winston Churchill had much sympathy and admiration for the Jews, and the war against Hitler would never have been won without him. But he lost the 1945 election at the height of his glory. The new Labor government of Clement Attlee did all it could to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, even as the horrors of the Holocaust were being revealed and as Jewish survivors were trying to reach the Promised Land.
Today, Jews are no longer at the mercy of world powers, but Israel’s fate is influenced by international politics, as it always will be. There is still a price to be paid for the cowardice and blindness of others, but sovereignty and power make that price affordable.