The eyes of the world are locked on Ukraine, as the second week of Russia’s invasion gives way to the third.
There’s nothing quite like the prospect of global war to prompt new reflections on the nature of our connections to other parts of the world and other moments in time. Comparisons – credible ones – between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler have competed in the headlines with feverish analysis of international reactions from Brussels to Istanbul and Beijing.
The courageous resistance of Ukraine’s leaders and citizens has earned the country overwhelming international support, whether at the United Nations, in the media, or on city streets as far removed from Lviv as Tokyo and Buenos Aires.
Syrians, in particular, have expressed strong sympathy and solidarity with Ukrainians, participating actively in anti-war demonstrations across the globe in recent weeks. Several of the journalists reporting from the frontlines near Kyiv are veteran Syria correspondents with deep ties to West Asia. Perhaps more than anyone, they know who and what they are dealing with – and they are bracing for the worst.
“Putin was able to try out his weapons and warfare technology in Syria,” Bente Scheller of the Heinrich Böll Foundation told Die Welte. He, like many other activists and analysts, argue that it was the failure of the international community to intervene in the decade-long Syrian war that emboldened Putin to attempt to seize territories closer to home.
From the lack of response to Russia’s aerial bombardment of Syria starting in 2015 against groups opposed to the country’s government, Scheller says, Putin “was able to draw the lesson [that] he has nothing to fear from the West”.
Yet, coverage from most major news outlets has tended to ignore the ways in which the Ukrainian and Syrian conflicts are interconnected. Instead, we have heard journalists expound on the “unnaturalness” of white Europeans being forced into a mode of suffering that many reflexively associate with Arabs and Muslims – as if war and displacement were the birthright of Afghanis or Iraqis, rather than foreign importations visited upon them. As if Russian planes “belonged” over Syrian skies, though not over Kyiv or Mariupol.
From Mosul to Gernika
This is far from the first time the West has failed to make the connection between violent conflict abroad and security at home. During the 1920s and ’30s, Britain, France, Italy and Spain all became reliant on aerial bombardment as a means of containing anti-colonial revolts in places like Iraq, Syria, Morocco, and Afghanistan.
In 1935, Italy’s Benito Mussolini took advantage of these rapidly evolving aerial technologies to invade the independent kingdom of Ethiopia – a sovereign state, and fellow member of the League of Nations. The invasion sparked public outrage and protests across the world, but no meaningful opposition could be mustered from the great powers beyond a half-hearted economic sanctions, intended to appease public opinion more than stop the Italian invasion.
The following summer, Spain’s democratically elected government found itself under attack from a group of rightwing generals led by Francisco Franco, the hero of Spain’s long and brutal colonial war in Morocco. Franco quickly secured the support of Hitler – who was eager to test the capabilities of Nazi Germany’s recently unveiled airforce.
Thus Spain became the laboratory for German airpower, resulting in a series of attacks on built-up population centres, most infamously the Basque town of Gernika, which was carpet bombed by the German Condor Legion in April 1937.
Up until the present day, a widespread yet mistaken belief has persisted that the attack on Gernika marked the first time a civilian population was targeted by massive airstrikes.
In reality, the Condor Legion benefitted from decades of refinements to aerial bombardment as a tactic of colonial control in places like Kabul, Damascus, Mosul and the Moroccan Rif. None of these earlier attacks on civilians attracted much attention or press coverage, let alone public censure; but, much as journalists have persisted in reminding us about Ukrainians over the past ten days, the residents of Gernika were European Christians.
Word of the town’s destruction sparked outrage and international condemnation, and inspired Picasso’s Guernica – among the most celebrated paintings of the 20th century.
Historians including Paul Preston and Steven Morewood continue to argue that the failure of the liberal democracies to intervene in the conflicts raging in Ethiopia and Spain drew Hitler and Mussolini closer together, and emboldened their policies of territorial aggrandisement within Europe. Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia was a particularly straightforward, if late example of European imperialism in action. But the war in Spain was also inextricably connected to colonial violence in Morocco, just as the tragedy of Gernika was informed by decades of aerial bombardment targeting Iraqis, Afghans, and Syrians.
In these instances as in the present crisis, Western governments failed for far too long to perceive the intimate connection between the violence they wrought (or acquiesced in) overseas, and the security of Europe itself.
Racism and refugees
On a similar note, we have yet to see much written or said about how the emerging Ukrainian refugee crisis could serve as a poignant reminder of our common humanity. This is to say nothing of our common obligations, under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, to protect and assist civilians fleeing violent conflict.
If anything, the provision of safe passage and facilities to Ukrainian refugees has been presented by nearby European countries as an act of either spontaneous generosity or political solidarity, rather than what it is, or should be: the straightforward observance of international law.
Instead it is the contrast between the purportedly civilised treatment afforded Ukrainians fleeing violence, and the barbarous cruelty that has for many years greeted African, Arab and Asian refugees arriving on the same borders under equally harrowing circumstances that forms one of the uglier subtexts of this crisis.
South Asians may be reminded of the Burmese refugee crisis that began exactly 80 years ago, in the early months of 1942. In the teeth of the Japanese advance towards Rangoon, hundreds of thousands of people fled through the jungle into northern India. Many made a 900-mile overland journey on foot through mountainous terrain, made hellish by the arrival of the monsoon season.
They brought with them stories of a two-tiered evacuation policy: Europeans and Anglo-Indians were given first priority when boarding vessels. On escape routes, colonial police allowed whites through while blocking the path of those with darker skin.
In her book, India at War, historian Yasmin Khan tells of an Indian escapee from Rangoon whose father managed to purchase tickets for a steamer headed to Madras, just as the Japanese approached the outskirts of the city. On the date they were set to depart, the family was refused permission to board the vessel. Their places were given to Europeans, and they were left on the quay to fend for themselves.
Accounts like this from almost a century ago resonate all too closely with the stories now trickling out from Ukraine – of African and Asian migrants (many of them international students) prevented from boarding trains, or denied safe passage into neighbouring countries.
Reports such as these have made it difficult for some communities to square their instinctive sympathy for Ukrainians with the nagging awareness that, when circumstances have been reversed, European solidarity with the plight of others is often very thin indeed.
International solidarity for some
“Even as it was easy as a Palestinian to identify with the scenes of bombardment, destruction, and refugees, the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was totally foreign to us,” Yousef Munayyer wrote recently in The Nation.
For Palestinians who have struggled for decades to win sympathy– let alone support – for their resistance to Israeli occupation, the sudden enthusiasm of the West for Ukraine’s armed resistance has been almost hallucinatory. Camera crews from major US networks have aired footage of Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails out of beer empties.
In his first press conference following the Russian invasion, US President Joe Biden railed against the illegitimacy of seizing territory by force, noting that “history proved” that people subjugated in this manner would inevitably resist their oppressors for as long as it took. This has left more than one Palestinian activist scraping their jaws up off the floor.
“Even [the US television comedy show] SNL [Saturday Night Live] featured a #Ukrainian chorus to open its set this weekend. While I’m moved to see such solidarity, it’s quite troubling that this is the limited human suffering legible to American audiences,” tweeted Noura Erakat, a law professor and human rights attorney.
Wrote Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian author and activist, on Twitter, “They live in a parallel universe where Europeans who take up arms to defend their lands & families, are called resistance fighters but Palestinians doing the same damn thing are ‘terrorists’.”
Huda Sha’arawi and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, feminist leaders of the interwar years, would have sympathised deeply with these statements. In July 1939 they travelled to Copenhagen for the 13th Congress of the International Alliance of Women, held under the unmistakable shadow of impending war.
Throughout the proceedings, the Alliance strove to uphold its long-held policy of political neutrality; the trouble was that by the summer of 1939, fewer and fewer subjects could be construed as non-political.
In Europe the battle lines were hardening: the ugly realities of Nazi occupation, including the dismissal of women from their jobs, the dissolution of women’s organisations, and the forced deportation of untold thousands of Jews from their homes were impossible for the International Alliance of Women to ignore.
Meanwhile in West Asia, four years of devastating bloodshed in the British Mandate of Palestine had left the entire region in a state of shock, scandalised by the brutality of Britain’s repression in a territory it supposedly held in trust. While a delegation of Jewish women from Palestine had managed to attend the conference, the International Alliance of Women’s Palestinian Arab affiliate had been prevented from attending due to the ongoing unrest in the country.
In their accounts, both Sha’arawi and Chattopadhyay – leaders of the Egyptian and Indian delegations, respectively – criticised what they perceived to be a double standard in the conference’s work, whereby the Alliance used one definition of political neutrality to address the crisis in Europe, and another standard for events in the colonised world – specifically Palestine.
For example, delegates passed a resolution defining democracy as the ideal form of government. Another resolution, passed unanimously, called on states to ratify the League of Nations’ convention on the rights of refugees. Expressions of sympathy and solidarity went out to women suffering under Nazi occupation.
The general mood was apparent in a contemporary issue of the organisation’s newsletter, Jus Suffragii: “The Alliance is pledged to neutrality on all questions that are strictly national, but can it be claimed that the forcible taking over of one country by another, a country with a different race, culture and language, is purely a national question?” As historian Charlotte Weber notes, “it was precisely the question Arab women had been asking all along.”
Seizing on these apparent openings, Huda Sha’arawi attempted to rouse her colleagues to a resolution or “expression of sympathy” for their absent Arab colleagues from Palestine. But European members of the Alliance felt that this would trespass against the principle of political neutrality in a manner which their resolutions regarding the situation in Europe did not.
As International Alliance of Women President Margery Corbett-Ashby reflected years later, European delegates to the conference were impressed “by the vastness and immediacy of the Jewish problem [in Europe], whereas the Palestine problem was far off and concerned relatively few people” among the participants.
Learning to look forward
Historical analogies and parables such as these, tracing the hard borders of imaginative empathy that have long separated the “West” from the “Rest”, are depressingly easy to furnish. But there is hope to be found – if not in our past, then in the new dynamics at work in the present. The fact is that the invasion of Ukraine has served as a lightning rod for renewed public discourse on the morality of resistance to oppression, as well as international obligations towards refugees and victims of violent conflict.
The discovery – late though it may be – that “it could happen to anyone” appears to already be prompting important shifts in individual and collective attitudes towards not only Ukrainians, but other peoples fleeing repression and war.
The realtime interplay between social and traditional media has accelerated this process in a manner previous generations could only have dreamt of, as journalists and newsrooms are compelled to follow up on talking points generated in online spaces, in turn creating pressure on policymakers.
In this manner, over the course of several days, social media posts about discrimination against African students fleeing Ukraine resulted in mainstream news coverage by the BBC and other major networks, followed by the establishment of embassy hotlines and a formal Ukrainian taskforce to assist international students.
Much as the murder of George Floyd in the US was transformed into a moment of collective reckoning on racial injustice, the present crisis contains within it the potential to permanently alter our collective attitudes towards wars of aggression, violent occupation, and the refugee populations they generate.
In cultivating an imaginative compassion that truly extends across borders, and in reaffirming peace, justice, and liberty as interlocking ideals – each one meaningless without the others – we may yet learn to leave the past definitively behind.
Dr Erin O’Halloran lectures on International History at the University of Toronto. Her forthcoming book is titled East of Empire: Egypt, India, and the World between the Wars.