I write this from the heart of the Bloodlands. The Polish/Ukrainian border where lovely fertile fields of dark earth are the burial grounds of so many — Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, and Jews. The 20th century’s two most prominent madmen carried out their extermination techniques right here. Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen and Stalin’s NKVD had no problem rounding up civilians they wanted to eliminate, executing them at close range, and then dumping their bodies in freshly dug, mass graves. It is hard to drive ten kms without someone pointing to an atrocity that was committed in this or that field or ravine.
Few here are surprised that the invading Russians are accused of decapitating Ukrainian soldiers. Decapitation was and is an essential tool of dictators. When either the Germans or the Russians invaded each other or a third-party country like Poland or Ukraine, their first act was rounding up intellectuals, professors, and newspaper writers …. and murdering them. The goal: to decapitate those with brains, so that the rest, according to Nazi beliefs, would be “brainless slaves.” They did this without restraint.
The Russians utilized guillotines in their civil war between the Red Army and the White one. Once leaders were eliminated, the remaining population could be subjected to enslavement in work battalions or starved to death. For in-depth reading on this, I suggest Antony Beevor’s recent book Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-21.
The Nazis favored decapitation too. In 1943, the arrested leaders of the White Rose movement were beheaded. Again, the guillotine was used.
There is, frankly, a savagery that seems endemic to Eastern Europe. It spans three aspects of humanity. The first is ethnicity. For some reason (the excuse is often economic), Poles hate Ukrainians, Germans hate Poles, and everyone hates Jews. Other ethnic and religious groups, too numerous to mention, have also experienced savagery at the hands of their fellow Eastern Europeans.
Second would be religion. Roman Catholics vs. Greek Orthodox vs. Russian Orthodox. Armenians vs. both Greek and Roman churches. And of course, followers of Judaism have sustained millennia of savagery. Pogroms are horrific examples of every known cruelty man can inflict on man.
Lastly, an overlay to all this is political hatred. The monarchists and the Bolsheviks did not just disagree on policy. They wanted each other dead. The German National Socialists were not just another political party. They saw themselves as a human force that would not be denied. Murder, destruction, and genocide were expedient means to the correct end. Again, the savagery these beliefs brought is overlaid on Ukraine and Poland like fog on their fields in the spring. Twenty-two thousand Polish aristocrats, the flower of Polish civilization, were slaughtered in a field outside Katyn by the Russian NKVD who denied they had done it and blamed the Germans. Stalin starved to death four million Ukrainians and deported two hundred thousand Tatars from Crimea. Over half died in the frozen tundra of Siberia. We’re not talking ancient history here; there are still some people alive who were deported to Siberia.
The forced repatriation of German speakers from Poland and Ukraine AND UKRAINE after WWll resulted in the death of millions. Photos of carts laden with household goods and the elderly walking on muddy roads, heading to a land they never knew, was not a source of shame for those who saw it as a necessary cleansing of their communities.
There were a thousand other atrocities traded back and forth by all the parties in the Bloodlands. The recently severed heads of the two Ukrainians are just a spot on the continua of barbarity.
I have no idea when this savagery will end. Perhaps when humans shed their primitive coats of nationality. Perhaps when humanity embraces everyone else’s god and church. Perhaps when political beliefs and systems can be discussed civilly and tolerated.
I would hold my breath…but I do see progress. The youth of Poland and Ukraine have abandoned the ancient beliefs that separated them forever. For the most part, they are not the superstitious nationalists, religionists, and political extremists their parents and grandparents were. They are a new generation, tied to a wider world that eschews hatred and bloodshed.
Yet, since the past lives on as long as it does in Ukraine and Russia, we must expose, defeat, and punish it. For those tasks, it seems Ukraine’s President Zelensky is ideally suited. If not, expect more decapitations.