Weekly Experts Panel: the Wars of History
Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor,
Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:
If you are going for a pleasant stroll through a public park some
warm September evening and two skinheads violently attack you with
steel pipes, and you have two friends within earshot armed with
pistols who can hear your calls for help but do nothing, assuming
that you survive, whom are you going to be the most angry with: your
"friends," who should have come to your aid, or the skinheads?
It is difficult to measure or develop a framework for comparing
levels of evil. How can one assign a value to reprehensible acts?
Can one justify killing a small number of people today on the basis
of saving a greater number tomorrow? How can one be certain that the
committed act will immediately achieve its objective?
There is no debate that Stalin arranged for or permitted his
subordinates to kill more people than Hitler. Is one worse than the
other? Should we take into account the context in which these
killings occurred, or is this a meaningless and perhaps obscene
Without a doubt, millions of Germans during the Nazi era and
millions of Soviets during the time of Stalin's rule were guilty of
"crimes against humanity." There is a lot of blame to assign – both
countries had "willing executioners." Yes, Hitler and Stalin were
both products of their time, yet the extent of their crimes could
have been reduced or largely avoided.
The Western democracies have no right to be smug. The British and
French leaderships behaved "neutrally" during what we have come to
call the Spanish Civil War; less than a year after General Francisco
Franco declared that conflict over, Germany invaded Poland. The
Italian and German governments provided significant support to the
While the behavior of Britain and France was understandable such a
short time after the carnage of World War I, was their refusal to
come to the aid of the Spanish Republic justifiable by the principle
of non-interference in a "civil war"?
It is highly unlikely that Hitler would have held onto power if the
French deployed their army to drive the Germans out of the Rhineland
Was it either moral or good judgment for the British and French to
permit the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia? Would it have been less
reprehensible if the "Western allies" had used this time to
strengthen their armed forces, so that they would have been able to
deter or rapidly defeat the Germans in 1940? Had the Soviet Union
not been excluded from the Munich Conference, would things have
turned out otherwise?
Indeed few countries have any right to brag about their conduct
during this period (but we should not forget the courage and
humanity of many individuals). Many Poles have a selective memory
when discussing their country’s anti-Semitic laws in the 1930s.
At the same time, there are more Poles who earned the status of
"Righteous Gentile" at Yad Veshem than citizens of other countries.
Many Poles fought courageously along with the Allied forces on the
"Eastern Front," in North Africa, and at Normandy.
What does a leader owe his people? At the top of the list is their
physical protection. Both Hitler and Stalin failed in this respect.
Hitler cost millions of civilian and German lives fighting a war
that could not be won. Stalin acted against the peoples of the
Soviet Union (Balts, Chechens, Jews, Kalmyks, Ukrainians, etc.) from
1928 until his death. Were the Finns the only people who conducted
themselves with integrity? Was the Finnish nation "tainted" by its
acceptance of support from Germany?
The fact that many Ukrainians and Balts greeted the Nazis as
liberators from Soviet oppression is understandable, and the fact
that some of them participated in atrocities is indefensible. Were
the many Dutch and Frenchmen who served in units willing to fight
alongside Germany against the Soviet Union simply opportunists?
There were but a handful of countries willing to accept Jewish
survivors/refugees in any large number both before the outbreak of
the war as well as afterward. It is hard to put a positive spin on
the refusal of Britain and the United States to bomb the railroads
to Auschwitz when their aircraft were attacking other targets in the
The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty should have gained the Soviet Union
time and space in the event of a German invasion, but Stalin's
purges of the Soviet officer corps and his refusal to prepare for
the impending invasion allowed the Nazis to reach Minsk in two
with permission of