24th February 2022 “Never Again – Anywhere”

Ruins of a mill made out of red brick, with the windows and roof missing.
A view of the ruins of Gerhardt Steam Mill, part of the Battle of Stalingrad museum reserve. It was built in the early 20th century, partially destroyed during the World War II Battle of Stalingrad and never repaired as a reminder of the war. | Photo (detail): Dmitry Rogulin © picture alliance / dpa / TASS

Across time, wars have occurred around the world. But as writer and filmmaker Ruchir Joshi points out, the recent war in Ukraine has alarmed countries and elicited action globally, something not seen since the Second World War. We are the species that ceaselessly terror-bombs itself. 

By Ruchir Joshi

In September 1942, when the Russian writer Vasily Grossman reached the city of Stalingrad to report on the war for his newspaper, large parts of the city had already been bombed to rubble by the Luftwaffe. The air-assault was commanded by Wolfram Von Richthofen, the same man who had overseen the Nazi air force’s bombing of civilians in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and, later, the aerial destruction of Warsaw (1944). In his article on Grossman in The New Yorker magazine, Keith Gessen quotes from the great novelist’s war diaries:

“Stalingrad is burned down. Stalingrad is in ashes. It is dead. People are in basements. Everything is burned out. The hot walls of the buildings are like the bodies of people who have died in the terrible heat and haven’t gone cold yet. . . . There are children wandering about, there are many laughing faces. Many people are half insane.”

Stalingrad, we know, doesn’t actually fully die. Strands and shards of it hold together through blood and fire and it becomes known as the site where the Nazi tide in Europe is turned for the first time. After the war, the bombed cities regenerate: Warsaw and Rotterdam, Stalingrad and Leningrad, Dresden and Hamburg, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Guernica also recovers and goes back to being a small Basque town, but – like Stalingrad – its name takes on a life of its own, becoming part of a world vocabulary. There may have been less than 300 people killed in Guernica, but it is seen as the first time that a modern air force deliberately bombarded a town with the intention of murdering helpless civilians and causing ripples of terror to circle out to other cities.

Lethal Man-Made Storms

Von Richthofen wasn’t the sole designer of the idea of aerial mass murder – others, like Hitler, Goering and Hugo Sperrle could also demand credit as co-inventors of this “tactic”; the Imperial Japanese Air Force could register a variation-patent; Winston Churchill could rightly register the early prototype with his crude bi-plane bombings of Iraqis in the 1920s; Arthur “'Bomber” Harris, Curtis LeMay and the committee that signed off on using atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Richard Nixon and his napalm-deploying generals in Vietnam, all could claim to have taken the idea to entirely different levels.

What could be called Guernica-Stalingrad, or even Guernica-Warsaw-Stalingrad-Chongquing-Dresden-Hiroshima, doesn’t disappear. After the end of the Second World War, this lethal man-made storm goes on an irregular but relentless world tour. For the next 77 years it keeps re-igniting across the planet, changing shape and ballistics, severing limbs from bodies, burning up skin of different colours, stuffing survivors into cellars, driving children insane with fear, shattering laughter into cubist rictus, carbonising hundreds of thousands of futures, before finally making a return landfall in Europe at the end of February 2022, only 800 kilometres from the city that was once called Stalingrad.

This is when we, the world at large, identify the monster as though we were seeing it for the first time and point to it with horror. Otherwise, across the best part of a century, too many people in succeeding generations have ignored this: whether the blast-hot walls stand teetering in Vietnam or Gaza, in Basra or Homs, Sanaa or Kharkiv, we are the species that has ceaselessly terror-bombed itself since the 1930s.

A History of Mass Murder

If the Luftwaffe bombers were the tip of the Nazi spear that sliced into the Soviet Union during Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the rest of the lance also had spikes that further shredded the flesh of the country. After the bombers came the artillery, the tanks and the infantry. And after that came the SS Einsatzgruppen, nominally “deployment groups” or “task forces” but in reality paramilitary death squads, whose chief task was to round up specific categories of civilians and machine-gun them. Jewish people were the primary targets, but this project of wholesale murder also folded into mass graves Roma people, intellectuals, priests, homosexual people and other groups whose continued existence was deemed undesirable. Across the war these murder squads killed more than two million people in central and Eastern Europe, a sizeable number of these in Ukraine, the patch of land we are focused on today.

As has been said before, mass murder was not invented by the Nazis. The innovations Hitler and his henchmen implemented were of scale and efficiency – ways to kill the maximum number of human beings with the minimum deployment of effort and resources. In this, across a very short period, they completely out-did the clumsy experiments of Stalin and various European imperial powers. Again, the end of the Second World War did not see the end of genocide nor the end of war. The willingness to massacre people was already part of the human DNA and it mutated to target ever larger numbers. Whether in Hunan, East Pakistan, Cambodia, Rwanda or Bosnia, variants of mass murder have kept suppurating across the body of the earth. Now, as the Russian troops move deeper into Ukraine, we are confronted with the possibility that new Einsatzgruppen, in different uniforms, with different names, will once again begin scouring that country but from the other direction.

The Gates of Europe

Seeing this, suddenly a critical mass around the so-called developed world is alarmed. Suddenly, Europeans begin to perceive the grotesque ironies, notice mirrorings of the mid-20th century. What could not move the USA and the Europeans in the Palestine-Israel conflict, what didn't bother them in Kurdistan or in the case of the Uighurs in China is suddenly goading them into all kinds of immediate, firm actions. The gates of Europe which have provided only the narrowest of ingress to the waves of refugees from Africa and the “Middle East” are suddenly flung wide open to Ukrainians out of a sense of warm, unhesitating humanitarianism.

Nazi is as Nazi does. Fascist is as fascist does. The one phrase we repeatedly hear from the testimonies and survivors of the mass killings carried out by the Nazis is “Never again”. Perhaps the whole phrase needed to be “Never again – anywhere”. Today, in these warped times, it sometimes feels as though history has hijacked the dreams and hopes of the millions who were tortured and killed in the hell of the Second World War and turned them into a shraap, a curse, to us, the succeeding generations, a curse which keeps us producing new wars and massacres.

For many of us situated outside Europe and North America it feels as though we are witnessing but another harvest from those buried dreams, a kind of deadly shifting cultivation which moves from human field to human field without end.

This article was written on 12th March 2022.