Is self-determination only for the ‘goodies’?

Whether or not you’re a fan of sketch show, I highly recommend you take a couple of minutes out of your day to watch this amusing clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look about a Waffen SS soldier who begins to wonder whether the Totenkopf on his peaked cap might mean the Germans are the ‘baddies’ in the war.

David Mitchell – who, if you don’t know him from Peep Show or Eight Out of Ten Cats, you’ve probably heard him on The Unbelievable Truth – is something of an amateur historian and his love of the past, particularly the Second World War, is the subject a number of clever and witty sketches in the show.

There is, of course, a dark side to our readiness to characterise whole nations as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ depending on the actions of their governments. There was nothing particularly funny, for example, about the millions of Germans expelled from eastern Prussia, with the blessing of the Allies, following the Potsdam Conference of 1945.

Yet, because of the crimes committed by men like Mitchell’s Schutzstaffel ‘baddie,’ sympathy for any Germans was non-existent in the closing chapters of the war, meaning whatever the rhetoric about the post-war new order, there was precious little self-determination for these peoples – at least not until the arrived in the new, truncated, Germany.

While it was true the Nazis had settled Germans in the homes of expelled Jews and Poles during the war, the majority of those forced from their homes had lived there for generations. The fact a similar thing had occurred in the 1880s and the region was mostly settled following the 1772-95 partitions of Poland is besides the point – two or more wrongs never make a right.

Likewise, as the Austrians were losers in the First World War, South Tyroleans were never consulted over whether or not they wanted to become Italian, despite the fall of empires also supposedly being about . Today, South Tyrol is still part of Italy, despite more than 60% of the population speaking German as their first language – a figure that was much higher before the annexation.

And so it is with the Crimeans. The western response to the parliament of this almost entirely Russian island calling on Mother Russia for aid and its subsequent occupation has been to universally condemn the action as illegal and violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

But, surely, if we believe in national self-determination – the kind we afford the Falklanders, Maltese, even Scots – then we should the Crimeans themselves to decide which nation they wish to belong to? Crimea was, after all, part of Russia until Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev – himself a Ukrainian – transferred it in 1954. But this was  at a time when the break-up of the Soviet Union was unimaginable and was actually done to celebrate 300 years of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian Empire.

As for the legality of the invasion and Crimea’s expected accession to Russia – Western governments were quite happy to gloss over the illegality of the new government in Kyiv, which came to power after democratically-elected prime minister Victor Yanukovych was forced from office by a mob which happened to be supported by, oh yeah, Western governments.

The fact is, Russians are still seen as ‘baddies’ in a West that still sees the world in Cold War terms. So, to paraphrase the Soup Nazi form Seinfeld, “No self-determination for you!”

One of the most frequent attacks against the moral and political power of the Western world by, admittedly unsavoury, regimes is our rank hypocrisy in areas such as this. We might expect this sort of thing from leaders like Vladimir Putin (brilliantly demonstrated by this cartoon) but, as liberal democracies, we have a far greater responsibility to be morally consistent.