Tremors of War

Holocaust Memorial Day in Torino

It’s an awkward sort of honour. But Torino always has the best Holocaust Memorial Day billboards. 

Holocaust Memorial Day billboard. Nizza-Millefonti, Torino.

Every January, when they turn up, I find myself surprised. Their striking design always leaves me feeling guilty for forgetting.

Though I’m not in Torino every January (I live in Berlin), I’ve been in town enough Januarys over the last decade to have that experience more than once. This year was no different. 

Walking down Via Nizza, in the southern part of the city, home to FIAT’s headquarters and a big UN campus, I could hear Ukrainian being spoken ahead.

Getting closer, this year’s billboards overshadowed two women — neighbours of mine, it turned out — conversing in the language.

Catching me staring at them, the women smiled and moved on. I couldn’t help but feel transfixed by their contrast. 

On the eve of a new war in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine, the billboard inevitably pointed towards the so-called “Bloodlands”, where most of the Nazi genocide was carried out.

Not to mention all the other mass killings which took place in a region stretching from Russia to Germany, between 1933 and 1945.

The extermination of European Jewry, according to the book bearing the same name, by American historian Timothy Snyder, was the culmination of a regional death orgy, one in which the Germans were not the sole participants, but the Soviets, too.

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, Moscow had amassed over 100,000 troops on its northeastern border, facing Ukraine, threatening violence on a scale not seen on the continent since 1945.

Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the USSR, and a Russian troop deployment to Kazakhstan to put down a feared Ukraine-style colour revolution, it didn’t come out of the blue.

No Eastern European head of state has been more outspoken about the disintegration of the Soviet Union than Vladimir Putin. 

Hence, his sensitivity to losing the buffer zone of countries to Russia’s west that once comprised the Warsaw Pact.

Now mostly bordered by NATO member states, it’s par for the course that Putin and his echelon are wary of the alliance’s proximity.

Looking at Poland’s massive rearmament program the last decade, replacing Russian equipment with American, German and South Korean gear, eventually inviting Washington to set up bases in the country, one can only surmise Russian fears about where Ukraine might go.

Poland is a nationalist garrison state come true, with all of the predictably bad politics that go along with it. Think of it as a micro-Russia, as both a threat and object of envy. It’s bad enough the country reinvented itself this way. Another version of this in the Western fold would be unwelcome.

No former Soviet territory has Ukraine’s industrial and defence capacity. Fully restored, and an aspiring member of both NATO and the EU like Poland, the country could very well succeed where post-communist Russia failed. Not just serve as another aircraft carrier for the US.

If only this crisis was just about security. To fully appreciate Moscow’s upset, one cannot fathom its resentment without the collapse of Russia’s economy in 1998, in spite of (or due to, depending on who you talk to) Western-led reforms, only to have tough sanctions imposed in 2014, for seizing Crimea, continuously expanded and renewed since.

This is an important subtext to Kremlin messaging about its conflict with Ukraine, as though it were only about NATO’s expansion eastward since the 1990s. Russia has not economically benefited from the post-Cold War era the same ways its former Western territories have.

That doesn’t mean that Russian imperial ambitions don’t play a role in its conflict with Ukraine. They clearly do. Concerns it might invade the country and install a friendly government are valid. Given that Moscow already annexed Crimea, it makes sense that it would want to finish the job. 

What’s different about this crisis is that it seems more frightening than previous Russian military operations. Given the weakness demonstrated by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the global instability created by COVID-19, Putin chose a perfect time to up the fear factor.

Hence, Russian threats to bomb London and demands that Bulgaria and Romania leave NATO over the weekend, and announcement of live-fire naval exercises off of Ireland on Monday. The Kremlin means to inspire more dread than it has in recent years, in more places than one. 

The sky is the limit, really. Thus, it wouldn’t surprise if Russia finally shot down Israeli aircraft carrying out raids on Syria. Few countries irritate Moscow more than Israel, (like Ireland, Israel is a Partnership for Peace member), for blocking its ambitions in the Middle East.

Which brings me back to the billboard in Torino. Hearing Ukrainian being spoken in its shadow was a reminder of how close the conflict is and retrograde the violence feels. This might be Southern Europe, but during World War II, local Jews were deported to Auschwitz, not just killed here. 

Living in Germany, one of the complaints I’ve grown used to hearing is that WWII was nearly a century ago and that there’s no way the same things would happen now. Clearly, war is not on that list, particularly in a part of the world in which some of its worst excesses occurred.

On the week that Europe’s Holocaust Memorial Day takes place, I can’t help but feel like we’re trapped in time, and that we have no control over politics.

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.