"Even wallpaper has a better memory than human beings," says protagonist Oskar in Guenter Grass's acclaimed 1959 novel, later an academy award winning film, the Tin Drum.
I'm in northern Poland, an area drenched in so much history that it would be hard for any human being to forget. Grass was born here. So, too, his fictional character Oskar Matzerath, brought into the world in Grass's book in 1924, the year Hitler went to prison for treason and started work on Mein Kampf. The experience of this part of Europe should remind us just how fluid and unkind history can be if you're born at the wrong time and place. Today's turmoil in Ukraine relates to this. But first, Gdansk.
Between the two World Wars, Gdansk was Danzig, a semi-autonomous city-state that comprised today's seaport plus other surrounding towns and villages. The Versailles Treaty after World War I stipulated that Danzig would remain separate from the Weimar Republic and the new Polish Republic. During the period 1920-1939 Danzig maintained a customs union with Poland, and enjoyed the protection of the League of Nations. So to speak. Undeterred by the world body's security guarantee, Adolf Hitler effortlessly annexed Danzig and absorbed its ethnic German population on October 8, 1939. The Nazis sent local Poles and Jews to forced labor or death camps.
After the Second World War, Danzig became part of Poland. This time it was the Germans who were expelled, with the Soviet Red Army doing the expelling. And Gdansk -- like all of Poland -- fell under Communist rule. Soon, tens of millions across Central and Eastern Europe would find themselves trapped on the wrong side of what Winston Churchill dubbed the Iron Curtain.
Something similar is happening in Eastern Europe today. No, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, is not Stalin or Adolf Hitler. There's no quest for world domination, no genocide. But Putin has developed a very clear vision for this part of Europe and there are analogies.
Just as with Hitler and the Germans, Putin asserts the right to protect fellow Russians abroad, wherever they are and by whatever means necessary. Putin embraces strongly authoritarian values and, much like Stalin, believes in cynical power politics and spheres of influence. That's why he invaded Georgia, cyber attacked Estonia, threatens Moldova, pressures Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and has gone to war in Ukraine. Moscow is drawing red lines today. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said recently that his country is determined "to build a system of equal and shared security in Europe." Translation: you in the West have your half, we're taking ours. Warns Lavrov: any further extension of NATO will be seen by the Kremlin as a "provocation."
So much for free and sovereign nations deciding their own alliances. So much for the vision of "Europe, Whole and Free." Deriving legitimacy from consent is not exactly a Putin thing.
Which is why it's almost surreal here. I'm attending a conference in Sopot, the seaside town just outside Gdansk. The event, called the European Forum for New Ideas, is organized by the Confederation of Polish Industry and includes participants from across Europe, mostly from business. Inside, discussion focuses chiefly on issues of European cooperation and integration. "How to Bring the Union Closer to its Citizens," is one session. "Competitive Europe -- What Does it Mean?" is another. Just outside our conference center is a white sandy beach and the Baltic Sea. It's perfect autumn, with brilliant sunshine and temperatures in the high 60s. It seems out of place when a young Ukrainian journalist here tells me of the day's fighting in Eastern Ukraine. You would think it a land far away. Poland borders both Ukraine and Russia.
Maybe Gdansk along with the rest of Poland have made it to the sunny side of Europe. Maybe. To the east and south, though, there's treachery. Russia wields trade and energy as weapons everywhere it can. The Kremlin funds separatists in Georgia and Moldova. It supports anti-democratic parties in Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. Its intelligence services are as active in the region as they were in Cold War times. Ukraine shows that Mr. Putin is also still willing to use brute force. Remember in Russia's war against Chechnya? He demolished the capital of Grozny.
What do we do?
In the Tin Drum, Oskar emerges from his mother's womb, takes a look around, and concludes that this world is not a place he wants to be. In protest, Oskar resolves to stop growing past the age of three. Russia is calculating that we'll do a version of the same today: avert our eyes, temporise, and find our own way to reject reality.