Why do we have to die for Danzig? That was the question posed by the French socialist Marcel Déat on May 4, 1939. Déat responded to an ultimatum from Nazi Germany demanding the transfer of territorial control of the free city of Danzig to the German Empire. France was allied with Poland in an assistance treaty, and had to choose. Would it resist Berlin, or, Déat argued, were there no French interests at stake in Danzig at all? Why did the French have to pay for Polish warmongering against Germany? Because the Poles had provoked it themselves, Déat thought. ‘Now if it were a matter of standing side by side together to defend our own territory and freedom, I could still do it. Maize mourir pour Dantzig, non!’. The question soon became the slogan of the French anti-war movement.
What are you fighting for? When is fighting necessary, and when is it just a choice that you can also say no to? During the first days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I was on a talk show where a participant (not a military expert) started shouting through the conversation ‘that the Ukrainians didn’t have to fight at all’. He would have just quickly packed his family and things and drove off, somewhere else. Why would you give your life for a piece of land or land? I believe one of our former generals at the table nearly had a seizure.
Yet the spontaneous remark of this dinner guest was a sound that was heard more often. In a poll (WIN International, May 2022) about the willingness to fight among populations, the Dutch attitude (16 percent) contrasted rather sharply with that of Pakistan (96 percent). If the Dutch hardly feel like risking their lives for Drenthe, why ever for Kiev? And are they willing to take inflation into the bargain? Or turn the thermostat down, under the motto: not ‘mourir‘, but ‘geler pour Dantzig‘?
That we can ask that question is linked to the essential discussion: is this a necessary war, or just one of the foreign policy options? Are our vital interests threatened, or can we ignore that conflict? Since the 1990s, the pair of concepts ‘War of Choice’ versus ‘War of Necessity’ has cropped up in the literature.
But this academic discussion ignores the point that political and military justifications for many (unnecessary) wars must ultimately be borne by the population. Today, the war in Ukraine, and the support for it from the EU, NATO and the Netherlands, must also be fought on the home front. Whichever way you look at it, the reality for people whose houses are being shot at and for people who don’t see a speck in the air is fundamentally different. It’s about surviving versus empathizing. For the time being, almost everyone sees that Ukraine is facing a war of conquest, which is also accompanied by genocidal practices and gross war crimes by the aggressor. Under international law, support to Ukraine in this situation is justified and legitimized. But what if Ukraine moves beyond the borders of the Russian conquests of 2014? If missiles land on Russian territory? How are the EU and the Netherlands preparing for this, and how is this support for the war explained and justified?
The mental strength and resilience of a society are an independent factor in history. You don’t get there with military calculations alone. On that basis, renowned experts had long expected Kiev’s demise. You won’t get there with political avoidance either. The advance of the Ukrainian army, the pleas for more support from Kiev, and the pleas from other Eastern European and Baltic states for the defense of freedom on NATO’s eastern flank, as well as the desire of the Scandinavian countries to join an alliance hearing that guarantees territorial integrity and security – those forces have created a new reality.
And a reality that seems to have caught the Russian leadership by surprise. They forced the Russian troops to wage a ‘war of choice’ that may have been only partly theirs. The consequences: desertion, chaotic withdrawal and bankrupt war morals among the Russian military. On Wednesday, President Putin announced a partial mobilization.
It is important that we also talk about this in the Netherlands. That we are not only guided by military and strategic calculations, but that we take into account the combat strength and mental strength of both the Ukrainian and our own population.
How did socialist Déat fare? He defended the German occupation and became a minister in the Vichy regime. In 1945 he fled to Italy where he spent his last years hiding in a Catholic monastery and filled hundreds of pages of memoirs with a justification for his collaboration.
Beatrice de Graaf is professor of history of international relations in Utrecht.