The Last Time

I can’t remember the last time I read three angry editorials on one topic in one newspaper on the same day. I’ve put the links below along with some representative extracts in case you can’t access the National Post, which is paywalled.

As I read about China and its alleged treatment of Uyghurs, I find myself engaged in a thought experiment. I wonder what the Allies would have done if Hitler’s Germany had not invaded Poland but had continued to operate Auschwitz, Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Sachsenhausen, Buchenwald, Oranienburg, and Ravensbruck along with the thousand other Nazi concentration camps in which they detained, abused, tortured, starved, worked to death, experimented on, and gassed millions of people from 1933 to 1945.

Was what went on in those camps genocide? I guess it depends how you define that word, but certainly it was an abomination. Early prisoners were incarcerated for political, ethnic, religious, and what we today might call lifestyle reasons . . .

German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats—as well as Roma (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of “asocial” or socially deviant behavior

. . . with Jews rounded up en masse simply for being Jewish, starting in 1938. But you know the history. What I’m wondering about is an historical counter-factual. If there had been no invasion of Poland to provoke WWII would we, the Allies, have taken any action against Germany solely to stop it from running those camps?

Would we have issued a joint declaration of censure or condemnation? Applied economic sanctions? Broken off diplomatic relations? Sent home German students from our universities? Stopped buying German products? Prevented German companies from bidding on government contracts? Blocked exports of products and technology to Germany? Prohibited German investments in Allied countries? Deported German citizens who resided in our countries? Frozen German assets in our banks? Boycotted a German Olympics?

Would any of these actions have made any difference at all to Germany’s domestic actions? If not, would we have invaded Germany to save the people in those camps and the ones destined for them? Would that have been the right thing to do?

I don’t know all the answers to my counter-factual thought experiment but I do know that the Berlin Olympics went ahead in 1936 after a boycott movement stalled. Here’s one opinion on how that went.

The Berlin Games became a powerful propaganda tool for Nazi Germany as it tried to make its brutal treatment of Jews, political opponents and others seem benign. The Nazi Olympics also helped Germany cultivate an atmosphere of appeasement from the rest of the world as Hitler prepared for conquest and war.

With the benefit of hindsight, would we now say that our athletes should or should not have competed in Berlin?

“There was very definitely a special feeling in winning the gold medal and being a black man,” Woodruff said. “We destroyed [Hitler’s] master race theory whenever we started winning those gold medals.” – John Woodruff, USA runner

We never have the luxury of hindsight when deciding what to do today, but it seems likely that there are men, women, and children in concentration camps in China, and it seems unlikely that China will make the decision easier for us by doing the equivalent of invading Poland.

It is no small matter to take on a brutal dictatorship that is a nuclear power, a major customer and supplier, and a country that takes the long view in terms of cementing their influence in democracies.  No matter what we decide there will be costs and no guarantee of success.

Maybe we can start by remembering that we don’t control China’s behaviour, only our own. Maybe we can start with one right action and then take another. And another. Maybe doing what we think is right does not require us to believe that our action will change China’s behaviour. Maybe it only requires that we think it’s the right thing to do: one of the few things we can do, short of outright war, to help those people in the camps by showing that we are prepared to accept some pain to protest against theirs.

What will we do? I don’t know the answer.

What would be the right thing? That, I think I know.


Here are the links to the three editorials and some excerpts.

Toothless declarations achieve nothing. It’s time for a ‘don’t buy China’ campaign. – Kelly McParland

Nova Scotia sends China two 747 planeloads of lobster every week; that’s one plane for each Michael.

[Premier] McNeil sees no reason to question China’s actions. “It’s not our role to go in and tell someone else they’re wrong,” he said while being feted by the Canada China Business Council. “Chinese people are proud to be Chinese. And they have a way of doing things. Let’s go learn. Let’s teach each other. And let us grow economic ties.”

He didn’t say which quaint cultural practices might justify brutalizing minorities or threatening war with Taiwan, but sure, let’s learn. Maybe we can be educated on the justice of forcibly detaining a million or so Uyghurs behind prison walls while they undergo political indoctrination, and then sending them off to work in factories, willing or otherwise. Here’s an idea: let’s kick in an occasional lobster to brighten their day.

Trudeau’s ‘wilful blindness’ to the evils of Chinese communism.
John Robson

For opposing conspiracy theories I get called many names, including co-conspirator. But not “useful idiot.” They leave off the “useful.” Unlike China’s leaders when it comes to Western politicians who give them a free pass, such as outgoing Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil, who recently echoed Document No. 9 Point 3 in a Canada China Business Council video.

“It’s not our role to go in and tell someone else they’re wrong,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Canadian, but Chinese people are proud to be Chinese. And they have a way of doing things. Let’s go learn.… And let us grow economic ties.” Never mind that they crush Hong Kong and commit mass slaughter. After all, Hitler and Stalin had a way they did things, too. And the Chinese way includes lucrative consultancies and senior advisor posts.

Of course Trudeau refused to say ‘genocide.’ He has zero credibility on China.
– Terry Glavin

So there matters sit, with Trudeau stroking his chin, feebly supported by a dwindling coterie of Liberals encouraging us all to deconstruct and unpack the term “genocide” and otherwise pity the poor Canadian athletes who so desperately yearn to shine at the Winter Games.

And on the other side: more than 180 human rights organizations, the Biden administration, several Canadian Chinese diaspora groups, Tibetan exiles and Hongkonger solidarity activists, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party, the Green Party, most of the Bloc Quebecois and several prominent Liberals, including several MPs, and the entirety of the International Human Rights Subcommittee of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development.
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4 Responses to The Last Time

  1. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – the hard truth is that the rest of the world would probably not have been inclined to do anything about the concentration camps inside Germany, if Germany had not invaded Poland. I say that because at the time much of the rest of the western world held the same opinions as the Germans with respect to the types of people the Germans put in the camps. For example, in 1939 Canada refused entry to the S.S. St. Louis and 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. The S.S. St. Louis had already been refused entry into Cuba and eventually returned to Germany.
    I’ve visited Dachau. Very sobering.
    FYI. Auschwitz is not in Germany, it is in Poland.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I fear you’re right about the lack of response of the rest of the world. A shared bias would be supplemented by a perfectly reasonable hesitancy to interfere in another country’s domestic activities, for fear of being interfered with in turn.

  2. While agree with you in principle, I am not sure where Trudeau’s primary responsibility lies while the lives of two Canadians are being held hostage. A concerted response from an allied group might have more weight and less pressure on any one individual nation. But I am out of my depth when it comes to international diplomacy. I would have to pray my way through the situation and I’m not sure most heads of state operate that way.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Yes, it’s a difficult problem just trying to balance the competing Canadian public interests and I expect they’re struggling with it. This is yet another good reason for politicians to remain free of lobbying activities after they retire from public life: It can create a truly terrible conflict of interest for them.

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