When intervention only creates the next disaster

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The Independent Online
HISTORY never really repeats itself. Given the quality of European events in this century, we should all be thankful. But history often taunts us by dealing the same cards and then playing a different game with them.

In Upper Silesia, after the First World War, there arose a crisis whose horrors and failed solutions resemble the situation in Bosnia today. A friend of mine, the late Dr Willy Guttmann, was born and brought up there, and in a brilliant but unpublished memoir he recorded what he saw then. I wish I could say that his recollections told us what to do in Bosnia. But they amount, rather, to a manual of what not to do.

Upper Silesia in 1914 was one of the great industrial areas of Europe, a rich prize for any power. Geographically, it was the point at which three empires - German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian - came together, but almost all the mines and steelworks were on German territory. The population would now be called multi-ethnic. It consisted of a dense mixture of Germans and Poles (Poland did not exist then, having been partitioned between the three empires more than a century before) and of people who spoke both languages and called themselves German or Polish as it suited them. Most Upper Silesians were Catholics, but there was a Prussian-Protestant upper crust and a thriving Jewish middle class.

In 1917-18, all three empires collapsed in defeat and revolution. An independent Poland reappeared and laid claim to Upper Silesia. Guerrilla fighting broke out as local Germans and Poles, supported unofficially from Berlin and Warsaw, struggled for control. Two Polish uprisings were defeated by German volunteers before the victorious Allies, negotiating the Versailles peace conference, decided to intervene.

Their first act was disastrous. In 1919, they proposed giving the whole province to Poland. This touched off German demonstrations so huge and militant that the Allies hastily back-pedalled and announced that there would be a plebiscite (referendum) under Allied supervision. All Upper Silesia was put under a 'Control Commission' and occupied by a mixed force of French, British and Italian troops. France, whose foreign policy was pro- Polish and anti-German, provided much the biggest contingent. The Control Commission issued special 'Upper Silesian' passports and even postage stamps.

Willy Guttmann and his friends were German schoolboys in the city of Gleiwitz. They hated the French, fancied the style of the Italian officers with their gorgeous cloaks and feathered hats, and admired the British for their 'fresh-washedness'. One day an Allied parade marched past the playing field, led by a French platoon but including the 'extraordinary phenomenon' of a Scottish officer in a kilt. The boys rushed to the fence and made loud comments. The Scot ignored them, but the French officer suddenly halted the march, ordered his men to fix bayonets and sent them charging over the fence. The boys ran, but two of them were wounded in the back. The incident 'left among the boys a residuum of resentment which remained a breeding- ground for nationalism and ultimately Nazism'.

The plebiscite took place in March 1921. It produced a clear German majority (700,000 against less than 500,000 for Poland), but the Allies squabbled over the consequences: the British and Italians thought all Upper Silesia should go to Germany, while the French argued for partition between districts with German or Polish ethnic majorities. The Poles, meanwhile, lost patience and on 3 May launched a huge insurrection throughout the province which seized most of the plebiscite area. The British and Italians opened fire, but were overwhelmed and suffered casualties. The French, although equipped with tanks and artillery, stood back and let the Poles do as they pleased. A murderous and atrocious civil war followed, with both Germany and Poland unofficially supplying 'their' sides across the Control Commission frontier. There were massacres, 'ethnic cleansing' and expulsions, and pitched battles which the Germans slowly began to win.

Gleiwitz was under siege. The French kept the Poles out of the city but did not drive them away from the outskirts, and only the occasional 'entente train', under Allied control, arrived with supplies. While Willy Guttmann dodged machine-gun fire in the suburbs, the French commandant imposed a futile curfew that allowed him to arrest all sorts of respectable German citizens who peeped out of their doors after nine at night.

Isolated, the town diverted itself with the grand Renzetti romance. Major Giuseppe Renzetti, a handsome Italian officer, had stood up for the German citizenry against the French commandant, and he was already a Gleiwitz hero when he fell in love with the town beauty. This was Susanna, daughter of a leading lawyer who was also the senior figure of the Jewish community. A terrific soap opera ensued. Susanna's family, like most middle-class Jews in Gleiwitz, was devotedly pro-German and felt every kind of gratitude for Renzetti. And yet how could they let their princess, granddaughter of a rabbi, marry a foreign Catholic? It was five years before they consented.

But Renzetti was a Fascist as well as a Catholic. His love of Germany took him to Berlin, where he worked as a secret liaison agent between Mussolini and Hitler's National Socialists as they struggled for power. Renzetti later claimed that he had organised in his own house the meetings that led to the 'Harzburg Front' - the alliance of right-wing parties with the Nazis that eventually brought Hitler to dictatorship. His marriage to Susanna survived. But his father-in-law did not. Humiliated and then deported as a Jew, he died in a Nazi concentration camp.

In Upper Silesia, the Allies managed to arrange a ceasefire, and Poland and Germany submitted to a partition. Gleiwitz found itself just inside the German frontier.

Exhaustion, coupled with Allied military force, had stopped the conflict. But this was no happy ending. Neither side accepted the partition line. Fanatical veterans of the German irregulars flocked to Hitler, swearing revenge on France and Poland. In September 1939, the Second World War began in Silesia with the 'Gleiwitz Incident', a fake Polish incursion staged by the Nazis. The Third Reich seized all Upper Silesia, enslaved the Poles and murdered the Jews who had been so loyal to Germany in 1921. In 1945, the Poles annexed all Silesia and expelled the Germans.

Are there lessons in this old tragedy for Bosnia - for the West hesitating on the brink of intervention? Only this: that foreign interference which stops the shooting but constructs no wider settlement only postpones the next round of disaster. Millions died because no general European security pact arose to guarantee Germany's eastern borders.

Intervention by force could stabilise what is left of Bosnia, and reduce or stop the killing. But unless intervention leads to a full-dress Balkan treaty, pulling south-eastern Europe firmly into the responsibilities of Nato and the West, the killing will start again. Dragon's teeth were sown in Silesia. But only the world's negligence allowed them to grow into new armies.