Never again? Dachau’s lessons for Ukraine

Never again? Dachau’s lessons for Ukraine

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It’s hard to visit Dachau, but not only for the reasons you might think.

At the first concentration camp Hitler established, back in 1932, the horrors of the Holocaust are clearly and unsparingly presented. It is impossible not to shudder in terror when walking into the gas chamber and then to the adjacent crematoria. The Nazi’s killing plan was chillingly efficient, at least until they ran out of coal for the ovens and had to resort to burying their torture victims in mass graves.

It is also difficult to visit Dachau because every German school student is required to visit a concentration camp prior to high school graduation. Some schools ask their students to forgo breakfast on the day of the visit, in the belief that even this small discomfort may prompt greater empathy for those who experienced the full horrors of the Holocaust. On the Monday I recently visited, there were literally hundreds of students in groups of about 20 touring Dachau under the supervision of their teachers. They were dressed like the high school kids they were and displayed the varying level of interest in the lessons they were being taught that I would have expected from their American peers; on balance, they treated the day with the seriousness it deserved.

I applaud the government of Germany for establishing the policy requiring every student to learn this bitter part of their country’s history; indeed, every nation would benefit from such an open examination of the worst things it has done. The memorial that states “Never Again” in several languages is apt.

Unfortunately, the horrors documented at the national memorial in Dachau are happening again, right now, several hundred miles to the east. Russia’s unjust invasion of Ukraine has been followed by the kidnapping of Ukrainian children and the rape, torture and murder of Ukrainian civilians in a tragic echo of the Nazi techniques honed at Dachau. It is bitter irony that Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the Ukrainians Nazis while replicating their tactics. 

I visited Dachau en route to a NATO conference evaluating the course of the Russian war in Ukraine hosted by the German government, for which the Russian invasion has been a wake-up call. A NATO general stated that he could not have imagined full-scale war in Europe again in his lifetime, but that is what has happened, and Europe has responded with dramatic increases in defense spending and both economic and military support to its beleaguered and brave neighbor to the tune of some $80 billion. The United States has similarly provided essential assistance to Ukraine, mostly weaponry that has enabled the defenders of that proud nation to stand against a larger aggressor. Unbelievably, however, America is now wavering in its support for Ukraine. Congress left Washington for the holidays without committing funding for more support for Ukraine in its just and courageous fight for freedom.

As an American Army combat veteran of two wars, a longtime student of international relations, and a strong believer that the United States, for all of its mistakes, has been the greatest force for justice, democracy and peace the world has ever seen, I am staggered that America is abandoning a small country fighting fascism in Europe in the 21st century.

The tragedies are numerous, if painful to recount. It appears that majorities of both the House and the Senate support additional military assistance to Ukraine. The Biden administration has been resolute in its global leadership of the effort to support Ukraine, although cognizant of Congress’ failures has now stopped saying that it will support Ukraine for as long as it takes; President Biden now can only promise that the United States will help Ukraine for as long as it can.

Let me be crystal clear: We can afford to support Ukraine’s fight for freedom forever. Although the United States has dedicated some $75 billion to Ukraine, much of that dollar amount is weapons that had outlived their usefulness and were scheduled to be destroyed. It is literally cheaper to ship those weapons to Ukraine so that they can be used to defend freedom than it is to destroy them here in the United States; meanwhile, replacing them in the inventory provides American jobs while making America’s military more ready for our next war.

For the cost of perhaps 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget over the past two years, Ukrainian soldiers armed with American weapons have destroyed more than half of the Russian military’s capability. Given that Russia is now the biggest proven threat to world peace and security, that it is unlikely that Putin’s dreams of restoring the Soviet empire would stop at Ukraine’s border, and that America has treaty obligations to defend the NATO countries who are next up in Putin’s sights, helping Ukraine saves American lives as well as dollars. Meanwhile, helping Ukraine preserves the rules-based international order that America created in the wake of the Second World War and that has created the longest period of great power peace and economic development in history.

Congress should visit Dachau in January; the German school kids will make room for them. Our representatives can see what fascism looks like, and then gaze east, while they decide whether they will let it happen again.

John Nagl is a Professor of Warfighting Studies at the US Army War College. This article expresses his own views and not those of the US Army War College, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.

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