‘He was back after less than two years’ pilgrimage in a Holy Land of illusion in the old ambiguous world, where priests were spies and gallant friends proved traitors and his country was led blundering into dishonour.’
Those words are taken from Officers and Gentlemen, the second volume in Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, his trilogy about the second world war. The words describe the disillusion of the protagonist, Guy Crouchback, as Britain sides with Soviet Russia to defeat Hitler: an alliance with an atheist tyranny to defeat an atheist tyranny, an alliance that led to the betrayal – perhaps necessary – of Eastern Europe at Yalta.
The words resonate as the Ukrainian crisis prompts a moral question of the peoples and governments of Western Europe: should we answer the call of those Ukrainians who want to join modern Europe? Daniel Finkelstein wrote a heartfelt article (£) on the subject yesterday. His headline was clear: ‘After Yalta, we can’t betray Ukraine yet again’, and his argument was rooted in personal history:
‘Yalta meant that my family could only ever see the end of the Second World War as a partial victory. The Polish people were enslaved by Stalin, and my father’s home with it… President Ostrowski, once Mayor of Lwow, [was] destined to live in London as the head of a government in exile.’
All of that is true and lamentable; but there is more. Lwow is emblematic of wider regional complexity. Lwow became Lviv when it was brought into the Soviet/Russian orbit; but for a long stretch of time it was Lemberg, under Hapsburg (Austro-Hungarian) suzerainty. One of Lemberg’s greatest sons (give or take a few miles) was the novelist Joseph Roth, author of The Radetsky March – a book that is both an elegy to and a satire on the dying Hapsburg empire.