Learning from History’s Mistakes

When I studied abroad in Lithuania for 4 months in 2008 I encountered the deep pain and historic evil that pervaded that region over the course of the Soviet Occupation. As I listened to my Eastern European classmates who were young kids at the fall of the USSR, learned from my professors, and visited museums and historic sites, the injustices of the past seeped into my soul.

A memorial in Klaipeda, Lithuania for the known and unknown people who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet Occupation of Lithuania.
A memorial in Klaipeda, Lithuania for the known and unknown people who were deported to Siberia during the Soviet Occupation of Lithuania. Photo by Naomi Krueger

The magnitude of the Jewish Holocaust in other parts of Europe was known to me. I had learned about it in school. Read historical fiction and memoirs of the Jewish experience during those horrors. But I didn’t really understand that Stalin’s ruthlessness in the East was just as evil as Hitler’s.

I first encountered this horror during the first week in Lithuania. Our group of Americans started out in the capital of Vilnius. We visited a KGB Museum. Masquerading as an office building, the KGB headquarters was hiding prison cells, and torture and execution chambers.

A prison cell in the KGB Headquarters (now museum) in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo by Naomi Krueger
A prison cell in the KGB Headquarters (now museum) in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo by Naomi Krueger

I wrote about what I learned on the tour in my journal:

The KGB was a legitimate government organization which used its power to terrorize the people of Lithuania. Sometimes run by the Nazis, sometimes run by the Soviets, the KGB killed at least 300,000 people. (In this same time period, 500,000 were killed in the war and 300,000 people emigrated out of Lithuania.)

In the 1930s, during a Soviet Occupation the KGB house became a prison for political prisoners–basically anybody deemed “anti-Soviet.” In 1941 the Nazis took over, using the prison for similar purposes. In 1945, WWII ended, but for Lithuania and the rest of Eastern Europe, a new war had begun. …

The goal of the KGB, according to our guide, was to ‘make a normal man not a normal man.’

I learned that people were tortured for information and names of other “anti-Soviets.” You could be called anti-Soviet if you flew a Lithuanian flag, had the wrong books on your shelf, or had too many academic degrees. You could save your life by sending others to their death. Ultimately, most were executed. Their bodies driven way in the secret of the night to mass graves.

(While this was going on, so too were mass deportations to Siberian labor camps–many which could be compared to Auschwitz in their brutality. According to this Wikipedia page, “In March 1949 alone, the top Soviet authorities organised a mass deportation of 90,000 Baltic nationals.”)

All of this happened without any US or Western European intervention. At the KGB museum, the guide said:

We’re a small country caught between the big countries of the East and West. Nobody notices us.

Our guide went on to say that genocides have happened in many places all around the world. He referenced the Armenian Genocide and the Rwandan Genocide. He concluded with this:

If we don’t learn from our mistakes the mistakes will repeat.

Intervention in Syria

I am thinking about this as I hear reports of the US considering a military intervention in Syria. True, the Soviet Occupation filled most of a century. The magnitude is greater. But the reality in Syria is grave in indeed.

In July, the death toll from Syria’s Civil War was at 100,000.  Since the war started in 2011, 2.5 million Syrians have fled the country and are now refugees in neighboring countries. According to USA Today, Secretary of State John Kerry told the UN in July that there would be no military solution.

But now, just a month later, the Obama administration is considering a military attack.

What changed?

Government intelligence reports and on-the-ground witnesses provide evidence of a chemical attack killing over 1,400 people–including 426 children. A BBC report quotes John Kerry as calling it an “inconceivable horror.”

Now the US is considering a nearly unilateral military intervention. Great Britain isn’t interested. Only the French–as far as I’ve heard–have offered military support. The rest of the international community is silent. Russia and China are standing by al-Assad, so the UN’s hands are tied.

We’ve been here before. I remember adamantly opposing the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq. I’m still a hard sell that it was a good idea.

Is this the same thing?

How do we–the Powerful American Military/Government/People–need to respond when massacre happens to innocents in other parts of the world? What is our responsibility as global citizens, as allies, as international “police”? What is our responsibility as human beings?

Which is less moral? Adding violence to violence? Or throwing up our hands, saying it’s none of our business?

In a few months, years, or even decades, will we look back on this with somber reflection, warning the younger generation to learn from our mistakes?

What is the mistake in this scenario?

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