Why ‘Never Again’ Is Just A Hashtag

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky says with some desperation: “Every year politicians repeat ‘never again'”. And now, we see that these words simply mean nothing.”

Jeremy Cliff, writing in The New Statesman puts it like this:

As a resident of Berlin, I have long admired this mature commitment to Vergangenheitsbewältigung (the processing of the past) and Erinnerungskultur (memory culture). Yet today I find myself wondering: what ultimate purpose does it serve?

When Russian troops retreated from Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on 30 March they left behind scenes seemingly torn from Europe’s history books – but which belong inexorably to its present. Corpses of civilians lined the streets. Some had their hands tied behind their backs. Others lay where they had fallen; one body under a bicycle, another strewn amid dropped groceries. “They had been torturing people,” one resident told the Times of the scene in one basement. “Some of them had their ears cut off. Others had teeth pulled out.” Bodies of children and teenagers were among the mutilated. The ghastly likelihood is that these were just early glimpses of Russian crimes unfolding across the occupied territory of Ukraine.

“Never again” is our instinctive reaction to this nightmare, just as it was in 1995 when more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica during the Bosnian War. Yet the grim pattern post-1945 is that this refrain’s every incantation marks the start of a countdown to the next such mass atrocity. The US diplomat Samantha Power has called it “the world’s most unfulfilled promise”, arguing that time and again realpolitik has stymied preventative action.

Pundit Gabriel Milland tweeted:

No good sinking to your knees at the site of the Warsaw ghetto – and then choosing, actively choosing, self-satisfied quietism when confronted by Bucha.

Now regular readers will recall that I wrote on this blog more than a month ago:

“Have we been saying “Never Again” for the past 80 years while really meaning “Okay, just this one more time and then we really mean it, seriously!”?”

This question did not go down well. I was accused of dangerous hyperbole and hysteria by many in the comments. “Where’s your evidence!?” some shrieked and others sneered, including, I regret to say, another contributor to this blog. But here’s the thing. If a person can’t look at the history, the facts, and the trajectory of current events, and make an educated guess about where things are going, why on earth are they even a political commentator? And if anyone still has any doubts, read this!

When people say “there is no proof this is happening”, it means the proof they need is for it to actually happen, which means it has in fact happened again.

This makes nonsense of the phrase “never again“.

The simple fact is this: As I wrote previously, people are not blind to Putin’s inhumanity. We have seen it in Syria, and in Chechnya, and elsewhere. But they were intimidated by Putin’s threat of escalation and if they are honest with themselves they will admit that they were willing to accept the predictable butchery in Bucha if it meant delaying or avoiding any inconvenience to us an escalation would certainly bring. Now I am not oblivious to the fact that this escalation may have meant a wider NATO-involved war or even the use of nuclear weapons – and of course there is an unsavoury calculation to be made as to whether the sacrifice of Ukrainian lives is worth preserving peace in Europe a little longer or even staving off WWIII altogether – but let us not pretend we didn’t make that calculation. Let us not pretend that we have always meant “Never Again”.  Let us not spit on the graves of the victims of Nazi Germany with the blood of Ukrainians still speckled in our spittle.

Let us be honest. The future of the free world will not be won with beautiful lies.