President Barack Obama’s mistaken reference to Nazi German death camps as “Polish death camps” is being ridiculed by critics as an example of incompetence. That misses the point. His defense is that he was just reading his teleprompter. That misses the point, too.
After all, you don’t need to be a historical genius to have caught that error even if it was on the teleprompter. I am not suggesting that Obama doesn’t know that the Nazi Germans operated the death camps, though, to recall another gaffe of his, he might think that those among them hailing from the country whose capital had been Vienna spoke “Austrian.”
Nevertheless, what this is really about is that Obama does not see himself as emerging from European history and, truth be told and despite his university degrees, doesn’t know much about it. He has no idea, for example, about how the Poles and other Central European people, or Europe itself, think or what they have gone through. And frankly he doesn’t care.
On one level, that is rather obvious. His father was Kenyan. But, of course, his mother was an American of European descent. Still, Obama has not chosen to focus on his simultaneously half-African/half-European parentage. He has identified himself as an African-American, and the word African here has to be taken literally, not just as a matter of ancestry from three centuries ago. The only exception to this stance, I believe, was a reference to Irish ancestry during a visit to that country and a feeble, rather insultingly stereotyped, attempt at an Irish accent.
Forget about this as a matter of race or skin color. Think of it as a matter of geographical choice. Obama draws heavily from Third World standpoints, something quite evident in his choice of church, for example. I cannot recall his ever quoting a European political philosopher. He has never to my knowledge made any reference publicly to Communism at all. In his books, the emphasis is on feelings, personal experiences, and ideas that come out of his head. But isn’t it also important to have someone who knows about how Africans think? Sure, and I don’t think Obama understands them either, but that’s not the subject of this article.
Obama has claimed that his grandfather was punished as an anti-British activist during the Mau Mau revolt in Kenya. The prime minister at the time was Winston Churchill, and it is no coincidence that one of Obama’s first acts was to return a Churchill bust to Britain in a rude manner. Basically, Obama views himself as an anti-imperialist and sees America, along with Britain, as imperialist. But that, too, is a subject for another time.
It’s fine to have a president who doesn’t come from a European background personally or physically but not so good to have a president who doesn’t grasp the meaning of modern European history. That’s why they used to have those Western civilization courses required of every college student, a standard whose loss has been devastating in the production of credentialed ignoramuses.
And how is that narrative important? Here are three critical points:
–Historically, America has done better than Europe in terms of economic prosperity, a relatively classless society, and social development. If you don’t understand the basis of American exceptionalism — and Obama rejects that idea — you don’t understand what policies work and which don’t work. By the same token, there are certain elements of Western democratic civilization that are the highest points reached by human society. A number of non-European places — Singapore, Japan, and now China — have recognized those realities and have adapted such institutions and modes of thought. If you focus on the shortcomings of Western civilization and don’t understand its greatness, you are also unable to run a Western society effectively.
–Europe suffered greatly from leftist extremism. Communism was a disaster. The left as well as the right can be brutal, repressive, and an economic disaster. Not knowing this story means that Obama isn’t inoculated against some of the same mistakes. And Obama has never found anyone on the left to be an enemy; never found any leftist ideology to be mistaken.
–Twentieth-century European history showed twice — against Nazism and Communism — the need to stand up to dictators, to be tough, to show one’s credibility, to be ready to go to war, to understand that ideological extremists cannot be bought off or charmed into moderation.
The lack of real comprehension regarding European history thus underpins Obama’s three greatest failings: wrong ideas about society, economics, and foreign policy.
Nor is this the first example where he showed a callous indifference to the experience of Central Europe, where these lessons were most clearly drawn.
Everyone in Central Europe understood the significance of September 17, 2009. It was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, the Baltic states, and other countries. For the Poles it was a commemoration of a tremendous tragedy, especially since the USSR was then in alliance with Nazi Germany, which 17 days earlier had seized the rest of Poland.
It was that date Obama chose to cancel the placement of U.S. defensive missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. Those two countries had taken considerable risks — Russia made threats — in agreeing to host the missiles. In cancelling them, Obama didn’t even consult the two countries. The Czech foreign minister said he was only informed of the decision in an early morning phone call that woke him up. The Poles didn’t even get a phone call.
When Obama became president, Central Europe’s most important leaders and most distinguished freedom fighters sent Obama an open letter. It’s worth reading today. They feared that Obama would not protect them from a resurgent Russia. Today, with Obama content to let Russia mediate Syria’s future and Russian leader Vladimir Putin contemptuous of a man he sees as foolish and weak, that danger is even greater.
As I pointed out three years ago:
If Obama had been president in the early 1990s, the letter hints rather subtly, “We would not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace would be a distant dream.” The United States would have put an emphasis on good relations with Russia rather than supporting the real liberty of the nations in the area.
A few months ago, a leading Czech intellectual told a cheering audience in Prague, “Americans proved they weren’t racist by electing Obama in 2008. Now they must prove they aren’t stupid by voting him out of office in 2012.”
Obama’s gaffe was not just an act of stupidity or incompetence but another sign that he doesn’t understand European history. And given the vital lessons that story has to tell for the management of American foreign and domestic issues, that’s very dangerous.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Arthur Dub, born February 8, 1900, died in Trencin concentration camp; Jozef Dub, born July 17, 1901, murdered in Lublin concentration camp; Aranka Lowenbein Havas, born 1909, and her husband Miklos (born 1892) murdered in Auschwitz, May 17, 1944; and Richard Lowenbein, born June 29, 1894, murdered in Auschwitz, May 17, 1944. And to three Polish policemen–Vlodia Maslovsky, Takovitch, and Maletzko—who saved many lives at the risk of their own.