Far away from the woes of the world

Last updated 12:17 26/04/2012

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Karl du Fresne

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On a sparkling autumn morning recently, I caught the train from Masterton to Wellington.

It's a trip I always enjoy, and not just because it enables me to avoid the hassle and expense of parking in the capital. I usually take reading material with me, but the Wairarapa countryside is so pretty that I spend much of my time gazing out the window.

The view is especially beguiling as the train climbs the lower slopes of the Rimutaka Range to where the Rimutaka Tunnel burrows through the mountains to the Hutt Valley.

As the train ascends, the view extends across Lake Wairarapa and the surrounding farmland to the Aorangi Range beyond. It's a scene I would feel compelled to paint if I had any artistic ability.

On this particular morning the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the countryside seemed to glow. The train was crowded, it being the school holidays. Children chattered excitedly as they headed toward Wellington for a day in the city.

The contrast between this idyllic scene and the magazine article I was intermittently reading could hardly have been more striking. It was a review by the eminent British historian Paul Johnson of a new book, Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

Let me give you some grim statistics. Though World War I killed more men in uniform, in World War II it was civilians who paid the highest price for the savagery of leaders who seemed indifferent to the terrible consequences of their actions.

In the Soviet Union, civilian deaths came to an estimated 16-18 million. In Poland, the country that suffered proportionately the highest losses, more than 6 million died, a high proportion of whom were Jews. Germany lost nearly 6 million civilians and Yugoslavia more than 1 million.

Lowe reminds us that although Britain was by far the most humane of the major European combatants (prisoners of war who died in British custody were an infinitesimal fraction of the number who died under the Russians and Germans), it was not above inflicting misery on civilian populations. An estimated 60,000 people died in one Hamburg firestorm.

The Allied destruction of German cities exceeded by a factor of 16 anything the Luftwaffe inflicted on Britain.

Debate still rages over the morality of British and American bombing raids over the German city of Dresden in February 1945, which caused huge civilian losses at a time when Germany was already on its last legs and there seemed little to gain from the attacks.

But as the title indicates, the new book is concerned mainly with what happened in Europe subsequently. Lowe demonstrates that instability and power struggles triggered by World War II continued to grip parts of Europe for decades.

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Greece suffered terribly, plunging into a bitter civil war that scarred the country for 30 years. Eastern Europe was subjugated by the tyrant Joseph Stalin and liberated itself only 20 years ago. Yugoslavia was united under the socialist strongman Marshall Tito but erupted again after his death, when ancient ethnic tensions resurfaced in the Balkan atrocities of the 1990s.

We were reminded of the unspeakable blood-letting in the Balkans only recently, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of war breaking out in Sarajevo. An estimated 100,000 people died in that ghastly conflict while the West wrung its hands.

What, you might ask, has all this got to do with a train trip from Masterton to Wellington? Simply this: of all the countries in the world, few have been as untouched by war and suffering as New Zealand. It was impossible not to reflect, as the train with its cargo of cheerful, healthy kids rolled through the Wairarapa countryside, that we are blessed to live in one of the most untroubled countries on the planet.

Anzac Day reminds us that New Zealand's losses in the two world wars were among the highest, per capita, of any country not actually in the war zones. In World War I we lost 18,000 men; in World War II, nearly 12,000.

But in most respects we are so isolated from the strategic flashpoints of world politics that David Lange was once able to mock our global insignificance by joking that New Zealand was a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.

Yet we don't have to look far for examples of suffering on a terrible scale. Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime (which New Zealand, to its lasting shame, recognised as legitimate) was a reminder that our own corner of the globe has its despots and mass murderers.

In East Timor, a brutal Indonesian occupation lasted more than 25 years and caused an estimated 103,000 deaths. Thousands of New Zealanders enjoy holidays in the country that caused East Timor's misery, and our prime minister was recently in Jakarta courting Indonesia as a trading partner.

On Kim Hill's radio programme recently I listened to an interview with entrepreneur Mitchell Pham who, as a boy, risked his life to flee what was then a brutally oppressive communist regime in Vietnam.

Adrift at sea, out of fuel and food, Pham and his fellow escapees were in imminent danger of death when a luxury cruise ship pulled alongside; but to their despair, the ship halted only long enough for its curious passengers to take pictures before pulling away again, almost capsizing the refugees' fragile craft in its wake.

Most New Zealanders, living in relative affluence and security, can't begin to imagine the hardship and deprivation that drives people like Mitchell Pham to risk everything for a new start.

Even harder to understand, for those living in one of the world's most humane societies, is the callous indifference that allowed a cruise ship to sail on without offering assistance. (In case you're wondering, they were rescued the following day by workers from an offshore oil rig.)

When we read of the agony other countries have endured – genocide, starvation, mass displacement, the destruction of entire cities – it puts our petty concerns (paid parental leave, the sale of farmland, the partial privatisation of government-owned companies) into perspective.

But I suppose everything is relative.

- Nelson


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