For an Indian of my age, the 10th grade is a bittersweet memory. That was the year we had to take the “board exams”. This meant cramming and regurgitating mountains of unprocessed information all of which we forgot the next year.
What I do remember was a winter afternoon in the staff room where a bunch of us cornered our history teacher and peppered her with doubts and questions. One girl asked “Why did Hitler agree to a treaty with Russia if it alarmed Britain?” This had in fact prompted the British promise for the safety of Poland which led to World War 2.
Polish cartoon showing Nazi foreign minister, Von Ribbentrop kneeling before Stalin
The teacher confidently replied the Hitler actually hated Britain and wanted to “betray” the British. This seemed unsatisfactory even then. Later I learnt about how Russia had observed the rise of Nazism and its anti-communist rhetoric with alarm. For a long time, they tried to engage Britain and France with a mutual security treaty. The British government was uninterested. Many in it considered Germany as a bulwark against spreading socialism.
Finally, in May 1939 a tripartite agreement to guarantee security for the central and east European nations was formally proposed. The efforts from the British side were halfhearted, but the visit had a profound effect on Hitler. He had a dread of a World War 1 style encirclement where Germany could end up fighting both in the East and the West. He immediately sought to make his own peace with Stalin to break up such an alliance before it could take shape. By 21 August 1939, the Soviets had dropped the idea of the Tripartite talks.
It was hence an act of realpolitik divorced from emotional charge other than a fear of encirclement. But interestingly the simplistic idea of a betrayal accounted for all of what happened while being completely inaccurate on all the details and drivers.
When George W. Bush visited India in 2006, the Indian press who had been fed on a stream of caricatures in world media were taken aback by the suave sophistication with which he handled them. Where was the bumbling sabre-rattling idiot we had heard of so much? Instead there was a skilled politician who ran rings around the press trying to corner him.
Bush in India
This is the problem with so many biographies and historical novels. The author by necessity is unable to capture the nuances of any character more complicated than himself. He is forced to interpolate meaning from often scant data. Hence today we have political biographies of Jesus and caste based interpretations of the Bhagwad Gita where the authors connect the dots to find the image they expected to see to begin with.
There is an old joke my physics teacher once told about his college days. There was a boy who was always involved in mischief, getting into fights and trouble with everyone. One day he told my teacher, “I have one great disappointment. I have never had a friend all my life.”
My teacher suggested that if he wanted to make friends, he should try talking nicely to people.
The boy decided to try this. He found a girl fresher who had just joined the college and didn’t know him or his reputation. He asked her to join him for tea in the canteen. She agreed. There followed a prolonged silence where she wondered what he was trying to do and he wondered what to say next.
Finally, after much thought, he asked her, “Want to arm-wrestle?”
That was the limit of his sweet-talk.
Similarly we are limited by our own thinking in how many nuances we can accept.