Moscow madness

ACCUSED Number One must have been gratified by the grasp of geography displayed by his new Generalissimo, Michael Hellens SC, the tax-funded marshal of his new defence team.

“This is not Stalingrad,” he declared for the benefit of the deluded who had gathered in the capital of this strange kingdom last Friday to witness the accused not have his day in court, again. “This is Pietermaritzburg.”

We could have told Mr Hellens that, but it’s a good thing his GPS is in working order and that he managed to find the right place. Otherwise there might have been another hold up. Imagine. But to be fair, some folk do find it hard. You know the conversation: “Where you from?” “Pietermaritzburg.” “Like, near Durban?” “Ja, sort of.” “Nice to be by the sea, hey.”

The accused must be feeling very confident that he is now firmly on the byway to the next delay.

Mr Hellens felt it necessary to put Pietermaritzburg on the map because he’s been reading too many newspapers and they’ve been feeding readers fake news he says.

“We read of Stalingrad in the press,” he said, “the press that seems to be running the country at the moment. But this is not Stalingrad, this is Pietermaritzburg.”

Don’t take the press’s word for the fact that the accused has for a long time been deploying a Stalingrad strategy. In 2007, when attempts to obtain arms deal corruption documents from Mauritius were being obstructed, Durban high court judge Jan Hugo asked Mr Hellens’ now retired predecessor Kemp J. Kemp: “If a person professes his innocence, then why go to all these lengths to prevent this evidence from being obtained?”

To which Mr Kemp is reported to have replied: “We think it is important. This is not like a fight between two champ fighters. This is more like Stalingrad. It’s burning house to burning house.”

The Russians may raise a glass to the efficacy of the Stalingrad Defence, but in law it has acquired a pejorative connotation in that it describes an approach in which every attempt — through delays, objections, changes of legal team, funding hitches — is made to avoid the merits of a case. Its effect, through a combination of deep pockets and the exhausting passage of time, is to grind the other bastards down.

It acquired its name from the World War 2 battle of Stalingrad, in which nearly two million people were killed, including 1,25 million Soviets. Stalin’s troops had dug in against the Germans, ferociously defending every inch, often in hand-to-hand combat, until reinforcements encircled the city and they, in turn, hunted the Germans down through alleys and sewers until a final hammer blow was dealt in November 1942 to Adolf Hitler’s grand campaign to crush Russia.

Mr Hellens, as he made clear, doesn’t like this Stalingrad business and he doesn’t want to dally with talk of defence. Instead, he announced his new battle plan: “We’re heading straight to Moscow”.

Others have been down this road before. Napoleon, for one. In 1812, he launched an invasion of Russia with about 650 000 men. He made it to Moscow, but the Russians, who had more than one defensive strategy up their sleeve, had burnt the place down and the Tsar was disinclined to talk peace with the little French emperor. Instead, he was betting on the weather: “My campaign, led by General Winter, is just beginning,” he said. Napoleon saw what was coming and slunk off with what booty his depleted troops could carry. Fewer than 100 000 of them were still alive to see in the new year.

Hitler, too, had designs on Moscow.

Its capture was the ultimate goal of what he called his “war of annihilation” against the Soviet army and the Russian people. He had no qualms about collateral damage, and in fact for him there was no such thing. His Commissar Order summarises his approach: “This struggle is one of [political] ideologies and racial differences and will have to be conducted with unprecedented, unmerciful and unrelenting harshness. All officers will have to rid themselves of obsolete [moral] ideologies.”

To ensure that his fascism killed Stalin’s communism, he added for good measure that “The [Russian] commissars are the bearers of ideologies directly opposed to National Socialism.

Therefore the commissars will be liquidated. German soldiers guilty of breaking international law … will be excused.”

But in October 1941, when Hitler had reached the outskirts of Moscow and he could almost taste victory, General Winter showed up again. Once again the prize of Moscow slipped out of a despot’s reach.

The ultimate cost of this folly was nearly four million dead on the German side and seven million on the Soviet side alone, not to mention the 25 million ordinary Russian citizens who had perished by the end of the war.

Moscow eluded two megalomaniacs, and signalled the end of both of them.

We know that the method in this Moscow madness is same old Stalingrad, but it should be pointed out that Hitler’s defeat at Moscow precipitated his retreat and preceded the annihilation of his troops at Stalingrad. It requires some rewriting of history to go from the latter to the former, and not everyone agrees with Mr Bonaparte that “History is a set of lies agreed upon”.

But at least Mr Hellens is good at geography. And the accused knows where Moscow is. He has friends there.

• Yves Vanderhaeghen is the editor of
The Witness.