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Munich 1939, Crimea 2014: Similarities and Differences
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-08-17 11:53:33
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As we have been reading in the very pages of Ovi magazine after the annexation (some call it the usurpation) of Crimea from Ukraine, what is going on today in Europe, with the advent of a full Ukrainian crisis, is quite similar to what was going in Europe at Munich in 1939: the appeasement of a nasty bully on the world stage. Comparisons of Putin to Hitler have proliferated like wild fire, and not only among neo-cons. Some thoughtful observers have called this geo-political phenomenon an unfair demonization of Putin by the West; others have called the EU feckless and lacking in courage; other European pundits and scholars see the crisis as inspired by the hegemonic US, and have counseled withdrawal from the NATO alliance. The widely differing analysis look like a veritable Tower of Babel.

Let’s attempt to untangle this dispute, resembling a veritable diatribe, and look more deeply at this comparison of Putin to Hitler, trying to determine what, historically, is valid in it, and what is gratuitous, even scurrilous and reprehensible. Let me begin by saying that indeed it remains reprehensible to be too quick in resorting to the Hitler analogy and demonize any and all dictators and even authoritarian leaders with such an analogy. On the other hand, to refuse to study one’s history and make valid comparisons, is to be condemned to repeat one’s history. So, let us determine what are the valid similarities between what Hitler sought in Central Europe then and what Putin is seeking in the former Soviet Union now.

One thing that seems to be quite similar is the stoking of virulent ethno-nationalistic forces after restoring a modicum of economic prosperity to one’s country, after a great national defeat (after World War I in Germany, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in Russia) with the corollary phenomenon of a solicitous preoccupation with the fate of one’s co-nationals outside one’s national borders. To repair that outrage one resorts to diplomacy, espionage, threats, intimidations, and, most importantly, the projection of military power in tandem with the readiness to use it, if needed; that is to say, to impress one’s adversaries with the idea that you do not fear conflict, as they do. As is commonly known, Hitler was thus able in the latter half of the 1930s, to remilitarize the Rhineland (1936), occupy and annex Austria and the Sudetenland (1938), take over the rest of the Czechoslovakia (1939), without any bloodshed and with no resistance, breaking his promise to London and Paris that he would not so act. The first ones to fight back, were not the English or the French, but the Poles who saw their country invaded in September 1939. The English and the French intervened post facto waking up to the reality that the bully had been appeased for too long and now the price in blood and treasure was going to be steeper.

Let’s compare that with what Putin has been up to, since his speech in Munich of Octobr 2007, where he informed the world that he lamented the death of the Soviet Union and accused the US of undermining global stability. What followed that speech was the invasion of Georgia in 2008 while the West averted its eyes. Next, Estonia was subjected to a destructive cyber attack causing real pain. All this intimidation netted Putin a “reset button” from the Obama administration ceremoniously handed to the Russian Foreign Minister by none other than the then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It took the seizure of Crimea to alert the West, especially the Europeans, that Putin’s agenda vis a vis the former Soviet space was one of aggression, adventurism, and intimidation. To continue with the historical analogy, it is interesting to compare the Western reaction to aggression in the 1930s with today’s reaction. The similarities are remarkable. So are the reactions of the Western “politically correct” intelligentsia. Many of them continue to insist that Putin is, after all, a rational man who plays chess and judo, and cannot possibly want a World War III. He doesn’t really mean all that embarrassing nationalistic talk. It’s a mere pose; he is really bluffing. But wait a minute; is that not similar to the reaction to Hitler pre-1939 adventurism? This is what they were saying back then: that Germany has legitimate interests in the fate of Germans outside its borders; we must not be unfair, Germany was badly treated after its defeat in the last war. That Hitler is a risk-taker, he likes playing at the edge of the abyss, but he does not seriously intend to start a real war, not least because his military is not ready. That the German economy, still not fully recovered from years of devastation, is wholly unprepared for major war, which would bring significant hardship for the German people and undermine the country.

This sounds eerily familiar to what pundits are saying today; without denying that there was some truth to what they were saying then and what they are saying now. There is no doubt that the idealistic Wilsonian principles of national self-determination were badly applied to the Germans of Central Europe, and the Germans in Czechoslovakia were not extended minority rights, as promised by the allies. It was also true that Germany was not fully ready for another world war in 1939, but the gambler that was Hitler ignored those arguments. Hitler actually saw war as the only way out to the dire economic predicament of Germany, which despite full employment retained a fragile economy. The achievement of Lebensraum would insure ultimate economic success.

It is intriguing that all those rationalizations purporting to explain Hitler’s behavior, if not excuse it, in the late 1930s have direct counterpart nowadays. Many today contend that it was the break-up of the Soviet Union which stranded millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation. It is also true that the Russian military is not really ready for a major war; it is in fact doubtful that it is ready to pacify the Ukraine with an all out mobilization. Moreover, it is also true that Putin’s era of prosperity is fragile at best, largely based on a few sectors of the economy, mainly extraction of natural resources and armaments which would be interrupted by a major war.

And yet we know not how Putin thinks about all this. Not unlike Hitler, he is becoming more and more isolated in his decision-making, the people around him seem to be yes-men, too timid to tell him the truth about his risky plans. History will have its say eventually. Of course, one obvious difference between 1939 and 2014 is the existence of nuclear weapons which Russia has in abundance. Thus a major war is far riskier today than it was then. The notion of a major war with nuclear weapons seems unthinkable to many Westerners. So they prefer not to think about it. But Russian views, even in this regard, may be different. Given the weakness of the conventional Russian forces vis a vis NATO, a war strategy from a Russian view-point may very well contemplate the use of all-out nuclear weapons.

It is also well known that Putin considers the West a decadent and dying civilization, some of his statements regarding what he dubs “Novorossiya” sound almost messianic and religious. The ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics are revealing in this respect. We know that he wants to break up not only NATO but the EU as well and thus restore what he considers the former, lost Russian greatness. His seeking a major war with them may not be dismissed out of hand. Indeed, Putin may not consciously be seeking a European war but may end up getting one anyway. It all depends on how umpredictable events unfold in the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, it may not be a bad idea to coolly analyze the situation with historical analogies, as long as one does so prudently and wisely, with a thorough knowledge of past history, without making facile comparisons, without determinism, that is to say, without considering those analogies unassailable and inevitable, as a kind of rhetorical weapon. Most importantly, the Western intelligentsia must come to understand that what they consider bizarre and even worthy of derision, from their perspective, may be quite plausible, even reasonable, to one’s enemies, those who have a different view of Western Civilization and subscribe to Machiavellian concepts of “real politik”. As I have stated somewhere else, we need to be careful and deliberate in deciding who are our real friends and who are our real enemies.


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