The Crisis in Ukraine Has Disturbing Echoes of the 1930s

The 1930s taught us something: things can easily fall apart. A fragile international order that is held together by institutions meant to keep peace in place can collapse overnight. The post-Versailles regime collapsed under the pressure of German aggression. Without firing a single shot, Czechoslovakia was erased from Europe’s map. Europe was in its worst war for twenty-years one year later. And suddenly, the “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the conflict between Germany and Czechoslovakia, was not so “far away” anymore.

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From a European periphery few people in the West care to know about, Ukraine has now turned into the unwilling protagonist of a conflict that has been described as “the most significant European war in almost 80 years.” The Russian president has gone from promising to tone down Russia’s supposed military ‘exercises’ along the frontier with Ukraine to launching a full-scale attack on the neighboring country. Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, displace hundreds of thousands and are seeking refuge in Romania and Poland.

In March 1938, Nazi Germany invade Austria. This was after Italy’s Benito Mussolini had stopped an earlier attempt to annexe the country. The Austrian chancellor kept them in line, but the Nazi-run Austria took control of ministerial buildings to welcome Hitler and his forces into Vienna. Austrians celebrated the annexed too. They felt that the German-Austrian Republic had been reduced to poverty and isolation after 1918 when it was banned from joining Germany. Some said that Austria would not be the same without Germany. lebensunfaehig—or incapable of living, a mere relic of what had once been one of the world’s most powerful empires.

The real turning point happened in September, when British, French, Italian, and German leaders met in Munich to discuss Hitler’s new claims to the Sudetenland, then a province of the Czechoslovak state. The great powers deliberated on their fate while the Czechs waited patiently in the lobby. The Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes was then presented with a fait accompli. He signed an agreement to give the Sudetenland over to Nazi Germany. Hitler secured peace in Czechoslovakia and seized a portion of it. In negotiating with Hitler, the Western powers made him a new international arbiter by making him agree to negotiate.

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Hitler continued his invasions of Bohemia and Moravia in March 1939. Even more tragically, Czechoslovakia’s neighbors Poland and Hungary also carved out pieces of territory they claimed were rightfully theirs: Teschen, Southern Slovakia, and Ruthenia, respectively. In the end, the Czechoslovak State was destroyed in a matter of months.

It was not the first or last time an East European country recognized by international communities had disappeared from the world map. Poland was a country that became independent in the latter half of the eighteenth-century.Once a strong empire that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Seawas extinguished from existence. When it was recreated at the end of World War II as the Polish People’s Republic, it occupied territories that had once belonged to Germany. Soviet Russia and its republics took over the lands of former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Today’s world is arguably very different from the world of the 1930s. Ukraine’s neighbors, unlike Czechoslovakia’s in the 1930s, are not rubbing their hands with joy at the prospect of its disintegration. To be certain, there are still tensions between these countries. Ukraine has been unhappy about Romania’s generous citizenship laws, designed to benefit ethnic kin outside Romania’s borders. Romanians are still bitter about territories in Ukraine like Northern Bukovina which were annexed by the Soviet Union from Romania in 1944. They then became part of Soviet Ukraine. But Ukraine’s conflict with Russia has improved its relationship with its neighbors, who similarly fear Russian aggression. Romanian and Polish are both open to Ukrainian refugees.

But, the moment we’re living in has many disturbing similarities to what was happening in 1930s. Our moment in time is also post-imperial. We are still experiencing the consequences of the disintegration of one of the world’s greatest empires: the Soviet Union. The recurrence and practices of imperial mindsets, institutions, and practices long after the collapse of empires has been discussed extensively by historians. The 1930s and the Munich Moment, especially, have such resonance because of this post-imperial conjuncture.

Hitler’s overturning of the European order in the 1930s was made possible by the serious misalignment between what European societies were presumed to be by theorists of the new international order and what they were in actuality. Germany and RussiaOnce powerful empiresThey were defeated and embarrassed by the end of war. These people developed a conspiracy-oriented view of the world that was reinforced by the West’s containment and isolation. New nation-states replaced the multinational empires that fell apart during wartime. They ruled over same populations that were multiethnic and multilingual. Both the winners and losers caused dissatisfaction by inconsistencies in what these nation states were meant to be and their actual reality.

The Soviet Union didn’t collapse in war. It was not even peaceful in the post-Soviet era. Russia fell into deep economic depression after 1991. People who had just months ago been safe lost all they owned in a matter of days. Ukraine’s declaration of independence in August 1991 set the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin. Ironically, the Soviet Union’s disintegration was spearheaded by Russia under Boris Yeltsin, who felt (not completely without justification) that Russia, having identified itself completely with the Soviet Union, was the only member of the Union without an identity and institutional apparatus of its own.

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But not long after Yeltsin forced Gorbachev’s resignation, it turned out that Russia without the Soviet Union or its former empire proved just as unviable. It was a weak power, unable to compete in a globalized world. Once again, conspiratorial thinking came to define Russia’s relationship with the West, increasingly perceived by Putin as an existential threat to Russia.

But, Hitler’s ability to grab Czechoslovakia one after the other in 1938 was also what enabled Putin to get this far. This is because of fear and resentment toward the West and a sense of superiority, as well as the certainty that Western power would go to great lengths to stop war. Putin too is both convinced that the ‘West’ is conspiring against Russia and aware that the ‘West’ tends to prevaricate, hesitate, deliberate, negotiate before committing.

Putin may be no Hitler, but it is possible to learn something from the 1930s. Not all states follow the same principles. Ideas aren’t just empty words. What if Putin’s speeches, delusional as they sound, are not disguising a simple appetite for power? What if they reflect a genuine belief that Russia has a mission to fulfill in the world and that ‘recovering’ Ukraine through war is essential, as it has been in the past, to the Russian state’s recovery and pursuit of this mission?

Hitler’s contemporaries thought he was a manipulator at best and a madman at worst. He was infamous for his racist tirades. Mein Kampf They were an authentic reflection of his convictions. This is why so few people actually read his book, even though it was widely available. Putin assures us that he isn’t a fascist, and that he doesn’t believe in them. Putin operates in a more complex world and has limited power. But Nazi Germany’s expansion into Eastern Europe in the 1930s provides us with a sobering lesson that may also apply to Putin and Russia today: even the most unimaginable scenarios, the strangest ramblings of lunatics can come true when people close their eyes to their possibility until it becomes too late.

To take such ideas as Putin’s pronouncements on the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state seriously seems difficult. Because they are unable to comprehend authoritarianism, democracies take longer time to mobilize. Democracies are more likely to win than democracies, as World War II proved. It might be a long process and they might lose the lives of hundreds of thousand of people. Victory is not guaranteed. It requires perseverance and determination. Germany’s recent decision to increase defense spending and Europe’s rallying behind Ukraine are encouraging signs that this time around, perhaps, disaster will be averted. But Ukraine’s plight is just beginning and it is much too early to become complacent.


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