The West’s generational test
History, we are told, repeats and rhymes. Now the aphorism strikes in Ukraine, in missiles streaking across skies, in the rumble of tanks. It is either historical coincidence or a reflection of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pathology that his invasion of Ukraine occurs three weeks before the 83rd anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia. Only time and the numbers of dead and displaced will reveal how deeply Putin embeds himself in Hitler’s grotesque shadow.
Such comparisons are often fraught. Hitler’s crimes are unique and unmatchable, we are told. The purity of his evil is not to be diluted by mixing-in blander examples. I agree, as to the magnitude. But history offers warnings in snippets of déjà vu.
Consider Czechoslovakia. (For a thorough history, I recommend “Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War” by Tim Bouverie.) Four years after becoming German chancellor, in November 1937, Hitler summoned the heads of his armed forces and informed them of the need to wage a war for Lebensraum, “living space.” He considered a surprise attack on Austria and Czechoslovakia. Many of his generals, however, argued that Western intervention was too dangerous a possibility. Hitler was unpersuaded; he viewed Great Britain as a declining power and France as weakened by internal divisions.
In March 1938, Germany invaded Austria. Western governments criticized, condemned, protested. But the diplomacy was tempered by delusion. Many believed that the swallowing of Austria didn’t truly threaten their security; that Hitler’s territorial ambitions had been satisfied.
They learned quickly that the insatiable thirst of a psychopath is never quite quenched.
Within months, Hitler’s cravings turned to the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, where 3 million people of German origin lived. To build a rationale for a military incursion, Hitler and his propaganda machine steadily churned baseless, incendiary allegations of oppression against ethnic Germans and the need to come to their defense. (Again, familiar?)
As the possibility of war grew, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain entered into negotiations with Hitler, traveling to Germany to sign the calamitous Munich Agreement, which ceded the Sudetenland. Chamberlain returned to jubilant crowds in England, famously standing in front of 10 Downing Street and proclaiming that he’d “returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”
Four months later in March, Hitler’s Wehrmacht crossed the border and conquered what remained of Czechoslovakia. Hitler arrived triumphantly in Prague, where the swastika flew. Soon to fall were Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France.
The invasion of Czechoslovakia was a naked, unprovoked, unjustified land grab; a savage conquest. No different than today’s military operations in Ukraine. No different in how Putin views Ukraine than Stalin, whose policies murdered 4 million Ukrainians in the 1930s (chillingly described in Anne Applebaum’s “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine”).
Putin may not be Hitler or Stalin, but he refracts their grotesque images. When Hitler invaded Austria, one of his first stops was the city of Linz, near his birthplace. Bouverie captures the moment: “Standing with tears running down his cheeks, Hitler addressed the throng from the balcony of the town hall. It was Providence, he claimed, which had selected him to restore his homeland to the German Reich.” (Of course, his homeland never actually belonged to the Reich, but what is inconvenient fact to a man with his own truths?)
Similarly, Putin believes it is his destiny to reconstitute the former Soviet Union, to reclaim by coercion and killing the proxy states lost to democracy.
There is one departure from the historic trend. Unlike the feckless, appeasing diplomacy of the 1930s, President Biden deserves credit for galvanizing a coalition of the willing and even the reticent. The administration’s painstaking intel-diplomacy has built a regimen of collective sanctions. But they will take time and increased pressure. Sanctions of this nature don’t bite, they grind.
Meanwhile, Putin may have miscalculated his grand objectives. If his goal was to weaken NATO’s presence, he’s strengthened it. If it was to divide Ukraine, he has united it. If it was to gain international stature, he has become an international pariah.
We don’t know how or when this will end. Perhaps tragically, as it did for the people of Czechoslovakia 83 years ago. Perhaps ruinously for Moscow, repeating their grueling 10-year occupation and retreat from Afghanistan.
Europe has never entirely shed itself of the shadows of the past. They hover where the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Putin have satisfied and continue to satisfy their pathological cravings for empire. They recede and return, in those rhymes of history. The question now is: Will the West repeat our own history of appeasement or resistance? Will it be Chamberlain or Churchill?
This is the generational test of our leaders today. The future depends on their understanding of what occurred in March, 83 years ago.
Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now director of the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy Institute of Politics and Global Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.