As a historian there’s nothing I dislike more than history’s misuse in bad analogies with current events. The subspecies that most needs to go away is the Forever Munich crowd — mostly neocons with quite a few neolibs; it’s always neo-something — for whom October 1938 is frozen in time eternally and the West is falling into “appeasement” to some nasty dictator somewhere. The more that said dictator can be portrayed as vaguely Hitlerian the better, but facts don’t always matter with the Forever Munich brigade. Their perennial point is that the West must “get tough” or something very bad will happen to someone, somewhere.
My loathing of the bad Hitler analogy notwithstanding, you have to be pretty ignorant of the history of Europe in the 1930s not to be more than a little creeped out by the similarities between what Adolf Hitler sought in Central Europe then and what Vladimir Putin is seeking in the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, now. In both cases, you’ve got a kinda-elected dictator who has successfully stoked powerful ethno-nationalism to remain popular, while bringing the economy back from the dead after a huge national defeat, and focusing attention on the fate of your co-nationals who have been cruelly left outside your borders by the last war. To fix that, you employ diplomacy, espionage, military power, threats, intimidation, and by far your best weapon is the unwillingness of your (actually far more powerful) adversaries to confront you in any sort of serious way. They fear conflict; you do not.
Hitler thereby managed to pull multiple diplomatic-cum-military rabbits from the hat in the latter half of the 1930s, remilitarizing the Rhineland in 1936, occupying both Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 without bloodshed, then taking over the rest of the Czech lands in March 1939, meeting no resistance, after having promised London and Paris that was exactly what he would not do. Only following that humiliation did Britain and France begin to take the German threat altogether seriously, and when Hitler finally pushed too far and invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, at last encountering a victim who fought back, London and Paris had no choice but to declare war on Germany. Not that they lifted a finger to save their ally Poland, mind you.
In a not dissimilar vein, ever since his fiery speech in Munich in October 2007, where Putin informed the world how much he lamented the death of the Soviet Union while harshly accusing the United States of undermining global stability, plenty of Westerners have averted eyes from what the Kremlin has actually been doing. Georgia was invaded in August 2008, in a punishment expedition that allowed Moscow to demonstrate its continuing power, and the West did, well … nothing really. Estonia was subjected to a serious cyber-attack that caused real pain and, yet again, this allowed the Kremlin to show it’s still there and will not be ignored. Again, the West didn’t do very much. The Obama administration tried its vaunted “reset,” an exercise in wishful thinking masquerading as strategy which history will judge harshly as the wrong policy at the wrong time, implemented by the wrong people.
That said, many Europeans were even more in the thrall of wishful thinking about the Kremlin than Washington DC, and the West did not really begin to pay attention to Moscow’s not-very-concealed agenda in the former Soviet space until this year, with naked Russian aggression in the seizure of Crimea. I, among others, then issued clear warnings about what Putin really wanted and what needed to be done, without delay, to deter further Kremlin adventurism. Instead, the West — broadly meaning NATO and the European Union and its friends — has implemented waves of sanctions which, while they may prove damaging to Russia, have done nothing to actually prevent more of what I call the Kremlin’s Special War against Ukraine.
Now that war is becoming hotter by the day. Russian proxies are nearing defeat in eastern Ukraine, which would constitute a serious political blow to the Kremlin, so Putin must decide very soon if he wants to intervene across the border, perhaps under a “humanitarian” cloak, or allow his “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk to go down to defeat. After stoking nationalist fires at home about Russians facing “genocide” at the hands of “Nazis” in Kyiv, it’s difficult to see how the Kremlin can simply wash its hands of eastern Ukraine and walk away. A loss to Ukraine would constitute a huge psychic blow to this Kremlin. The trajectory of this war will be clear soon.
Regardless, since this piece is about historical analogy, what I want to highlight is Western reactions to aggression in the 1930s and today. There are remarkable similarities in “enlightened” reactions to both Hitler and Putin in the Western media, among the great and the good. Educated, broadly liberal opinion, the sort of people who craft widely read op-eds and advise our top politicos, viewed both dictators similarly: as distasteful but basically rational men who could not possibly actually want war; as with all decent people, anything would be done to avoid a real conflict, and they don’t really mean all that embarrassing reactionary nationalist talk, it’s all a pose. Unfortunately, the West’s “best and brightest” were wrong then — are they wrong now?
Back in the late 1930s, elite Western opinion-makers, the Tom Friedmans of the day if you like, countered worries about Hitler, and his increasingly obvious aggression, with three essential points; you will recognize them being employed more recently as well, with only a few names changed.
1. Germany has legitimate interests in the fate of Germans outside its borders; we must not be unfair, Germany was badly treated after defeat in the last war.
2. Hitler is a risk-taker, he likes playing va banque, but he does not seriously intend to start a real war, not least because his military is not yet ready.
3. 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.
Let it be said that there was a good deal of truth to all three points in the late 1930s. The Tom Friedmans of the day were far from altogether wrong. In the first place, it was difficult to defend how badly the Wilsonian principle of national self-determination had been applied to the Germans of Central Europe. The victorious Allies prevented Austria and the Sudetenland, nearly 100 percent ethnically German, from joining Germany in 1919, even though that was the preferred option of every major political party, from far-left to far-right, in both those places. Instead, the Allies created the vaguely farcical Czechoslovakia, which actually had more Germans than Slovaks, and Prague excelled at progressive talk for Western consumption while refusing to extend to Germans the minority rights they were promised. In short, Hitler did not invent the issue of restless German minorities — the Allies did that — he simply exploited it, to the hilt, employing it as cover for aggression.
Second, Hitler was indeed a risk-taker who grew more confident with each bloodless victory. His growing contempt for British and French risk-avoidance only fueled the Führer’s desire for more conquest. Many top Wehrmacht generals blanched at the thought of taking on Czechoslovakia in fall 1938, which had strong border defenses and (it seemed) solid French backing. But Hitler’s devil-may-care gamble paid off, as they all would until the disastrous invasion of Russia in June 1941, the one dice-roll too many that ultimately doomed the Third Reich. Furthermore, by any rational analysis, the German military really was unready for a major war in late 1939. Hitler’s ambitious rearmament program was in mid-stride when Poland was invaded and the Wehrmacht entered the Second World War as a far less modern force than Blitzkrieg-happy propaganda, both German and Allied, portrayed it. Deficiencies in armor, aircraft, and above all motor transport were manageable in 1939-40 but would prove fatal once the Soviet Union was invaded. Any reality-based analyst would have informed Hitler in September 1939 that starting a European war was deeply unwise until Germany had completed its rearmament, which was still a couple years off, at least. Hitler indeed received similar counsel from Wehrmacht technocrats: he ignored it, and until his frozen panzers stalled in the snows around Moscow in late 1941, he seemed to have been right.
Third, Germany’s economy, despite its impressive rebound under Hitler, particularly in the realm of employment, was fragile in 1939, and the autarchy that the Second World War brought to completion did huge damage to Germany’s war economy. Yet, as Adam Tooze demonstrated in his fine book The Wages of Destruction, although Western commentators were right that a European war would seriously damage Germany’s economy and living standards, thus undermining the very prosperity that Hitler took power to achieve, it all looked different in Berlin. Hitler actually saw war as the lone way out of Germany’s dire economic predicament in 1939: only by invading neighbors and achieving Lebensraum could the Third Reich avoid the stark economic limitations it faced. While this argument was ultimately madcap, it possessed fierce internal logic, particularly for those who accepted the National Socialist racialist worldview. Economic “facts” of the sort so often triumphed by Western experts, then and now, as if they were immutable laws, carried no weight with Hitler, who created his own logic, at least for a time.
What does all this mean today? The three points that Western opinion-makers cited in the late 1930s to explain, if not excuse, Hitler’s aggression have direct counterparts now. Many are the Western journalists (by no means all Useful Idiots to use the proper Soviet phrase) who have noted that the breakup of the Soviet Union stranded millions of Russians outside the Russian Federation. The unhappiness of certain Russians in Ukraine has been much commented on, by no means inaccurately. Whether this justifies war, special or other, against Ukraine is another question altogether. No less, despite impressive reforms since 2008, the Russian military is far from ready for any major war; as I’ve noted, even pacifying Ukraine may be beyond its capabilities, barring a mass mobilization that would hardly be popular with much of the Russian public. Last, Russia’s Putin-era prosperity, though real, is fragile and based on a few sectors of the economy — resource extraction and armaments, mostly — that would be upended by a major war. It is difficult to argue that any extended conflict would benefit Russia, much less average Russians, in any material way.
But it may look very different in the Kremlin right now. To date, Moscow shows no signs of moderating its stance towards Ukraine, indeed the contrary. Putin still has time to de-escalate the crisis he has created, he is the sole person who can do that, and all reasonable people will hope he does. Yet we do not know how Vladimir Putin thinks about this. It’s apparent that he has become increasingly isolated in his decision-making, and may be surrounded by sycophants and yes-men who will not risk careers to say the necessary about foolhardy plans in the Kremlin. History eventually will tell us.
One big difference between now and 1939, of course, is the existence of nuclear weapons, which Russia possesses in abundance. Given this reality, flirting with major war is a far risker and more terrifying proposition than anything on the table seventy-five years ago. Indeed, nuclear weapons make the notion of major war nearly unthinkable to many Westerners, which perhaps explains why they refuse to think about it. Yet here, as in so many areas, Russian views are different, even radically so, from Western perceptions, as my colleague Tom Nichols has explained lucidly. Given their conventional weaknesses compared to NATO, Russian strategists are far more comfortable contemplating nuclear release than most Westerners are, while Russian violations of the landmark 1987 INF Treaty cannot but cause discomfort among those who desire peace.
The notion that Putin may actually seek a major war, an all-out confrontation with a West he considers decadent and dying, is terrifying but cannot be excluded out of hand. We know that the Kremlin wants to fracture NATO, humiliate the EU, and thereby restore Russian greatness. Given some of his statements, a certain messianic religious aspect to Putin’s motivations, which will not aid strategic analysis, cannot be ruled out either. Seeking a direct confrontation with the West would be the most obvious way for Moscow to achieve its rather clear strategic aims.
If Moscow invades Ukraine yet confines its aggression to the country’s Southeast, where its ailing proxies are, the war may be contained and wrapped up rather quickly by the Kremlin. However, if Putin pushes his forces beyond that and attempts to create “Novorossiya” by force across southern Ukraine, a full-scale war will result that will take years, not months, to resolve; casualties will mount and passions will rise among militaries and civilians alike. Containing an all-out war for Ukraine might prove impossible. In that scenario, Putin may get a European war whether he actively is seeking one or not.
What will happen in Ukraine will become clear soon. In the meantime, it is wise to choose proper historical analogies that add to understanding of complex problems, rather than confusing issues further. Above all, it is imperative that educated Westerners, particularly the postmodern denizens of the WEIRD contingent, understand that things they cannot contemplate because they find them unpalatable or even ridiculous may seem quite plausible to others. What you find utterly unthinkable may prove quite thinkable, even reasonable, to your enemies.