Every time I read about developments in the current impasse between Russia, on one hand, and the United States and its NATO allies, on the other, over Ukraine, I am reminded of the events that led to the Second World War.
In June 1919, the First World War, also known as the Great War that killed 9 million combatants and 4 million civilians, formally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which held Germany responsible for starting the war and imposed harsh penalties on Germany in terms of loss of overseas territories and portions of its home territory to France and Poland, the payment of $33 billion in war reparations, and demilitarization that forbid the country to build submarines and an air force.
Adolf Hitler, who was a corporal wounded during that war, like many Germans, felt outraged and humiliated by the harsh terms of the Treat of Versailles.
He and these other Germans formed the Nazi Party, which capitalized on the economic hardships being experienced by their compatriots to entice them to join the party with a promise of bringing back the glory of Germany and of building a powerful empire that would bring back together the millions of ethnic Germans stranded in conquered territories.
He said that in the new Germany, all citizens would serve the state unselfishly, democracy would be abolished, and individual rights would be sacrificed for the good of the state.
Hitler tried to seize power in 1928 but the coup was crushed and he spent a year in prison. After his release, Hitler took advantage of the failing economy to attract more Germans to the Nazi Party until it became the biggest political party by 1932.
In 1933, President Paul von Hinderburg appointed Hitler as chancellor and the latter immediately convinced the President to declare an emergency decree and suspend civil liberties, including freedoms of the press and expression and the right to hold public assemblies, and allowed warrantless arrests.
Hitler then secretly built a powerful military, with submarines (U-2s) and a strong air force (Luftwaffe), all in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1938, he began his quest for territorial conquests to incorporate ethnic Germans.
In collusion with Austrian Nazis, he orchestrated the Anschluss, which annexed Austria to Germany.
Hitler then forced Czechoslovakia to surrender Sudetenland, a region where many ethnic Germans lived. Czechoslovakia turned to France and Great Britain for help but the two European powers, which were still trying to recover from the devastation of World War I, in an attempt to appease Hitler, convinced Czechoslovakia to give up Sudetenland with a promise from Germany not to take any more territories.
At that time, Great Britain was still led by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who was convinced his policy of appeasement would spare Great Britain from a possible war, which he described as “peace with honor.”
That same year, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. A year later in 1939, Germany devoured Poland, marking the official start of the Second World War, which completely destroyed Europe and caused the death of up to 56 million people directly caused by the war and 19 to 28 million more resulting from diseases and famine.
Now, almost 82 years later, the world is teetering again on the edge of war that has stark similarities to the events leading to the Second World War.
Vladimir Putin was a KGB agent in Germany when in 1991, the once mighty Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR or the Soviet Union) collapsed with the 15 republics comprising the empire declaring their independence from Moscow, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Ukraine.
The Soviet collapse followed the democratic upheaval in Eastern Europe, also known as countries behind the “Iron Curtain,” that brought down communist regimes in Poland, Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, among others.
The Soviet collapse and the breakup of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact followed Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost, which allowed Soviet citizens to discuss publicly the problems of their system and potential solutions, and perestroika, a series of political and economic reforms meant to kick-start the stagnant 1980s economy of the Soviet Union, and his decision to loosen control over the Eastern European countries.
(On a personal note, this writer was invited by the Novosti Press Agency along with journalist Marites Vitug in 1988 to visit Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Tbilisi in Georgia, and Baku in Azerbaijan, and to chronicle the many changes under Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika policies.)
The Soviet collapse was a source of humiliation for the ultra-nationalist Putin, just as Germany’s loss in the First World War was to Hitler.
In one of his speeches as Russian president, Putin called the Soviet break-up ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.”
In a recent interview, Putin lamented the Soviet collapse as the demise of “historical Russia,” adding that the economic crisis that followed affected him personally as he had to moonlight as a taxi driver.
“We turned into a completely different country. And what had been built up over 1,000 years was largely lost,” said Putin, saying 25 million Russian people in newly independent countries suddenly found themselves cut off from Russia, part of what he called “a major humanitarian tragedy.”
Just as Hitler vowed to restore the might of Germany and liberate ethnic Germans all over Europe, including millions in Russia, Putin has promised to bring back the glory of the mighty Soviet empire, although he did not elaborate on his plans for the displaced Russians.
Almost exactly eight years ago, on February 23, 2014, masked men believed to be Russian soldiers wearing no insignia took over the parliament and other strategic sites in Crimea, a part of Ukraine.
The attack followed a meeting with his security service chiefs the night before where Putin declared “we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia.” The captured Parliament then installed pro-Russian
Sergey Aksyonov and declared Crimea an independent republic.
The United States and NATO countries, led by United Kingdom, France and, yes, Germany, imposed severe sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Crimea, but Russia withstood the penalties, further emboldening Putin and his army.
Since late last year, more than 100,000 troops have been massed near the border of Ukraine, armed with tanks, artillery and missiles. Over the weekend, Russian ships were spotted in the Black Sea, whose shores Russia shares with Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden and his national security adviser Jake Sullivan have twice said Russia could invade Ukraine “any day now.”
If this happens, it marks another eerie similarity to Germany’s annexation of Austria and Sudetenland in 1938 and the subsequent invasion of the entire Czechoslovakia despite a promise not to take more territories.
Hitler went on to invade Poland, France and the rest of Western Europe in 1939.
Putin also assured Western nations it would not invade Ukraine.
But based on Putin’s past record and on the circumstances of Hitler’s treachery in 1938, can the West and the world rely on his words?