Putin’s aggression in Ukraine Echoes Hitler’s actions in the late 1930s

There is value in thinking about historical precedents - both the similarities and differences - of Putin's attempts to annex Ukraine and Hitler's Anschluss in 1930. 

A past decision can inform a future decision, as lessons learned from the past can help prevent repeating the same errors.

Parallels – Hitler and Putin use the same playbook

In his analysis, Professor Christopher C. Harmon of the Institute for World Politics points out how Putin's decade of aggression against the Ukrainian people is akin to Germany's actions against Austria and its neighboring countries in the late 1930s. Note the analogies in pretext, political posture, and stepwise strategic approach.

1) The Pretexts: In his overheated speeches, Hitler acted as if the German-speaking peoples of the Republics of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland were the property of Berlin and claimed that they aspired to be united with the German state. He declared "Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer"/ "One people, one country, one leader". He also alleged that German speakers were subjected to torture and tyranny. 

Putin is behaving similarly in Ukraine and neighboring regions, portraying himself as a protector of anyone who speaks Russian or who has Russian genes. “We are one people, we have unquestionably, common historical roots and a common destiny,” Putin said about Russians and Ukrainians. “Neanderthal and aggressive nationalism and neo-Nazism […] have been elevated to the rank of national policy,” he continued. “How much longer can we put up with this?”

2) Political Posture: Hitler and Putin both opted for offensive war policies, while invariably talking about strategic defense. Hitler’s expansionist policy was outlined in Mein Kampf, even though it was largely disavowed when it was implemented in the late 1930s. Putin always denied any interest in war. Yet, Putin wages war in peacetime... with rhetoric, and the use of cyber weapons, military maneuvers, and the reinforcement of borders that were never threatened by Ukraine. This posture is intimidating. The prospect of escalating the crisis he has created, or even extending the war, is frightening to many. These threats of force are designed to make opponents malleable and weaken their resolve.

3) A Stepwise Strategic Approach: both Hitler and Putin implemented a phased approach to expand their territories. However, they always denied it.

Hitler’s early moves include the occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland and the Austrian Anschluss in the late 1930s, based on the idea of reuniting the German-speaking peoples and unwinding the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.

Putin seized two border areas of Georgia in 2012, all of Crimea in 2014, as well as the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson in 2022. Putin likes to talk about the long history of Russian-speaking peoples in Ukraine and other former Soviet bloc nations such as Georgia, as well as NATO’s eastward expansion into the former Soviet bloc.

Hitler always allowed a comforting pause before snatching the next victim. For example, after the fall of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had only six months to wait. Putin is studying the White House, gauging their reaction before determining his next step.

"Step by step" was the method used by the Germans then, just like the one used by the Russians today. Always providing reassurance on limited aims, always seizing limited territories.

Differences – Reactions of the Western Powers

What is happening now in Europe, and what happened in the 1930s, tells us a lot about who we are – the democratic West – not just about foreign despots. 

Democracies often have a hard time understanding authoritarianism and are slow to mobilize. Back then, the Western powers (Britain, France, Italy, the United States) did practically nothing to react to the Anschluss. They considered the Anschluss as a means of pacifying Adolf Hitler. In an address to the League of Nations, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, " [T]he Small countries should not be encouraged with promises about their defense if, in reality, there are no plans to provide it."

Today, Vladimir Putin must have been banking on the same fatalistic attitude on the part of the West. This time, however (except for Crimea in 2014), the West is not willing to repeat its earlier mistakes and is enforcing harsh international military and economic sanctions against Russian leaders, their businesses, and banks.

The Ukrainian war, itself, has further accentuated Moscow's imperialist and totalitarian ambitions, which are now at the heart of its foreign policy. Therefore, ensuring a Russian defeat is the best investment for the future of Europe and the world. According to Eliot Cohen of The Atlantic, "the West faces a simple choice: reduce aid to Ukraine and deliver Russia a victory, or else finish the job it has begun”. To do that, Ukraine needs concrete military and related support, fast; but it also needs it in the medium and long term. 

As of October 2022, the US provided 52.32 billion euros in financial, military, and humanitarian aid. The EU contributed 16.24 billion euros, mostly in financial aid. Germany's recent decision to increase its defense spending and Europe's rallying behind Ukraine are encouraging signs, but much remains to be done. Indeed, Ukraine is engaged in a modern, protracted, industrial war, unprecedented in Europe since the Second World War. This type of warfare is a voracious consumer of equipment and resources of all kinds.

Final Thoughts

If the 1930s teach us anything, it is that things can easily go wrong.

The rise of Nazism, which disrupted the European order in the 1930s, offers a sobering lesson that can also be applied to Putin and Russia today: the most inconceivable scenarios, the strangest derailments of madmen, have every chance of happening when people close their eyes to these eventualities and are slow to face reality before it is too late.

Luckily, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a silver lining. At a time of rising nationalism in many countries and weakened international cooperation, Putin's coup de force could open up new opportunities: 1) a revalorization of democratic unity in Europe, 2) an intensification of NATO's territorial protection, stepping up its presence in the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and Poland, 3) an awareness of Putin's desire to restore a tsarist Russia, which is a threat to Finland in particular, as well as to the Baltic states and Poland, all of which were once part of the Russian empire, 4) an awareness of energy dependence on Russia and the search for new solutions.

I conclude with a quote from Winston Churchill: “Courage is the virtue that makes all others possible”.

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