Hitler delivered his speech of September 12, 1938 to the German Reichstag a few weeks before the German tanks rolled over the German-Czech border to invade Czechoslovakia; Putin delivered his speech of February 21, 2022 to the Russian nation as he was giving orders for the Russian tanks to cross the Russian border with Eastern Ukraine.
As the main reason for invasion, Hitler gave the inflated grievances of the German minority of 3.5 million in Czechoslovakia; Putin often cites the imaginary oppression of the Russian speakers in Ukraine as the main reason for his invasion in 2014 and now in 2022. I am a Russian-speaking Ukrainian. I know from personal experience that Putin’s claim is a lie. Ukraine is a bilingual country, where Russian is nearly as common as Ukrainian. Russian speakers in Ukraine have broader civil rights than their counterparts in Putin’s Russia.
As Hitler was complaining about the imaginary oppression of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia, he was five years into the persecution of the Jews in Germany. In fact, the first concentration camps appeared as early as 1933, and 400 decrees and regulations were published to restrict the public and private rights of the Jews. As Putin was spreading lies about the oppression of the Russian speakers in Ukraine, he began to brutally oppress and persecute the Crimean Tatars, immediately after the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The persecution of Tatars is well-documented.
In his speech, Hitler questions the existence of Czechs as a nation, referring to it as “the so-called nation of the Czechs” and blaming the Treaty of Versailles (1919) for bringing “the abnormal state of Czechoslovakia” into being. Like Hitler before him, Putin asserts in his speech that “Ukraine actually never had the traditions of real statehood” and credits the creation of a nation that had existed centuries before the founding of Moscow to “Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” In other words, Hitler single-handedly denied statehood to Czechoslovakia; Putin’s strategy with Ukraine is very similar. Both were supported by the vast majority of their populations at home; both also have useful idiots abroad, willing to believe their nonsense.
Hitler’s main grievance was the defeat and humiliation of Germany after WWI (1918). Putin’s lingering grudge is the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, which he infamously called “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century.” Putin believes that some version of the Russian Empire could still be reconstituted, and his immediate goal is the invasion of Ukraine. However, there are good reasons to believe that he will not stop with Ukraine.
Hitler’s speech includes the following promise: “I have declared that the frontier between France and Germany is a final one.” He subsequently claims that “Germany has no interests in the West, and our western wall is for all time the frontier of the Reich on the west.” Now, we know how this ended. Remarkably, Putin gives no assurances at all regarding the integrity of the borders of the neighboring nations, especially the Baltic States and Poland. Putin’s record to date speaks for itself: he violated the borders of Moldova in Transnistria (1992) and annexed two areas of Georgia (2008) and nearly one-seventh of Ukraine (2014, finalized in 2022).
The Munich Pact of September 30, 1938 forced Czechoslovakia to cede a large portion of its territory and gave Hitler permission to occupy the predominantly German-speaking regions of the country. However, this attempt of the European great powers to appease the Führer only emboldened him to further aggression. Similarly, the Minsk agreements of 2015, which were overall disadvantageous for Ukraine, have enabled the Kremlin to use the frozen conflict as a vehicle of Ukraine’s destabilization. By letting Russian tanks openly enter the territory of Eastern Ukraine, Putin has annulled any previously signed agreements to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, including those made in Minsk.
Hitler acted as a dictator, identified himself with the German nation, and demanded sacrifices of Germans. Putin has become unhinged and will turn into a dictator by the logic of the war that is opposed by the rest of the world.
In WWII, Ukraine, Belarus’, and Poland became the “bloodlands” that in terms of losses per capita suffered most. If Putin is to move on Kiev, President Biden’s mantra that NATO will protect militarily only NATO’s allies is not sufficient to contain the conflict. Nobody could anticipate in 1938 that the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Czechoslovakia would lead to a war claiming an estimated 75-80 million human lives. Likewise, Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the occupation of Eastern Ukraine could lead to the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our century. Will the lessons of WWII help the world to see and prevent this catastrophe?
Paul Gavrilyuk is the Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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