“I believe it is peace for our time,” Neville Chamberlain said, standing outside 10 Downing Street on Sept. 30, 1938, upon returning from a meeting with Adolf Hitler in Germany.
Those infamous words by the British prime minister, which followed a deal to give Nazi Germany a part of Czechoslovakia in return for a promise of no war, have been repeated for more than 75 years as the example of appeasing to a dictator in modern history.
On the same day that Hillary Clinton said that Vladimir Putin’s claims of protecting ethnic Russians was “reminiscent” of Hitler’s claims for ethnic Germans living in Sudetenland, Rep. John Shimkus, an Illinois Republican, told the House floor that the world was acting like Chamberlain “as Russia continues to gobble up sovereign states.”
Comparisons to Hitler are overdone and often inappropriate. The man did kill 6 million Jews and brought the world to war. But in this case, those on the left and right seem to be comfortable suggesting that Crimea is the new Sudetenland.
So, what actually happened in that slice of the former Czechoslovakia in 1938?
Sudetenland is a thin region in the northwestern, western, and southwestern parts of what’s now the Czech Republic, bordering Germany. At the time, it was mostly inhabited by German speakers who were particularly vulnerable to unemployment and poverty during the 1930s — making it easier for some to cling to political extremism.
As Hitler expanded his reach in Europe, annexing Austria and looking to enlarge the Third Reich, he started coordinating with the local Nazi Party to pressure the Czechoslovakian government for more minority rights for ethnic Germans. Those rights were granted, but Hitler pushed further. He wanted to annex Sudetenland, and he threatened to go to war to secure the region.
Fearing a second major conflict in their lifetimes, Britain and France met with Germany and Italy to find a solution. Czechoslovakia was not included in the meetings. After several rounds of negotiation and threats of military force from Hitler, the four parties met in Munich to agree to a solution that would let Germany annex Sudetenland and immediately occupy the territory militarily. Later, this would make Germany’s invasion of the rest of Czechoslovakia five months later easier, because Hitler had taken away any sort of border defense.
Chamberlain, Hitler, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement on Sept. 30, 1938, labeled as a victory for peace.
Right now, it’s fair to say that Vladimir Putin is making similar claims of protecting ethnic Russians in Crimea. Crimea, like that region of Czechoslovakia, is also strategic militarily and plagued by a weak central government.
But the position that the world finds itself in now is completely and utterly different than in 1938. Putin is not Hitler, in neither intentions nor actions. Ukrainian government leaders are at the table and involved in international discussions. And Western leaders have not signed Crimea over to Russia for a promise of peace.
Could Crimea for Putin, like Sudetenland for Hitler, be “batting practice,” as The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen said in a Tuesday column? Will Putin now go after countries in the region with large Russian populations like Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, as Hitler did in Czechoslovakia and Poland? Or is this an isolated instance?
There are similarities between that infamous moment in modern history and what we face today, and leaders should want to prevent such atrocities again. But these questions remain unanswered. It is just too early to call Putin Hitler and Obama Chamberlain.
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