It’s Too Early to Say Putin Is Using Hitler’s Playbook

Crimea is not Sudetenland, Putin is not Hitler, and Obama is not Chamberlain.

Adolf Hitler with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, right, negotiating the annexation of Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
March 11, 2014, 11:32 a.m.

“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.

And now, a grow­ing choir of politi­cians and pun­dits, warn­ing of the con­sequences of Rus­si­an ag­gres­sion in Ukraine, are us­ing it too.

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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