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The past is not always a faraway foreign country.

[This blog is prompted by Tim Bouverie’s excellent and highly readable account of the run up to World War 2.]

The idea of uniting all Germans into a single nation state did not originate with the Nazis. It was a major dynamic in European geo-politics throughout the 19th century. The remaking of the map of Europe after Germany’s defeat in the 1914–1918 war put the concept to sleep for a while. But Hitler’s ascent to power in 1933 revived it.

The 1919 Treaty of Versailles dissolved the old mainland European configuration of empires and remade the continent with a slew of new independent countries. This was done supposedly in furtherance of the principle of self-determination but, the Nazis claimed, at the expense of allegedly denying self-determination to substantial ethnic German populations consigned to live beyond rather than within the borders of Germany itself.

The most “egregious” case was the new republic of Austria. Hived off from the former Austro-Hungarian empire and adjoining Germany, the post-war treaties explicitly prohibited any union between Austria and Germany, precisely because Austria’s population was overwhelmingly German in ethos.

Similarly, although the new republic of Czechoslovakia constituted a Nabokovian salad of ethnic genes, the cluster of municipalities mainly in the north adjoining the German border and collectively designated the Sudetenland comprised a majority of ethnic Germans too, though these constituted less than a quarter of the population of the entire country.

Although he bided his time, Hitler was bent on consigning the post-war settlement to the dustbin. As the lower hanging fruit, Austria was the first target. An attempted coup supported by Berlin failed in 1934 but Germany dialled up the pressure again early in 1938. Under pressure from Hitler to resign, the Austrian chancellor announced a referendum on a possible union, prompting Hitler to pre-empt the issue by sending his troops across the border at 5.30 a.m. on 12 March, the day before the vote. There was no resistance. Hitler and his entourage followed them in open cars later the same day. The Fuehrer addressed a rapturous crowd in Linz that day and an equally welcoming one in Vienna two days later. The union or Anschluss was a quick fait accompli.

On 30 May, Hitler signed a secret directive mandating war against Czechoslovakia by 1 October.

Through the summer, the pressure from Berlin and the Sudeten German leadership ratcheted up on the Czechoslovakian government to concede the secession of the Sudetenland. Britain and France also encouraged the Czech Government quietly in that direction to avert the issue escalating towards a wider European conflict into which they could be drawn.

The situation boiled over in mid-September. After a fiery speech on 12 September by Hitler in which he accused the Czechoslovakian government of “annihilating” the German minority, the Sudeten Germans rose in armed revolt. The Czech Government responded by proclaiming martial law. By the end of 13 September, 13 Czechs and 10 Sudeten Germans had been killed.

At that point, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, proposed to Hitler that he would travel by air to Germany the following day “with a view to trying to find a peaceful solution”. It was only Chamberlain’s second ever flight, the first of three trips to Germany he would undertake over the following fortnight, each time carrying his trademark umbrella. The process would culminate in the famous Munich conference of the leaders of the four major European “powers”; Britain, Germany, France and Italy, over 29–30 September.

Encouraged by a public commitment by Hitler in a speech of 26 September that the Sudetenland was the last territorial demand he would make in Europe, the quartet of leaders effectively settled the terms for the immediate dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in the early hours of 30 September, over the heads of that country’s own delegation waiting outside the room. Germany’s occupation of Sudetenland was completed by 10 October. Poland and Hungary helped themselves to smaller portions of Czechoslovakia in the months that followed.

Chamberlain met Hitler alone shortly before leaving Munich and presented the Fuehrer with a proposed Joint Statement, the crucial passage of which was the declaration that the two leaders regarded the Munich Agreement “as symbolic of the desire of our two people’s never to go to war with one another again.” Confronted with the usual barrage of radio microphones and newsreel cameras when he landed back in London, Chamberlain proclaimed: “that the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem… is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all of Europe may find peace.” Then, raising the slender sheet of paper so that it flapped in the wind, he read the declaration which bore the signature of the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler “as well as mine”.

Chamberlain enjoyed a brief high tide of popularity. But, though there was no popular appetite for a war, the tide began to ebb quickly.

A signal event was the wave of anti-Semitic violence across Germany and Austria over the night of 9–10 November 1938, quickly designated as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) removing any serious room for doubt as to the character of the Nazi regime.

Four months later, in March 1939, German troops occupied what was left of Czechoslovakia, abandoning the lip service to the ethnic moral justification that might have applied thinly to the takeover of Sudetenland. Next, Hitler lined his sights on Poland. With less than full throated enthusiasm, Britain and France proclaimed that they would guarantee Poland’s security against German aggression. After all that had passed, a line against unprovoked aggression surely had to be drawn somewhere.

In August, Germany and Russia announced a non-aggression pact, snatching Russia away from under the eyes of Britain who had hoped to contract it as a co-guarantor of Poland. On 1 September, Germany invaded Poland from the west. Two days later, Britain and France were at war with Germany. A fortnight later, Soviet troops rolled into Poland from the east. By early October, Hitler and Stalin had carved up Poland between them.

In April 1940, Hitler swept up Denmark and Norway. A month later, the Wehrmacht crossed in to Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands and then on to France which surrendered on 22 June, the high watermark of Germany’s military conquest. Hitler seemed invincible, monarch of all he surveyed.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The build-up to the annexation of Sudetenland, in particular, offers a lot of resonances with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

There is the brinkmanship of testing, teasing destabilising, shape-shifting, peek-a-boo military build-up close to the border before the invasion itself. One moment, an invasion is imminent. The next, it is not happening at all. Then, it’s back on again. One moment, an incursion is expected from this direction, the next moment from another. The tension is raised to and kept on a hair trigger.

There is the justification by reference to the need to protect its own nationals beyond a foreign border, an established template within Russia’s playbook that underpins its occupation of parts of Moldova (Transnistria), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) as well as Ukraine (Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk). These direct “holds” on parts of those countries are implicit indirect “holds” on the entirety of each of them. Russia also maintains direct or indirect holds on Belarus and the so-called “Stan” countries.

There is the contrast between the lurid, unsupported allegations of genocide against “its” people within these enclaves and its own pacific, patient forbearance in waiting until the last possible moment and well beyond the limits of legitimate outrage or provocation before moving to counteract such genocide. Russia invaded Ukraine only because it was forced to do so, not because it wished to do so.

The only thing missing in the Czechoslovakian precedent is that Hitler wanted to “nazify” rather than “denazify” that country! But there is a resonance in Hitler’s frequent description of Czechoslovakia as a “fraudulent” state — similar to Mr. Putin’s dismissal of Ukraine’s claims as a legitimate sovereign entity.

We live life forward. We understand it backwards.

It is easy to scream now that Britain and France should have put the foot down over the Sudetenland or that the West should have shown the same vigour in response to Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukraine in 2014 that they are showing over the invasion now.

Perhaps a stamped foot might have put a stop to those specific aggressions and pre-empted subsequent more serious ones. Equally though, perhaps not. Counterfactuals are always impossible to prove.

But today’s events and their predecessors of the late 1930s do teach us lessons.

First, it is always dangerous to imagine that two sides in a game of geo-political poker are operating to the same frame of reference. The actions and attitudes of the international “players” in the 1930s were heavily influenced by the Great War of two decades earlier, but in different ways. Reflecting wider popular perspectives in their countries, the priority of the leaders of Britain and France was to avoid at most costs a repetition of the destruction and carnage.

Buoyed by considerable popular support in his own country, Hitler was motivated first and foremost by a desire to expunge the humiliation of Germany’s defeat. The Fuehrer might not have wanted war, but he certainly wanted victory and on a scale that could probably be brought about only by being gung-ho for war.

Today, in its engagement with Russia, the leaders of Western countries are constrained by answerability to their electorates and operating in a highly if not totally transparent information environment. Mr. Putin is subject to no structured accountability and is therefore able to control and manipulate what counts as information, truth and falsehood within his jurisdiction. He is not subject to Queensbury rules.

Second and similarly, it is always dangerous to imagine that one has a good handle on the military potential of one’s opponent. In this context, “military potential” is more than just the size of the forces and the scale of the hardware at their disposal but also intangible factors like morale, motivation and leadership.

Partly because they were so anxious to avoid a fight, Britain and France had an exaggerated perception of the speed and scale of Germany’s military build-up after 1933. But, partly because he knew that Britain and France were anxious to avoid a fight, Hitler eventually tested that thesis a step too far, in relation to Britain at least. It is doubtful that Britain could ever have defeated Hitler alone if the two had been left to slug it out. But Britain hung in, deterring a possible German invasion long enough for the Nazis to make their own missteps by invading Russia and declaring war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

Today, Mr. Putin may be relied upon to continue to claim that the “special military operation” is always going sunnily and according to plan — and this may work with his captive audience at home. But, it is hardly credible that he anticipated becoming bogged down to the extent that he has and the attrition he has suffered in terms of blood, treasure and time for negligible gain so far.

And that leads to the third conclusion. We are all susceptible to overestimating the contribution of our investment skills to the profits we make in a bull market. The same syndrome applies in the military sphere. In his dealings with Hitler, Chamberlain was dominated by the fear of things turning out badly so he lacked any positive ambition beyond inertia and damage limitation. Hitler followed his star and trusted that things would turn out well. They did for a while, but only until his excessive confidence and the Russian winter brought him crashing back to earth with a bump. Hubris gave way to nemesis.

Only time will tell whether Mr. Putin’s excursion in Ukraine proves to be as bad a case of biting off more than could be chewed as Hitler’s invasion of Russia. But, even if Mr. Putin is not soundly defeated, it is certainly in the interest of the world that he does not achieve anything approximating to a victory.



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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.