It is a truth universally acknowledged that making comparisons between modern events and the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler is one of the clearest signs of a poor and somewhat desperate imagination.
The parallels between President Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine and Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia are too stark to be ignored. At the now infamous 1938 Munich conference, the German chancellor assured British prime minister Neville Chamberlain that his ambitions did not extend beyond the Sudetenland, the western part of Czechoslovakia which was home to a majority of German speakers (Hitler called them “ethnic Germans” but, as we know, “German” is a nationality not an ethnicity).
More than 80 years later, and little more than one week ago, Putin repeatedly told the world that he had no intention of invading Ukraine and that his only ambitions were to bring the Donbas and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, with their Russian-speaking majority, back into Moscow’s orbit.
As we all know, Hitler did not stop at the Sudetenland. His armies continued eastwards and, once the Nazi jackboot had been firmly established on Czech soil, they kept on going. Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 precipitated declarations of war by Britain and France – honouring their treaty obligations to the Poles – leading to a global conflict so devastating that it could only be stopped by Allied airforces burning Germany to the ground and, in the far east, the detonation of two nuclear bombs over Japan.
Hitler was, in part, driven by what he saw as the national humiliation of the post-WW1 Treaty of Versailles and the subsequent decline in German power. Putin has long felt that, since the demise of the Soviet Union, the international community has sought to emasculate Russia and – just like Hitler in Germany – believes that it is his destiny to, for want of a better expression, make Russia great again.
One of the Nazis’ great strengths was their propaganda machine, characterised by the elimination of political opponents and the outlawing of media outlets, so that every piece of information fed to the ordinary people of Germany toed the Nazi-party line. The German people were lied to so relentlessly that they – a cultured, educated European people – came to believe that the Jews were to blame for all society’s ills while, today, the Russian people are being told that their operation in Ukraine is in the name of preventing the genocide of ethnic Russians and to “de-nazify” the country as a whole.
Opposition leaders in Russia have been variously assassinated or arrested and, while some independent media exists, more and more outlets are facing intolerable harassment and many are now being forced to register as foreign agents.
While many wars throughout history have delivered their fair share of civilian casualties, the second world war saw the targeting of the non-combatant population on an industrial scale. We know this not only from the Holocaust, but from Germany’s inhumane campaigns in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, from the London blitz and – we have to admit – the merciless response of the American and British air forces.
There is, for now at least, no suggestion that Putin will be building death camps and gas chambers, but we do know he has deliberately targeted civilian areas including hospitals, residential tower blocks and city squares. Not one of these targets could by any stretch of the imagination be described as being of any military significance. He’s even knocked out Kyiv’s Holocaust memorial, a particularly twisted irony amid claims of “de-nazification”.
As the tide of war began to turn against Germany – north Africa (oil and control of the Mediterranean), Stalingrad (half a million Germans killed), escalation of bombing raids on German cities, invasion of Italy – Hitler became more and more isolated, with those closest to him cowed into silence with seasoned generals unable to criticise the Führer’s strategies for fear of retribution.
The invasion of Ukraine is not going well. Putin told the Russian people that his soldiers would be met by crowds carrying flowers, and yet the invaders have been met by fierce, resolute resistance. It also seems that Putin has underestimated the unity of the western allies, perhaps forgetting that, while we may squabble amongst each other on a fairly regular basis (Brexit, anyone?) we are a family of freedom-loving nations who, like cousins, often disagree but, when the chips are down, love and support each other. This unity has led to potentially crippling sanctions which, rather like those first bombing missions over Germany, will surely bring home Putin’s devastating miscalculations to the Russian people who, unlike the kleptocrats, will be the first to suffer. And, as with Hitler in 1943, reports from Moscow seem to indicate that Putin’s entourage are either unwilling or unable to point out the shortcomings of their leader’s tactics.
Despite low morale among the Russian invaders and the determined resistance of the Ukrainian people, if there is no negotiated settlement, sheer weight of Russian numbers will mean that Ukraine will surely fall. The next countries in line for Russian expansion are in NATO, and we are bound by our 1949 treaty to come to their aid should they be attacked. The Balkan states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia seem to be next in line which, like Ukraine, form part of the “Greater Russia” which exists only in the minds of Putin and others who are hankering after a Soviet Reunion.
History tells us that aggressors do not stop on their own: they must be stopped. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but the lessons of the past teach otherwise. And so, while we must throw all our weight behind the diplomatic efforts of our leaders, at the same time we need to start preparing for what, I am afraid, will be the third major European war in little over a century.