By Paul Johnson
To do this Hitler needed to void the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles, which Germany had signed after its defeat in the Great War of 1914-18. First he marched into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized under the treaty, stationing regular army divisions and tanks there. The Allies–Britain and France–did nothing.
Next Hitler marched into German-speaking Austria–an annexation known as the Anschluss. Having been stripped of their empire and reduced to an insignificant small state, the Austrians were glad to become part of a mighty Reich. Again, the Allies did nothing.
Hitler’s next claim was the Sudetenland. This was a territory on the border of Czechoslovakia inhabited by a German-speaking people who were absorbed into the new state against their will. The Allies allowed this landgrab to stand in an agreement reached at a Munich summit meeting in September 1938. This was regarded as a surrender to Hitler, but British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who negotiated the agreement, argued that Hitler was merely asserting the rights of the Sudeten Germans, who wanted to belong to his Reich.
The falsity of Chamberlain’s position and Hitler’s deceit were proved within months. The Sudetenland’s annexation had made the Czech frontier indefensible, and in March 1939 Hitler invaded. The Czechs put up no resistance, and the rest of the country fell into Hitler’s hands without a shot being fired.
Alarmed, the Allies signed a protective treaty with Poland. But Hitler also had claims against the Poles, in particular the German-speaking port of Danzig, which the Versailles Treaty had ceded to the Poles as their “outlet to the sea.” When Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the Allies reluctantly fought.
Had the Allies stopped Hitler at the beginning, when he was remilitarizing the Rhineland, he’d have been overthrown and World War II avoided. But the only one pointing this out was Winston Churchill–and his was a lonely voice.
Today’s drift toward war with Russia seems like a replay of the past. Putin is a Russian nationalist, who believes in a strong Stalinist state. His goal is to reverse the events of 1989–the end of the Soviet state and dissolution of its enormous empire. He seeks to do this by using what remains of Russia’s Stalinist heritage: the military, a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons and immense resources of natural gas and other forms of energy. These are powerful tools to wield against the various weak states that were part of the U.S.S.R. None has nuclear weapons, and most are dependent on the (relatively) cheap energy Russia supplies. All have ethnic Russian minorities, who speak the language, boast of their superior Russian culture and claim to have been relegated to second-class citizenship. Putin can rely on these minorities to agitate for Russian intervention whenever he wants–most importantly in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. His successful annexation of Crimea is greatly encouraging to his long-term plans, and it’s clear he’ll use everything in his power, including military force, to reconstruct his empire.
SHADES OF MUNICH
What’s to stop Putin? The West is led by the modern equivalents of Chamberlain: President François Hollande of France is a political nonentity repudiated by his own compatriots; Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have both ruled out the use of force to stop Putin from annexing Ukraine; and worst of all, President Barack Obama–the one man who has the power to stop Putin in his tracks–does nothing. He makes Neville Chamberlain seem like a bellicose activist.
The U.S. is the richest country in the world. Thanks to the fracking revolution, it has the means to meet the energy needs of all the former Soviet states. Its fleets and armies make Russia’s much reduced military power seem puny. It could move troops and aircraft into Ukraine within 24 hours, and its fleets could ensure protection to the Baltic states in a way that Putin would find unanswerable. Yet Obama makes no decisive moves. What ails the man? Is it cowardice? Indecision? A kind of executive paralysis he tends to display when firmness is called for? Clearly there’s something fundamentally wrong with the U.S. President. Meanwhile, Putin, who runs what is, in essence, a second-rate nation with a weak and declining demographic structure, behaves as if he rules the Earth.
Sadly, there is no Churchillian voice to sound the alarm and call the democratic world to action.