This is a Rewind of a Nosey Parker piece from March 13, 2014, originally entitled “A Quarrel In A Far-Away Country Between People Of Whom We Know Nothing.”
That quote was something Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said in a radio broadcast to the British people shortly before he flew to Munich, Germany, to sell out Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler in September 1938.
The piece compares Russian President Vlad Putin’s current machinations in Ukraine and elsewhere (hello, Baltic states) with Hitler’s aggressive moves in Europe in the late 1930s. It’s not an exact comparison, of course, but there are lessons to be learned from the democracies’ earlier failure of will that can be applied to the present series of escalating crises in eastern Europe.
As I said, the piece appeared in March 2014, after Russia had seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine but a few days before Putin formally annexed Crimea and before pro-Russian (and covert Russian) forces in eastern Ukraine began open warfare against the Kiev government in April.
It’s hard to believe all of that was less than a year ago. Just as it must have been hard for western Europeans to grasp the rapidity and urgency of cataclysmic events unfolding around them in the late 1930s.
The piece below appears exactly as it was written in March 2014. The points I was trying to make remain exactly the same today, but you do have to keep the context of when it was written in mind.
It’s quite a long piece with a lot of historical detail, so if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the most salient part:
“That was the big mistake Chamberlain and his ilk made in the 1930s: They didn’t realize — probably couldn’t comprehend — that Hitler actually wanted another war. Of course Hitler was nervous about going to war, wanted it on the most advantageous terms and in the most favourable conditions, but he still wanted war — needed war, actually, to keep his house of cards from collapsing, to keep the world in thrall, to keep Germany, as he put it in 1942, ‘in a state of perpetual alertness.’
“Again we come to a comparative difference between Hitler and Putin. I am quite confident Putin doesn’t want war the way Hitler did. But Putin isn’t terribly afraid of war either. He’s quite willing to gamble and take chances in the pursuit of his goals. He’s much more willing to walk along the razor’s edge than Barack Obama or any of the other ‘leaders of the free world’ currently chastising him.”
The original piece in its entirety starts below the photo.
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
— Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sept. 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement, caving in to Hitler and chopping up Czechoslovakia
“Being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?”
— Dirty Harry, 1971
Just how far is too far?
Far away enough to forget about or going too far to be able to ignore?
How far has Vladimir Putin gone? How much further will he go? When will push come to shove?
Can Vlad Putin’s takeover of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 really be compared to Adolf Hitler’s takeover of Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938?
All good questions, hard questions, important questions. Glad I don’t have to answer them.
But Barack Obama and the rest of the “leaders of the free world” do, just like British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Premier Edouard Daladier and the other “leaders of the free world” had to when faced with the aggressive expansionism of Hitler in the 1930s.
You think that comparison is going to far, mixing apples and oranges?
Well consider this headline:
“Western dilemma: Giving XXX to YYY to save ZZZ”
And here’s the start of the story that goes with that headline:
“It is the ugly solution to the XXX crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.
“Give XXX to YYY — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored AAA’s post-BBB might enough to leave the rest of ZZZ alone.”
In the 1938 version, the XXXs represent Sudetenland, the YYYs represent Adolf Hitler, the ZZZs represent Czechoslovakia, the AAAs represent Germany and the BBBs represent World War I. (I know the writer wouldn’t call it World War ONE yet in 1938, but we’re working from hindsight and you’d get confused if I called it THE World War.)
So the 1938 headline and story would read:
“Western dilemma: Giving Sudetenland to Hitler to save Czechoslovakia
“It is the ugly solution to the Sudetenland crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.
“Give Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored Germany’s post-World War I might enough to leave the rest of Czechoslovakia alone.”
In the 2014 version, the XXXs represent Crimea, the YYYs represent Vladimir Putin, the ZZZs represent Ukraine, the AAAs represent Russia and the BBBs represent Soviet Union.
So the 2014 version would read:
“Western dilemma: Giving Crimea to Putin to save Ukraine
“It is the ugly solution to the Crimea crisis world leaders will never acknowledge but grudgingly may have to accept.
“Give Crimea to Vladimir Putin — and hope this sates his ambition of being remembered as the omnipotent leader who restored Russia’s post-Soviet might enough to leave the rest of Ukraine alone.”
ANSWER: It just doesn’t matter. It could be either. It applies to both. In point of fact, it’s an AFP wire story from a few days ago — March 10, 2014. But it could just as easily have been a Reuters wire story from September 1938.
Of course I know Vlad Putin isn’t an exact replica of Adolf Hitler, and modern Russia is not the same beast as Nazi Germany, and the present Crimea Crisis is not a Groundhog Day repeat of the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis.
In fact, Crimea in 2014 might be better compared to Hitler’s reacquisition of the Saar region in 1935, his military takeover of the Rhineland in 1936, his absorption of Austria in the 1938 Anschluss (six months before the Sudetenland Crisis) or his annexation of Memelland from Lithuania (Ha! Didn’t know about that one, did you?) and occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.
(What about 1937, you ask? Didn’t Hitler do anything really bad in 1937 — apart from increasing the persecution and murder of Jews, left-wingers, dissidents, modern artists and other “anti-social undesirables” inside Greater Germany and using the Spanish Civil War as an off-site training seminar and bomb practice range for the Luftwaffe, I mean? Well, in 1937 Hitler was busy planning the events of 1938 and 1939, weeding out softies from the Wehrmacht high command and getting his military ducks in a row.)
So the Saar. Rhineland, Austria, Memelland etc. could be considered 1930s versions of Crimea as easily as the Sudetenland. Or they could be compared to Russia’s takeover of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. Or you could even get into Putin’s brutal suppression of independence aspirations in the Caucasus republics.
And we haven’t mentioned the various 1930s crises linked to Hitler’s avaricious designs on the Free City of Danzig and the Danzig Corridor in Poland. Danzig (Gdansk) bears a striking similarity to Kaliningradskaya Oblast, that outport of the Soviet Empire still proudly waving the Russian flag (and housing a large Russian military presence) 300 km west of the Russian frontier, smack dab in the middle of nervous Poland , only about 100 km as the crow flies from old Danzig/Gdansk.
And let’s not even mention that other breakaway Russian enclave, Transnistria, squatting even further away from Mother Russia between Ukraine and Moldova, just up the road from Crimea.
But forget all that.
Forget those parallel litanies of obscure names and forgotten dates and painful memories of wrongs done and scores settled. They don’t matter, at least not in the specific.
My point is this: The exactitude of comparison doesn’t matter. It’s the general thrust of events you should consider, the weight of historical impetus, the pattern of expansionism and aggression and escalation and self-justifying, self-fulfilling inevitability.
The differences between Hitler and Putin, between German expansionism of the 1930s and current Russian expansionism are matters of degree, not intent — quantity not quality.
I used to be annoyed during the Cold War whenever anyone referred to the Soviet Union as “the Russians” because (for heaven’s sake, you idiot!) “Russia” was only one of dozens of partner elements making up the USSR — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
But I was wrong: The USSR was just the Russian Empire under a different name. It was always “the Russians” that counted, that called the shots. Sometimes the “Russians” were ethnically Georgians or Ukrainians or Kazaks or Uzbeks or Estonians or Moldovans, but they were all ultimately “Russians” serving the cause and purposes of a “Russian” Empire.
That Russian Empire stretches back to its founding by the Vikings (really, Vikings — I’m simplifying a bit yet it’s true) about 1,200 years ago. I hate to tell you this but, in its early days, the heart of the Russian Empire was Kiev, not Moscow. So you can’t be too surprised that “Russia” and “Russians” still have a very paternalistic/possessive view of Ukraine, its people and its territory.
Russia is now formally the Russian Federation, consisting of almost two dozen nominally autonomous republics, twice as many oblasts (provinces) and more than a dozen other bits and pieces identified as krais and okrugs and whatnot.
But it’s all still “Russia,” baby. And it’s getting bigger year by year as the black hole that is the Kremlin keeps sucking back in chunks of territory that dislodged when the Soviet Union disintegrated in the 1990-91 period.
And at the centre of power, the very focal point of the Kremlin’s fundamental black hole, is Vladimir Putin, ruler of the Russian Empire for going on 15 years. That’s almost as long as he was a KGB officer, keeping the locals in line for prior occupants of the Kremlin.
As Putin said when he was sworn in as president of Russia for the third time in 2012:
“I consider it to be the meaning of my whole life and my obligation to serve my fatherland and our people.”
And, of course, the world notices. In October 2013, Forbes magazine declared Putin “the most powerful person in the world” — more powerful than Barack Obama (2011 and 2012′s most powerful), Xi Jinping, Pope Francis or even Bill Gates.
It’s more than a little reminiscent of Time magazine declaring Adolf Hitler “Man of 1938,” the year Hitler “strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conquerer,” as Time put it.
The Time cover didn’t mention Hitler by name, just identified him as “MAN OF 1938: From the unholy organist, a hymn of hate” with a black and white drawing of Hitler sitting at a pipe organ which controlled a giant medieval breaking wheel, a machine of torture and death.
Vlad Putin got the same honour — only now called “Person of the Year” — from Time in 2007. He was designated “Tsar of The New Russia.”
Of course Germany in the 1930s and Russia today are two completely different places, forged by different histories and geographies and cultures and experiences.
But life does have a habit of repeating itself in broad strokes. Human nature and the pulsations of social magma are the same in every generation and every corner of the world.
Hitler wanted to restore a Greater Germany to its rightful place of power and prominence in the world, a position from which he felt it was toppled by treachery and deceit, weakness and a failure of will at the end of World War I.
Putin wants to restore a Greater Russia to its rightful place of power and prominence in the world, fueled by a similar sense of anger, resentment and lost entitlement due to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
So, no, I do not believe Putin is Hitler reincarnate. And, no, I do not believe that Putin’s Russia in the 21st Century is behaving exactly like Hitler’s Germany of the 20th Century.
But I do believe they are driven by the same impulses. I do believe that Putin, like Hitler, will keep pushing until he is pushed back. I do believe that every failure to restrain Putin’s expansionism simply encourages him to greater boldness in his acquisitiveness. And I believe the other major powers of the world will be weak and ineffective in dealing with Putin’s expansionism until he pushes them to the breaking point. And then God help us all.
In 1930s Europe, the dreadful, devastating impact of total air assault hung in the background of every diplomatic crisis exactly the same way the always-present-but-rarely-spoken-of threat of nuclear war colours any current confrontation between the West (i.e. the American sphere) and the East (the Russian and/or Chinese spheres).
Britain, France and the rest of non-totalitarian Europe had seen the obliterating impact of Nazi air power on urban, civilian populations during the Spanish Civil War. And Britain had nothing to counterbalance the Luftwaffe in 1938. The RAF’s very first Spitfire, after all, was not even operational until August 1938
So far, fortunately, Sarah Palin is the only one I’ve heard currently even considering playing the nuclear card. Her advice to Barack Obama in dealing with Russia? ””Mr President, the only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke.”
Sarah may be a trigger-happy nutbar but she raises an important issue: What is worth fighting for and just how much fighting is anyone prepared to do over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” as Chamberlain so coldly — and realistically — put it in 1938?
When a conflict has the potential of escalating into total war, anyone with an ounce of sense or humanity (say good night to Sarah Palin) has to be beyond cautious in pulling the trigger — or pushing the button. Especially if it’s over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
No sane person or society wants war if they can avoid it.
Especially if it’s over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Especially if they’re still licking their wounds from past conflicts and traumatic disruptions. (Hello, World War I. Hello, Depression. Hello, Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Don’t forget, Britain in the 1930s was still deeply traumatized by World War I, a war in which more than 10 million soldiers and seven million civilians died, 20 million were horribly wounded, maimed and disfigured, another six million missing and presumed dead, and millions more dead of disease. Britain alone had about one million war dead and 1.5 million wounded. Plus Europe’s economies were shattered and massive war debts crushed every post-war government’s ability to manoeuvre.
So the vast majority of Britons supported Chamberlain’s peace-making efforts and were quite willing to give the resurgent German Reich inconsequential bits and pieces of territory on the far side of Europe if that’s what it took to ensure a larger peace. Those places were all German-speaking, anyway, right? They were probably better off (so the rationale went) as part of a stable and prosperous Greater Germany instead of being mixed up in the factional ethnic squabbling of Central and Eastern Europe’s newly created nation states sliced and diced and artificially created at the end of World War I out of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Habsburg Empire or Holy Roman Empire or whatever you want to call it.
Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was generally seen as a belligerent warmonger and his strident warnings about the dangers of Nazi Germany were dismissed as hysteria and over-reaction by the majority of the British public.
Now this is another thing that’s important to remember: Chamberlain talked tough to Hitler on occasion. “We’ll do this if you do that” and so on … but never once did he follow up on his threats until it was too late to make a difference.
It didn’t take Hitler long to figure out that Chamberlain was a stuffed shirt full of hot air and not much more.
Chamberlain and Hitler in Munich: Who has the high ground?
That was the big mistake Chamberlain and his ilk made in the 1930s: They didn’t realize — probably couldn’t comprehend — that Hitler actually wanted another war. Of course Hitler was nervous about going to war, wanted it on the most advantageous terms and in the most favourable conditions, but he still wanted war — needed war, actually, to keep his house of cards from collapsing, to keep the world in thrall, to keep Germany, as he put it in 1942, “in a state of perpetual alertness.”
Again we come to a comparative difference between Hitler and Putin. I am quite confident Putin doesn’t want war the way Hitler did. But Putin isn’t terribly afraid of war either. He’s quite willing to gamble and take chances in the pursuit of his goals. He’s much more willing to walk along the razor’s edge than Barack Obama or any of the other “leaders of the free world” currently chastising him.
I wonder how long it took Vladimir Putin to figure out Barack Obama was a Brooks Brothers suit full of hot air and corporate complacency and not much more?
Like Hitler, Putin will just keep pushing until … until what? Until the threatened repercussions become real? Until the penalties for losing become greater than the rewards for winning? I don’t really know what the line in the sand, the cut-off point is. And I don’t think the “leaders of the free world” do either. That’s the problem.
They’re just pussyfooting around, trying to find their way through a dangerous, dark forest. Fearful, uncertain, perplexed, divided, irresolute … doomed to failure.
The best they can do at the moment is threaten Russia with sanctions.
Reminds me of the story, as quoted by Churchill, of Stalin dismissing advice in 1935 to ingratiate himself with Pope Pius: “The Pope? How many divisions does the Pope have?”
Today’s version: “Sanctions? How many divisions do sanctions have?”
Sanctions are talk, just talk, bafflegab and blather, smoke and mirrors, posturing and pretence — an attempted appearance of decisive activity when nothing is really happening except denial and retreat and indecision and appeasement.
Sanctions? How many divisions do sanctions have? Exactly the same number as the Pope.
I knew the jig was up when I read a British newspaper analysis that took the position that Britain can’t afford to get in a pissing match with Russia at the moment, since the Brits are currently trying to bring home billions of pounds worth of military hardware from Afghanistan and any way except overland across Russia is prohibitively expensive.
My God, what a stunted, twisted rationale for setting national policy! It positively reeks of appeasement. Neville Chamberlain would be so proud.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m actually beginning to understand how Chamberlain the Appeaser actually got himself in that mess back in the 1930s. We’re living through the same kind of scenario today.
One big thing to know about Neville Chamberlain is that he never expected his legacy to be in the field of foreign affairs.
Chamberlain, a former mayor of Birmingham, was considered an energetic and effective reformer on social and workplace issues. As health minister and chancellor of the exchequer, he had modernized the British welfare system during the depression and, as prime minister, pushed through the Factories Act 1937 (which limited working hours for women and children and generally improved working conditions), the Coal Act 1938 (which set the stage for nationalization of Britain’s coal industry) and, also in 1938, the Holidays with Pay Act (which is self-explanatory). Again in 1938, Chamberlain’s Housing Act provided subsidies to redevelop slum neighbourhoods and maintained rent controls.
Despite the way he looks to us now, Neville Chamberlain was seen in the 1930s as quite the modern fellow, a real go-getter with very progressive ideas
Chamberlain was focused on a substantial agenda of other domestic reforms while Europe was sliding closer to the calamity of war. In fact, Chamberlain’s actions in appeasing Hitler were largely driven by his desire to get Europe back into a state of peace and calm so he could continue to focus on his domestic agenda.
Fat chance. Wasn’t going to happen, Neville.
But Chamberlain was doing the best he could, given the cards he was dealt. His generals, his government, his people were all telling him the country was in no condition to fight a war.
And again, don’t forget, all this fuss was over “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
Can you honestly tell me that two months ago you could pinpoint Crimea on a map? Even today, can you honestly tell me that you can unerringly distinguish Ukraine from Belarus on an unlabelled map? And the Baltic States — I defy you to say you can tell the difference between Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia if you don’t have ancestry in one of those countries.
Here are the Baltic States. Go ahead, identify them.
The Baltic States feel especially vulnerable to Putin’s aggressive border manoeuvres since they too have substantial Russian-speaking minorities, the result of being under Moscow’s thumb for half a century after 1939.
Is Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia worth fighting for when Putin comes knocking — or will they be “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing?”
And poor old Poland — battered and butchered by both Russia and Germany for hundreds of years — is ramping up its military spending, including a new missile defence system, and begging the U.S. and NATO to get more involved because of its fears of renewed Russian expansionism.
Even neutrality-loving Sweden is considering joining NATO because of Russia’s belligerency. The Swedish finance minister, Anders Borg, recently described Russia’s relations with its neighbours as “a bit more erratic and unpredictable.”
Hmmm. Now that doesn’t sound good in a period of escalating crisis.
And how about the aforementioned Russian province of Kaliningradskaya? Do you have any idea where in the world it is? You should. It’s as close to Amsterdam as it is to Moscow — far closer to Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin, Prague and Vienna than it is to Moscow — and it almost certainly has tactical nuclear weapons on its soil, pointed west.
Are any of those places worth fighting for, worth risking nuclear war for?
“A quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
That’s the quandary, that’s the dilemma — now just as surely as it was in Neville Chamberlain’s time.
So we probably owe an apology to poor old Neville Chamberlain because we’ve vilified him for kissing Hitler’s ass. He was just trying to keep the peace, keep his country and his people out of another devastating war they didn’t want, couldn’t afford and might well lose.
And, as you know, Chamberlain did come around to seeing the error of his ways eventually.
“No greater mistake could be made than to suppose that, because it believes war to be a senseless and cruel thing, the nation has so lost its fibre that it will not take part to the utmost of its power in resisting such a challenge if it were ever made.”
That is what Chamberlain had to say on March 17, 1939.
Of course that was two days after Hitler had already invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia and long after Hitler had ignored Britain and France’s bleatings as he swallowed the Saar. Rhineland, Austria, Memelland and Sudetenland.
And, of course, it followed Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler during the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938.
Here is a sequence of quotes to remind you of that attempt to avoid entanglement in “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
“The condition of the Sudeten Germans is indescribable. It is sought to annihilate them. As human beings they are oppressed and scandalously treated in an intolerable fashion … The depriving of these people of their rights must come to an end. … I have stated that the Reich would not tolerate any further oppression of these three and a half million Germans, and I would ask the statesmen of foreign countries to be convinced that this is no mere form of words.”
— Hitler on 12 Sept. 1938 at the Nuremberg Rally
“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.”
— Neville Chamberlain on 27 Sept. 1938, shortly before he flew to Germany to sign the Munich Agreement, giving Hitler the Sudetenland
“Oh, don’t take it so seriously. That piece of paper is of no further significance whatever.”
— Adolph Hitler to his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, on 30 September 1938 after Hitler cavalierly signed a three-paragraph statement prepared by Chamberlain saying that Britain and Germany considered the Munich Agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two people never to go to war again.”
“I believe it is peace for our time … Now I recommend you go home and sleep quietly in your beds.”
— Neville Chamberlain addresses the British people outside 10 Downing Street on 30 September 1938 as he waves the paper bearing Hitler’s worthless promisary signature.
“England has been offered a choice between war and shame. She has chosen shame, and will get war.”
— Winston Churchill on 3 Oct. 1938 in the House of Commons.
Sleep well, everyone.