If the 1930s teach us anything, it is that things can fall apart easily. An international order carefully held together through institutions designed to preserve peace can unravel overnight. Faced with German aggression, the post-Versailles order collapsed at a mere push of the finger. Czechoslovakia disappeared from the map of Europe without a single bullet being fired. One year later, Europe found itself in the throes of its deadliest war in twenty years. And suddenly, the “quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing,” as the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain described the conflict between Germany and Czechoslovakia, was not so “far away” anymore.
From a European periphery few people in the West care to know about, Ukraine has now turned into the unwilling protagonist of a conflict that has been described as “the most significant European war in almost 80 years.” The Russian president has gone from promising to tone down Russia’s supposed military ‘exercises’ along the frontier with Ukraine to launching a full-scale attack on the neighboring country. Russian troops have invaded Ukraine, displacing hundreds of thousands of people who are now seeking refuge in neighboring Poland and Romania.
The international order began unraveling in March 1938 when Nazi Germany invaded Austria after an earlier attempt at annexation was prevented by Italian leader Benito Mussolini. Previously kept in check by the Austrian chancellor, Austrian Nazi squads took over ministerial buildings and welcomed Hitler and his troops into Vienna. Many Austrians rejoiced at the annexation too, feeling that after 1918, banned from joining with Germany, the German-Austrian republic had become relegated to poverty, isolation, and irrelevance. As some put it, without Germany, Austria was lebensunfaehig—or incapable of living, a mere relic of what had once been one of the world’s most powerful empires.
The real turning point happened in September, when British, French, Italian, and German leaders met in Munich to discuss Hitler’s new claims to the Sudetenland, then a province of the Czechoslovak state. While the Czechs waited in the lobby, the great powers deliberated over their fate. Once negotiations were over, the Czechoslovak president Edvard Benes was presented with a fait accompli and made to sign an agreement to transfer the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Hitler guaranteed peace and grabbed a piece of Czechoslovakia. By agreeing to negotiate with him, the Western powers effectively turned him into a new arbiter of the international system.
Hitler did not stop there but went on to invade Bohemia and Moravia as well in March 1939. Even more tragically, Czechoslovakia’s neighbors Poland and Hungary also carved out pieces of territory they claimed were rightfully theirs: Teschen, Southern Slovakia, and Ruthenia, respectively. As a result, the Czechoslovak state dissolved within a few months.
This was neither the first nor the last time that an East European state recognized by the international community had vanished from the map. During the late eighteenth century, Poland—once a powerful empire stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea— was partitioned out of existence. When it was recreated at the end of World War II as the Polish People’s Republic, it occupied territories that had once belonged to Germany. The lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became part of Soviet Russia and its republics.
Today’s world is arguably very different from the world of the 1930s. Ukraine’s neighbors, unlike Czechoslovakia’s in the 1930s, are not rubbing their hands with joy at the prospect of its disintegration. There are still tensions among these states, to be sure. Ukraine has been unhappy about Romania’s generous citizenship laws, designed to benefit ethnic kin outside Romania’s borders. Romanians continue to begrudge Ukraine territories like Northern Bukovina, which the Soviet Union annexed in 1944 from Romania, and then incorporated into Soviet Ukraine. But Ukraine’s conflict with Russia has improved its relationship with its neighbors, who similarly fear Russian aggression. Both Romania and Poland are welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
In other ways, however, what we are living through has disturbing parallels in the 1930s. The moment we inhabit is also a post-imperial one. We are still experiencing the consequences of the disintegration of one of the world’s greatest empires: the Soviet Union. Historians have written a good deal about the recurrence of imperial institutions, practices, and mindsets long after empires dissolved. It is this post-imperial conjuncture rather than any similarities between Putin and Hitler, between Russian nationalism and interwar fascism, that explains why the 1930s and especially the Munich moment have such resonance today.
Hitler’s overturning of the European order in the 1930s was made possible by the serious misalignment between what European societies were presumed to be by theorists of the new international order and what they were in actuality. Both Germany and Russia—once powerful empires—emerged defeated and humiliated from the war. They developed a conspiratorial outlook on the world, one which the Western powers reinforced by containing and isolating them. The multinational empires that disintegrated in wartime were replaced by new nation-states. These ruled over the same old populations, however, which were multiethnic, multilingual, and deeply embedded in the transnational networks of empire. The inconsistencies between what these nation-states were supposed to be and what they were in reality caused much dissatisfaction, among winners and losers of the war alike.
The Soviet Union did not collapse in war. Even so, the transition to post-Soviet democracies was far from peaceful. After 1991, Russia plunged into deep economic crisis. People whose lives had been secure only months before lost everything they had practically overnight. Ukraine’s declaration of independence in August 1991 set the final nail in the Soviet Union’s coffin. Ironically, the Soviet Union’s disintegration was spearheaded by Russia under Boris Yeltsin, who felt (not completely without justification) that Russia, having identified itself completely with the Soviet Union, was the only member of the Union without an identity and institutional apparatus of its own.
But not long after Yeltsin forced Gorbachev’s resignation, it turned out that Russia without the Soviet Union or its former empire proved just as unviable. It could only exist as a second-rate power that struggled to assert itself before a world to which it felt increasingly marginal. Once again, conspiratorial thinking came to define Russia’s relationship with the West, increasingly perceived by Putin as an existential threat to Russia.
And yet, what allowed Hitler to take one slice of Czechoslovakia after another in 1938 is also what has made it possible for Putin to go this far: namely, fear and resentment of the West, combined with a feeling of superiority and the assurance that the Western powers would be willing to go to any lengths to avoid war. Putin too is both convinced that the ‘West’ is conspiring against Russia and aware that the ‘West’ tends to prevaricate, hesitate, deliberate, negotiate before committing.
Though Putin is no Hitler, there is still perhaps something to be learned from the 1930s: that not all states are guided by the same principles and ideas are not just empty words. What if Putin’s speeches, delusional as they sound, are not disguising a simple appetite for power? What if they reflect a genuine belief that Russia has a mission to fulfill in the world and that ‘recovering’ Ukraine through war is essential, as it has been in the past, to the Russian state’s recovery and pursuit of this mission?
Hitler’s contemporaries thought he was a manipulator at best and a madman at worst. Few guessed that the racist tirades he offered in Mein Kampf were a genuine reflection of his beliefs. This explains why, even though his book was available for everyone to read, few people took it seriously. Putin is not a fascist (of this, he assures us every day). He operates in an arguably more complicated environment and his power is limited. But Nazi Germany’s expansion into Eastern Europe in the 1930s provides us with a sobering lesson that may also apply to Putin and Russia today: even the most unimaginable scenarios, the strangest ramblings of lunatics can come true when people close their eyes to their possibility until it becomes too late.
To take such ideas as Putin’s pronouncements on the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian state seriously seems difficult. Democracies have a hard time understanding authoritarianism and they take longer to mobilize. As World War II demonstrated, democracies tend to prevail. They might take a very long time, however; and their victory might come at the cost of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Moreover, victory is never guaranteed; it requires sustained effort and determination. Germany’s recent decision to increase defense spending and Europe’s rallying behind Ukraine are encouraging signs that this time around, perhaps, disaster will be averted. But Ukraine’s plight is just beginning and it is much too early to become complacent.