The Unrequited Anschluss

For a man who vows to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has surely focused a great deal of attention on the dramatic events of 1938, and has seen fit to closely mimic the actions of Germany’s dead, unlamented füehrer in that very fateful year.

Mr. Putin has clearly embraced Hitler’s tactics towards both Austria and Czechoslovakia, using them as a template for his struggle to claw back for Mother Russia what he has always viewed as rightfully hers.

Over the course of his rule, Putin has shown himself to be nearly as ruthless in pursuit of his political aims as Adolf Hitler, caring little for the carnage or civilian suffering produced by his aggressive actions in various parts of the world. But it’s useful to remember that Hitler swallowed Austria and Czechoslovakia by sheer pressure alone, cynical though it was. At least in these initial conquests of his soon war-provoking reign, Hitler’s calculations and assessments of Germany’s relative strengths, and more importantly his opponents’ exploitable weaknesses, proved more accurate than Putin’s during this current conflict.

In his dreams of reassembling a portion of Tsarist Russia’s staggering vastness, Mr. Putin has mistakenly concluded that the deep and longstanding ties between the two peoples that loomed so large in his imagination would persuade the Ukrainians to desist from opposing Russian forces too strenuously. While he certainly didn’t expect a rapturous welcome in the way old newsreels depict triumphant German troops being greeted with joyous smiles and Nazi salutes as they entered Vienna in March 1938, Putin (and most of the rest of the world) failed to foresee the dogged, determined and unexpectedly skilled resistance the Ukrainians have consistently put forth. His imaginings somehow could not grasp that the collective memories of the Ukrainian people constituted something more akin to a nightmare than a dream; horrible visions of the deaths of more millions than history could precisely count due to starvation and summary execution as the Bolsheviks brutally consolidated their hold on power in the late 1920s and early '30s --- something that ought to be more fully considered by those outsiders astounded by the resoluteness of Ukrainian opposition.

So the Ukrainians' oft-repeated vows to fight and die for their independence turned out to be no bluff, consequently  Russian tanks and vehicles were greeted not with flowers and cheering throngs, but Molotov cocktails and Javelin missiles. Thus spurning Putin’s embrace, Ukraine will now experience the wrath of their rejected suitor. One can only pray that by the time this altogether unnecessary war is concluded, Kyiv doesn’t resemble the flattened Warsaw of 1944.

Hitler’s desire for Anschluss (union) with Austria similarly had an emotional basis. Austrian by birth, the act of incorporating his homeland into the Reich could only help affirm his own somewhat suspect German identity. But unlike Putin, he correctly gauged the attitudes of his adversaries, and their unwillingness to shed blood for Austria’s independence. The beleaguered Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, had vainly tried to stave off a complete German takeover by acceding to some of Hitler’s demands: taking Austrian Nazis into his cabinet and cancelling a free and open plebiscite on the reunification issue that might have complicated or embarrassed the füehrer's aims.

Seeking to head off any contemplated acts of vehement resistance, Hitler ordered Wehrmacht troops to cross the Austrian border on March 12. Schuschnigg promptly tendered his resignation, while at the same time instructing the Austrian army to offer no resistance. In fairness to Schuschnigg, those willing to fight for Austria’s independence were but a tiny minority. Most Austrians either supported the Anschluss or, despite their misgivings, had no stomach for taking up arms against the militarily superior Germans.

Today’s Ukrainians, thanks to their past sufferings at the hands of Moscow’s brutal dictates, are made of sterner stuff, and failing to recognize that fundamental fact was Mr. Putin’s biggest miscalculation.

Putin’s maneuverings in Ukraine’s Donbas region also closely mirror Hitler’s insidious machinations towards Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland that came to a head in September 1938. The tactics are eerily similar: infiltrating rabble-rousers into an ethnically mixed area in order to maximize strife; claiming harassment and discrimination against the minority population to help promote rebellious separatism; and finally, appealing to one’s own people to come to the aid of their oppressed brothers and sisters.  

In some ways Putin’s even outdone Hitler in audacity; Hitler at least waited for the cover of a phony, pre-ordained conference of western leaders terrified of another war with Germany to be handed the Sudetenland on a platter --- without ever consulting the Czechs. Shorn of most of her formidable fortifications, the nearly defenseless remainder of Czechoslovakia fell to the Germans only months later. But unlike the Russians in Ukraine, it was all accomplished with threats, but no shooting.

Putin pictured Joe Biden and the other leaders of the NATO alliance as modern day Chamberlains and Daladiers, and in that respect he may have been more close to the mark. However, he severely misjudged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose unyielding defiance and willingness to lead from the front served to rally world opinion to him. Should he survive this onslaught, Zelensky will call the tune at any future peace conference; there will be no Munich redux, with Ukraine’s fate being decided by others behind her back.

In the end, true tyrants always reveal their inevitable limitations; neither Hitler nor now Putin proved himself to be a practitioner of power politics of the first order. Both lacked the skill, or perhaps just the subtlety of mind to achieve their political aims with a minimum of bloodshed. Physical occupation was of greater value to them than the wise exercise of political influence. Had Putin just stayed his hand and applied pressure, he could have achieved a good deal of what he wanted, especially on the issue of Ukrainian non-alignment. Accepting half a loaf and calling off the war would likely have secured the relieved endorsements of Presidents Biden and Macron, Chancellor Scholz and Prime Minister Johnson. Instead, his bullheadedness has invested the NATO alliance with a new vitality, one that its less than dynamic leaders couldn’t possibly have summoned on their own, nor perhaps even truly wished to bring about.

Like many others (including our ex-president), I thought Vladimir Putin to be too shrewd an operator to allow himself to be caught in this precarious position. Now the world must hold its breath to see the destructive extent of any desperate solution he concocts to his self-created dilemma. An added worry is the reports of Putin’s deterioration from obdurate but sane autocrat to nuclear-armed madman, impervious to reason.

Admirable as the nearly universal Ukrainian rejection of Putin’s lunge surely is, and the undeniable gallantry of President Zelensky in the face of this outrage against peace, his instant elevation into some Churchillian pantheon is still somewhat premature. He is not untouched by Ukraine’s pervasive past corruption; his country’s interference with America’s political processes probably exceeds that of the Russians. By now, Ukrainian leaders must be wondering if their extensive investments in the Biden family and other Democrat politicians were colossal wastes of money. Neither can Biden’s feebleness in bearing and expression --- constantly requiring confusing “walk backs” --- inspire much confidence from the Poles or other Eastern European peoples who recognize themselves as future prey should Putin’s Ukrainian aggression somehow end victoriously.

Past corruption and Biden’s leadership deficits notwithstanding, clear-thinking people must nevertheless endeavor to do everything within reason to safeguard Ukrainian independence and aid their courageous fight, with the hope that this terrible ordeal will help them --- and other former Soviet possessions and satellites --- move beyond corrupt, Russian-style oligarchy to genuine, if imperfect, democracy.

Image: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe Poland​, via Picryl / public domain

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