Three monarchies ruled Central and Eastern Europe in the years leading to World War One. The Hohenzollern of roughly present day Germany, the Hapsburgs of nearly all the lands between Germany and Russia, where the Romanov dynasty ruled for hundreds of years. Modern republics carved from these three long ago kingdoms still feel a dynastic pull, as if prisoners of the past.
After WWI, and the forthcoming Treaty of Versailles the major kingdoms disappeared, replaced by new countries drawn by the hands of the victors. The objective of those redrawing the face of Europe was to give each language group the dignity of self rule. With few exceptions monarchies were gone, replaced by self-governing democracies.
1919 produced a validating moment for ethnic-language groups, resurrecting national flags and reveling in their distinctive cultures. But historically speaking independence lasted only a twinkling.
Throughout the 1930’s the Germans tried democracy, only to discard the system in favor of autocracy under Adolf Hitler. The last Hohenzollern, Wilhelm II had been deposed and lived in exile, clearing Hitler’s path of impediments. Engaged in revitalizing Germany, the Fuhrer proceeded to annex nearby lands, reversing that moment of democratic freedom.
The German Fuhrer set his sights on reoccupying the Rhineland, a resource, and industrially rich region to the west. That the German’s were not, by treaty, permitted to seize that area, Hitler waited for the protests, but the western allies did nothing. Later Hitler sent forces to Austria, the site of his birth, and absorbed that country into his Third Reich. Crickets. Then after a pause, he made a play for the Czech region of the Sudetenland. These acquisitions were German-speaking populations, and to Hitler a part of Germany’s destiny.
This time the West did take notice.
In September, 1938, the German Fuhrer hosted England’s Neville Chamberlain, and France’s Edouard Daladier to discuss the fate of the Sudeten. The conference was a cynical sham. As the political leaders admired the Berchtesgaden view of the Tyrolian Alps, German troops amassed on the Czech border. A secret “incident” was in the works as a pretext to invade as soon as possible. Part of Hitler’s scheme included informing his guests that German nationals in western Czechoslovakia were persecuted, and his duty lay in rescuing them.
Both Chamberlain and Daladier, fearful of a new war, agreed to Hitler’s aggression, as he assured them after the Sudetenland, Nazi expansion would conclude. But of course he was lying. World War Two erupted the following year.
At this writing Vladimir Putin is playing the same game as Herr Hitler. In 2014 Putin sent forces into the Crimea, with one eye on the Western democracies. There were protests, and economic sanctions, but no ultimatums.
As Russian soldiers amass at the border of the Ukraine, President Putin pretends none of the aggression means anything. But this Russian autocrat means plenty, and is implementing a play to return the Ukraine back to where he believes it belongs-Russia.
Does the west have the will or consensus to allow this modern-day dictator to lie to the world and invade Ukraine? Will the Americans, and other European Allies look the other way, as did Chamberlain and Daladier?
I’m no expert on European History, but finding patterns has become second nature. The pull of the past is strong, and would-be dictators care nothing about national boundaries. For a tyrant like Putin entitlement to the Ukraine is much the same as breathing. So the onus falls on the NATO Alliance to hold the line. A line that President Putin is doing his best to challenge.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books are available on Kindle.