Historical analogies to current events can be illuminating, but dangerous. Even if strong similarities exist, difference do too, and therefore caution is required when using them.
This is especially true with analogies to Naziism and Hitler. Argudendo ad Hitlerum is fraught with peril, and is used far too cavalierly.
Hillary found out about the perils when she compared Putin’s incursion into Ukraine-and yes, Crimea is Ukraine-to Germany’s actions in 1936-1938: the occupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss, the taking of the Sudetenland, and the eventual seizure of the rest of Czechoslovakia. Her remarks unleashed a storm of criticism.
Mark this day in you calendars. I am going to come to Hillary’s defense, sort of. (As to why that is particularly remarkable, consider this bit of personal history.)
There are strong parallels between what Putin/Russia is doing in Ukraine now, and what Hitler/Germany did in 1936-1938. Most notably, seizing pieces of sovereign territory, using as a justification the imperative and right to defend fellow ethnics, and putting on sham plebiscites to justify the seizures.
Moreover, there are very strong parallels in the response of the European nations to Hitler’s aggression and Putin’s: that is, no real response at all. A palpable fear to confront the aggression. A willingness to concede one flagrant violation of a sovereign nation if the aggressor crosses-his-heart-and-hopes-to-die that he will be satisfied with what he’s taken so far.
There is also a parallel in the cravenness of many in the West (Britain and France in the 30s, Britain, France and Germany in the 2010s), particularly a call to recognize the aggressor’s legitimate interests. (This is epitomized in the current situation by this piece in Reuters. Complete apologetic BS.)
But the pushback comes: Putin isn’t Hitler!
Well, Hitler wasn’t Hitler in 1938. That is, we look back at events in 1938 seeing what transpired in the 1940s. In 1938, no one had any idea of the monster that Hitler was to become. In many ways, he was perceived like Putin is today. An aggressive advocate of his nation’s interests, redressing historical injustices. A reasonable, rational actor who would stop advancing once his nation’s legitimate interests were recognized, the historical wrongs reversed, and his co-ethnics protected. Hitler then and Putin now were also widely viewed as ridiculous figures, prone to bizarre public displays, and hence not really dangerous.
And that’s exactly why making parallels to 1936-1938 are entirely appropriate. Those judgments proved horribly wrong, and the consequences were horrific beyond belief.
Putin needn’t be anywhere near as evil as Hitler for the consequences of unchecked Russian aggression to be horrible indeed. Meaning that the lesson of 1936-1938, that checking an aggressor can forestall truly frightening consequences, is valid today. (And even Hitler could have been checked. He was virtually petrified with fear when he went into the Rhineland. It was the failure to stand up to him then which emboldened him in the years to come.)
What’s the downside of taking robust economic, non-military measures against Putin today? Some modest economic pain. What’s the upside? Deterring unpredictable, and potentially disastrous actions by an erratic autocrat emboldened by the weakness of his adversaries.
As insurance policies go, it seems like a very reasonable purchase. Yes, we don’t know what Putin will do. We don’t really know his ambitions. We cannot look into his soul. We don’t know how his behavior will change if nations opposed to him cave at every turn.
But is precisely that uncertainty which makes paying a premium today a bargain. Hitler demonstrates what the tail risk is. Putin doesn’t have to be nearly that far into the tail to be a grave danger to vast multitudes.
Better to take something of a hit now, in order to reduce substantially the risk of a future calamity.
That’s the lesson of the 1930s. And Putin doesn’t have to be as evil as Hitler to make it imperative to take heed of that instruction.