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A Disturbing Parallel: Putin’s aggression and German actions in the late 1930s

Below is the transcript of a video that IWP professor Dr. Christopher C. Harmon did for the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, where he is a Distinguished Fellow. 

There is value in thinking along historical parallels.  And there can be a little danger in a parallel drawn artificially.  In Vladimir Putin’s decade of aggression against the Ukrainian people, I see a limited but instructive historical parallel with German actions against neighbors in the late 1930s.

What is happening in Europe now, and what happened in the 1930s, illuminates much about us—about the democratic West—not only much about foreign despots.  The problem today is a Russian strategy combining force, threats of force, diplomacy, and time.  The purpose of their combination is to weary and befuddle all those who want to see European rights respected and are now Russia’s opponents.

Moscow’s strategy is working.  Why?  Because we tend to view diplomacy and war as separate.  Meanwhile, Putin is confronting peaceable countries with a complex strategy.  What he is doing goes far beyond a tally of tanks on his border.

And I argue that it is working because Russian newspapers have been highlighting differences within The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, especially with Germany.  The Washington Post took up the theme today, Jan. 27th.   Presidents such as Ukraine’s Vladimir Zelensky and America’s Joe Biden are dangerously pessimistic in what they are saying.   Both show demoralization…despite also taking some useful actions.  In the psychological, political, and military realms, Putin is notably ahead and poised to strike if he wants to.  And I am troubled to recall how Adolph Hitler confided before dismembering the republic of Czechoslovakia that he was exerting fierce pressures to “destroy the nerves of those gentlemen in Prague.”  He did—before invading.  He destroyed nerves in Prague and London and Paris, all before sending forces in.  Putin’s target is Kiev, though that does not require him to capture that city.

We should pause to assert the obvious.  Russia is not totalitarian and is not a fully-militarized society; it is an absolute despotism, however, and its spies and armies will do what they are told, and neither Zelensky nor the U.S. fully can know Putin’s intentions.  Putin does not rave, like Hitler; he’s a cold character, but they too can be aggressors.  Few think Putin wants to take over the world, or even all of Europe, and he cannot.  Moscow faces opponents stronger than did Berlin in the 1930s.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has powers the League of Nations never had—if NATO decides to use them.  So, there is no easy overlay of our world onto that of nine decades back.

But of greater concern are the similarities.  Consider the historical parallels in Pretexts, Policies, Postures, and Process via Strategic Steps.

Historical Parallels: Pretexts

Germany under Hitler created pretexts with overheated rhetoric and foreign subversion; only then came invasion.  German-speaking peoples were never the property of Berlin, but Hitler acted as though they were.  Most did not long for unification with the German state, but he said they did.  German speakers in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Austria were not treated as slaves—every one of those countries was a republic—but Hitler asserted the German speakers were enduring the tortures of tyranny.  This was called “irredentism,” and Hitler did not merely take advantage of it where it grew, he ginned it up, and used information war, and formalized disruptive processes, and spent German state resources, and created whole dissident structures that had not existed, proxies who crowed for liberation by blood-brethren across the border.

Putin has been acting similarly in the region for years, and in Ukraine.  Putin has appointed himself the protector of anyone with Russian genes.  We hear of the Near Abroad, and a concept called “the Russian World” which must be protected.  Putin made a big speech about irredentism and his foreign duties right after annexing the Crimea in 2014.  By contrast, in 1997, Russia’s Boris Yeltsin made a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Ukraine, stressing the territorial integrity of each.

Historical Parallels: Policy

Consider Nazi policy.  Germany’s expansionism was forecast in Mein Kampf, but such policy was usually denied in the late 1930s as it was carried out.  So convincingly was the verbal cover that many pacifists and neutrals in the West were persuaded. Hitler called for force and even conquests when he wanted, but, when Western prelates and journalists and prime ministers came anxiously to meet him, he calmed them by claiming modest ends.  Cynically, he confided in a closed meeting with in-house German journalists in November 1938: circumstances have “obliged me to speak, for a decade or more, of almost nothing but peace.  Only, in fact, by continuously declaring the German desire for peace…have I been able, step by step, to secure freedom for the German people and to provide Germany with the armaments which have, time and time again, always been the essential precondition for any further move.”

Putin denies interest in war.  And he probably does not want war.  If I may take liberties with Winston Churchill’s words about Hitler, his wish is not to smash the banquet table and take the prime meats—he’d prefer to have those served to him, course by course, calmly.  Russian policy is not for war; it is for a much larger sphere of influence, plus immediate acquisitions.  Putin has taken two border areas of Georgia, and all of Crimea.  In such places, good people are not wrestling with their souls asking what are Putin’s intentions!  They know!  They are already new subjects of Moscow.

Historical Parallels: Posture

Posture.  Hitler and Putin have chosen the strategic offense while consistently speaking of it as the strategic defense.  The wrongs of Versailles supposedly left a Germany that must arm, must grow, or would die.  A false argument.  Faced with NATO’s eastward development, Putin says he only now does what he must.  But many of the countries Russia has been suborning in recent years are not in NATO and have not been offered membership.  Most are former Soviet states.  They were once acquired by Moscow’s force, freed in the early 1990s, and now could be re-acquired by force by Moscow.  Ukraine is no more a country that would attack Russia than it is one longing for Anschluss with Moscow.

So, Putin is making warfare in peacetime…with rhetoric, cyber weapons, army maneuvers, and reinforcement of borders the Ukraine has never threatened. The posture is intimidating, and the specter of war has many frightened.  War does frighten.  Threatening it is designed to make the opponents malleable.  If Putin can get troops in without fighting, he will; he just did so in Kazakhstan, briefly.  If it will take a border war, Putin is in a good position.  He may go for the capital; he may not.  He may even move in a different direction while all of us are staring due East.  Having caused a crisis, he can also back down, now, and make everyone relieved.  Hitler always allowed a comforting pause before snatching the next victim.  Putin is studying the White House, measuring us before he measures his next step.  The Russian president’s options include backing off, looking magnanimous; in a year, someone may nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize.

This crisis is ours.  It isn’t necessarily a crisis for Putin.  He can use it and put it away, or he can use it and escalate; the point is to make others fret and perhaps do his will in hope of saving peace, or saving most of their country.  Not all bullies are in a rage. The smartest of them know how to deploy diplomats as quickly as they influence with their visible anger.

Historical Parallels: Process

Process; steps in the strategy.  Up until 1941, Hitler was a clever strategist whose successes surprised and impressed even his own generals.  His step-by-step approach, as Winston Churchill called it, used patience and diplomacy and martial preparations.  After winning key votes in the Saarland, he took over the Rhineland, vacating part of the post-WWI accords that demilitarized that area.  He could claim it was German territory, and it was.  Apologists for Putin say that, since the Crimea was once Russian, it must remain so—which is not logical or morally compelling and neglects Ukraine’s recent years as a republic.

After the Rhineland, Hitler took Austria, digested for a moment, and then marched into the Sudetenland of the Czechs.  Publicly, he promised “no further territorial demands,” as if he’d had any right to lands taken thus far.  Privately, he gloated about acquiring the famous line of Czech fortresses on the border without firing a shot.  Soon, he swallowed the rest of the rich Czech state.

After every theft, reassurances.  With half of Poland taken in 1939, guess what Hitler said?  He addressed the “gentlemen of the great British Empire,” saying “the aims of Germany are closely limited…It will calm you to learn that Germany does not, and did not, want to conquer the Ukraine.”  Of course not—that would be later, on schedule.  France?  France was assured that Hitler had no lust for Alsace-Lorraine—even if all knew many German-speakers lived there and the regions had once been within Germany. Always the reassurances about limited aims, always while taking limited territories.  And people in the 1930s were relieved, or even grateful. The painful process had made the victims more supple.

What has Putin done?  He snatched pieces from the living body of Georgia.  He sent into eastern parts of Ukraine special forces and other mercenaries and allies—an informal local occupation.  Russia captured whole something as large and critical as Crimea.  That move in 2014 tore open the economic vestments of the Ukrainian people, permanently altered the Sea of Azov and Black Sea situations, and, above all, robbed Kiev of a mass of national territory and depth of defense.  Putin is not just threatening Ukraine with aggression today, he has been succeeding by it, repeatedly.  How many slices may be carved away from Kiev before hope of national sovereignty vanishes?  We ask:  Is this unlike Germany taking the first slice of the Czech state, the Sudetenland, after which Hitler paused, and declared he had “no further territorial demands…”?  For the moment, there was no war…folks were relieved. Six months later, he ate up Bohemia and Moravia (the rest of the Czechoslovak Republic).  Then there was no war…folks were relieved.  Then….

Step by step has been the method, for Germany then, as now for Russia.  Each step weakens the opponents.  Each step makes the observers even more passive.  Each step leaves the aggressor with new lands, new choices, new opportunities.

Our discussions show we are not appreciating the subtleties of this method.  We must understand the moves, and then act more strongly, lest more of the disturbing historical parallel work itself out.

Christopher C. Harmon studied foreign affairs with Harold W. Rood, author of Kingdoms of the Blind: How the Great Democracies Have Resumed the Follies that So Nearly Cost Them Their Life (1980).  Dr. Harmon is a Distinguished Fellow of the Krulak Center, Marine Corps University, and from 2018 through 2021 held the Bren Chair of Great Power Competition. At IWP, he teaches courses on Counterterrorism and the Democracies, Military Strategy: Theory and Practice, and Terrorist Advocacy and Propaganda.

Oral script of AM 27 Jan 2022.