Battlefield developments regarding the brutal, unprovoked, imperialistic Russian invasion of Ukraine appear multiple times on this site’s front page every day—with good reason. For starters, Moscow has the world’s second largest military, and more nuclear weapons than any other country. Truly understanding the conflict means looking beyond what’s happened since hostilities began and examining history.
For example, although many of us have a vague sense that Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler share some similarities as aggressive warmongers, it’s important to provide substance to supplement that vague sense—and to connect the history to the present both in terms of events in Europe and the reaction of our own country to the two dictators’ bloodthirsty acts.
The First World War officially ended at the stroke of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918—an appalling six hours after the countries involved had signed the armistice agreement. How many soldiers died in combat during those final six hours? Almost three thousand, and the last one was an American.
The conflict decisively altered the map of Central and Eastern Europe.
Four states that had ruled over large swathes of territory were defeated, and their dynasties overthrown: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and German empires. The Ottoman Empire dissolved, and the Turkish Republic that emerged in its place was limited to the Turkish heartland of Anatolia and, in Europe, a tiny bit of land surrounding Istanbul (they had lost much of their territory in Europe in the Balkan Wars that immediately preceded WWI).
The war led to fundamental change in Russia. The country became a democracy for a few months in 1917, and then, thanks to the Bolsheviks, transformed into the Soviet Union near the end of that year. By losing the war, it lost control over Finland, as well as the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, which all became independent, while the territory known now as Moldova went from being Russian to Romanian. However, during the Second World War, the USSR reacquired all of these, except Finland—of which it did get a small slice—and added a large block of eastern Poland as well.
Austria-Hungary, the patrimony of the Habsburg dynasty, split apart completely. Most importantly for our purposes, its dissolution left millions who identified as ethnic Germans as either minorities in newly created states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, or in the rump-Austrian Republic. The Treaty of Versailles barred the newly created Austria from joining their territory to that of Germany, a step—known in German as Anschluss—that its leaders and most citizens wanted to take, rather than remain an independent state.
As for Germany, the Hohenzollern family abdicated the throne and democracy became its form of government. Elected leaders drew up a new constitution in the city of Weimar, which gave its name to the era running from the end of the war until Hitler’s takeover in 1933. The Versailles Treaty mandated that Germany hand over Alsace-Lorraine to France, a small piece of land to Belgium, a province to Denmark, and, in the East, one city (Memel) to Lithuania, as well as a large chunk of territory to Poland—which was reconstituted 123 years after having been forcibly partitioned by neighboring states. Large numbers of people who identified as Germans were now citizens of the new Poland, living in what became known as the “Polish Corridor.”
Germany had been the predominant military power on the European continent since its unification in 1871—accomplished in the wake of its crushing defeat of France, which had held that title for over two centuries. The country had a long tradition of militarism, and most Germans held martial values in high regard. They were proud of the nation’s military strength and battlefield victories. On the whole, Germany felt humiliated and was left wanting revenge after their defeat in WWI. Some Germans, in particular on the right, wanted nothing more than to undo the war’s outcome.
These revisionist desires were a major factor fueling Hitler's ability to win support—he was going to make Germany great again—and, ultimately, provided the basis for his aggressive foreign policy in the 1930s. As noted on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum website:
Revision of the Versailles Treaty represented one of the platforms that gave radical right wing parties in Germany, including Hitler's Nazi Party, such appeal to mainstream voters in the 1920s and early 1930s. Promises to rearm, to reclaim German territory, particularly in the East, and to regain prominence again among European and world powers after a humiliating defeat, stoked ultranationalist sentiment and helped average Germans to overlook the more radical tenets of Nazi ideology.
During the Weimar era, Germany’s relations with its neighbors were not exactly placid, but at least war was avoided. After 1923, when the conflict over reparations payments was resolved, Germany had a “productive working relationship” with the two large West European democracies, Britain and France, and officially accepted the territorial losses along its western borders. German relations with its eastern neighbors were less settled, to be sure. However, In 1928, Germany signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which officially outlawed war “as an instrument of national policy.”
Five years later, Adolf Hitler had become chancellor of Germany. Through the violence and deceit he employed in the initial weeks of his rule, he became absolute dictator—the Fuehrer. Hitler’s military and foreign policy contains strong parallels to what we are seeing from Putin’s Russia today.
not carbon copies
The two are not carbon copies, to be sure. Nazi Germany’s commitment to murderous antisemitism and genocide—its meticulously developed and executed plan to kill every Jew, along with Roma and other groups deemed racially or otherwise inferior—is not something we are seeing from present-day Russia, although their war crimes against Ukrainian civilians are certainly despicable. Nevertheless, virtually from the time Hitler took power, he began his quest to reverse the results of WWI and alter his country's borders, a quest that brought Europe into war.
One of Hitler’s guiding principles was that ethnic Germans—those with, in his terms, German blood—needed to be “regathered" into the German state after being left outside it. The most egregious injustice, in the eyes of the Nazis, were those people whose territories were part of non-German states, such as Poland and Czechoslovakia, where they were being supposedly "mistreated."
Among his earliest steps, in 1936 Hitler took full control of the Rhineland—the demilitarized zone west of the Rhine River, on the border with France. Then, in 1938 he sent German troops into Austria and achieved the long-sought Anschluss. Later that year, he used the threat of force to acquire the Sudetenland—a part of western Czechoslovakia that bordered Germany, where German-speakers lived—although he promised that he’d then leave the rest of the country alone. In March 1939, he broke that promise. German forces marched in and took the rest of the Czech part of the country, and set up a Nazi-puppet regime in the Slovak half.
Hitler then turned his focus to Poland. After enacting a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union—which included a “secret protocol” by which the two countries agreed to divide Poland between them—Nazi Germany invaded its eastern neighbor on Sept. 1, 1939, and plunged Europe into the Second World War.
the many similarities
Russia's story over the past three-plus decades contains many similarities. The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire—which, in Putin's words from 2005, constitute "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century"—stand as the equivalent of Germany’s defeat in WWI.
Within Russia, one generation after the end of the USSR, the autocratic Putin had dismantled the Yeltsin-era democracy that followed Soviet communism. Although the post-Soviet democracy did look shaky right from the start—people were talking about "Weimar Russia" as early as 1995—Putin is the person who delivered the death blow. Timothy Snyder, the preeminent historian of totalitarianism, has characterized Putin’s Russia as a fascist government, and contended that it is currently waging “a fascist war of destruction” in Ukraine. In this insightful New York Times op-ed piece, Snyder explores significant commonalities in the nature of the Putin and Hitler regimes.
Since first taking power in 2000, Putin has also ushered in an abrupt close to a period of relatively good relations with Russia's neighbors, which culminated in the signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act in 1997. The document states that “NATO and Russia do not consider one another adversaries and cites the sweeping transformations in NATO and Russia that make possible this new relationship.” After Putin became president, he cast aside those sentiments as easily as he takes off his shirt for photo-ops.
It’s also worth noting that in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia made a guarantee to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine,” in return for Kyiv turning its share of the Soviet nuclear arsenal over to Moscow. Putin has made clear that agreement isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written.
The Russian president’s overarching goal has long been to reverse previous territorial losses born by his country. Much like Hitler, his revisionism focuses on recovering lands populated by his people’s ethnic kin (or those, like Ukrainians, he claims are kin, even if they reject such an identity). An estimated 25 million people who identified as ethnically Russian suddenly found themselves living outside the Russian Federation when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Some moved back to Russia, while others went elsewhere, but approximately 20 million or more remain living in Russia’s near abroad.
but our people ...
Exactly as Hitler did regarding ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland and Poland in the 1930s, Putin has been employing rhetoric decrying how Russian-speakers in the former USSR were supposedly being mistreated. Putin used this to justify military action against Georgia in 2008—where South Ossetia and Abkhazia have large ethnic Russian populations—and Ukraine, both in 2014, when it outright annexed Crimea and put troops into eastern Ukraine, as well as now.
Thinking beyond places where Moscow currently has armed forces or otherwise exercises control today (i.e., Belarus)—which also includes Transnistria, a breakaway, Russian-speaking part of Moldova bordering on Ukraine that has de facto sovereignty—significant numbers of people identifying as Russian live in every post-Soviet state. The largest in raw numbers reside in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Most ominously for European security, Russian-speakers also constitute large percentages of the population in Lithuania (15%), Estonia (30%) and Latvia (34%). These last three are members of NATO, but Russia has attempted to sow “disruption and discontent” in those countries nonetheless.
To take the long view, one can characterize European history from German unification in 1871 through 1945 as being centered around that country’s push to expand its borders and dominate the continent, and the period from 1945 to the present as being dominated by a similar push from Russia. Many once thought the latter push ended in 1991, but, as with Germany, a second phase began fewer than twenty years after the first one met defeat. The apocryphal Mark Twain quote applies here: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes."
the difference in U.S. responses
We can also explore parallels, as well as differences, between the U.S. response to the outbreak of the Second World War and to Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine. Concerning the former, Franklin Roosevelt faced significant isolationist sentiment in the U.S. These were embodied by the strong restrictions contained in the Neutrality Acts of 1935 and 1936, which imposed a U.S. embargo on the sale of all arms and military supplies to any party involved in a war. However, after Hitler’s invasion of Poland, FDR overcame the opposition of isolationists and began aiding the enemies of Nazi Germany.
First, President Roosevelt convinced Congress to allow him to sell military equipment on a “cash and carry” basis—as long as Britain and France could pay up front and get what they had bought home on their own, such sales were allowed. France fell to Hitler in June 1940, and Britain needed much more help, so FDR and newly minted British Prime Minister Winston Churchill got creative.
Next, the U.S. sent 50 outdated but still useful destroyers to help the British protect against a naval invasion of their island in return for 99-year leases on British bases in the Caribbean and off the Canadian coast. By the end of 1940, it was clear that far more was needed, so FDR introduced legislation, the Lend-Lease Act, that would authorize the necessary assistance without requiring any payment from those receiving it. It passed in March 1941. Here’s more on the act’s impact:
Roosevelt soon took advantage of his authority under the new law, ordering large quantities of U.S. food and war materials to be shipped to Britain from U.S. ports through the new Office of Lend-Lease Administration. The supplies dispersed under the Lend-Lease Act ranged from tanks, aircraft, ships, weapons and road building supplies to clothing, chemicals and food.
By the end of 1941, the lend-lease policy was extended to include other U.S. allies, including China and the Soviet Union. By the end of World War II the United States would use it to provide a total of some $50 billion in aid to more than 30 nations around the globe, from the Free French movement led by Charles de Gaulle and the governments-in-exile of Poland, the Netherlands and Norway to Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Paraguay and Peru.
Let’s compare FDR to our two most recent presidents: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. First, we have The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried Steal It. Sticking just to what became public, we know that he not only sucked up to Putin, but he also engaged in a long-running extortion campaign aimed at getting Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to smear Biden in hopes of weakening the Democrat for the 2020 campaign. You might remember that when Zelenskyy sought to buy Javelin missiles in 2019, to protect against the Russian invasion he rightly feared, Fuck a L’Orange replied “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Trump wanted the Ukrainian president to announce that his government was going to investigate Biden for argle-bargle. That’s what brought about his first impeachment. It wasn’t exactly a Rooseveltian response to a request for help made by a country facing attack.
President Biden, on the other hand, responded to the Russian invasion by strongly supporting Ukraine, with a robust diplomatic effort and billions of dollars in military assistance. His echoing of FDR even includes a revival of the historic Lend-Lease Act in the form of the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022. Just one more way Biden is the polar opposite of Trump.
The response of the U.S. and its NATO allies to Putin’s attack on Ukraine demonstrates a key difference between now and the events of Hitler’s day. Despite unleashing the greatest evil humanity has yet seen—and hopefully ever will see—the Nazi leader actually found military allies. The Nazi-led Axis included Italy, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania in Europe, as well as Japan, because other countries not only had fascist governments too, but also shared Hitler’s aggressive desire to remake the map in their favor (democratic Finland, which was attacked by the USSR in 1939 and again in 1941, fought with the Axis as well after the second attack before reaching an armistice and switching sides in 1944).
Thus far, Putin’s Russia fights alone (except for tiny Belarus) against a country whose military efforts—and even its overall government functions—are being funded to a significant degree by the rest of Europe plus the U.S. The European Union in late June even made Ukraine an official candidate to join. NATO is working together more successfully than it has done in decades, coordinating their efforts to help Kyiv and punish Moscow. Furthermore, with the forthcoming accession of Sweden and Finland—the latter of which shares an 830-mile border with Russia—NATO will have more resources and strength than ever with which to contain Putin’s aggression.
Hitler’s war divided Europe (please note that, in addition to the countries fighting with Germany, the USSR was his “de facto ally,” as seen in the simultaneous Nazi/Soviet 1939 invasion of Poland, an alliance that lasted until he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941) whereas Putin’s war has united Europe against him. This is the great success of the institutions—NATO and the EU—created in the post-WWII years to incentivize democracy and peace on the continent. Hitler succeeded to the degree that he did because pre-WWII Europe lacked such institutions.
However, having the institutions exist on paper isn’t enough. Joe Biden deserves much credit for the NATO response to Ukraine, in particular given how much his disgraced predecessor weakened the U.S. relationship with NATO. Of course, Trump is now trying to “rewrite history” on this. Why not, I guess? He’s lied about literally everything else.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)