(This is not a post about running. I was a history major in school, and have written a book about my parents who met and married in Poland during World War II. As such, the issues of those times have always held particular interest to me. The following is an essay that I pulled together from today’s headlines and the research I conducted for my book. I will return to the issues of running in due course.)
In the aftermath of World War I, Poland rejoined the family of nations after a 150-year period of partitions. The Treaty of Versailles also imposed punitive measures on Germany, forcing her to surrender around 13% of her territory, stripping her of her colonies, prohibiting her from annexing other states, while saddling her with harsh reparations, which the loss of territory made impossible to meet. The size and makeup of Germany’s armed forces were also scaled way back. These severe conditions resulted in a bitter peace that helped spark Hitler’s rise in the early 1930s by fueling his nationalistic appeal.
While not born of a punitive treaty per se, is it too far a stretch to see a similar nationalism rising in Russia in the aftermath of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, and in the current political machinations of Russian president Vladimir Putin in Crimea?
In this crisis of 2014, we see the same rationalization being employed by Putin that Hitler used in the buildup to World War II.
In the late 1930s, Hitler felt those areas in any nation where German culture was predominate should be allowed self-determination, which to him meant joining the Fatherland. Today, Mr. Putin has similarly declared Crimea historically part of Russia since the majority of its people are ethnic Russian, while the Russian Black Sea fleet has its home port in Sevastopol. Accordingly, President Putin engineered a public referendum to cover what was, in fact, a military annexation. And isn’t it a coincidence that Hitler staged an extravagant Olympic Games in Munich 1936 to showcase a resurgent Germany even as Mr. Putin has just completed his $50 million Sochi Games toward that same purpose for the Russian people?
Hitler completed his annexations without constraint during the Anschluss in Austria in March 1938 and in the Czech Sudetenland one month later. Why, he wagered, would the West choose to object if he went after a piece of Poland in 1939? Thus, he demanded a corridor through Poland to Danzig, the free city on the Baltic Sea, which had a large number of ethnic Germans and which separated Germany from East Prussia.
These types of demands had become a political game the Fuehrer had learned to play with consummate skill: first make a striking public demand while offering conciliatory pledges wrapped in diplomatic language, stating nothing additional would be required if they met his original demand. Then, after his peace-striving co-signatory consented, Hitler would break all his promises, and begin demanding more and more in exchange for the elusive peace. With Poland, Herr Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact in 1934, which he would later renounce in March 1939, laying the foundation for his invasion of September 1st.
Unfortunately, when Germany did attack, Poland felt betrayed by her democratic “friends”. While Britain and France did declare war, French troops made only a brief advance toward the Siegfried Line on Germany’s western frontier before halting immediately upon meeting German resistance. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain hedged his support in a public forum, admitting to The Times of London that he was speaking merely to ‘the independence’ of Poland, not to her ‘geographic integrity’.
The Austrian-born artist corporal had played a masterful political game throughout his rise domestically, and then in his swift domination of the continent militarily. Over and over again, he feigned peace even as he prepared for war; and had found willing collaborators with whom to engage.
The Great War (1914-1918) had consumed millions lives, and yet neither victor nor vanquished had come out of the “war to end all wars” the better for having fought it. Nations and empires had fallen, and the ordinary people who had survived were left with lingering psychological wounds from the brutalities they witnessed, caused, and shared. As a result, an international pacifism grew, the League of Nations formed, and war was seen by most every nation, save a few like Germany, Italy and Japan, as a futile exercise that no sane leader would embrace.
This was the political framework upon which Hitler hung his peace initiatives before proving his mendacity, as treaty after treaty, pact after pact, was summarily dismantled by his forces. Now recall that following the Soviet collapse in 1991, the newly independent nation of Ukraine sat atop a strategic stockpile of 1900 nuclear warheads, third most in the world. In return for giving up those nuclear weapons to Russia for disposal, they guaranteed Ukraine its territorial integrity, which, since 1954, included Crimea. This 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was signed by Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In the 1930s, the nations of Europe were so eager to avoid another catastrophic war that they were willing to exchange a piece of their hearts, land, and national honor for the sake of peace. Hitler used these desires repeatedly to his ravenous advantage.
What next for Mr. Putin and the West, the whole of Ukraine?