Making Connections: Hitler, Putin, the Munich Conference, and Ukraine
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Have you ever heard of the Sudetenland, Donetsk, or Luhansk? If not, you are not alone. Most Americans haven’t heard of these distant regions. The Sudetenland was a German speaking region in the western portion of the old Czechoslovakia. Donetsk and Luhansk are breakaway separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. These three regions are lined by a complex historic thread that begins with the Munich Conference in 1938 and now reaches the deepening crisis in Ukraine.
Hitler and Putin share a similar opportunistic mindset. Today, Putin is inflaming public opinion in Ukraine’ separatist regions. Back in 1938, Hitler ordered the leader of the Sudeten German party to stir up trouble. “We must always demand so much that we can never be satisfied,” Hitler advised.
In September 1938, Hitler suddenly demanded that Czechoslovakia give up the Sudetenland. The Czechs indignantly refused and called upon France for help. Hitler then massed his troops and threatened to invade the Sudetenland. Note the striking similarities between Hitler’s behavior in 1938 and Putin’s behavior today. History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
Hitler’s threat pushed Europe to the brink of war. But then Hitler unexpectedly invited the leaders of Great Britain, France, and Italy to an emergency conference in Munich, Germany.
The Munich Conference began on September 29, 1938. Hitler solemnly promised the Sudetenland would be his last territorial claim. “I got the impression,” British Prime Minister Chamberlain later recalled, “that here was a man who could be relied on when he gave his word.”
Chamberlain believed he could preserve the peace by giving in to Hitler’s demand. Early the next morning a tense world learned that the crisis was over. Britain and France agreed Hitler could take the Sudetenland. In exchange, Hitler pledged to respect Czechoslovakia’s new borders.
Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, or making concessions, seemed to be a success. When he returned to London, Chamberlain told cheering crowds, “I believe it is peace for our time.” His prediction proved to be tragically wrong. Less than six months later Hitler’s troops marched into Czechoslovakia. The Nazi dictator triumphantly announced, “Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist.”
The Munich Conference marked a turning point in world history. Chamberlain’s failure to stand up to Hitler helped to make World War II inevitable. The Munich Conference also had important long-term consequences. In the years following World War II, the Munich Conference became a symbol for surrender. Democratic leaders at home and abroad vowed they would never again appease a ruthless dictator.
Today the specter of war once again threatens Europe. Almost 200,000 Russian troops are now massed on Ukraine’s borders. Fortunately, American and NATO leaders remember the ill-fated Munich Crisis. For the moment, rediscovered NATO unity and renewed American determination may contain Putin’s aggressive actions.
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