Here’s a history test consisting of just one question. What period do the following two paragraphs describe?
Despite the best efforts of Western governments, the effects of a severe economic downturn drag on. A war that was fought in the name of democracy instead brings instability and encourages ethnic conflict. Amid revulsion at the war’s human toll and disillusionment over its disappointing results, public opinion turns against foreign entanglements, and countries slash their military budgets. After all, their leaders explain, in a time of severe poverty and unemployment, domestic needs must take priority. And anyway, they reason, massive defense spending is unnecessary and wasteful since, unlike the past, in our day international conflict ought to be resolved peacefully, through negotiations.
Meanwhile a once-great power, shorn of its empire, sees a way to recover from national humiliation and restore tarnished prestige. Complaining that a neighboring country is mistreating an ethnic minority that speaks the once-great power’s language, it gains control of a province of that country to “protect” that minority, and conducts a plebiscite in which more than 90 percent of the voters choose union with the once-great power. The latter then sends thousands of troops to the border while disclaiming any further territorial designs, but disguised men somehow cross the border and take over towns in the neighboring country. Other nations express disapproval, invoke meaningless sanctions, and wait to see what will happen next.
Did you answer that this describes the world’s response to Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern and southern Ukraine? Correct. Did you go further back in time to 1938, when Nazi Germany used this tactic to take over the Sudeten region from Czechoslovakia? Also correct. To be sure, the past holds no easy lessons for the present, since there are so many variables to be considered. Yet as Mark Twain pointed out, while history never repeats itself, it does rhyme, and patterns recur. It would surely be disastrous if this rhyme plays out to the bitter end.
Today, an economically stressed West, its enthusiasm for foreign intervention blunted by big budget deficits and by the sobering experience of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is witnessing blatant Russian aggression. Secretary of State Kerry has chastised President Vladimir Putin for carrying out a cross-border invasion as if we were still in the 19th century, whereas 21st-century countries negotiate their differences. Noble sentiments, with which one can only sympathize.
So too, after the Sudetenland region with its 3 million German speakers had been handed over to Germany, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain expressed shock when German troops proceeded to overrun the rest of Czechoslovakia as well. After all, he said, Hitler had promised him that he had no further territorial claims in Europe.
One can readily sympathize with the prime minister, as well. Horror at the carnage of World War I—billed as a war both to end all wars and to make the world safe for democracy by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson—generated an anti-military mood. Governments cut defense budgets and placed hope in the new League of Nations, created to replace war with diplomacy—but which the U.S. never joined. Surely there was nothing to fear from Germany, which had been one of the signatories to the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which outlawed war. (U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg won a Nobel Peace Prize the next year for negotiating that).
In fact, Western withdrawal from confrontation only opened up a power vacuum for international predators to exploit. In the end, even swallowing up Czechoslovakia did not sate Germany’s appetite, and in 1939 Hitler said he had to defend the persecuted German-speakers of Danzig, which was part of Poland. That’s how World War II began.
Of course, Putin in no Hitler, today’s Russia is no Nazi Germany, and another world war is highly unlikely. Yet the cynical exploitation of ethnic ties to justify invasion threatens international order now as it did in the 1930s. We can only hope that the Western democracies prove they have learned from history, and this time apply the brakes to aggression before it gets out of hand.
Lawrence Grossman is director of publications for the American Jewish Committee.