Pundits and politicians are falling all over themselves to identify the appropriate historical precedent for Ukraine. The larger issue of superpower conflict in the region is portentous of World War I. But the more immediate events, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, are still waiting to be properly defined.
The easy, if vapid, analogy is to equate Vladimir Putin with Adolph Hitler, and his annexation of Crimea with Hitler’s annexation of Austria—the Anschluss. Hillary Clinton offered just such a comparison of Putin to Hitler in a recent speech in California. German media have been floating comparisons with the Anschluss. It’s nothing new.
Western commentators try to make everyone who stands in their way into Hitler: Chavez in Venezuela; Saddam Hussein in Iraq; Amedinejad in Iran; Khadaffi in Libya; Assad in Syria. The analogy is so trite you would imagine it had lost its hortatory value. But not in the Western media, where insight is less prized than incitement.
Why does “Putin-as-Hitler” fail the test of historical validity? And is there a better precedent we could recall for comparison?
It was Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 that is the would-be parallel with Crimea. But it breaks down immediately upon examination. To be sure, Hitler wanted to re-unify the German-speaking people. But he was forbidden from doing so by Treaty of Versailles, which had settled World War I. In 1934, Austrian Nazis, supported by their German counterparts, attempted a coup d’etat of the Austrian government, murdering its Chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss. The coup failed but did not deter Nazi ambitions.
In February 1938, Hitler summoned Dollfuss’ replacement, Kurt von Schuschnigg, to Germany where he ordered Schuschnigg to turn over the Austrian government. Schuschnigg refused. Instead, he went back to Austria and announced a referendumto determine whether the Austrian people wished to remain independent. Hitler was enraged, knowing that the outcome would thwarthis plans for takeover.
So, on March 11, 1938, a Nazi minister acting on Hitler’s orders announced that he was Chancellor of Austria. He immediately issued a request for the German military to enter Austria to “restore order.” Two hundred thousand German troops marched into Austria the next day. This event forms the backdrop for the popular movie, “The Sound of Music.”
In other words, the Austrian annexation was almost the exact opposite of the Crimean one. The Anschluss occurred precisely to prevent a referendum of the people that would have rejected annexation. The Crimean annexation occurred in response to a referendum which favored it. The difference is profound, virtually complete. Conflating one with the other betrays either ignorance on the part of those making the comparison, or the intent to deceive.
So, if Crimea is not the Anschluss, if Putin is not Hitler, what is going on? What is the appropriate analogy? What is going on here is the fascist overthrow of a democratically elected government, but the appropriate analogy is the Spanish Civil War.
Recall, first, that there was a democratically elected government in Ukraine, headed by Viktor Yanukovych, the democratically elected president. He was overthrown in a February coup that was engineered by the United States and carried out by its hired fascist thugs, including those from the Svoboda and Right Sektor parties. It is indelicate to mention these facts, but they are not in dispute.
How is this analogous to the Spanish Civil War?
In 1930, Spain was ruled by an autocratic Bourbon monarch, Alphonso XIII. The economy was retrograde, income was concentrated in very few hands, and the mass of people were desperately poor. However, elections in 1931 placed the country’s first-ever representative government into power. It proceeded with a program of public education, public health, and land reform.
The new government was immediately attacked by a coalition of ultra-conservative monarchists, the Catholic Church, and the landed aristocracy. The government survived the attack, but by 1936 was forced by its right-wing opponents to hold new elections. Again, a majority of the Spanish people voted for the Republicans, thwartingthe rightists’ ambitions of takeover. This time, however, the opposition, which called itself “Nationalists,” attacked with weapons, starting a civil war that waged for the next three years.
The right wing, led by fascist general Francisco Franco, received extensive help from fascist Italy and Germany. Italy provided some 700 aircraft, 2,000 cannons, 250,000 rifles and 50,000 men. Germany sent tanks, aircraft, men, and munitions and used the war as a testing ground for the weapons and battlefield tactics it would soon use in the larger World War to come.
The democratically elected Spanish government appealed for help to Britain, France, and the United States. France promised aid but sent little. Britain and the United States sent nothing. Against the vastly better-armed forces of the opposition, the Republican government was eventually defeated. Over 600,000 people were killed. The War was commemorated by George Orwell in his cult classic, Homage to Catalonia. Franco ruled Spain until his death in 1975.
The fact that democratic governments would not defend democracy in Spain, while fascist governments helped their allies, created an ominous precedent for Europe. It emboldened Hitler as he, time and again, challenged the passivity of democratic governments on the way to World War II.
This precedent of fascists overthrowing a democratically elected government while supposedly “democratic” countries stand idly by, is the proper historical parallel to the events in Ukraine. Putin is simply responding to this larger provocation, protecting a strategic interest which the Western aggressors have tried to pry away using their fascist thugs as the henchmen. Western powers and the Western media can pretend that it’s the Russians who are the aggressors, but nobody who is both knowledgeable of history and honest will be fooled.