WASHINGTON, March 30, 2014 — It seems George F. Will is taking time out from excoriating Obamacare and from telling conservatives that they’ll have to get used to gay marriage to lecture about the lessons of the past.
Will is steamed that we don’t see the resemblance between what Vladimir Putin is doing to restore the Soviet Empire and (you guessed it) the failure of Europeans to stand up to Hitler. Ever since the neoconservatives got to impose their will on the GOP and more broadly on the onetime conservative movement, the appeasement policy practiced by England and France toward Hitler in October, 1938 comes up every time we are urged to take bold action in international affairs.
The willingness of Western countries to knuckle under to Hitler’s demand to annex the largely German Sudetenland, which had been given to the post-World War One state of Czechoslovakia, allowed the Nazis to go on a killing spree.
By March 1939, as Will tells us, Hitler’s armies had occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and were heading toward their next conquest, Poland.
Not surprisingly, Will stumbles over historical details. The German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939 did not take place “on the pretext of responding to Polish provocation.” There was more than enough provocation for German action, in view of the Polish attempt to cut off the corridor leading into the heavily German city of Danzig, in violation of a multilateral agreement drawn up by the League of Nations. Danzig and other German enclaves were given to Poland after the First World War, and the German minorities were treated wretchedly in these places, particularly after a nationalist military regime took over Poland in the 1930s and began to oppress ethnic minorities.
Since the League of Nations, which was controlled by the victors in the Great War, refused to address these problems, Germans of all political persuasions called for some remedial action.
Unfortunately Hitler provided not only remedial action but a murderous regime, when he divided up Poland, with his almost equally brutal Soviet ally after a lightning-like attack.
That is where the parallel breaks down. Putin is not herding undesirable ethnic groups into concentration camps or planning to reconstruct the world on the basis of a racialist or socialist revolutionary plan.
When Will explained in a TV interview that “Putin is a man of the nineteenth century,” he was coming closer to reality, although for Will, “man of the nineteenth century,” “barbarian,” and a stand-in for Hitler may all be the same thing.
Putin is a very traditional Russian nationalist, like nineteenth-century Russian rulers and ministers, who were always trying to expand Russia’s borders.
There were certain constants in Russian statecraft in the late nineteenth century, gaining control over the Balkans and occupying Istanbul, in order to give the Russians domination over the Straits and Black Sea. These aims turned out to be extremely dangerous because they brought Russia into conflict with the Austrian and Turkish Empires. They also alienated the German government, which looked upon itself as a protector of those empires that the Russians were threatening. Ultimately this statecraft contributed to the First World War, which the tsarist regime did at least as much as any other country to incite.
Significantly, Putin sees a vacuum of power in areas that rival empires were once disputing and which the Soviet Union filled until its collapse. He is now trying to fill that vacuum; and obviously the Germans, who have been made to detest their (exaggeratedly) militaristic past, will do nothing to stop him. By now the Germans have become accustomed to what Will calls their “passivity.” Meanwhile the nations that were freed of Soviet control have grown anxious about Putin’s hegemonic drive but are too weak to restrain it.
The US may be forced to deal with the situation in the end, but unfortunately, we have unsuitable candidates for the job.
On the one hand, we have the forever dithering Obama, who shrinks at taking unilateral action internationally. This president is as weak on the international front as he is eager to transform America culturally and socially.
On the other hand, we have the predictable sable-rattling Fox All-stars and Senators McCain and Graham, who are intent on throwing American weight around in the name of democracy for everyone. By now a Republican administration might have given us military entanglements in numerous countries if we were lucky enough to have McCain as president.
Looking back at the American past, I yearn for a time when the foreign policy debate was between thoughtful men like Robert Taft and Dean Acheson or George Kennan and the Eisenhower administration.
Although Putin appears ready to gobble up territory in Eastern Ukraine, I have no confidence in the wisdom of either side in our partisan politics. I’d love to dump them both and look for statesmen, preferably out of another era.