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Not a Munich Moment

Comparing Ukraine's crisis with 1938 misreads both history and the present.
peace for our time

As a lifelong student of history, as well as one who is old enough to have heard from some who witnessed the Second World War first hand, most vividly from my father who served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in North Africa and Italy, and my French mother who was liberated during its course, I don’t take it lightly when casual assertions about the war are hurled about. And in some quarters, skeptics of U.S. involvement in the Ukrainian crisis are being compared to Neville Chamberlain.

The image of Chamberlain holding that flimsy piece of paper in the air as he stepped off the flight from Munich back home to London is seared in our collective memory. The British people, the world, and history learned within a year’s time that Herr Hitler would betray every word he had pledged his name to in that hopeful document.

It’s easy to forget that it was seen at the time as a hopeful document. When a day later the Prime Minister read the document and announced “Peace in Our Time” to the assembled Commons and Lords in Parliament he was cheered to the rafters. The event is described by those who were there as the most tumultuous reception ever seen in its precincts. Their enthusiasm and relief were justifiable and understandable.

Less than 20 years before they had witnessed the untimely deaths of millions of their countrymen on the bloody battlefields of World War I. They knew the horror and tragedy of war and wanted dearly to avoid its repetition. It may be correct and facile to scoff at Neville Chamberlain today, after the fact. But in the moment he had nearly the entire British people with him. There were skeptics; Winston Churchill most notably. Churchill knew Hitler could not be trusted and correctly intuited his cold-hearted plans for territorial conquest.

I recommend three books on the subject, among many others worthy of one’s time: Munich 1938 by David Faber; The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans; Those Angry Days by Lynne Olson. The third title follows events in the USA, recounting the searing debate gripping the American people prior to Pearl Harbor.

We understand the dangers of appeasement. But one size doesn’t fit all. Not in shoes, not in politics, not in history.

When looking at the current crisis in the Ukraine, it’s a bit too easy to just default to the Munich/Neville Chamberlain appeasement analysis. As most historians now agree, the seeds of the Second World War were sown at Versailles, at the end of the First. The diplomatic drawing of arbitrary national boundaries right across pre-existing ethnic homelands is a recipe for lingering hostility and political instability.

These alterations of the map were done all across the Middle East and all across Europe. By the time the Versailles draftsmen were done, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, Latvian, Estonian, Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, Serbian, Croatian, Romanian, Finnish, Austrian, and Russian populations were geographically hacked up and subdivided, placed willy-nilly into this or that new national entity, regardless of their age-old affiliations or ties to the land.

Perhaps things might have gone differently. But history cannot be undone. These conditions, imposed by the victors on the vanquished at the end of World War I, sowed the ground for the rise of revanchist, ethnic re-assertiveness all across Europe, with, as we have seen, dire consequences. The reunification of ethnic Germans was an aspiration shared by many Germans living in places as far flung as Alsace-Lorraine in the west to the Baltic coast of Prussia in the east. Conditions were ripe for exploitation by ethnocentric zealots, nationalists, and extremists of various political stripe.

Ethnic solidarity, linguistic affinity, and religious fervor are powerful human forces. They can be harnessed for good or for ill. Today we see these forces unleashed with a murderous intensity all across the Middle East. From the 1930s through the 1940s these forces ravaged Central Europe, abetted by the maniacal policies of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Some of us see a repeat of what happened at Versailles in 1919 in the political boundaries that were arbitrarily drawn by the victors in 1945. From that May until the end of the decade, millions upon millions of displaced persons were compelled to move East or West or North or South as a result of the redrawn national borders. Some were simply trapped where they were when the war ended. Like the losers in a great game of musical chairs, when the music stopped they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Families and whole communities awoke one morning to find themselves living on opposite sides of new national borders.

These borders, which included the partition of Germany, were enforced by the exigencies of the Cold War and persisted, however artificial, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1993, many ethnic groups with immemorial ties to the land were left scattered across Central and Eastern Europe within political entities for which they held little allegiance. Czechoslovakia is a case in point.

Czechoslovakia was an invented political construct of the post World War I settlement—comprised of dismembered units of the former Hapsburg Empire. Decades later, after the collapse of Communism, the Czechs and Slovaks decided to do what was in their common interest. They agreed to an amicable divorce and split one artificial country into two real ones: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The borders were redrawn and lo and behold the world did not come to an end! On the contrary—both countries are thriving and getting along with each other and with their neighbors.

Similarly, within the current, arbitrarily arranged borders of Ukraine reside multiple ethnic societies, principally Ukrainians in the western two-thirds or so, and Russians in the eastern third.

National borders in this region have changed hundreds of times in the last thousand years. An account of the shifting borders within just the two decades of the 1930s and 1940s is rendered in lurid detail in Timothy Snyder’s monumental historical work Bloodlands.

It’s easy to start wars and difficult to end them. In a sense they never end. When the fighting ends and millions are left with smoldering grievances and a sense of injustice done, hostilities and thinly repressed hatreds resurface at the slightest provocation. It’s with this sense of reality that I see the events in Ukraine.

Civil Wars are brutal affairs. We as Americans should think twice before we say or do anything to provoke one side or the other towards civil war. When I hear John McCain and others loudly calling for our government to send arms to Ukraine, to my ears it sounds like advice from Hell.

This may be seen by some as an echo of Neville. But this is not 1938. Putin, for all his brash bellicosity is not Hitler and Russia is not Nazi Germany. If we allow ourselves to be persuaded by the skewered logic that excites us to war, it’s not only the people of the immediate region who will suffer the consequences, but potentially our own sons and daughters.

Every diplomatic effort should be geared to what is in the interest of the people living in the region today. These people are the inheritors of the land, of their traditions, customs, and history. Perhaps the Czech-Slovak model is the solution; an amicable partition may serve the interest of ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians alike. Perhaps preserving the current borders in a multi-ethnic state is the answer. But of one thing I am certain. It is not our decision to make for these people. We should take no sides and we should certainly be encouraging no faction to arm, fight, or kill. Dear Mr. McCain. Please stand down.

Ron Maxwell is an independent filmmaker residing in Virginia. He is perhaps best known for writing and directing the Civil War-era motion-pictures “Gettysburg,” “Gods & Generals,” and “Copperhead.”