The West did not stop Hitler in 1938
In 1938, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi army seized a portion of Czechoslovakia called the Sudetenland. Home to a large ethnic German population who primarily spoke the German language, Hitler and his supporters considered this region to be rightfully a part of Germany. The seizure was part of Hitler’s attempt to expand German influence and power. He was ashamed of Germany’s defeat in the first World War and wanted to right the wrong. Ultimately, he desired to create what he saw as a third German empire – the first being Charlemagne’s Frankish Empire, the second being the German Empire under the Prussian dynasty, and the third, of course, being the Nazi regime, or Third Reich.
The West could have stopped Hitler right then and there in 1938, but they didn’t want confrontation. America considered the invasion Europe’s problem, but European opposition to the seizure was quelled when Hitler threatened to unleash war unless the territory was surrendered to Germany. Europe didn’t want war, so in exchange for a pledge of peace, European leaders gave in to Hitler’s demands. Of course, Hitler’s territorial desires didn’t stop there, and within months he had invaded and conquered more of Czechoslovakia. Still, the consensus was that leaders were willing to sacrifice Czechoslovakia to the Nazis in exchange for what they called “peace.”
The notion was preposterous. The effort at avoidance was futile. Appeasement allowed the Nazi war machine to grow stronger. What ultimately followed was the most destructive war in human history and the largest case of industrial scale mass murder that the world has ever seen.
The same story repeats in 2022
Today, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is leading an aggressive war against the neighboring country of Ukraine. Putin and his supporters consider Ukraine to be rightfully a part of Russia. By invading, he claims he is acting in defense of the ethnically Russian and Russian-speaking population. This invasion is also an effort to expand Russian power, and to right the wrong, as Putin sees it, of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Ultimately, Putin seeks to create a third Russian empire – the first being the Tsarist empire, the second being the Soviet Union, and the third being the nightmare that he is currently attempting to bring into our modern world.
Just as the West spent years appeasing Hitler, today much of the leadership of the free world is bending over backwards to avoid upsetting another madman who is clearly willing to murder and displace millions to satisfy his empirical desires. In the aftermath of the Holocaust and World War II, the democratic world made a vow that we would never again allow such a thing to occur. We swore to stand with one another in the face of adversity and to fight shoulder-to-shoulder against the encroachment of dictators. We swore no one would be sacrificed to the whims of a tyrant. Today, despite all the aid and weapons flowing into Ukraine, we are failing to live up to those vows.
Same mistakes made
Leaders of free nations are allowing their policies to be shaped by Putin’s threats. Defensive action is being deterred out of fear of angering the aggressor. We are making the same mistakes that we made in the lead-up to World War II. In a fearful and delusional effort at avoiding confrontation with a war-mongering dictator, the democratic world is in danger of abandoning our values and sacrificing our allies. Meanwhile, the body count is rising higher and higher. Rather than standing up to the bully in our midst, we are being told to accept a world in which we are held hostage by a tyrant with nukes. This is not an acceptable reality, and the leaders who are attempting to sell this disgraceful state of affairs to their citizens should be ashamed.
Sometimes that affirmation happens at the ballot box, sometimes in mass demonstrations, sometimes in the written word, and sometimes through fighting for your life as Ukraine is doing right now.
We must stop kidding ourselves that conflict with tyrants can be avoided. It can only be postponed, and the longer it is postponed, the higher the cost in lives. Avoidance is not a strategy, it is a betrayal.
If the horror of the Holocaust and World War II teaches us anything it is that monsters exist and they must be dealt with, especially the ones with armies. Today, the democratic world is being called upon once again to stand up to a tyrant as he attempts to subjugate a free people. Let us live up to the best of our ideals, the deepest of our values, and use our strength and unity to stop this madness now.We must stop kidding ourselves that conflict with tyrants can be avoided. It can only be postponed, and the longer it is postponed, the higher the cost in lives. Avoidance is not a strategy, it is a betrayal. Click To Tweet
Joshua Daniel Hershfield holds a Master’s degree in Holocaust Studies. He was an Azrieli Foundation Scholar and is a recipient of the Bela Zarhi Prize. Twitter: @josh_hershfield
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