It’s Like 1939, But Better In Some Ways, And Also Worse

The military threat is smaller, but the political one is bigger.

Some of the commentaries about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been making inevitable historical comparisons. Clearly, we’re in a moment, like 1939, in which an autocrat has decided to ignore the foundations of the international order to impose his will on his neighbors. While from a military perspective, the threat of invasion of more countries is far less, the political weaknesses that Putin is exploiting are far worse.

Russian in 2022 is following the same playbook as Germany in 1939: make bogus claims about provocations, then invade. However, it does not have the military strength to effectively occupy Ukraine indefinitely, the way that Germany occupied Poland (or its part of Poland, since Stalin invaded the other part, and held it until Operation Barbarossa). It appears, from Putin’s statements, that he wants to depose the democratic government of Ukraine, purge the country of any opposition to Russian dominance, and erect a puppet regime. After that, it’s anyone’s guess how much armed and unarmed resistance that regime will face, and how much military support Russia will give. However, if Putin wants to wave the Russian military sword against other Eastern European countries, in pursuit of further creating a Russian sphere of influence, he can’t commit all the forces currently invading to a permanent occupation. While the threat of some military action against Russia’s other neighbors is certainly credible, we’re not facing the 1939 scenario of a huge war machine making blitzkrieg attacks and occupying one European nation after another. Though, again, a large Russian military, hiding behind its nuclear shield, attacking the Baltic States and other countries is still a scary prospect.

In his book The Meaning of Hitler, Sebastian Haffner credited Hitler with a vulture’s genius for spotting weakness. Putin, too, has clearly identified the weaknesses in the current world, from the indecision and hesitation of Western countries in effectively opposing his actions in George and Ukraine, to the vulnerability of Western democracies to misinformation and polarization. Those political weaknesses are, today, worse than they were in 1939. Certainly, Western democracies had their homegrown fascists, such as Oswald Mosley and the German American Bund. American isolationism didn’t help, either. But Western opposition to Hitler was never complicated the way that Western opposition to Putin is, particularly in the United States.

There are certainly some similarities between 1939 and 2022. We had our popular public figures, such as Charles Lindbergh and Father Coughlin, who were sympathetic to or supportive of the Nazis. We had loud, numerous voices railing against foreign entanglements. We had people dissatisfied with the American political order, from Communists to fascists, who wanted to overturn it. But we did not have as large a dictator-friendly, insurrectionist-friendly, conspiracy-addled collection of Americans as we do now. Nor did we have a former President of the United States, acting as the de facto leader the Republican party and the pro-autocrat, anti-democratic movement, accelerating and expanding these sentiments. Nor did people who express these sentiments have as large and loud a megaphone.

We must stand with Ukrainians in this dark hour. We must do everything we can to help them. But the “we” excludes people here at home who share Putin’s worldview, in which a combination of raw power and naked lies is the proper way to govern a country, and have similarly cynical and Hobbesian perspectives on the international system. That’s a very different sentiment than, say, many of the isolationists of the 1939, who wanted to preserve American democracy and general prosperity from the risks that foreign entanglements might create. We have always debated how far beyond the water’s edge we should draw the line for American security. We’re now also far more divided over the basic principles on which our own political order is founded, as well as the international order. Putin certainly saw that division, having nourished it, and factored it into his calculations. And all of that is what makes 2022 a scary time in which to live.

FILED UNDER: Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, , , , ,
Kingdaddy
About Kingdaddy
Kingdaddy is returning to political blogging after a long hiatus. For several years, he wrote about national security affairs at his blog, Arms and Influence, under the same pseudonym. He currently lives in Colorado, where he is still awestruck at all the natural beauty here. He has a Ph.D in political science that is oddly useful in his day job.

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    Great post.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    +1

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  3. Michael Cain says:

    The biggest difference between 1939 and 2022 is, of course, that Nazi Germany had only conventional weapons but Russia has 12,000 nuclear warheads, ICBMs, long-range cruise missiles, etc.

    I am increasingly pessimistic, and suggest that Russia doesn’t need to occupy Ukraine. Install a puppet executive branch, reduce the legislature and military to be merely symbolic, and set up a Stasi Lite to control the cities. There never seems to be a shortage of people willing to take on the secret police role.

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  4. Matt Bernius says:

    Thanks for writing this. It’s a sobering and unfortunately, from my perspective, accurate reading of our current domestic situation.

  5. EddieinCA says:

    I don’t think Putin expected tens of thousands of people all over Russia demonstrating against war.

    One big difference between 1930 and today is the ability of ordinary citizens to get information from the whole world. Even with state run media, Russia cannot control all the information aimed at Russia’s populace.

    More attacks on the protestors will just lead to more protests.

    Meanwhile, alot of Ukrainians are going to die – needlessly.

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  6. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Russia might care to consider how “trouble free” the British found Ireland/Northern Ireland during the last century.
    There’s seldom a shortage of people prepared to kill police, secret or otherwise, either.

    And if Russia believes that Ukrainians, many of who can easily pass for Russian, might not consider IRA style operations in Moscow, they may be in for a rude surprise.

    Russia “contained” the Chechen insurgency; but the price has been effectively handing over control of the territory to the control of the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.

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  7. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    Remember the hostage situation in a Moscow theater early this century?

    For that matter, America showed regime change is far more aspirational than it appears to be.

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  8. Scott Barker says:

    Thank you for this analysis. It seems like every time I look at this, I see some eerie parallels to the late 1930s in eastern and central Europe. Will Putin accidentally unite us against him?

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  9. Gustopher says:

    Mobile crematoriums are a new feature of the Russian army, as far as I know. Anyone who assumes that they would just be used to cover up the number of dead Russian soldiers is very optimistic (they probably don’t have the numbers to do mass slaughter and removal of evidence, but I would expect that any “whoops, we did a small to medium war crime” moments to be covered up by cremating the bodies).

    They are, however, only being reported in second rate news sources like the NYPost, the Mirror, Telegraph, etc. So it might be propaganda.

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  10. Chip Daniels says:

    I’m generally cautious about invoking historical parallels, partly because they don’t always fit, but also because even when they do, they carry with them the hidden premise of history playing out in ways that are inevitable.

    For example, if this is “like” the German invasion of Poland, then it seems reasonable to conclude that we should respond with a countermove like the 1944 invasion of Normandy.

    The part about inevitable features here. No two events ever have the same outcome. Even if you could somehow, in an alternate universe, replay the exact moves of Germany in 1939, the outcome wouldn’t always be the same. And likewise, the Allied countermove wouldn’t always have the same outcome.

    Operation Overlord could easily have failed, the North African campaign could have failed, the entire Allied war effort could have ground down into failure and quagmire.

    In that alternate timeline, “This is like 1939” could be the opening line of “Therefore we should avoid another pointless and futile European war!”

    This isn’t to take a position for or against any particular response; Just that whatever our response is, it should be seen as unique, without an outcome that is assured by some historical parallel.

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