Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine carries strong echoes of Hitler’s 1930s aggression against Czechoslovakia and Poland, which led to World War II. How valid is the comparison? Enough to make one worry, in my view.
We can only hope that Putin’s savage, unprovoked action does not lead to World War III which by miscalculation it could, with apocalyptic results. It certainly has upended the world order that has largely kept the peace for nearly 80 years. And it may have shoved the world back into an era when foreign relations were mainly based on raw power of the strong against the weak, with disputes often settled by war.
Hitler killed millions; Putin, brutal as he is, comes nowhere close–yet. Like Hitler, he’s bombed civilians without mercy—in Syria and now Ukraine. And, like Hitler, he may extend his aggression beyond his immediate targets. If he means to recreate the Soviet Union—whose collapse he regards as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”—he will have to attack NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, triggering US and NATO involvement and, possibly, World War III.
Putin’s placing of his nuclear forces on high alert Sunday—coupled with his blood-curdling threat that any nation interfering with his Ukraine invasion “will lead to consequences such as you have never encountered in your history”—is either a shrewd, high-stakes bluff or an indication that Putin is “unhinged” or “off the rails.” The same questions were asked about Hitler, who was trying to develop nuclear weapons and surely would have used them. Who really knows whether the Hitler-Putin parallel extends that far.
There are domestic American parallels to World War II. There is the case of Donald Trump, admiring of Putin’s “genius” and “savvy.” Then there is the role of Charles Lindbergh, leader of the powerful isolationist “America First” movement that opposed US aid to endangered European nations in the late ‘30s as the Nazi threat grew.
Trump also marched under the banner “America First,” repeatedly exhibited hostility toward America’s NATO allies, and cozied up to Putin, possibly for personal business advantages. Thankfully, most Republican Congressional leaders have denounced Putin’s aggression—though they’ve also found occasion to blame President Biden for inviting it through “weakness” or “appeasement.”
Charles Lindbergh—and most Congressional Republicans—dropped isolationism after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Trump almost never admits error and he didn’t change his admiring tune toward Putin when he spoke at the Conservative Action conference Saturday night.
He did declare Russia’s invasion as “an outrage, an atrocity” and praised the “great leadership and great bravery” of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But he repeated his statement that Putin is “smart,” adding “our leaders are dumb.” And he said Putin would never have attacked had the 2020 election not been stolen from him.
I suspect Trump partially changed his tune when he found that Republicans, in the main, were not following his pro-Putin line. The shift was not because Trump’s baffling attitude toward Putin has fundamentally changed. There’s also no sign that Trump has changed his enthusiasm for Hungarian President Viktor Orban, another authoritarian strongman.
Fox News’s leading rabble-rouser, Tucker Carlson, is beginning to sound like the 1930s demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin. In Carlson’s case, he omits Coughlin’s anti-Semitism, but is just as hateful toward “the left,” meaning almost all Democrats. But since the invasion Carlson, too, has changed his tune on Russia and Ukraine—previously tilting toward Russia, now holding it responsible for the war. He, too, has endorsed Orban’s authoritarian model. The 1930s parallel suggests that Trump and Carlson, fearful of negative reactions from their party, are distancing themselves from Hitler, but continue to embrace Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.
Rank-and-file Republicans, under Trump’s influence, were becoming more favorable toward Russia during Trump’s presidency. But as Russia began to threaten Ukraine, 85 percent of Republicans viewed Russia unfavorably. Still, more Republicans have a negative attitude toward President Biden than toward Putin, reflecting this country’s deep polarization and the Right’s admiration for Putin’s strongman, pro-oligarchy, pro-religion politics.
Yet another 1930s parallel is the just-declared anti-Western, anti-democratic “no limits partnership” of China and Russia, resembling Germany and Japan’s alliance in World War II. In fact, there are nuances: China has not backed Russia’s Ukraine invasion, abstaining rather than joining Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council’s condemnation of Russia’s action.
Now the world’s democracies face a two-front, existential challenge from an expansive China in the Far East and an aggressive, violent Russia in Europe. China could become violent, too, if it decides to reclaim Taiwan by force.
Yet another parallel between Putin and Hitler is their use of repeated “Big Lies” to justify their actions. Hitler falsely blamed Jews and liberals for a “stab in the back” that caused Germany to lose World War I. Putin falsely claims that, historically speaking, Ukraine is part of Russia and has no right to be an independent country. He also falsely charges that Nazis rule in Kyiv.
Finally, is there a parallel between Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of Hitler and Biden’s of Putin? Roosevelt clearly sided with Britain against Hitler, but was sufficiently afraid of US isolationists that he resisted actual military intervention until Germany declared war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Biden has a long record of being averse to using force. He opposed the Vietnam war and Reagan’s Central American adventures. He supported the “nuclear freeze” that would have given the Soviet Union a monopoly of nuclear weapons in Europe. He initially voted to authorize both Iraq wars, but quickly turned against them. He opposed troop “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he abruptly decided to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, leading to chaos and a humanitarian nightmare.
Trump has claimed that the Afghan withdrawal showed “weakness” and encouraged Putin to attack Ukraine. He may be right. But Biden has received—and deserves—high marks for re-unifying the NATO alliance and bolstering US forces against a potential threat to Poland and the Baltic countries. He has imposed stiff sanctions against Russia. And he is shipping tons of weapons to Ukraine.
Biden has declared the US will not send troops to aid Ukraine. Some critics have said he should have left the option open as a possible deterrent, and that may be correct. One suspects, finally, that CIA operatives are covertly aiding Ukraine as much as possible, as in the Cold War.