100 years after WWI, is this WWIII?
World War I, or the Great War, began almost exactly 100 years ago. The world lost over 9 million young men in the fighting, and countless other lives were destroyed; the end of the war was accompanied by world leaders proclaiming it had been “a war to end all wars” (Woodrow Wilson). And yet, barely 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles was signed, Germany occupied the Sudetenland and World War II began for the state of Czechoslovakia.
In March 1938, Hitler justified seizing the Sudetenland by claiming that all Germans in the world belonged in the Third Reich, and that those Germans living in the Sudetenland were being threatened by their Czech neighbors.
And then, this week happened. Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into Crimea, the southern region of Ukraine on the Black Sea, citing concerns about the safety of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine.
Like in the Sudetenland, the population accepted the takeover with little resistance. Like in the Sudetenland, the population in Crimea is mixed – in this case, much of the population is ethnically Russian, speaks Russian, and supported the former president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject the European Union in favor of closer ties to Russia.
Obviously, the issues in Ukraine are certainly getting a lot of international news attention, and there are some sites that can do a lot better at explaining the tensions and causes of what’s going on than I can. Check out this one, specifically, for a good history lesson without superfluous details. Or here for a who’s-who.
Living in the Czech Republic, which is so much closer to Ukraine both geographically and historically than the Western powers I usually get my news from, I’ve been getting a distinctly different perspective on the events in Ukraine. Add to the geographical difference the fact that my work at Amnesty International this week has revolved around publishing stories of personal stories from the protests, uprising, revolts, whatever-you-want-to-call-them in Ukraine. I’ve been seeing truly disturbing images of innocent bystanders who have been brutally attacked by Ukrainian police forces. One of my best friends here is living with an ethnically Ukrainian family. Being in a homestay for nine months makes you feel like your host family is true family, and Holly shows up to class every day truly scared for her relatives living in Ukraine. We got an email today from our program, reminding us to register with the Embassy here in Prague, to tell them whenever we travel outside of the country, and telling us we are not permitted to travel to Ukraine.
Someone just asked me: “Do you think its gonna happen?” The only thing I can say is, I sure hope not.
But with the escalating tensions in Ukraine, Russia, and around the world, the possibilities are scary. Putin’s statements today imply that he is lessening tensions, but things could easily go either way. The real importance of the Sudetenland comparison is to consider the reactions. In 1938, the world watched Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and essentially ignored it. Russia’s invasion of Crimea could be compared to Germany’s invasion of the Sudetenland, or to any other number of invasions over history. The differences are key – will Putin stand by his declaration that Russia has the right to interfere in Eastern Ukraine while the Western powers of yesteryear continue to stand by, or will diplomacy reign supreme and prevent the outbreak of another worldwide conflict?
They say, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Unfortunately, just knowing your history doesn’t mean you automatically avoid repetition. I guess there is nothing to do but wait and watch and pray.