It is a profound irony, but perhaps not coincidental, that President Putin chose Sept. 30, 2022, to deliver his speech announcing the annexation of the eastern Ukrainian regions of the Donbas, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson.  It was on that exact day 84 years ago – Sept. 30, 1938 – that Adolf Hitler announced the annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia at the infamous Munich Conference.

There is an eerie similarity between the two speeches by authoritarian dictators bent on destabilizing the rule-based international order. For Putin in 2022 and Hitler in 1938, the same arguments were used to justify the changing of borders by force, the open and egregious violation of international law and norms.  In 1938, the ethnic Germans in western Czechoslovakia, Hitler claimed, had a right to be part of the German fatherland as well as to Germany’s protection from persecution (although none existed).

Hitler’s mission, he stressed, was to right the alleged wrongs of history: The honor and dignity of the German people – violated in the hated 1919 Treaty of Versailles that carved out borders for a new Czechoslovak state that cut off ethnic Germans from their fatherland – had to be corrected.

Nazi Germany’s aim, Hitler pronounced, was to reincorporate “German” territory into the German fatherland through any means necessary.  On Sept. 26, 1938, just days before the Munich conference, Hitler publicly declared that “the Sudetenland is the last territorial demand I have to make in Europe, but it is a demand from which I never will recede.”

Having duped the leaders of Britian, France, Italy, and Belgium with the notion that the annexation of western Czechoslovakia would bring about lasting peace between Germany and its neighbors, the Great Powers agreed – without Czechoslovakia’s consent – to Hitler’s demand.  The Czechoslovak government, under intense pressure from Britain and France, acquiesced.

As the Czechoslovak leaders instructed its armed forces to stand down, the German armed forces crossed into Czechoslovakia and declared the Sudetenland part of the Third Reich.  The area of 3.6 million people was 77.6 percent German and 20 percent Czech. “Never again,” Hitler said in his speech, “shall the Sudetenland be torn from the Reich.” Now that Germany had liberated the Sudetenland, Hitler continued, it was the duty of its German inhabitants to give their lives to defend Germany: “For you the nation was prepared to draw swords. You will also be as ready in the same sprit to assist if ever our German land and German people are threated.” The Sudetenland, Hitler stressed, will be permanently and forever part of the German fatherland.

Like Hitler, who claimed he was merely righting the wrongs of the Treaty of Versailles, Putin claimed the original sin was the separation of Ukraine in 1991 from the Soviet Union.  The annexation of eastern Ukraine, Putin said, constituted the moral act of liberating “Russian lands” from alleged oppressive “Nazi” Ukrainian rule. “I want the Kiev authorities and their true handlers in the West to hear me now,” Putin said on Sept. 30, “and I want everyone to remember this: The people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have become our citizens, forever!”

According to a population census of Ukraine before the Russian invasion, the four annexed regions had a population of 8.6 million people. Ethnic Russians comprised 14.1 percent in Kherson region, 24 percent in Zaporizhzhia region, 38.2 percent in the Donetsk region, and 39 percent in the Luhansk region. Despite Putin’s claim that he is merely granting the inhabitants of the annexed regions the right to self-determination, the fact is that these same people all voted overwhelmingly to be part of Ukraine in the free and fair referendum held on Dec. 1, 1991: 83.9% in the Donetsk region, 73% in the Luhansk region, 90.66% in the Zaporizhzhia region, and 86.33% in the Kherson region.

Putin began the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, with the attempt not only to obliterate Ukraine as a state but he used and continues to use the threat of force against Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova, as well as threats to Poland and Romania.

Although in 1938 Neville Chamberlain of Britain, Benito Mussolini of Italy, and Edouard Daladier of France soon realized they had been tragically fooled when Hitler took the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and immediately demanded parts of Poland, Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling is much more dangerous to the world order than were Hitler’s actions in 1938-1939.

“And all we hear is that the West is insisting on a rules-based order.  Where did that come from anyway? Who has ever seen these rules? Who agreed or approved them? Listen,” Putin said in his infamous speech, “this is just a lot of nonsense, utter deceit, double standards, or even triple standards!”

Like Hitler in 1938, who ranted and raved about the dignity and honor of ethnic Germans forced to live in neighboring states, Putin railed against the West for carving out borders that left swaths of ethnic Russians as new minorities in 1991:  “It was the so-called West that trampled on the principle of the inviolability of borders, and now it is deciding, at its own discretion, who has the right to self-determination and who does not, who is unworthy of it.”

Putin continued: “In 1991 … without asking the will of common citizens, representatives of the then-party elites decided to destroy the Soviet Union, and people suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland. This tore apart and dismembered our nation, becoming a national catastrophe… I want everyone to remember this: the people living in Luhansk and Donetsk, in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have become our citizens, forever!”

And with a spat of misinformation and distortion of the truth, Putin had this message for the Ukrainian government, declaring, “We call on the Kyiv regime to immediately cease fire and all hostilities; to end the war unleashed back in 2014 and return to the negotiating table.”

As Iuliia Mendel, the former press secretary for President Volodymyr Zelensky, commented on Sept. 30 in response to Putin’s speech, “So in effect he was saying: ‘I’ve invaded your country. I’ve killed tens of thousands of your people, created millions of refugees, caused many billions of dollars’ worth of damage, and now I am trying to steal your land. So let’s negotiate.”

That is why President Zelensky, in the shadow of Munich publicly warned the Western democracies not to negotiate on Ukraine’s behalf without its consent and presence, stated on Sept. 30 that he would negotiate as soon as Russia changes leadership and is ready “to agree on coexistence on equal, honest, dignified, and fair terms.”

Reflecting on these two annexations in 1938 and 2022, it should be remembered that it was not uncommon in the 1930s for prominent diplomats in Western Europe and the United State to express sympathy for German (and Hungarian) claims that the Treaty of Versailles had violated their peoples’ right to self-determination.  Few anticipated that Hitler’s public declaration that Sudetenland represented Germany’s last territorial claim in Europe was a flat out lie.

Today, the Western democracies are absolutely unified in their opposition to Putin’s annexations in part because Russians comprise 28.8% of the inhabitants of these four regions. The claims in Putin’s annexation speech of Sep. 30 will go down in history as  gross distortions of the past and the present.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.   

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