As I watched the news last night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it scared me as it probably has scared many of you wondering what is going to happen next. Not that this helps the larger picture, but I thought I would write about the events to give a bit of historical perspective.
This week started with the invasion of two Ukrainian territories by Russian forces. Putin’s justification is that these two sections broke away from Ukraine in 2014 and have been fighting for freedom. Putin claims only to be recognizing their independence and sending in troops for their protection. He is also claiming that, in fact, Ukraine should not be seen as a sovereign nation but is actually part of Russia and the land was stolen from Russia. Given this, Putin claims Russia has the right to reclaim its former lands and people. While some of his claims have validity, historically speaking, this is not the first time a tyrannical leader has used this approach of reuniting his people to justify invasion and conquest.
Like all good villains, Putin is not telling a complete lie. He has mingled in some truths to justify and confuse his actions. Where Putin has some justification is this, and I only have room for a very short version. In the Ninth Century, Kyiv, now the capital of Ukraine, was once the capital of the first Slavic state, Kyvian Rusin, that today covers both Russia and Ukraine. This means that Russians have always considered Kyiv as their nation’s birthplace. The lands that are Ukraine were then fought over for the next century until 1793 when it was brought into the Russian Empire. Trying to control this new territory, the Czar outlawed speaking Ukrainian but really could only enforce his rulings over the eastern half. So Eastern Ukraine, where Luhansk and Donetsk are located, became very much Russian in both language and Orthodox Christianity while Western Ukraine still tried to retain its language and Catholicism.
During WWI when the new Bolshevik Russian government came to power and signed a treaty with the Central Powers (Germany) to pull out of the war, it agreed to grant Ukraine independence. However, when Germany lost the war in 1918, the Russians reneged on their agreement. There were some Ukraine nationalist movements, especially in the west, but those were crushed by the Russians. By 1922 Ukraine was completely under the control of Russia and the Russian language was enforced.
Ukraine emerged as an independent nation in 1994 with the breakup of the Soviet Union, but the nation has remained somewhat split as the West looked more to Europe and the European Union, while the East remained tied to the Russian Federation. So, the two regions in question, Luhansk and Donetsk, have actually been under the control of Russian-backed separatists since 2014 and consider themselves independent. They have erected statues of Lenin, follow the Russian constitution, and are run by small tyrannical leaders. It is only now that Russia has officially recognized them as independent and moved in troops.
The question now is: will Putin stay put? His actions of yesterday do not seem to suggest this. The borders of these regions historically have been larger and other areas of eastern Ukraine support Russia. If Putin is not stopped now, he may want to start adding other parts of Ukraine loyal to Russia. I am not sure of Putin’s knowledge of history. He may be thinking his plan of consolidating all like-minded peoples into one nation as his own. However, whether he knows it or not, he is simply following the plan of one of Russia’s worst enemies, Nazi Germany.
When Hitler took over Germany, one of his top priorities was reestablishing German pride to get popular support. One way he did this was to reclaim lost German land taken from them after WWI and, thus, bring all the German-speaking people back into the fold. After World War I ended, Germany lost territory to Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and France. Then in 1936, Germany invaded the Rhineland, claiming the land belonged to Germany. Neither France nor England wanted to engage Hitler so instead they did nothing, a policy that became known as appeasement, a policy that only emboldened Hitler. Hitler then invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria under the same pretext. There was a Nazi Party in Austria that even welcomed Hitler, not unlike the Russian rebel groups in the Ukraine. Despite both these aggressive moves, England and France continued their policy of diplomacy and appeasement. It was not until Germany’s invasion of Poland that the other powers declared war, but by then Hitler was already too powerful to stop.
Hitler’s invasion of the Alsace-Lorraine Alsace–Lorraine territory is personal to me. My great-grandfather Alfons Finck was born in the German city of Haguenau. During the Great War, he fought for his nation and received the Iron Cross for being wounded in the Battle of Flanders. Yet when Germany lost the war, his home became part of France. He left France for the U.S. before Germany could take the land back. I never discussed this with my grandfather, and he never talked about it in his writings, but I wonder what he thought about Hitler taking back this region. I know he did not support Hitler. He sent two of his sons to war against him, but at the same time I know that he considered himself German, not French.
The point of all this rambling is that the situation in Ukraine is complicated. I am in no way agreeing with Putin or Hitler. Putin is an evil tyrant who needs to be stopped. However, we can’t ignore the history and history reminds us that German-speaking people from a previous time, who found themselves in a similar situation, considered themselves German and supported the take-over from another country. Today, some Ukrainians support Putin. At the same time, some evidence suggests that some of the support in each case was manufactured from the outside by both dictators. It is also important to remember that most Ukrainians want independence and will fight for their freedom. The other complicated issue is appeasement. Most believe that if England had stopped Hitler when he first got started, the world would have avoided WWII. England only moved on Hitler when Churchill took over and then it was too late.
I am by no means saying we should go to war over Ukraine, only that history shows what could happen if tyrants are not stopped. President Biden has some important decisions to make in the coming weeks and hopefully he understands that he can learn from what has happened before.
Dr. James Finck is a Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. To receive daily historical posts, follow Historically Speaking at Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.