Ukraine crisis is nothing like invasions of Czechoslovakia

Crimea 2014? No. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H13160, CC BY-SA

The overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych’s government and Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea have been reported through an increasingly murky fog of propaganda. This has included rival accusations of alleged “fascist” leanings, and numerous suggestions that the Kremlin’s behaviour can be best explained with reference to key moments from Czechoslovakia’s history in 1938, 1939 and 1968.

These parallels have become so ubiquitous that they have now achieved the status of received wisdom; they can be found in articles from Chatham House, the Economist, the Daily Express, the Prague Post, the Financial Times and the Washington Post. They are unconvincing. The current fashion for linking contemporary events with supposed historical antecedents – apparently, 2014 is the new 1914 – raises serious questions about history’s ability to accurately inform present policy.

More precisely, relying on tenuous historical parallels leads to poor decisions and dangerously inaccurate conclusions. Conversely, getting the history “right” may help achieve a successful resolution for all concerned. Given the EU and NATO’s obligations to member states bordering Ukraine and Russia, and NATO’s decision to bolster its Eastern defences, the stakes here are far higher than your usual argument within the academy.

I’m no expert on Ukraine, nor am I a closet supporter of either the Putin regime or of the newly appointed government in Kiev. But I do happen to know a little about Czechoslovak history, and I am conceited enough to think that historians are the people to ask for advice on the soundness of historical comparisons.

Back in the USSR

Let’s start with the alleged similarities between Ukraine and the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, as suggested by the current Czech president Miloš Zeman amongst others. These can be easily dismissed. The invasion, or “invited occupation” if you accept the official Warsaw Pact line, was conducted by multinational forces from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland after repeated warnings from Leonid Brezhnev to Alexander Dubček over the pace of his reforms. No territory was annexed, and no fascists or suppressed minorities were involved.

It was an invasion, but beyond this banal association the comparison tells us nothing. It simply conflates the current Russian Federation with the former Soviet Union, and legitimises the suggestion that we’ve begun a “New Cold War”. What’s far less apparent is whether the “lessons” of the last Cold War have been fully digested by NATO, or by anyone else. Cold War historiography remains a dynamic area of study, and even seemingly simple questions such as “who started it?”, “what was it about?”, “why did it end?” and “who won?” remain fiercely disputed.

The point is that history is a debate, not a statement of fact or a common vision of the past, as anyone familiar with E. H. Carr, Richard Evans or even Herodotus would already know.

Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 appears to offer more fruitful allusions with today’s Ukrainian crisis, but here too the historical details undermine the argument. The Nazi regime did not invade the Sudetenland; the territory was transferred to German authority under the terms of the Munich Agreement, signed by Britain, France, Italy and Germany. Some 150,000 refugees, mostly Czech speakers and anti-Nazi Sudeten Germans, fled the region after the agreement was signed. Poland and Hungary also used this opportunity to seize swathes of territory for themselves.

It was not until March 1939 that the hyphenated post-Munich second Czecho-Slovak Republic collapsed, when Slovakia succeeded from the federation and the republic’s infirm president, Emil Hácha, “requested” (after being threatened with the aerial bombardment of Prague) that Berlin accept Bohemia and Moravia as a “Protectorate”. There was an invasion of sorts in March 1939, but not in 1938. Neither era offers a useful parallel to the events in Ukraine over the past six months.

Once again these skeletal facts belie decades of vigorous historiographical dispute. There simply is no generally accepted single interpretation of the massively controversial Czechoslovak episode. There are various widely differing explanations of Hitler’s motivations, of British and French reactions, and of the success or failure of Appeasement. You would never know this from reading the one-dimensional accounts comparing Czechoslovakia’s demise with Ukraine.

Whatever the morality, rectitude or legality of these events, the transfer of the Sudetenland to German authority was internationally sanctioned at the time, unlike the referendum and annexation of Crimea. Even the German “Protectorate” received relatively widespread de facto recognition prior to the outbreak of war in September 1939, including from Britain, which kept the Munich Agreement on its statue books until the early 1990s.

It is also often claimed that the Sudeten Germans are supposedly analogous to the Russian speakers of Crimea, and Putin to Hitler. But there’s little evidence to support these ideas either. The current ethno-linguistic make up of Crimea and the Baltic States is the direct consequence of repeated deportations and resettlements perpetrated by the Soviet Union since the 1940s. Conversely, relations between the Czech and German speaking populations of the historic Bohemian Crown Lands (České korunní země) were rooted in centuries of co-operation and co-existence, as well as a healthy dose of conflict.

It was only with the gradual emergence of rival national identities during the 19th century that a common Bohemian inheritance in the Austro-Hungarian Empire gave way to concepts of “Czechoslovakism”, and Bohemian Germans began referring to themselves as Sudeten Germans.

There is a far better comparison to be made with the USSR’s acquisition of Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia (Podkarpatská Rus), which had been part of Czechoslovakia since 1918. We now know Nikita Khrushchev, who became premier of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic late in the war, engineered the Soviet absorption of Ruthenia in June 1945, apparently at the behest of the local population. The parallels here, especially with the role of the Ruthenian population, are far stronger than in any of the other commonly cited examples.

It is easy to understand the appeal of these associations. They calm fears of an uncertain future with reassuring reflections back to a comfortingly misunderstood parable from the past, while effortlessly transforming ‘unknown, unknowns’ into ‘known, knowns’ with supposedly predictable policy outcomes. But majority of these comparisons are at best insubstantial, they reveal little useful information about either epoch and are primarily employed in the service of a politicised populism.

As the eminent British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, who was key figure in the formation of British policy towards Czechoslovakia and the Sudeten Germans, explained,

I don’t think anyone can apply this past experience, even if one can accumulate a large number of examples of it, to the future and make predictions on the strength of it. Our knowledge of the “variables” will never be complete enough.

The bottom line is that nationalism is the real issue here, not “fascism”, and not a renewed Cold War. NATO won’t gain any useful insights for future policy from looking back at the 1960s or the 1930s. If we look at the situation that way, the outcome seems all too clear: war with the Russian federation, followed by the forced removal of all Russian speakers from Ukraine, Moldova and the Baltic region. After all, this was the fate that awaited the Sudeten Germans of Czechoslovakia.