In the 1930s there were many heated debates about issues which in retrospect seem rather beside the point. The role of the League of Nations was hotly debated, but in the face of the unrelenting aggression of the dictators, the whole idea of peace-based policies fell apart in the face of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin. There were many rational arguments as to why a second Great War was unthinkable: war itself had become the ultimate evil. Surely, no matter what the grievance, a rational and peaceful solution could be found? In the end such enlightened humanity lead to the disaster of Munich and the general slide to a second global conflict. Many reasons might be found after the event- the policy mistakes after 1918, reparations and so on, but actually the malign and festering sense of grievance that Hitler fostered in the German people was not a rational policy and led directly to the war. In the end, the tyrant launched a second two front war which led not merely to a second defeat for Germany but a total and unconditional defeat. The costs however were almost unbearable: the death of millions, the total destruction of cities across Europe and the end of a way of life that had survived in Europe for centuries.
And in the end all that had happened was that in Eastern Europe one tyranny supplanted the other, and for millions caught between Russia and Germany the tyranny of Stalin was as bad as that of Hitler. So the myth that the victors of the Second World War leave themselves is that it was all worth it because good triumphed over evil. Except in Central and Eastern Europe that was not true: evil triumphed over evil, and it was barely possible to tell who was worse. We are still paying the price for that self delusion today. We do not say that Soviet and Nazi are moral equivalents even though they clearly are, and this blindness allowed us to ignore the fact that Putin became an apologist for Stalin.
Now 70 years after the end of the Hitler war, another war is raging in Europe. It is not, as were the wars in the Western Balkans a matter of civil conflict, but an outright invasion. The Russian attack on Ukraine is illegal under all the rules that the world created after the fall of the Nazis. The United Nations was specifically created to prevent such aggression, but it cannot act, because at the very heart of the UN, Russia plots to resist condemnation or even discussion of its crimes within the Security Council. Russia seeks to subvert or browbeat any opposition to its power, and in its unrelenting violence it now quite closely resembles the Hitler tyranny. Laws are to be ignored, justice is a mere relative point of view, truth merely the words of the Tyrant.
It is sometimes said that when you compare someone to Hitler you yourself have already lost the argument. However for me, the problem is that the war that Vladimir Putin is planning for and practicing will make the crimes of Hitler look as paltry as the crimes of the Kaiser seemed compared to monstrosity of Nazism.
The nuclear armed bombers cruising off the English Channel last week are just the latest in a set of provocations that have become as routine as they have become outrageous. The Russian army exercises with battlefield nuclear weapons, The Russian air force breaks the INF treaty by dispersing their strike force and then practicing attacks against Sweden, Poland, Finland, the Baltic and the United Kingdom. The Russian navy practices the launch of strategic nuclear weapons. Diplomatically Russia has made it clear that it will not necessarily be bound by the nuclear arms treaties that the USSR entered into- and in any event is now in clear breach of the INF treaty, the Cafe treaty and quite probably the START treaty too.
The fact is that Vladimir Putin has the capacity to be a monster that would put Hitler or Stalin to shame- his reckless intent seems set to launch not merely a series of conventional conflicts, but potentially a nuclear conflict too. In a single afternoon Putin could kill more people than Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined killed in their whole careers of infamy.
Some would argue that in the face of this nuclear blackmail, we should retreat. However the fact is that even the most craven appeasement may not satisfy Putin. The most dangerous places these days are those that historically have been closest and most friendly to Russia. If the choice is slavery or enmity, it is pretty clear where free men and women should stand. The threats that Putin is making are not materially different from the threats of the Soviet Union, and our response should be precisely the same: stop Russian subversion and seal-off the territory they have seized in Ukraine and then turn the rest of Ukraine into the new front line: the West Germany of the Second Cold War. Offer assistance to all those who are ready to resist Russian aggression or subversion- perhaps even including Belarus, which is clearly seeking greater distance from the moral implosion of Russia.
Putin may be actively seeking conflict, but our response of fighting the second cold war should be determined. As the Russian aggression is being fought all out, so our response should be fought at all levels: propaganda should be answered with truth- including investment in Russian language media. Subversion should be answered with the expulsion of spies and economic sanctions; and aggression should be met with containment- including military containment.
If we want to avoid a replay of the 1930s we need to replay the 1950s.
The crisis is upon us, do we have the moral strength and the will to answer the barbarians at the gate?