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From the start of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, analysts have been asking about comparable events from the past. Paul Massaro of the U.S. Helsinki Commission tweeted on Saturday that he was racking his brain “for a historical parallel to the courage and fighting spirit of the Ukrainians and coming up empty. How many peoples have ever stood their ground against an aggressor like this?” The Twitter world impatiently reeled off cases: Israel, Palestine, Finland, Poland, Croatia, the Kurdish women’s defense. A few people asked if Massaro had ever read a history book. They might have thrown in Hungary or perhaps the Paris Commune.
Still, Massaro was not so much wrong as imprecise. The epochal character of Ukraine’s self-defense came through in a tweet Massaro released a few hours later: it is about democracy. Russia’s war on Ukraine is probably the most brazen attempt any power has ever made to violently subvert a functioning democratic order.
Consider an instructive parallel that Massaro and his readers neglect: Czechoslovakia. In September 1938, Britain, France, Germany and Italy met at Munich and agreed to cede Czechoslovakia’s border regions to Germany, and from October 1 the Wehrmacht occupied this hilly defensive perimeter that we call the Sudetenland, with its mostly German population. Massaro and his readers do not mention Munich because Czechoslovakia did not fight. Rather, its leaders, refusing to “lead the nation into a slaughterhouse,” gave orders for their highly professional and well-armed soldiers to pull out of the border zone without firing a shot.
Otherwise the two cases reveal a host of similarities. In both, dictatorial leaders of humbled behemoths—Germany’s Hitler and Russia’s Putin—sought to restore their countries’ greatness by subduing weaker neighbors. Both claim that co-ethnics on the other side of the border face discrimination culminating in systematic violence. In Czechoslovakia the supposed victims were the Sudeten Germans; in Ukraine, Russian speakers concentrated in Ukraine’s east.
Like Hitler eighty-five years ago, Putin falls back upon imperialist chauvinism, asserting that a smaller state has no right to exist. For Germans, Bohemia—today’s Czech republic—“naturally” belonged to the Holy Roman Empire of the German nation, and the Czechs’ “destiny” was to assimilate into the infinitely higher German civilization. Today, many Russians find Ukrainian independence absurd because Ukraine long belonged to Russia in some form, either Tsarist or Soviet. Traditionally, Ukraine was called “little Russia.” During imprisonment a Russian officer told the Ukrainian activist Ihor Kozlovsky, “There are no nations. There are civilizations, and the Russian world is a civilization, and for anyone who had been part of it, it does not matter what you call it, a Tatar or a Ukrainian, you don’t exist.”
Such condescension began producing outrage many generations ago. Before 1918, all Czechs and many Ukrainians lived in the liberal Habsburg monarchy, and their political elites demanded autonomy so that their cultures and traditions would be protected. After that monarchy’s collapse, the victorious Allies promised to promote national self-determination across Eastern Europe, and suddenly new states began popping up: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Poland. But further east, in the lands of Ukraine, numerous armies fought for territory, white and red, Polish and Ukrainian. In the end, Ukrainian armies were too weak to defend nascent statehood, and in 1921 Polish diplomats divided Ukraine and Belarus with Bolshevik counterparts in the Treaty of Riga.
As the diplomats and soldiers redrew Europe’s borders, demobilized Austrian corporal Adolf Hitler began imagining how Germany should seek to change them. Ukraine, along with western Russia, featured prominently in his plans to attain “living space” for the German people. His destruction of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II was meant to clear a hurdle for a vast imperial program; a second hurdle fell in September 1939 when German armies joined with the Red Army to subdue Poland. In June 1941 Hitler finally struck at the Soviet Union with the largest military assault in history, and now all of Ukraine endured what the Nazis called “General Plan East”: first, eradication of Jews, and then expulsion and murder of Slavic populations, in order to “prepare” space for German settlement extending beyond Moscow and into Crimea. From late 1942, the Red Army pushed German armies back upon Central Europe, and this plan never got beyond its initial stages. Still, the historian Norman Davies estimates it cost Ukraine some 10 million citizens, perhaps the highest casualty toll of any nation in Europe.
We don’t have the historical perspective to assess Vladimir Putin’s ultimate goals, but we do know that he shares with Hitler an imperial mindset. During the troop build-up on Ukraine’s borders, Russian negotiators demanded assurance that it never join NATO, and that NATO pull forces out of former Soviet Bloc countries such as Poland. An article that briefly appeared on the website of the RIA Novosti news agency, which was meant to appear after an easy victory in Ukraine, gives us an outline: “Little Russia” had now returned to its “natural position” as part of the Russian world. But will that be enough?
Russia is the largest state on earth, crossing eleven time zones, containing dozens of ethnicities and regions, but for Putin and his circle, it’s still not big enough. Empires seek to grow, and thus incur security concerns in the expanding peripheries. This was true, for instance, of Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century, as they uneasily maneuvered toward each other north of India. In talks held in the 1990s, when Russia’s economic and political fortunes plunged to a nadir, Russian representatives still insisted to their U.S. counterparts that Russia deserves a sphere of influence, or buffer zone to its west, a share in the sovereignty of other states for its own eternally threatened security. This demand was not made by other post-Soviet states.
For Putin, as for Hitler, the quest for security against an almost metaphysically dangerous foe has become a phantom, impossible to subdue because it lives in the dictator’s mind. By April 1945, Hitler’s regime had all but annihilated the Jewry of Europe, yet thoughts of this enemy tormented him as he composed his last testament, committing Germans to eternal vigilance against the “destroyer of nations.” The unvanquishable ghost that haunts Vladimir Putin is the West, a source of unspeakable evils: fascism, Nazism, and, most recently, drug addiction. Cluster bombing and other brutalities—like all violence—grows out of fear, in this case that a society Putin cannot control is emerging south of his border, one that shows humane alternatives to a police state.
This fear of the uncontrollable grows out of Putin’s biography. The regime he served when entering the KGB in 1975 had crushed a pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia a few years earlier, claiming its security had been threatened. But what had really bothered Brezhnev in 1968 was not security. Czechoslovakia was not a bridge for a NATO attack on the USSR. Rather—and this obsession was constant in Soviet meetings with Czech and Slovak reformers—it was freedom of expression, something Dubcek and his comrades had introduced in the spring. When the tanks rolled into Prague in August, it was to compel Czechoslovak communists to reintroduce censorship. This, above all, seems to be what Putin wants in Ukraine: to muzzle a population. But unlike Czechs and Slovaks of 1968, Ukrainians now have more than three decades of practice in basic civic rights and freedoms. And they are not only armed but, thanks to earlier Russian incursions, skilled in defending themselves.
Now we get to what is really unusual about Ukraine’s fight for survival. Ukraine is far from perfect. Like all democracies, public discourse is unbridled and the policies and opinions that emerge can offend. There are no Nazis, but there’s a tiny far Right, as well as a huge political center and a welter of other parties, including some with a pro-Russian bent. All operate freely.
Recall those other nations that Massaro’s critics said stood up to an aggressor. None was a democracy the way Ukraine is. That is also true of Czechoslovakia in 1938. It was the most tolerant and law-abiding state in the region, the lone formal democracy, but it carried a foundational flaw. When mostly Czech elites created this state in 1918–19, they froze out Germans and Hungarians, and almost half the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia did not feel this was their state because they had no say in its constitution.
Contrast this with Ukraine. In 1991, after the Soviet Union disintegrated, 84.2 percent of the population voted in a referendum on independence; of those, 92.3 percent voted in favor. Few states in Europe can claim such overwhelming legitimacy from their origin point. This state has had its missteps in regard to non-Ukrainian speakers, for example a language law implemented last year that forces Russian-speaking children to switch to Ukrainian instruction after the fourth grade. Ukrainian and Russian are close but distinct, and the measure has caused disgruntlement even among those whose first language is Ukrainian. Putin, like Hitler toward the Sudeten Germans, poses as a savior—even, as we have seen, employing the word “genocide”—and has used the grievances about culture to justify military intervention.
Maybe it’s with images of Hitler feted as a hero in the Sudetenland that Putin sent his draftees into Ukraine. The closest they came to receiving flowers was the macabre offer one Russian-speaking Ukrainian woman made to a heavily armed infantryman: sunflower seeds. Take these seeds and put them in your pocket, she said, so that at least flowers will grow when you die. She and other Russian speakers have greater cultural rights than those who live in Russia proper, where utterances that diverge from the regime’s orthodoxy can earn you a beating by thugs, a dose of poison, a lengthy prison sentence, or all three. Similarly, Germans in 1930s Czechoslovakia had far greater cultural rights than co-nationals in the dictatorship across the border. Thomas Mann and many other German intellectuals sought refuge in Prague. The difference is that Russian speakers in Ukraine appreciate this freedom and are dying for it, whereas over 80 percent of Sudeten Germans supported Hitler.
Today we think of Britain’s Chamberlain and France’s Daladier as the guilty parties for Czechoslovakia’s destruction, but the United States was not blameless. In a visit to Communist Prague in 1981, I was surprised to find a street named after George Washington not far from the train station. Until 1948, the station itself had been called Woodrow Wilson Station. Czechoslovakia was largely our creation. President Wilson admired and trusted the Czechoslovak leader Tomáš G. Masaryk and put the full force of his moral and political conviction behind the new state. Yet Americans have had a short attention span in global politics, and soon after leaving Europe in 1919 Washington’s diplomats forgot about the new and fragile state, and of course were absent at Munich.
Over the decades, the United States has pushed Wilson’s agenda of national self-determination, sometimes with success (Germany and Japan), but often with enormous investments and grievous failures (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan). But in Ukraine we never had to push democracy: the Ukrainians have found it themselves. Today citizens from all ages, cultures, ethnicities, and language groups are sacrificing everything, including their lives, for the commonweal. Out of fears of escalation, the United States now keeps its distance; and aside from economic sanctions and rhetoric, we watch.
Across the timeline of history Ukraine’s accomplishment is indeed rare, and accounts for Massaro’s sense of wonder. How many times have people showed such courage in the jaws of tyranny? One thinks of the Warsaw uprisings of 1943 and 1944, Hungary’s revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, Poland’s Solidarity in 1980, and later the decade in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa as well as the “people power” in the Philippines and China. Yet what stands out in Ukraine is that it already possesses the precious democratic order that the activists and martyrs elsewhere fought to secure. So yes, this is a struggle against tyranny; more than any other case one can think of, it’s also democracy fighting for its life.
We see teenagers and women line up for weapons, villagers with umbrellas confronting tanks, a popular comedic actor channeling the language of decency. The images overwhelm the emotions but produce clarity in the mind. Modern politics leaves us with a choice: dictatorship or liberal democracy. Does one favor strongman cliques that corrupt and intimidate, that bribe security forces to keep citizens muzzled, and at most tolerate sham elections? Or does one favor regimes where rulers step down after lost elections, where judiciary and law enforcement are independent? Police can beat people all over the world, but does one want a system where the police can be put on trial, or one where even to ask such a thing is to risk a more severe beating?
Our day resembles March 1939, the second act to the Munich crisis. Petulant Hitler was enraged at “peace in our time.” He had thirsted for war in the fall, for the violent destruction of Czechoslovakia, the binding in blood of German elites to his person. On March 15, his patience ran out and he summoned Czech president Hacha to Berlin. Either hand over the rest of Bohemia or Prague would be flattened. Germany’s brazen seizure of the Czech capital that morning, where ethnic Germans were a small minority, restored backbone to the French and British public, who now overwhelmingly supported guarantees for Poland’s security when Hitler vented his wrath further eastward.
Similarly, democracy has been awakening and stretching its arms across Europe. Right and Left in Poland not only talk to each other but travel to Ukraine to cooperate in aiding refugees. The obsession of Germany’s liberals over balanced budgets and of its environmentalists over nuclear energy have suddenly receded as the Bundestag reimagines German defense and energy policy. Tiny Denmark and Luxembourg send weapons and the squares of cities from Lisbon to Warsaw fill with people carrying yellow and blue banners. Meanwhile, the far Right, the friends of Trump and Putin, who respect neither rule of law nor free elections—the Salvinis, Le Pens, Orbáns, and Tucker Carlsons—issue weak statements of displeasure. Their friend in Moscow has betrayed their cause by overreaching, embarrassed them with his petulance, and perhaps stopped them in their tracks.
But why should the last word go to these unsavory figures? It’s far too early to tell, but perhaps Ukraine is showing how a nation fighting for its life can also redefine nationhood in a region scarred by ethnic extremism. Culture and history matter, but the nation led by a Jewish Russian speaker includes people of many backgrounds, not determined by descent, and united in their struggle to ensure that rule by the people, for the people, and of the people does not perish.