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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.