In the course of a recent meeting with French colleagues, the conversation inevitably turned to a discussion of the Russian war against Ukraine. In the context of that discussion, seeking to provoke a historical analysis of the situation, I asked the question: Is the current situation more analogous to the world of 1914 or to the world of 1938?
Much of what we have been reading in the press presumes that Russia’s attack on Ukraine is reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s threats against Czechoslovakia in 1938 or his attack on Poland in 1939, with the conclusion being that any appeasement of Vladimir Putin would be reminiscent of the treatment accorded to Hitler, thereby encouraging Mr. Putin and leading to a war even greater in scope than World War II.
As I have thought about the current situation, however, I have been inclined to focus more on the dynamics in Europe in 1914 at the time of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and on the aftermath of that event.
The situation in the Balkans in the first decade and a half of the 20th century involved conflicting local nationalist interests. In large part, the Sarajevo assassination and its immediate consequences were the result of Slavic nationalism confronting Austrian imperialism. Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who fired the shots that killed the archduke and his wife, was a Bosnian Serb who despised the Austrians for seeking to maintain control over local Slavic populations. The turmoil created by the assassination prepared an opening for the Russians in their effort to exploit Slavic solidarity as they sought to restore their empire to its former greatness.
While it is possible that the Russians would have taken control of Serbia and other Balkan states had the Germans, British and French stayed out of the Slavic dispute, it is likely that the horrific bloodbath that engulfed all of the European powers would have been averted. It is the intrusion of the Western European powers into a Balkan-Slavic conflict that caused the conflagration we now refer to as World War I and which resulted in millions of casualties.
In contrast, it is now clear that Hitler intended from the beginning of his reign as führer to conquer all of Europe for the benefit of his German Reich. Whether it was when he retook control of the Rhineland in 1936 or when he made demands on Czechoslovakia in 1938 or on Poland in 1939, no amount of negotiation with the Western powers would have curbed his appetite for conquest. His desire was not merely to regain lands Germany had lost after World War I or to bring nearby German-speaking people within Germany’s orbit; it was to make Germany the leading world power and to impose his will on all of Europe, if not the entire world.
All of this raises the question of whether the events of 2022 echo those that led to World War I or those that led to World War II. Are we living through an attempt by a major world power (Russia) to engage in an effort to conquer all of Europe and perhaps achieve world domination, or are we witnessing an attempt by a severely weakened nation (Russia) to assert a kind of Slavic nationalism intended to restore an empire of Russian-speaking peoples that has existed from time to time since the days of Peter the Great in the late 17th and early 18th centuries? The answer to that question should help inform, at least in part, the appropriate reaction of the Western powers to Mr. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and more importantly, it should provide a better understanding of the risks of expanding a war from a local confrontation into an international and possibly a nuclear conflict.
Clearly, if Mr. Putin’s ambition is to dominate Europe in emulation of Hitler, then he must be stopped and he must be stopped now before he is in a position to act upon his ambitions. But if he is merely trying to reconstitute Russian hegemony over an area that has traditionally been the home of ethnic Russians and Orthodox Russian adherents, then a full-fledged Western intervention may unnecessarily turn an age-old regional struggle into a major international war.
Both the pre-World War I era and the pre-World War II era demonstrate the potential consequences of the misinterpretation of a complex situation, albeit in diametrically different ways. By acting recklessly in 1914, the Western powers turned a regional struggle into a conflagration of monumental proportions, leading to the deaths of millions and the destruction of a fragile international order. By failing to act in 1938, the Western powers encouraged a power-hungry megalomaniac to wreak unparalleled destruction on the world. The decision to act or not to act can, indeed, make all of the difference in the world. The challenge is to know when to act and when to refrain from acting.
While the crisis of 2022 may be more reflective of events in 1914 than in 1938, we are not living in either 1914 or 1938. The challenge of today is unique, but as we have so often been warned, it is critical to be aware of history and to take it into account in our decision-making so as to, at the very least, avoid repeating tragic mistakes.
• Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of a national law firm. He is the author of “Lobbying for Equality: Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights During the French Revolution,” published earlier this year by HUC Press.