This (slightly subedited) was first published at the New Arab/ al-araby al-jadeed.
I’ve just finished “HHhH”, an excellent ‘non-fiction novel’ by the French writer Laurent Binet. It tells the true story of Operation Anthropoid, the assassination of top Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich co-ordinated by the Czechoslovak resistance and the British government.
In the Nazi surveillance agency, the SS, Heydrich was second in command only to Heinrich Himmler (or perhaps he was even more important than his boss – “HHhH” is the German acronym for ‘Himmler’s Brain is Called Heydrich’). He was the highest official in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, and the chief architect of the ‘final solution’ for Europe’s Jews – the Holocaust.
The larger background to the drama of the assassination is Britain and France’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia, the final layer in these states’ disastrous appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s.
Germany had been defeated in World War One. The post-war settlement forced Germany to pay enormous reparations to the victors. This national humiliation was immediately followed by economic collapse and social disorder. Hitler emerged from this context, a strong leader promising to restore German order and pride, identifying enemies domestic and foreign, and lamenting the scattering of the German people across various borders.
Remembering the terrors of the First World War, and recognising that Germany had been unfairly treated afterwards, many British and French politicians and commentators granted Hitler a free pass even as he built an enormous army and expanded beyond his borders. Today the West, fearing the spectre of Islamism, usually considers Arab dictatorship a necessary evil. In the 1930s the spectre was Communism. Key elements of the British and French establishments were prepared to ignore German aggression in central Europe so long as Hitler was smashing socialists and trades unionists. The same interests often shared Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and so ignored or rationalised Nazi attacks on German Jews (and Gypsies, homosexuals, etc).
In March 1936, Hitler moved troops into the Rhineland. His generals at first resisted the order to advance, worried that the army was too weak to withstand a strong British and French response. Hitler assured them there would be no such response, and he was right. The Rhineland was a part of Germany that had been demilitarised after WW1. It was easy for the European powers, therefore, to ignore the provocation.
In March 1938, Hitler invaded and annexed Austria in what he called the ‘Anschluss’ or union. This time the German generals obeyed orders without blinking. Again, Britain and France did nothing. Some commentators even adopted Hitler’s own logic. The Austrians were after all a kind of German, they argued.
And so it continued. In September 1938, Hitler occupied the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia with a large ethnic-German population. Following a diplomatic circus (representatives of Czechoslovakia were not invited), the British and French accepted the annexation. The British prime minister – in Binet’s words, “the vile Chamberlain, a man whose spinelessness is matched only by his blindness” – returned from the Munich Conference claiming “peace in our time”.
The French diplomat and poet Saint-John Perse behaved towards the Czechs in a similar manner to John Kerry with regard to the Syrian opposition. On being ordered to surrender to Hitler, a Czech diplomat burst into tears. Perse snapped: “The situation is beginning to get dangerous for the whole world!” Surely the diplomat, who’d just lost his country, understood that better than Perse.
In March 1939, Germany seized the rest of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain described this destruction of European security as “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” And again he did nothing.
By the time Hitler invaded Poland, in September 1939, the choice before Britain and France was total surrender or total war. It came to total war. The Second World War killed even more people than the first. Of course, if Britain and France had confronted Hitler when he moved into the Rhineland, he wouldn’t have had a chance to build such an enormous army or to subjugate half of Europe before the first shot was fired. In retropsect, almost everyone agrees that appeasement was a disastrously failed policy.
Now let us compare Germany in the 1930s with Russia today.
Its social and economic failures, its imperialist adventures, and the arms race with America, meant the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Both the European Union and NATO expanded in the aftermath. Russia’s national humiliation was immediately followed by economic collapse and the rule of mafias. Putin emerged from this context, a strong leader promising to restore Russian order and pride, identifying enemies domestic and foreign, and lamenting the scattering of the Russian people across various borders.
Europe turned a blind eye to the two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya (1994-1996 and 1999-2009). Chechnya is a region in the Caucuses which has been struggling for independence from Russian imperialism since the early 19th Century. It’s Russia’s back yard, in other words, and a place full of Muslims. Better for stability, the West therefore calculated, if Russia re-established control.
Georgia was next. First forced into the Russian Empire, then into the Soviet Union, in 2008 Georgia was attempting to assert its independence from Moscow. Exploiting local ethnic-separatist movements, Putin invaded the country and carved out of it the new Russian-dependent territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The West made some disgruntled noises. Still, Georgia was Russia’s back yard.
Then it was the Crimea’s turn. The Crimea is a territory originally inhabited by the Tatars, a Muslim people who Stalin deported en masse. Swallowed by the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, it was incorporated into Ukraine in the post-Soviet era. In 2014 the Maidan uprising deposed Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, a corrupt and bloodthirsty Russian pawn. Most Ukrainians wanted closer relations with the European Union and more distance from Moscow. This wasn’t surprising – not only was the EU’s economy healthier than Russia’s, people also remembered Stalin’s genocidal starvation of the Ukrainians.
So Putin occupied and annexed the Crimea. And today a further third of Ukrainian territory is burning in a Russian-sponsored war. Over 9000 have died so far. Putin’s propaganda describes the conflict as a civil war between Ukrainian and Russian-speaking communities, but the Russian army and Russian-organised transnational militias are heavily involved.
This time the West did impose sanctions, but not nearly enough. Terrified of losing a point or two of economic growth, Europe is still Russia’s main market for oil and gas.
Then Syria, where Russia intervened directly in support of its client Bashaar al-Assad in September 2015. After five months of carpet bombing, Putin has announced that his forces are pulling out. There’s still no clear sign of withdrawal (as opposed to a rotation of forces), but Putin is claiming political victory.
What has Russia achieved in Syria? Its murder spree has greatly weakened the democratic revolutionary forces, both civilian and military. It has helped Assad and Iran to encircle Aleppo and to cut the opposition’s supply lines from Turkey. It has strengthened two other actors – ISIS, and the Kurdish party-militia the PYD. It has saved the regime from immediate collapse, and is starting a ‘peace process’ (perhaps a partition process) on Russian terms.
It has announced that it will keep its bases and some forces in Syria, supposedly to monitor the ceasefire which it and its client violate on a daily basis. By controlling the narrative, and by reserving the right to return in full force whenever Assad’s heartlands are again threatened, Russia can present itself as the foremost imperial power in the region. By promoting war between two supposed US allies – the PYD and some tepidly US-backed Free Army militias – it has demonstrated again the incoherence and unreliability of American policy (not a difficult thing to do).
Putin pushes until he meets steel, and there is no steel. So how far may he push? According to Andrej Illarionov, his chief economic adviser between 2000 and 2005, Putin seeks eventually to create “historical justice” with a return to Russian imperial borders. He considers the granting of independence to Finland in 1917 as an act of “treason against national interests”. He claims ownership of “parts of Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States.”
Of course, Putin isn’t Hitler. History never repeats itself exactly. The Russian state today is hyper-authoritarian, racist and homophobic, it frequently murders dissenters and journalists, but it still doesn’t compare to the utterly totalitarian nature of the Nazi state or to the genocidal extent of Nazi racism. Another key difference: by the late 1930s, Hitler presided over one of the world’s most powerful economies; Putin’s Russia, its economy dependent on oil exports rather than industrial production, may be bankrupt next year.
Still, there are useful echoes, lessons that should have been learnt. At this year’s Munich Conference, the US bullied the Syrian opposition towards accepting Russia’s terms, something it has done itself repeatedly, from handing over the chemical weapons file to Russia after Assad’s 2013 sarin gas massacre to the recent meeting with Putin in Moscow, after which John Kerry told reporters, “The United States and our partners are not seeking so-called regime change.”
The Obama administration is ideologically committed to handing over key parts of the Arab world to Russian and Iranian imperialism. The question here is not whether the rising imperialisms are more or less savage than the American version, but whether ignoring the desires of the Arabs on the ground can work to bring ‘stability’. And the obvious answer is no, not in this revolutionary age. The appeasement, even encouragement, of Iran’s Shia-jihadist imperialism increases the appeal of Sunni jihadism, specifically of ISIS. And Russian policies in Syria are undoubtedly lengthening the war, exacerbating the terrorism threat that the West sees as the greatest evil, and creating hundreds of thousands more refugees. None of it brings us towards ‘peace in our time’.
While he creates those new refugees, Putin funds far-right anti-immigrant parties throughout Europe. In other words, he is attacking Europe through Syria, hoping to weaken the EU, specifically to fatally undermine the Schengen free-movement area, preferably before his own economy crashes. In “HHhH”, Laurent Binet quotes novelist Joseph Roth, who wrote in 1934: “What swarmings of people in this world, an hour before its end.”