Except on one simple, but compelling, point
By Michalis Persianis
Despite his aversion – even hatred – for arrogant imperial aristocrats, Hitler largely adopted their understanding of how the international system was developing. He observed with alarm that while Germany was still reeling under the pressure of the Versailles treaty, the rest of Europe was also in decline. As the “peripheral” superpowers (USSR and US) continued to rise, Europe was gradually relegated from being the key player to being the key playing field.
Even imperialist expansion, which Germany largely shunned, could no longer counterbalance the immense productive capacity of the new superpowers, nor handle the supremacy of the dollar under the continued monetary problems, not only of Germany but also of France and Britain.
He could see that the only hope for Europe to hold centre stage in this new reality was for Germany to “unite” the continent, take control of Mitteleuropa, and let the British hold the seas and their empire. Hitler knew that such an “understanding” with the British would lend prospects to Germany, while allowing the British to maintain their imperial status. This would not only equalise the Balance of Power, but also allow national socialism to produce more, better and larger on the back of a still successful economic model and a strong reichsmark.
Hence his initial bemusement with Winston Churchill’s attitude towards him. Churchill, who replaced Neville Chamberlain, was impossible to reason with. A war with Britain would make things harder for Germany and would have other consequences – the end of the empire for the British and further strengthening of the peripheral superpowers.
Churchill was astute in his understanding of Hitler. Yes, the war would mean an end to the empire and a shift of power to the US and USSR, ending the long European century, but he was aware of this and even seemed to be comforted by the prospect. He both predicted and pursued the life-after-death of the Special Relationship. Speaking of a process by which the British empire and the US would become “somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs”, he likened that process to the Mississippi: “Let it roll. Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.”
More importantly, Churchill also diagnosed the most profound point that many missed – the main problem was the ideology and the personality of Hitler himself. Nazism would make an unacceptable partner because of two core characteristics. First, it was a dynamic ideology –and necessarily so. Its dynamism was central to its survival. If it settled, it would act like a spinning toy losing speed. This meant that it had a visceral tendency to run through its options and escalate to extremes.
Second, partly because of its dynamism, Nazism was insatiable. As an emotional rather than a reasoned ideology, it was doomed to remain hungry, confrontational and hence aggressive. This was fundamental, not a mantle. It was these characteristics that nourished the sheer evil of Nazism, making it what Churchill rightly called “a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime”.
The outcome was clear in Treblinka – and in the very rail tracks over which refugees cross today as they flee Ukraine. The irony with which history now reverses the flow of refugees 80 years later, making Poland a waystation rather than a final destination, is the stuff of awe.
And, this is the deeper political economy of the war in Ukraine.
Beyond the sanctions, beyond the Crimean reserves and the pipelines, even beyond the oligarch investments, it is clear in President Putin’s eyes that the balance of power is shifting. Europe is in a slow but steady decline; the US is reeling under years of inadequate infrastructure spending, an unrealistic debt and unprecedented division; and still China, for all its economic distortions, its hidden debt and its exposure to the dollar, is rising; India insists on keeping itself in the race, despite looking stuck in an “emerging superpower” status. Where would Russia stand in the new world architecture of power? How could she leverage wealth, technology, the generalised aversion towards liberal economics?
Of course, Moscow is rightly concerned by the expansion of Nato, but the ultimate question is simple: What is the endgame? When does this end, where, and at what cost?
This is the simple but obligatory question by which we should measure our stance towards the war in Ukraine. The main argument of Russian apologists has been that Nato often acts “like cowboys” and has also perpetrated unjustified violence justified by spurious if not fabricated information.
This is true, but “he did it, too, ma’am” is not an argument for adults. This argument misses the single most important question of the nature of Putin’s thinking and his ultimate intentions. If the Americans exploited 9-11 to wage an unjustified and morally reprehensible war in Iraq, for example (which I believe they did), this is as irrelevant to the war in Ukraine, as the temperature on the moon.
Beyond missile strikes and the victims, differences exist, and they are material. Putin needs to maintain his dynamism, to appeal to irredentist myths and to escalate as the easier options become exhausted. He absolutely must do this, just to retain the initiative and to remain in control of developments. He has even spearheaded Russian expansionism in other areas – ecclesiastical affairs and foreign elections – as well, notably across the Atlantic and in the Mediterranean.
And, precisely because Putin wants to, needs to, and is capable of maintaining this necessary dynamism, the attack on Ukraine is much more dangerous and indeed more sinister than the examples so often cited in comparison.
This is perhaps the only true historical parallel between Hitler and Putin. But it is inescapable. The invasion in Ukraine has already revived a hitherto increasingly irrelevant Nato and seems to have generated a new historical push for EU integration, both in security and in fiscal affairs. But ultimately, the conclusion it leads to is that the only pragmatic option dictates a response to Russian expansionism which is both severe and unrelenting, even after the fall of Kyiv. By everyone.