Staunton, March 29 – Many have drawn parallels between what Vladimir Putin is doing and how the West is reacting with the Cold War or with the appeasement policies of Munich. But now that Putin has carried out the Crimean Anschluss, a far better analogy for today may be to “the phony war” between the German occupation of Poland and Hitler’s attacks to the West.
That war, which lasted for just over seven months between October 1939 and the spring of 1940, did not involve major military actions by the Western powers despite the fact that they had declared war on Germany following Hitler’s invasion and destruction of Poland, a campaign in which Stalin and the international communist movement was his ally.
Winston Churchill called this period “the Twilight War”; the Poles called it “the strange war”; and some wits at the time called it “the Bore war.” The term “phony war” has attracted many claims of paternity, but it appears that it was first suggested by US Senator William Borah in September 1939.
One feature of that period was military preparations for what many but not all had come to believe would be another act of aggression by Hitler, but another feature, one that should not be forgotten in the current context, was suggestions by some commentators and activists that there shouldn’t be a war at all because Hitler had taken all he wanted.
That view of course was promoted by the Communist parties in the West because at that time the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany. But it was also pushed by some who still feared a repetition of 1914 and wanted to avoid a conflict at all costs and some who argued that the West, having “slept” while Hitler re-armed, wasn’t ready to take him on.
As a result, in those months, some in Western countries, however upset they may have been by the destruction of Poland, openly wondered whether Munich-fashion, some new accommodation could be found – especially when they managed to convince themselves that Hitler wasn’t about to move forward.
Such views were increasingly marginalized 70 years ago as Western governments recognized that Hitler’s large-scale troop movements and re-armament programs left little doubt as to where he was headed and largely ended in the spring of 1940 when German forces moved West – although communist groups continued to oppose fighting Germany even then.
Now, after Putin has occupied Crimea under his self-supplied fig leaf of a pseudo-referendum but not yet sent troops into “Ukraine proper” as many Western commentators say, thus implicitly accepting Moscow’s view, and Putin and his officials have said they aren’t going to invade, some in the West are beginning to echo suggestions of early 1940.
Given the speeded-up quality of life and the balance as the only measure of objectivity in reporting, the fact that Putin has not yet invaded the rest of Ukraine and that he and his officials say they won’t is leading more commentators in the West to conclude that he isn’t going to, that we must not “provoke” him by any of our actions, and that we should even seek “a deal.”
One hopes and prays that Putin will not invade the rest of Ukraine or anywhere else, but both his direct military preparations and the xenophobic nationalism which he and his Kremlin-controlled media have whipped up make it difficult to believe that he will not do so eventually. Unless, of course, he is offered what he wants without having to commit forces.
At various points in the late 1930s, Churchill warned that there would always be the danger that when an aggressor – like a snake which has swallowed an egg – pauses to “digest” it, some will suggest that the snake having gotten its fill will change its ways and won’t be interested in any further “meals.”
At the time of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, few were prepared to suggest that. But during the phony war, all too many wanted to believe that that round of quiet digestion pointed to a fundamental change of heart by the snake. Tragically, during the current “phony war,” those who want to deceive themselves on this point appear to be far more numerous.