By Steven Sanders
A once powerful nation in eastern Europe that saw its empire dismembered some years earlier hosts the Olympics and then shortly thereafter invades and occupies a neighboring nation. It justifies its actions by saying that it needed to restore civil order and also protect its own nationals who were under attack. Sound familiar? Sounds like this scenario is right out of last week’s headlines? Sounds like the country is Russia, the Olympics are Sochi and the occupied nation is the Ukraine…yes?
Well for students of history this scene is eerily reminiscent of Europe in 1936. Nazi Germany had just completed hosting that year’s summer Olympics in Berlin. Not long thereafter it invaded and occupied the neighboring Sudetenland which was part of Czechoslovakia and then eventually occupied the rest of that country. It’s pretext then, similar to Russia’s pretext now, was that it needed to protect persons of Germanic descent form threats and to ensure stability. The world watched and did nothing. Feeling emboldened, Germany proceeded to annex Austria and then invade Poland which precipitated the most deadly conflagration in world history. Tens of millions of soldiers and civilians perished.
The Vladimir Putin ploy in the Crimea seems to be right out of the playbook of Hitler and the Third Reich. The American president at that time was Franklin Roosevelt, recently re-elected to his second term as president. Today it is Barack Obama, also in his second term as president. But there the similarities end.
In the 1930s, war was conventional. It was fought with tanks and troops with rifles, boats and planes. Today, many nations possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction capable of being launched against any nation on earth with a capability to annihilate most of the world’s population in a single day.
In the 1930s, the world’s democracies could have confronted Germany and put a halt to their aggression. Instead for too long they chose appeasement. Soon it was too late and the juggernaut of the German military caused havoc and untold brutality throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, until through the combined efforts of the Allies they were overwhelmed and destroyed.
But this is 2014. How do you stop a nation that possesses the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world capable of unleashing destruction on a planetary scale? This is President Obama’s greatest challenge of his presidency. He may not have seen this one coming, but the crisis is here and it is real. The stakes are higher than perhaps no time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Then, a young Harvard educated president found the path away from the brink and defused what might have escalated into a global calamity. Can this young Harvard educated president do the same?
No, Obama is not JFK, nor is he FDR. But if he is tough enough and wise enough to navigate his way to a peaceful settlement of this international crisis, then he was the right man for this job as president after all. What is certain is that the examples of pre-World War II Europe and 1962 Cuba loom large. As that philosopher George Santayana once said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Steven Sanders is a former state assemblyman who represented the Town & Village community for 28 years from 1978-2005. He is currently the executive director of ACTS, an organization that provides services to young children with learning or developmental disabilities.