Is Russia of 2014 like Germany of the 1930s? Some Historical Context to Austria's Anschluss, Czechoslovakia and the Munich Agreement

For many, the evolving situation in Ukraine harkens back to European history of the 1930s. Whether it is the German-Austrian Anschluss or the German claim to Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, many across the world (and within Russia itself) have made the comparison between Russia's recent aggressive stance in the Crimea and the actions of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Such comparisons can be useful as they place the situation in Ukraine in a comprehensible (if perhaps simplified) framework. Most informed observers of contemporary affairs are broadly familiar with the events leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, and can easily understand a conception of Russia's action within such a comparison. Given the number of sources that have made the comparison in the last week, we thought it would be fruitful to remind our readers of those events in more detail.

Hitler's rise to power and the demise of Germany's young Weimar Republic is well documented. Hitler was named Chancellor and head of government in January 1933 after losing the presidential election to famous First World War General Paul von Hindenburg. The Reichstag, the German parliament, was close to dysfunctional after several years of no party with a majority to form a government, and Hitler was incorrectly seen as a malleable, unifying figure. Hitler urged President Hindenburg to call another election for early March to see if a party could gather enough support to form the government. A fire at the Reichstag was blamed on a communist plot and the very much unmalleable Chancellor urged President Hindenburg to pass the Reichstag Fire Decree on 28 February giving the government extraordinary powers.

This helped the National Socialist German Worker's Party (The Nationalsozialistiche Deutsche Arbeiterpartei or the NSDAP) get elected with 33% of the vote. The NSDAP should not be considered in any way socialist as we know it today. Their name was often shortened to Nationalsozialist (National Socialists), which in turn was shortened to Nazi, since '-tion' in German is pronounced '-tsion' and the German 'z' is pronounced as 'ts' – so, nation in German is pronounced natsion, or nazion, and thus shortened to Nazi and pronounced as “natsi.” After the election, Reichstag passed the Enabling Act soon after making the German government effectively a dictatorship. When President Hindenburg died in August 1934, Chancellor Adolf Hitler declared himself head of state while already head of government. He assumed a new title, Führer (Leader), which is still instantly associated with the Nazi leader and his atrocities.

In Hitler's native country of Austria, similar tensions arose. As in Germany, socialist and right-wing parties battled over the future of Austria. The capital Vienna was a stronghold of social democracy and the centre of an unusually sophisticated and well-developed socialist movement. In March 1933, the conservative Christian Social Party Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss suspended Parliament over a vote on railway workers’ wages and imprisoned members of the Schutzbund, an Austrian socialist paramilitary organization. By 12 February 1934, amidst armed skirmishes in Vienna and other cities, the Austrian Civil War broke out between the conservative-controlled central government and the socialists. The central government shelled Vienna with artillery from the heights above the city aiming for the Karl-Marx-Hof, a borough that stood as a testament to socialist city planning with its kindergartens, daycares and public swimming pools. With few options and casualties mounting, by 16 February the 'civil war' was over.

Tensions continued as the Austrian conservatives still faced pressure from the left and from Austrian Nazis, the latter of whom demanded complete control of the state. Dollfuss banned the Nazi party, which only further enraged the local Nazis and their German masters to the north. On 25 July 1934, German Nazi soldiers disguised as Austrians forced their way into the Chancellery and assassinated the obstinate Chancellor Dollfuss as a call went out for Austrian Nazis to seize control of the government. After a few days of fighting, the attempted coup was crushed and Kurt von Schuschnigg (also of the Social Christian Party) replaced Dollfuss as Chancellor.

The Austrian Civil War and the July Putsch reveal a nation in crisis, though one that was ostensibly different than that of their German neighbours. “Austrofascists,” the term invented by Austrian socialists for Dollfuss' right-wing ideology, were not Nazis. The nation of Austria that emerged after the First World War epitomized the pressures of interwar Europe. In Austria, there was the risk of revolution, the impossible desire for a self-sufficient nation-state, and increasingly difficult political coexistence in a civic space without adequate economic resources. The term lebensunfähigkeit was used to describe their post-war circumstances. Meaning “incapacity for life,” it perfectly encapsulated the now small and impoverished alpine nation that had survived the dissolution of the once mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. An ongoing political struggle between the urban Viennese socialist left and the provincial Social Christian right was fought in these dire national conditions, and as with so many European countries of the 1930s, had disastrous results. Historian Eric Hobsbawm, who grew up in Vienna in the 1920s, wrote in his autobiography that Europe of the interwar period seemed a “provisional way-station between a dead past and a future not yet born.” Such transitions are never easy.

The aftermath of 1934 resulted in a partnership between government and corporate interests, as Chancellor Schuschnigg briefly continued to resist the growing influence of homegrown and foreign Nazis. Austrian Nazis began a campaign of terrorist attacks throughout 1935 and Schuschnigg sent Nazis and Socialists alike to internment camps. The “Austrofascist” campaign to preserve the autonomy of the “better Germans” could not withstand the domestic and foreign pressure though and by 1936 Schuschnigg was forced to release imprisoned Austrian Nazis and sign the Austro-German Agreement with Adolf Hitler. In February 1938, Hitler proclaimed that “the German Reich is no longer willing to tolerate the suppression of ten million Germans across its borders.” The next month, an Austrian plebiscite over German unification was held. Schuschnigg limited it to voters over the age of 24 and Hitler in turn denounced the vote as fraud and issued an ultimatum before it could be held: Hand over power to Austrian Nazis or Germany will invade. Schuschnigg, finding no help from other European powers, resigned and on 12 March German troops crossed the border. Union with Austria, or Anschluss, was complete. A plebiscite was held on 10 April and under the close scrutiny of Nazi officials 99.7% voted in favour of the deal already enforced.

In a few months time, the other portion of Hitler's suppressed “ten million Germans across its borders” would also be incorporated into the Third Reich. Sudeten Germans, ethnic Germans that lived in what was then Czechoslovakia, seemingly yearned for incorporation into the greater German Volk and Hitler was eager include them. Unlike Austria, where questions of ethnicity tended to focus on whether or not Austrians were “better Germans,” the Germans in the Sudetenland expressed a distinct ethnic nationalism as they agitated for freedom from the Czechoslovakian state.

During the 19th century, the Sudetenland Germans represented roughly a third of the population of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was controlled by the Austrian Habsburg Emperors as part of the greater Austro-Hungarian Empire. Bohemian Germans, though they possessed a deep-rooted cultural identity, were largely ambivalent towards any sort of stringently ethnic manifestation of it under Habsburg rule. The creation of an independent German state in 1871, after Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War, encouraged a nascent Bohemian-German nationalism, but not enough to reject their Habsburg rulers. At times they expressed a regional Bohemian identity, though that had to include the contributions of its German and Slavic population. If anything there were more examples of Bohemian Slavs (whom we would now call Czechs) in the region's literature and intelligentsia than German. As long as the Habsburg supranational Empire survived, Bohemian Germans were content to live within it.

The collapse of that Empire only occurred after the four brutal years of modern industrial warfare during the First World War from 1914 to 1918. In the midst of the conflict, the Austrians had briefly considered legally enforcing a German cultural and linguistic dominance across Bohemia, which Bohemian Germans gladly embraced. The changing tide of the conflict caused them to hesitate and never enact the proposal. At war's end, Italians, Czechs, Poles and South Slavs all envisioned independence from the ruins of the Habsburg's Empire.

In turn, the Bohemian Germans declared themselves a part of German-Austria, and thus greater Germany, in the autumn of 1918. They defied the newly pronounced Republic of Czechoslovakia as well as the victorious Allied forces overseeing the various national aspirations of Austria-Hungary's former subjects. It was difficult to change from being part of the majority population in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a minority in the new Republic. Out of this brief flash of full-blooded nationalism the Sudeten Germans were created. Yet the harsh economic and political realities of the post-war Republic meant that by the spring of 1919 German Bohemians turned away from nationalism and accepted their future in a Czechoslovak state.

Fifteen years later during the mid-1930s, the extreme German nationalism of Hitler's Nazis revived the hopes of the German-speaking Czechs of the Sudetenland. Their nationalist sentiments were easily exploited in service of Hitler's expansionist policies. In March of 1938, weeks after the Anschluss with Austria, Sudeten Nazis followed Hitler’s request to demand that Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš grant complete autonomy to its German peoples, knowing Beneš would have no choice but to refuse. By May, Hitler was planning for all-out war as the Czechoslovak Republic issued partial mobilization. Britain and France advised Beneš to concede to German demands, since both great powers categorically refused to go to war with Germany over the issue. In September, as tensions increased and no one offered the Czechoslovaks any aid, Beneš gave in to nearly all of the demands. It was not enough for the Nazi Sudeten Germans, who instead broke off all negotiations.

By mid-September 1938, Britain and France offered to mediate the crisis. In what is now an often referenced series of meetings, France, Germany, Great Britain and Italy signed the famous Munich Agreement (without Czechoslovakia!) on 29 September. Czechoslovakia had to concede to all of the German demands or face war against the Third Reich alone. Across Britain and France, people celebrated the resolution to the crisis, since it effectively avoided another general European war. In the Sudetenland, many celebrated their incorporation into Greater Germany. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to Britain and announced he had secured “peace for our time.” Less than a year later, Hitler successfully led the continent into a war with similar demands against Poland. By then Britain and France accepted the grim necessity of military force to stop Nazi Germany.

These unions of Hitler's Germany with Austrian and Sudeten Germans resonate with the unfolding events in Ukraine over the last few months. It is easy to make comparisons between Ukraine to Austria's civil conflict and a referendum being exploited by a foreign power or leveraging an ethnic-German identity in the Sudetenland as a pretext for military invasion. Yet, we must be careful in making any such simple connections between past and present. As we have outlined here today, there are many details that inform the historical context of these events that do not quite line up with the growing conflict between Russia and Ukraine over the Crimea. We do not live in Hobsbawn's “provisional way-station.” The Britain and France of the 1930s are not the United States of today, just as the toothless League of Nations existed in a different context than the United Nations or NATO. Putin is not Hitler and Russia is not Nazi Germany. The geopolitical circumstances of Ukraine echo that of Austria and Czechoslovakia, but they are not absolute parallels. We must remember that these regions do not actually share the same history or experience, though they may be appear to be similar.

We welcome the use of historical examples in the political arena – finally some proof that politicians have an eye on history to inform present actions! Yet, in doing so they must be cautious of relying too much on a narrow view of the past. Do not let the lessons of yesterday become those of today, as we must be informed by the past and not controlled by it. Just as historians always consider what was known at the time, so too must we consider what we know today and not what we knew then.