The crisis in Ukraine over Crimea has launched news producers into warp drive to find analysts, commenters, commentators, talking heads, and anyone with or without knowledge of events to be interviewed. You know you are wasting your time when the interviewee says, “I only know what I see in the news.” Some of the producers will find historians to find some sort of parallel in the past and the easiest one to pick on is the Sudetenland Crisis of 1938.
To recap, in 1938 Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany still seethed at the punitive features of the Treaty of Versailles that closed The Great War in 1919. Germany lost territory to France and Poland, paid enormous reparations to the victorious powers, etc. One thing Germany did not lose was the region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire called Sudetenland and occupied by many whose mother tongue was German. That area became part of Czechoslovakia.
Once Hitler solidified his hold on the German government and Austria he began carping about recovering lost lands. The Nazis manufactured all sorts of depredations against the Germans of Sudetenland and created a crisis. Hitler wanted the region to be part of Germany again, which it never was. He threatened war with the Czechs. The British and French and Italians entered the picture and agreed to let Hitler have the region to avoid war. This was the Munich Agreement of 1938 and lives in infamy as the appeasement that led directly to World War II.
But in the event, things weren’t that simple. The Allies were in no position to go to war with Germany over a dispute with the Czechs either politically or militarily. The League of Nations was irrelevant and Hitler was free to act. Many love to play what-if with Munich – what if the British said no? What if Hitler backed down? The great thing about alternative history is that you are always right.
Ukraine is a creation of the old Soviet Union which inherited the region from the Czars. After 1919 the Soviets and the Poles fought back and forth to decide who controls the western portion. Ukrainians largely supported the Germans in World War II. The Sovs prevailed in 1945. In the 50s, the Sovs redrew the boundaries of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic to include Crimea. All the “republics” had experience substantial Russian migration as part of the Sovietization of the old Russian Empire. Like the rest of the world’s conflicts today, they are much more complicated than things in 1938.
The postscript left out of most History Channel coverage is the fate of the Sudeten Germans in 1945. The Czechs murdered thousands, maybe tens of thousands and deported the rest to Germany.
I hope that any disposition of this crisis is done peacefully and with some guarantee of the national identities of the parties.