After the World Wars, people hoped to never experience the atrocities and world destruction brought on by an all-out war. Institutions such as the European Coal and Steel Community (the foundations of the EU), NATO, and the UN were developed in an effort to bring peace and trust among nations by creating an area in which to discuss relations that would unite nations together in such a way as to make war costly and unadvantageous. So far, while there have been wars and conflicts, none have been as large-scale and devastating as WWII.
In the past few years feelings of pre-WWII tensions have emerged, especially in the older generations who remember the 1930s and 1940s. My godmother is Dutch and her mother (who was a close family friend) grew up in the Netherlands under the political turmoil of the 30s, the Nazi occupation during the war itself, and the American reconstruction afterwards as an older teenager and a young adult. About five or six years ago she mentioned that socially and politically the world felt as it did in the years leading up to WWII. I believe that the such an idea would have been scoffed at in the media and possibly by the diplomats themselves at that time. Our main concern in America was the Middle East and the war on terrorism, something that did not spark memories of the Nazi domination. Yes, there had been a few skirmishes in the East with Russia in Estonia and Georgia, but Russia was still seen as country trying to recover itself from losing a large portion of its territory about twenty years prior and the collapse of a political orientation. The EU and NATO had seen enlargements promising the continuation of peace and democratic norms on the European continent. Despite these appearances, something did not sit well in the air for her– she could smell turmoil coming.
Looking at current global events the parallels between now and the pre-war era are strong. Even some of the diplomats and military personal involved in NATO and the EU that we have talked to on this study abroad have brought up the uncanny idea that events are playing out awfully similar to the 30′s. So just what are these similarities?
1. The entrance to the twentieth century saw the rise political ideas like communism, socialism, and fascism. These were considered radical groups. The past EU elections saw the rise in the radical right. These groups are becoming more popular with the people as their trust in the EU diminishes. While they do not form a formal political group nor do they have the majority of seats in the EU Parliament, there number of radical right MEPs increased to be about 1/6 of the parliament.
2. 1929 saw the collapse of the stock market and unemployment around 27% in the U.S. High inflation persisted throughout the world, most famously in Germany. Granted this downturn was worsened by the dust bowl. The “Great Recession” in 2009 is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Once could call it the the Great Depression of this century.
3. In 1938, Hitler invaded the Sudetenland under the pretense of protecting the German speakers in Czechoslovakia…… Sounds familiar to what our good friend Putin announced a few a weeks ago in accordance to his annexation of Crimea — The protection of Russian speakers.
4. Hitler continued to take land, yet the Brits called for Appeasement, the French followed suit, and the Americans stood by in an efforts to be isolationists. Putin annexed a part of Ukraine with no war and no formal agreement between the two states. What did the rest of the world do???? Oh, Ukraine, you are not a NATO member nor an EU member state, therefore, we can not defend you. We can only support you. We can step up security measures in member states who are neighbors in an effort to show military strength in that area. We are willing to send third party observers to confirm that Russia is not acting within norms that were agreed upon in the NATO-Russian Council. A statement that Ukraine is an Eastern European country that means nothing to the West nor our self-interests. In a sense we are using Appeasement methods again, and that just leads to more conflict in the future.
5. Goebbels was the propaganda minister to Hitler who waged essentially a propaganda war– just check out the movie Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl. Now, look at just look at the titles of articles from Pravda: “Ukraine: Another US mission gone wrong”, “The West: Blind, Manipulative and Evil” or this quote from the article “Can Germans afford it a third time”– “Yet the West is accusing Russia of deploying armed forces and arming Russian-speaking protestors to create unrest and chaos in Ukraine to prevent Presidential elections on 25 May.”
6. While the rest of the Europe and her allies were decreasing their militaries, Germany increased its despite the 100,000 men restriction. As a result of the 2009 “Great Recession” and ensuing Eurozone crisis, the European members of NATO and the EU struggle to find the room in the budgets to increase or at least maintain defense spending. Europe is in a minor security crisis trying to create a “smart defense” that is effective in providing interoperable military capacities. Russia doesn’t seem to have this issue, with 4.5% of their GDP going to defense spending, while most NATO countries are not even at half of that.
If the people running our governments and controlling the alliances acknowledge this parallel, what does that mean for our policies that will be developed in the future against these developing threats? Could just the talk of the past war lead to policies that reflect what happened in the 1930s? Could we be brought closer to the brink of war, again??