Many pundits have drawn parallels between the last decade and the 1930s. Though the precise sequence of events eight decades ago is not being repeated, the kinds of events that transpired in the years 1933 to 1937 have been repeated in broad brushstroke during the Obama years. And events of 1938 to 1941 appear on the horizon as increasingly likely to recur. Our most leftist president ever is following the course predicted by Marx’s aphorism, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.”
1933. On January 30, capping a year of complex intra-party intrigues, President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor. In March 5 the Nazis won a near majority in the German parliamentary elections. They first formed a coalition with the socialist German National People’s Party to gain a near super majority in the Reichstag. Then they brought the radical Catholic Center Party into the alliance. This gave the coalition 73 percent, more than the 67 percent supermajority needed to revise Germany’s Basic Law.
Fast forward to the events of 2011 through late 2013. After Egypt’s Facebook Revolution ended three decades of Pharaonic rule under Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood won a narrow majority in the June 2012 runoff.
1934. The Nazis purged the opposition. On August 2 Hitler became Führer (“Leader”). Fast forward to 2012. In November 2012 the Brotherhood, a political “Islamist” movement, made an alliance with two Salafist religious parties and, following the Nazi playbook, carried out an internal coup, transforming the constitutional democracy that voters had been promised into a dictatorship based on rigid Sharia law. In July 2013 a widely popular counter-revolution led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled the government; 30 million Egyptians—a full one-third of the population—had taken to the streets in support of the general, before he made his move.
1935. On March 16 Hitler ordered full-bore re-armament, violating 1919 Versailles limits that had left Germany weaker than Britain and France. This leaf from the Nazi playbook was lifted by Russian president Vladimir Putin in 2014. Moscow deployed a new, road-mobile ballistic missile and a new cruise missile in violation of the INF Treaty.
The March 2014 plebiscite staged in the Crimea by Putin echoed the January 1935 plebiscite in the coal-rich Saarland region that voted for restoration of German control of territory ceded at Versailles.
1936. Hitler annexed the industrial Rhineland on March 7, violating treaties of Versailles (imposed demilitarization) and Locarno (diplomatic acceptance of same by Germany, 1925). He relied on the nationalist “encirclement” rationale that Putin is using in Ukraine. Putin is now annexing key industrial areas of eastern Ukraine. The great journalist William Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that had the French army driven Hitler out of the Rhineland, the Nazi dictator would have fallen. No other Nazi leader had Hitler’s lethal combination of popular charisma and strategic audacity. Putin possesses both. The 1936 Berlin Olympics showcased German athletes, albeit marred for Hitler by the brilliance of Jessie Owens. So the 2014 Sochi Winter Games gave Putin a propaganda lift.
1937. The Nazis used the Spanish Civil War as a weapons laboratory, symbolized by the gruesome April 26 bombing of the town of Guernica, captured in Picasso’s famous 1939 canvas. Today Iran and Russia are testing advanced weaponry in Syria and Iraq.
1938. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and Hitler met in September to conclude the infamous September 30 Munich pact, since a symbol of abject appeasement of totalitarian powers by democracies. Putin justified his 2014 annexation of Crimea as needed to protect Russian-speaking inhabitants from claimed oppression. At Munich Hitler got Chamberlain to sacrifice one-third of the German-speaking Sudeten province. Even Hillary Clinton noted the parallel between Sudetenland and the Crimea. Putin seeks a similar outcome in eastern Ukraine.
But the most direct, imminent diplomatic parallel today is the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran. In exchange for Iran agreeing to suspend some of its uranium enrichment activities—easily restarted in weeks—Iran has already won a unprecedented right to enrich uranium, a promise that it can keep most of its centrifuges and suffer no interference with its ballistic missile and warhead design programs. Thus the Iran talks look very much like a replay of Munich. Of Munich Winston Churchill, who was to succeed Chamberlain as prime minister in May 1940, said that the prime minister had chosen dishonor over war, and would get war later.
1939. Britain and France surrendered the rest of Czechoslovakia in March. This year, the western powers are surrendering Ukraine to Putin, unwilling to supply advanced weapons to give Kiev a chance.
On September 1 Hitler invaded Poland, leading Britain and France to declare war on Germany. Western laxity in Ukraine could, like the surrender of Czechoslovakia, lead to wider war. Under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum Ukraine surrendered its 5,000-warhead nuclear arsenal—then the world’s third largest—in exchange for a guarantee from the U.S., U.K. and Russia of its territorial integrity. Putin will keep close tabs on broken Western promises.
1940. On May 10 Churchill became prime minister; five days later the Nazis invaded France. On June 24 France surrendered. During the Battle of Britain, on August 20, Churchill paid tribute to the RAF: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
On August 25 the Soviets annexed the three Baltic nations. In a replay of 1940 Putin may well annex the Russian-speaking provinces of the two Baltic nations bordering Russia, Estonia, and Latvia. The range of outcomes include NATO refusing to enforce Article 5 of the 1949 NATO Treaty, under which an attack on one NATO country is legally an attack on all; or NATO could negotiate a Russian withdrawal in return for Baltic neutralization, effectively severing them from NATO—the outcome known as Finlandization during the Cold War; or NATO could try to eject the Russians by force, which could induce Putin, a gambler by nature, to resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons and, in a worst case, a nuclear war between Russia and NATO. Putin recently said he was prepared to use nuclear weapons had the West tried to expel Russian forces after they annexed the Crimea.
1941. Pearl Harbor scenarios include possible use of nukes by terrorists, using weapons clandestinely obtained from a transferor state; an Iranian attempt to obliterate Israel after a nuclear breakout; accidental nuclear war in the Mideast if Gulf states purchase nukes to counter a nuclear Iran; or North Korea or Iran launching an EMP attack on the U.S. electric grid. An effective nuclear response is only possible if we can ascertain whose nukes were used, which may prove impossible.
But aren’t we safe so long as we are talking? Talks in Washington recessed on December 6, with the Japanese fleet nearing its launch point. Japan’s December 7 message breaking off diplomatic relations was to be delivered at 1 PM local time. This was 55 minutes before Japanese planes began bombing Pearl Harbor, and a full hour after the planes had taken off from their aircraft carriers.
If Iran decides to launch a nuclear strike, bet that it will come while talks are ongoing. Be especially nervous if Iran has just offered an apparent breakthrough concession.