“And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.”
Prince Charles, 20 March 2014
Prince Charles has made headlines around the world after he reportedly compared the actions of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in Ukraine to Hitler’s Germany.
The prince, who is on a tour of Canada, is said to have made the remarks to Marienne Ferguson, a Jewish refugee who fled Poland for Canada and lost relatives in the Nazi Holocaust.
According to the Daily Mail, while they were talking about Hitler invading other countries, Charles said: “And now Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler.”
The BBC quotes Ms Ferguson as recalling that the prince “said something to the effect of ‘it’s not unlike… what Putin is doing'”.
She said it was “just a little remark”, adding: “I didn’t think it was going to make such a big uproar.” Clarence House has declined to comment.
Much of the uproar has focused on whether the prince ought to have offered an opinion on such a controversial issue, even if it was an off-the-cuff remark.
But Charles is not the only world figure to have made a comparison between Russia’s de facto annexation of the Crimea and Adolf Hitler’s efforts to annex former German territory shortly before World War Two. Is the prince right?
Western-aligned politicians have already made a comparison between the Crimea crisis earlier this year and Hitler’s actions in the 1930s.
Russia has been widely accused of sending covert military forces into the Black Sea and other areas of eastern Ukraine with large ethnic Russian populations, using the pretext of protecting the Russian minority to take over Ukrainian territory.
In March, Hillary Clinton referred to “claims by president Putin and other Russians…that they had to go into Crimea and maybe further into eastern Ukraine because they had to protect the Russian minorities”.
She added: “That is reminiscent of claims that were made back in the 1930s when Germany under the Nazis kept talking about how they had to protect German minorities in Poland and Czechoslovakia and elsewhere throughout Europe.”
The speaker of the Czech senate, Milan Stech, Canadian foreign minister John Baird and the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili have also draw comparisons with Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, a largely German-speaking region of what was then Czechoslovakia.
A second Sudetenland?
The Sudeten region had belonged to Germany’s ally Austria-Hungary until her defeat in World War One. The 1919 Treaty of St-Germain awarded the territory along with other German-speaking areas to the newly-created country of Czechoslovakia.
The new state contained about 3 million ethnic Germans.
By 1938 Hitler had already returned the foreign-occupied Saar and Rhineland regions to Germany and engineered unification with Austria.
He began to make increasingly lurid accusations of ill-treatment of the German-speaking minority by the Czechs, and vowed to protect them.
The allies agreed to the occupation of the Sudetenland and the territory became German in October 1938. In March 1939 Hitler invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia.
Claims of persecution
In various speeches throughout 1938, Hitler claimed that Sudeten Germans had been “maltreated and terrorised” for greeting each other in their mother tongue and endured brutal physical attacks. History has shown most of this to be pure fabrication.
On 18 March Mr Putin said ethnic Russians in the Ukraine had been subject to “forced assimiliation” and attempts to suppress their language after the country declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
He said the Maidan protest which toppled Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February on was a coup staged by “nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites”.
After Maidan, Crimean Russians who opposed the new government in Kiev had been “immediately threatened with repression”, Mr Putin alleged.
He added: “The residents of Crimea and Sevastopol turned to Russia for help in defending their rights and lives…naturally we could not leave this plea unheeded. We could not abandon Crimea and its residents in distress.”
Russian troops appeared in Crimea shortly after Mr Yanukovych fell, and on March 16 a majority voted to join Russia in a referendum dismissed as illegitimate by western countries.
A month after the poll, the UN Commission for Human Rights found no evidence that systematic or widespread attacks on ethnic Russians had taken place, and said fear of persecution had been exaggerated to increase support for the annexation of Crimea.
The reports said: “In eastern Ukraine, where a large ethnic Russian minority resides, the situation remains particularly tense with ethnic Russians fearing that the central Government does not represent their interests.
“Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian community, these were neither systematic nor widespread.”
It added: “Although there was no evidence of harassment or attacks on ethnic Russians ahead of the (Crimea) referendum, there was widespread fear for their physical security.
“Photographs of the Maidan protests, greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists, and misinformed reports of them coming armed to persecute ethnic Russians in Crimea, were systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation.”
Russia’s foreign ministry said the report was politically motivated and lacked objectivity.
On 5 April a US-sponsored poll by the International Republican Institute found that 29 per cent of ethnic Russians in Ukraine felt that Russian speakers were “under pressure or threat because of their language”.
On 28 February unidentified gunmen were filmed surrounding airports in Crimea. The men wore uniforms and carried firearms associated with the Russian armed forces, but Vladimir Putin said they were “local self-defence units”.
Months later, he appeared to admit that Russia had in fact sent in soldiers with the markings removed from their uniforms, saying: “We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in south east Ukraine. Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defence forces.”
There are similarities with Hitler’s tactics in Danzig (now Gdansk in Poland), another ethnic German territory annexed by Hitler just before the outbreak of the war.
When the Germans smuggled SS troops into the Baltic city-state to help effect the takeover, they called the unit the Heimwehr Danzig and claimed it was a local militia spontaneously formed by ethnic Germans. Again, the unit’s uniforms differed only slightly from German soldiers.
Bobo Lo, a Russian foreign policy expert at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said the parallel had occurred to him.
“There are similarities like that – the idea that you are actually using Russian troops but they just don’t have any insignia on, so you’ve got a measure of deniability. How plausible that deniability is is another question.”
As Channel 4 news reported in March, veteran Ukraine-watchers predicted years ago that Russia would use troops “camouflaged as local paramiltaries” to make a long-planned takeover of the Crimea look like a spontaneous local uprising.
There are other similarities of rhetoric between Mr Putin and the Nazi dictator. Both justified their actions by referring to Ukraine and Czechoslovakia respectively as artificial constructs.
Hitler referred to the “so-called nation” of Czechoslovakia and called it an “abnormal structure” created by the western powers, with the population artifically boosted by the inclusion of millions of ethnic Germans.
The Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported that Mr Putin told former US president George W Bush: “Ukraine is not even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.”
Both leaders have explicitly claimed the right to use military force to protect ethnic Russians and Germans who are citizens of other countries.
There are enough parallels between the situation on the borders of Germany in the late 1930s and the Crimean crisis to make it understandable why so many commentators – now including the Prince of Wales – have made the link.
Dr Jonathan Eyal of Royal United Services Institute was one of the first to do so when he correctly predicted that Mr Putin would use ethnic Russians to justify an invasion and labelled it Russia’s “Sudetenland option”.
Some historians and analysts have said the comparison with Nazism is so offensive, given the deaths of millions of Russians who fought against Hitler, that it cannot be helpful in understanding the current crisis.
Mr Lo stressed that while there are some similarities in the two crises, there are also enormous differences.
“Putin is obviously not Hitler, Russia is obviously not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. This is not the aggressive expansionist programme that Hitler had in Europe with Lebensraum.
“There are similarities in the use of an ethnic minority for the moral justification.
“The question is how far will Putin go. My guess is that he would rather exert influence through indirect means. Ideally he would prefer not to have boots on the ground. It’s probably unlikely that Putin would intervene in Estonia and Latvia.”
On Wednesday Russia said it was pulling back troops deployed on exercises near the Ukrainian border. Nato says it has yet to see evidence of a large-scale withdrawal.