RT Howard

Disturbing parallels between Kristallnacht and Putin’s style

Just as British diplomats realised what they were dealing with in 1938, so Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine should be a warning

February 03, 2023 15:34

Ever since Russian soldiers stormed into Ukrainian territory almost a year ago, allegations and evidence of shocking atrocities against innocent civilians have followed in their wake. The invading force has been frequently accused of deliberately targeting Ukrainian men, women and children and of inflicting, in the recent words of a British ambassador, “repeated, systematic and brutal… horror after horror after horror”.

Such outrages are, of course, a matter of real humanitarian concern for the watching world. We are obliged, as a matter of conscience, to do what we can to alleviate such suffering, perhaps by giving generously to charities and NGOs. But does such brutality also ever have any strategic significance to other countries, representing a threat to our national interest?

It is often instructive to look back and find parallels with the past, and the events of the late 1930s to illustrate how and why such brutality can sometimes have such repercussions.
The terrible events that began in Nazi Germany on 10 November 1938 scarcely need any elaboration. In retaliation for an attack on a diplomat in Paris, the Nazi leadership unleashed a terrifying orgy of violence against Germany’s Jewish population. Over several days, at least 70 German Jews were killed while thousands more were assaulted, arrested and incarcerated as their property was looted, vandalised and seized.

News of the violence naturally shocked foreign observers. British newspapers condemned “a pogrom hardly surpassed in fury since the Dark Ages” and a regime that had “disgraced” the German nation with the “burnings and beatings (and) blackguardly assaults upon defenceless and innocent people”. But, moral outrage apart, Kristallnacht also had strategic significance for other countries. It was not, as Dr Goebbels’s propaganda machine tried to pretend, just a “domestic question” that the outside world had no business to meddle with.

This was partly for the obvious reason that domestic persecution, on such a scale, always risks creating a wave of refugees that can overwhelm and destabilise other regions. Such Nazi barbarity would lead to “the expulsion of penniless new hordes of refugees”, as one MP opined shortly after Kristallnacht, adding that “we look upon this problem of 500,000 refugees from Germany as just another practical problem which British statesmanship is called upon to consider and to solve”.

This was particularly true when Great Britain had since 1918 exercised a mandate over Palestine, where so many Jewish refugees from Hitler now turned to and aspired to create their homeland.

Others added that barbarism in one country easily set a bad example for others to follow. This was particularly true of other antisemitic regimes in the 1930s. “If the Dr Goebbels’ plan succeeds, if he drives half a million penniless Jews upon the world, will not Poland, will not Rumania, say perhaps now is our chance to send away our 4,500,000 Jews and rid ourselves of this problem for good and all?”, asked another MP in late 1938.

This threatened to make the refugee problem even worse. But there was another, more important reason why the events of Kristallnacht mattered to Germany’s neighbours: the orchestrated violence was an unmistakable sign of a regime that had no moral compass and was therefore capable of anything, including committing extreme violence against other countries.

This did not go unnoticed in the days and weeks that followed, when many onlookers commented on the obvious amorality of the Nazis. In Parliament, MPs spoke of the “the reversion to paganism and a repudiation of all those ideals for which Christianity and all other religions too, for that matter”. For example, the member for Leyton, Reginald Sorensen, felt that “there is a great wave of dangerous irrationalism sweeping over Germany… we do not all speak the same moral language in Europe, as was the case in former years”. Now “the common reference to the standards of Christianity… is largely gone”.

Of course, Hitler’s main critics in Britain and elsewhere had long argued that this was true of the German leader. Winston Churchill had pointed out years before that “the men at the head of Germany are not restrained by any scruples. They have risen to their power by violence, cruelty and murder.” Equally the former ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, had asserted as early as 1933, just months after Hitler had seized power, that the new regime could deploy against its neighbours the same violence it was using towards its domestic foes.
The difference was that now, after Kristallnacht, this connection was much harder to overlook. Their critical views were now mainstream, and even supporters of the government’s appeasement policy towards Germany, like “Chips” Channon, admitted that “the present regime seems to have lost all sense and reason”. The prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, also now felt that Hitler’s actions were “not rational”, while the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, noted that “everything was possible and nothing was impossible”.

So how, after Kristallnacht, were the British, French and Czech governments in a position to trust Hitler to keep his word and honour the Munich agreement, signed little more than a month before? The German leader had promised to respect the integrity of Czechoslovakia in exchange for the Sudetenland — “my last territorial demand in Europe” — but it now became much harder to assume that he would act honourably and keep his word. When, four months later, German troops entered Prague, his cynical actions came as no great surprise to many. Appeasers such as Lord Londonderry admitted that Hitler had “overstepped all limits” but in truth he had done so four months before.

Equally, a regime that was responsible for Kristallnacht could not be trusted not to inflict unnecessary violence against other countries. After the events of 10 November, the prospect of war against Germany also became more likely. It is no coincidence that, soon after the anti-Jewish violence that day, British intelligence penned a number of reports flagging the threat posed by Hitler’s mental state: he was, they argued, “barely sane” and “consumed by insensate hatred”.

This not only made conflict more likely but also threatened a potentially barbaric type of warfare.

If Hitler was capable of targeting his own citizens with such sadistic violence, then he could do the same against all foreign populations, particularly those comprised of Untermensch.
This gave much more credence to a number of rumours that, in the event of war, the Luftwaffe would deliberately target London and other British cities, which “could be destroyed in a couple of days by unceasing bombing attacks”. Such an obsessed man could easily realise the nightmarish vision, conjured by HG Wells and already carried out in the Spanish Civil War, of massive bombing attacks on civilian targets that he went on to unleash from the autumn of 1940.

Of course, Vladimir Putin and his deputies in Moscow do not fall into the same category.
The differences of circumstance are clear. Most obviously, the atrocities of Russian soldiers, even if they are deliberately orchestrated at the top, are being perpetrated in wartime, when barbarity always takes place. And the Kremlin does not have and, despite all the hysteria of the Cold War, has never had any plan to conquer and subjugate its neighbours in the same way that Hitler did: the violence of Kristallnacht matters most because it was executed by a regime that had a pre-existing plan and a strong inclination to use aggression against other countries.

What is quite likely, however, is that if President Putin has deliberately orchestrated such atrocities, then he could well be capable of carrying out further violence against the same targets on a much greater scale.

And this gives recent reports about his possible use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, including its cities, a chilling and terrifying plausibility.

RT Howard is the author of ‘Spying on the Reich: The Cold War Against Hitler’, published on 26 January by OUP

February 03, 2023 15:34

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