It is not ‘appeasement’ to oppose war with Russia

Western liberals and neocons need to grow up – Putin is not Hitler and Ukraine is not Poland in 1939.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK USA World

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Normally, cosplay is just a little tragic. Adults dressing as anime characters or manga schoolkids or superheroes is embarrassing – for them – but not particularly harmful. The same cannot be said for the political cosplay currently being engaged in by politicians and commentators across the West who have convinced themselves that Russia is the new Nazi Germany and that its ‘imminent’ invasion of Ukraine will be akin to Hitler’s Poland campaign of 1939. Yes, these people who have unconvincingly dolled themselves up as Second World War-style defenders of European liberty against a bleak, dark, authoritarian menace are an embarrassment, there’s absolutely no question about that. But they’re dangerous, too. They are harmful, and many people could end up paying a high price indeed for their delusional narcissism.

The Churchillian cosplayers are everywhere. You can’t open a newspaper or browse the internet these days without stumbling across some virtue-hungry politician or iPad imperialist who is puffing himself up as a brave defender of the free world against an ‘imminent’ replay of 1939. (Every time I see that word ‘imminent’ in relation to Russia’s alleged plot to invade Ukraine, three other words come to mind: ‘forty-five minutes’. I can’t think why.) The headline splashed across the front page of yesterday’s Sunday Times declared: ‘“This has the whiff of Munich.”’ It was a report on words uttered by the UK defence secretary Ben Wallace, in which he compared Western nations’ recent diplomatic efforts to prevent ‘Russian aggression’ in Ukraine to the Munich Agreement of 1938 in which Neville Chamberlain, alongside France and Italy, struck a deal with the Nazis. In short, appeasement.

Stop and think about the lunacy of this. Wallace is implying that President Macron and, presumably, his very own colleague, Liz Truss – who recently visited Russia in what will surely go down as one of the most amateurish, bungled diplomatic sojourns of modern times – are not dissimilar to Chamberlain. Their diplomacy is tantamount to appeasement in 1938. And we all know what happened after that. It goes without saying – surely? – that there is no comparison whatsoever between the NATO / Russia tensions over Ukraine and the Nazi plot to conquer vast swathes of Europe and impose an extreme form of racial authoritarianism on its peoples. But then, Wallace’s reckless, historically illiterate comments were not made in order to provide clarity in this difficult geopolitical moment, but rather to signal to the world his own imbecilic fantasy that he is a Churchill in all of this, the anti-Chamberlain, a brave man willing to withstand the bloody rebirth of 1939.

Wallace isn’t alone. Many people are using the Ukraine issue as a kind of stage on which they might perform their virtue for the watching world. And every actor needs a costume, right? So why not put Putin in a brownshirt and oneself in Churchill-style drag and really up the stakes in the self-promoting psychodrama that Ukraine has become for many Western observers. ‘Will Ukraine be a replay of Poland in 1939?’, asks one writer. ‘The calendar says it’s 2022, but it sure feels like 1939’, says author Gordon G Chang. ‘Putin has assembled the largest concentration of forces in Europe since 1945, in preparation for what could be a large-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine’, says Anne Applebaum. (Which is not even true. The Soviets sent 200,000 troops to crush the Prague Spring of 1968.)

The fact-lite, frequently deranged 1930s talk is coming thick and fast. A writer for the Scotsman says Putin is copying from ‘Adolf Hitler’s playbook’, and apparently the rest of us should be ‘mobilising for a full-scale European war’. A writer for Time has even discovered that daddy issues lie behind both the brutalism of the Nazis in the 1930s and the war-hungry desires of Russians today. Many Nazi soldiers came from families with ‘authoritarian, often abusive and frequently absent father figures’, and ‘one doesn’t need to be a psychoanalyst to notice how Russian popular culture circles around simultaneous adoration and fear of authoritarian father figures’, he says. People take this crap seriously? It’s history reduced to psychological hang-ups, where bad fathering creates Nazism. It is also exceptionally insulting when one considers the almost unbelievable sacrifices Russian men made on the Eastern Front, eventually defeating Nazi Germany. Maybe that was fatherless boys taking out their angst on stern dad Adolf?

All this 1930s talk is expressly designed to discourage diplomacy and to up the stakes militarily. This is why the word ‘appeasement’ is everywhere right now. Anyone who so much as suggests that the West should talk to Russia, and that Washington, London and Brussels should stop treating Russia as a despotic state hell-bent on war in Europe, is instantly denounced as an ‘appeaser’. ‘Appeasement’ has been wrenched from its historical context and turned into an all-purpose insult against those who – call us old-fashioned – prefer peace to war and understanding Russia to treating it as a uniquely evil state that wants to put everyone in Europe under its boot. The Atlantic Council spelt it out. ‘Calls for geopolitical realism [over Ukraine] often paradoxically end up championing unrealistic policies’, it says. Those who claim to be ‘promoting a practical approach’ are often really pushing ‘policies of appeasement’, the Council declares.

There you have it. Oppose the further militarisation of the Ukraine problem and you’re Neville Chamberlain. Question whether NATO should really be expanding right up to Russia’s borders and you’re no better than those people who shrugged their shoulders when Hitler was on the rise. ‘Appeaser’ is more than just ad hominem. It is ad hominem with the plain censorious intent to demonise and isolate people who prefer diplomacy to war. ‘Cowards!’, cry the laptop bombardiers on their chaises lounges tweeting about why young British soldiers must be packed off to war with Russia. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

We need to talk about the modern fashion for comparing ‘bad things’ to the Nazis. British and American liberals seem especially addicted to the historically and morally infantile enterprise of saying ‘It’s just like the 1930s’ every time something happens that they don’t like. The election of Trump, the victory of Brexit, Putin wondering out loud if NATO should back off a little – it’s exactly like Munich and Kristallnacht and the Reichstag Fire and the camps and all the rest, isn’t it? Putin and Co might be the new Nazis today, but in the 1990s it was the Serbs, then it was Saddam Hussein. ‘Appeasement won’t stop Saddam, any more than Hitler’, said one headline in the febrile build-up to the catastrophic Western invasion of Iraq that dealt such a terrible blow to humanity. Appeasement, Hitler, Nazis, 1938, 1939, 1945 – the liberal elite is stuck in a historical loop, in a kind of Nazi-themed Tourette’s. The same historical tropes are misleadingly trotted out again and again, to silence anti-imperialist dissent and to justify acts of militarism which clearly, and tellingly, cannot be justified by their own internal, contemporaneous qualities.

All this Second World War cosplay, all this cynical marshalling of the horrors of Nazism to make the case for bombing campaigns against largely powerless nations in the here and now, is motivated by a devastating lack within the tweeting warmongers. This is a generation of ‘liberals’ bitterly envious that their fathers or grandfathers got to fight against Nazism. A generation who feel important, of course, but who have never actually done anything important. A generation that longs to make an appearance in the history books but preferably without having to do anything too physically strenuous, far less life-threatening. And so from the comfort of their plush offices and gleaming ministries and coffee houses, they denounce so-and-so as the new Hitler and valiantly insist that 20-year-old working-class men be sent off to fight against him. They get the moral thrill of having played a part in the defeat of ‘the new Nazis’ without having done anything at all. And without there being any Nazis.

The pathological narcissism of these weak Westerners posing as strongmen has real consequences in the world. It leads to wars, loss of life, destruction. Look at Iraq, Libya, Syria and, worst of all, Afghanistan. And right now this self-regarding thirst for war is intensifying tensions around Ukraine. We are witnessing something quite striking, and deeply worrying, in relation to Ukraine/Russia: a coming together of ‘liberal’ laptop bombardiers and old-style neocons, of the woke and the anti-woke, many of whom seem to have put aside their domestic squabbles in the interests of beating a collective drum for war with Russia and branding as an appeaser anyone who tells them to calm down. These people frighten me more than Moscow does.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty

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Topics Politics UK USA World


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