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History repeats itself as tragedy in Ukraine

History, they often say, starts as tragedy and repeats itself as farce. But in Ukraine tragedy is being repeated as tragedy. Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s creeping occupation of the Ukraine is taken directly from the playbook Adolf Hitler devised for the invasion of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s.

And the truly chilling aspect of Putin’s unwarranted aggression is that the leaders of the Western democracies are responding to it with exactly the same shameful spineless and cowardly shortsightedness their counterparts of three quarters of a century ago treated Hitler’s equally unwarranted aggression in 1938.

Washington and its European allies are showing the same craven lack of concern about their betrayal of the Ukrainians—whose security they not so long ago guaranteed by treaty—displayed by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when, in 1938, he declared Czechoslovakia to be just “a small country of which we know nothing.”

Events in Czechoslovakia 75 years ago graphically illustrate just how dangerous it is to respond to a demagogue’s naked aggression with the sort of gutless complacency the West’s leaders are displaying in their handling of the Ukraine crisis today.

Indeed, it is reasonable to argue that the West’s lack of resolve when faced with Nazi aggression in late 1930s Czechoslovakia was one of the primary causes of World War II.

According to former members of the German General Staff, the West’s failure to face down the Fuehrer over Czechoslovakia led Hitler to believe he would face a similarly pusillanimous response when he launched his attack on Poland.

Folks in the Baltic States and Poland, not to mention Finland, Romania, Moldova, and Georgia—all of which have suffered Russian aggression in the recent past—must all be feeling more than a little insecure.

If I sound a trifle strident about this issue, I can only plead that my childhood was—like that of many Britons of my generation—largely dominated by World War II and its aftermath. Rationing was in force during the entire first decade of my life, and the reconstruction of our bomb–ravaged cities continued into my late 20s.

Moreover, as a journalist covering the affairs of the Soviet Union and the nations in its thrall behind Churchill’s Iron Curtain, my mentor was Kurt Weisskopf, a Czech émigré who had escaped Nazi–occupied Prague by the skin of his teeth.

Kurt was a sagacious and kindly councilor who generously shared his extensive store of knowledge about the USSR and its satellites with any young journalist with wisdom enough to listen.

His father, a doctor and colonel in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army’s Medical Corps, was stationed in the Balkans during Kurt’s early childhood. And it was there he developed what can only be described as a remarkable flair for languages.

In 1914, his father—who commanded the army’s Sarajevo Medical District—performed autopsies on Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the imperial throne, and his wife, whose assassinations prompted the outbreak of World War I. For that unhappy task, he was made a Count of the Holy Roman Empire—a title Kurt inherited but never used.

Following Austria’s defeat and the break up of its empire, Kurt’s father became a general practitioner in the Sudetenland—a largely German speaking area of Czechoslovakia, abutting the German border. On his graduation from high school, Kurt studied law at Prague University

Be that as it may, after graduation Kurt never practiced law. Instead he gravitated to Prague’s decidedly Bohemian literary world, where he rubbed shoulders with luminaries like Franz Kafka, Max Brot, and other contemporaries of Jaroslav Hašek, anarchist, bigamist, and author of the great comic novel about the archetypal Czech character, The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk in the World War.

In March, 1939, when Nazis occupied Prague, Kurt was working as an editor on a Social Democratic newspaper. As the Germans marched into the city, Kurt and his colleagues were in the paper’s basement feeding compromising documents into the furnace.

As both a Jew and a Social Democrat, Kurt was a marked man. His situation was made all the more dangerous by the Social Democratic Party uniform he was wearing, a navy blue shirt and trousers and a red neckerchief.

With no time to go his apartment and change, he dashed to a tailor’s shop, owned by a Social Democrat friend. The man kitted him out with civilian clothes, and asked: “Have you got a passport?” Kurt’s passport was in his desk at his home.

They called another Social Democrat acquaintance—a senior detective at Prague’s police headquarters. “Stay put,” he told Kurt, “I’ll pick you up in a squad car.”

When he arrived, he told Kurt to put out his hands and snapped handcuffs on his wrists. Kurt was stunned. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“Don’t worry, Kurt.” said the cop, “The Germans are very orderly people. It would never occur to them to arrest a person who’s already under arrest.”

When they arrived at police headquarters, Gestapo agents had already taken over the passport department. However his detective friend managed to issue him an official ID card identifying him as a stateless Hungarian salesman of herbal tea. Fortunately, Kurt’s stepmother was Hungarian and had taught him to speak the language fluently.

Even so, he was arrested by the Gestapo as he tried to cross the Polish border and thrown into holding prison run by the SS. Amazingly, six weeks later, he was thrown out on the street.

How did he pull it off?

“First you have to keep your strength up,” he told me, “So you have to eat everything they give you no matter how horrible it is.

“Then don’t play the hero. You must accept that, one way or another, they will make you talk, so you babble your head off. You tell them everything you can think of that can’t get somebody else into trouble.

“Their goal is to get you to confess to some thought-crime or other, so you need to confess to something really ridiculous. They accused me of slandering the Reich. ‘Oh, yes I did, Major,’ I told the corporal who interrogating me.

“ ‘What did you do?’ he asked. ‘I wrote in the Traveling Salesmen’s Gazette that the toilets on German railway stations are utterly disgusting.’ I told him. He beat me up a bit, but he had me thrown out of jail as mentally incompetent.”

Doubtless Ukrainian patriots in Russian hands today might find Kurt’s advice exceedingly helpful. GPH✠

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