The celebrated historian and professor of Ukrainian history has studied the parallels between the 1930s and the years leading up to 2022
By David Knowles 9 August 2023 •
Scroll to the end for Plokhy’s interview on Ukraine: The Latest
The road to Kramatorsk from Kharkiv is a silent highway of destruction. Those making their way to the front line in eastern Ukraine pass abandoned villages and rusting Russian tanks. In larger towns, blackened homes and factories bear the scars of brutal artillery assaults.
When Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 it marked the bloody end of the post-Second World War European security settlement. It has cost thousands of lives and spurred the largest movement of people in Europe – either within Ukraine or fleeing the country altogether – since 1945. Waged in the fertile south and industrial east, the Russo-Ukrainian war has also decimated the Ukrainian economy.
Now the Ukrainian army, with Western assistance, is in the middle of a crucial counter-offensive to throw the Russian occupiers out of their land. For historian Serhii Plokhy, a professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard University, Putin’s invasion and the Russian state’s increasingly authoritarian, nationalistic and repressive policies at home raise obvious parallels with the historic monster of the 20th century: Nazi Germany.
Plokhy, 66, a softly-spoken academic with a wry smile, has become an international celebrity. His books on Ukrainian history fly off the shelves as a domestic and international audience look to understand the history and culture of the country at the heart of the clash. His writings, including The Last Empire: The Final Days of the Soviet Union (2014), The Gates of Europe (2015), and Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe (2018) introduce readers to a history that is rarely taught in the West and explain the region’s complex and difficult past. Much in demand, Plokhy is speaking to me from Japan, where he is on a research trip.
“The two countries lost the war,” he begins. “In the case of Germany, that was World War One, in the case of the Soviet Union, that was the Cold War, and they are dealing with the question of the so-called ‘divided nation’. The Germans were obsessed with bringing together [German-speakers] within the borders of one greater Germany. Putin’s Russia [has become] obsessed with the annexation of [Ukrainian] territory and bringing Crimea ‘back home’. So the parallels between the annexation of Crimea and the  Anschluss of Austria are very obvious.”
His new book, The Russo-Ukrainian War tells the early story of the full-scale invasion of 2022 and also puts the conflict in historical context, delving into the events that culminated in the war. For Plokhy, the importance of the historical parallels is made more potent when one considers what he calls the “fruitless efforts” of “Old Europe” to find a peace settlement.
It is here, he believes, that the similarities between the lead up to 2022 and 1939 are most stark and most worrying.
In the 1930s, “Old Europe” meant Britain and France who, still recovering from the devastation of the First World War, saw the policy of appeasement as the best way to maintain peace in Europe. “There was a lot of wishful thinking involved, that no one wanted to go to war. The idea was that appeasement was really a solution,” says Plokhy.
But, although it did give European countries time to re-arm, appeasement did not prevent war. After Anschluss, Germany moved to swallow the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Like in Ukraine, Nazi propaganda used the oppression of local German speakers by the Czechoslovak state as justification for the move. Hitler’s gambit paid off. Britain and France capitulated to Germany’s demands and the Sudetenland – and then the majority of Czechoslovakia – was absorbed into the Reich.
The fallout of the 1938 Munich Agreementproduced one of the most famous photos of the 1930s: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlainwaving a note that he said was a promise from Hitler that Germany had no further territorial ambitions, and that the world would have “peace for our time”.
Immediate peace was preserved but a larger war now loomed on the horizon. Having gambled twice on the premise that the West would not react, preferring a bad peace over war, Hitler decided to go further. The Wehrmacht turned its attention to Poland.
For Plokhy, the policy of appeasement is the historical antecedent for modern-day Germany’s strategy before February 2022. “This is more or less the behaviour of ‘Old Europe’ this time around, with Germany being in the leading seat when it comes to defining this policy. Since the early 1970s, when the Soviet Union started to export oil and gas to Central Europe and Eastern Europe, Germany has had a policy of Ostpolitik, the policy of détente. It looked like it produced results. The Berlin Wall fell, right?”
Through the end of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, the policy towards Russia remained broadly static. But, for Plokhy, leading Western countries lost touch with developments inside the country. “The trick was that the world changed,” he says. “The Russia of Vladimir Putin is not the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev, or even of Leonid Brezhnev. It was a much more aggressive, revisionist power, much more so than the Soviet Union. But Germans continued basically on the old track. In the  Russian invasion of Georgia, the German response was, ‘Let’s build Nord Stream 1’. The  Russian annexation of the Crimea, the start of the war in Ukraine? Let’s build Nord Stream 2!”
Guilty of misunderstanding the new Russia, Western countries’ apathy and thirst for natural resources had dire consequences. “The idea was, ‘OK, we will engage Russians with trade and somehow they [will] be less prone to go to war’. In reality, what was happening, Europe, Old Europe, partially new Europe as well – in exchange for Russian gas – was sending more and more money to Russia, really making Putin’s rearmament possible and contributing in that way to this war.”
While researching his new book, Plokhy looked into the character of Vladimir Putin in an effort to present the most illuminating portrait of the Russian leader. “I think one of the interesting things that I didn’t know before, or maybe didn’t fully realise about Vladimir Putin, was his obsession with the Russian intellectuals of the Imperial era and their writings. A lot of what he is saying, and apparently he believes in, like ‘Russians and Ukrainians are one and the same people’, comes straight from the history textbooks of 19th-century Imperial Russia.
“Putin is clearly someone who tries to use the outdated imperial ideology to move forward; the ideology of the 19th century to move into the 21st century. In that sense, he is a hostage of, I would say, bad history.”
Despite Putin’s obsession with “bad history” one interesting thing about his strategy is that he remains flexible in his goals. “He believes in things that he is saying, at least some basic things about the non-existence of Ukraine as a nation. But he also is quite flexible, maybe opportunistic. His overall goal is taking control of the whole of Ukraine, building a powerful Eurasian block of countries, but if that doesn’t work, he is prepared to go for plan B, and plan B – both in 2014 and in 2022 – has been just capturing the territories that he considers to be Russian historically, and he can go between these two models back and forth.”
The depressing conclusion Plokhy has come to after studying the parallels between the 1930s and the years leading up to 2022 is that Europe does not learn from history.
“I, and probably many others, lived with this belief that somehow we as humanity, we learnt from our past, we learnt from our mistakes,” he says. “And looking at these parallels, the really uncomfortable idea comes to mind that actually we don’t learn or we don’t learn enough.”