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Seventy-five years ago this week, people in Europe and most of the world woke up to ominous newspaper headlines: "German Army Attacks Poland; Cities Bombed, Port Blocked; Danzig is Accepted into Reich", "War! Nazi Bombs Rain on Polish Cities". This was the start of the Second World War.
Comparing 1939 and 2014: Is this already war?
© Reuters/Scanpix

Historian Algimantas Kasparavičius of the Lithuanian Institute of History says that distressingly similar moods pervade today, after Russia invaded Ukraine. However, he insists, doomsaying is the least Europe needs right now in an effort to actually avoid a war.

Kasparavičius believes that alarmist rhetoric that has been coming even from some members of the Lithuanian political elite does not contribute to deescalating the situation, which is something that Western Europe seeks right now.

The Lithuanian historian says that alarmist statements might be a knee-jerk reaction testifying to lingering effects of the Soviet occupation, even though it ended almost a quarter of a century ago. He compares the Lithuanians' reaction to someone suffering post-traumatic stress, where the past trauma conditions one's behaviours and everyone who fails to respond with total concurrence is accused of lacking sympathy.

"When someone tells us that we are over-sensitive about Russia, we respond that we've experienced Russia's occupation and therefore we must be loud about it - but that's not a good justification. We cannot model our behaviour after a past precedent. One must get over our pain. If a woman is raped and then fails to deal with it psychologically, she will need treatment," the historian says.

Algimantas Kasparavičius
Algimantas Kasparavičius
© A.Didžgalvio nuotr.

The historian says he is appalled at some Lithuanian politicians who try to lecture Europe on how to act, insisting that since Austrians, Hungarians or Slovaks have not suffered at Moscow's hands as much as Lithuania, they therefore cannot understand the ways that Russia thinks.

"Some members of our political elite justify their over-sensitivity and exaggerated positions vis-à-vis our eastern neighbour by saying that the westerners don't understand anything - that Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks know nothing… As if these nations hadn't been occupied or their occupations had been somehow lesser. If you look at numbers, though, of, say, how many Austrian women were raped at the end of World War Two by men of the Red Army, you see they are in the millions. But Austrians have enough sense to refrain from speculating with these facts; I therefore feel great respect for this country and its leaders, I think they are quite sensible. They do not fall into political schizophrenia. And those who say that, since we [Lithuanians] have been occupied [by Russia], this gives us the right to indulge in speculations today, my response is that such reaction is completely irrational and only leads to a total political chaos in Eastern Europe," Kasparavičius says.

Policy of cornering Russia

Asked to compare the eve of World War Two with developments in Europe today, Kasparavičius says that even though one might draw some parallels, these are rather superficial. The Lithuanian historian believes that comparing Vladimir Putin's Russia to Adolf Hitler's Germany is quite excessive; if anything, he insists, today's Russia is closer to the German Empire of 1911-1913.

"Besides, such thinking leads us nowhere, it only adds oil to the flame. And I don't wish to be the one doing it. People of my generation, and others too, must be cautious and responsible about such things, refrain from speculations about war, let alone warmongering. We need a responsible rhetoric. Otherwise, if we escalate the situation and talk ourselves into believing that war is inevitable, that Russia is aggressive enough and only wants war, then such opinions might snowball into critical mass and turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. One can always incite the public opinion to the extent that it might provoke a war. But that's not what I want," Kasparavičius insists.

He thinks that the policy of pushing Russia into a corner is counter-productive, since it only forces the aggressor to look for desperate recourse. Kasparavičius admits that he was, at first, himself an advocate of such a policy, but has changed his mind.

"To be honest, I was a supporter of this kind of policy for some time. But cornering Russia and showing her the limits must be done sensibly. Pressure cannot go on forever, without leaving any manoeuvring space for the opponent. If you do that, you bet all your bank on one card, just like they did in 1914 or 1939," the Lithuanian historian explains.

Comparing 1939 and 2014: Is this already war?
© AFP/Scanpix

He offers an oft-quoted example of the Munich agreement with Nazi Germany and the complete isolation of the Soviet Union by Western Europe in 1938. The Munich agreement allowed Hitler to take Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia and essentially provided conditions for the country's complete occupation in 1939.

"Such thinking is dangerous, because it forces Russia to mobilize and brings her back to the situation of 1938, when Joseph Stalin felt completely cornered after the Munich Conference. In autumn 1938, the Soviet Union was in near-total isolation. The British practically ignored Ivan Maisky, the Soviet envoy in London, who would not be invited anywhere. The Western countries concluded after Munich that dealing with Stalin was Hitler's job. They believed that Hitler had no more claims in the west, that there was a treaty for that, and that Hitler now had to have a tête-à-tête with Stalin. Obviously, this forced Stalin to look for ways out of the situation - and the way out was the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact," Kasparavičius says.

According to the historian, British documents reveal that, by giving up Czechoslovakia, London was trying to win time for rearmament. Moreover, Western leaders were trying to counterbalance Hitler and Stalin. By signing the Munich agreement, they were hoping to make Germany forget its ambitions in the west. With a hindsight, they could not be more wrong.

Psychological stand-off

When it comes to today's conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the historian notes the reaction of European states and NATO.

Kasparavičius thinks that the fact that NATO refuses to give military assistance to Ukraine testifies to its reluctance to escalate the crisis. Equally suggestive is the fact that many Western companies continue their operations in Russia and have no intentions of leaving.

According to Kasparavičius, if Europe and the US actually believed that Russia was tampering with their vital interests, they would quit playing with sanctions - a subject of jokes - and start rearming themselves.

"The main goal of the Western states and Russia right now is to call one another's bluff - to find out how far the other side is ready to go and in which direction. It's a psychological stand-off aimed at determining if the opponent means business," Kasparavičius says.

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