Hillary Clinton was quoted last week comparing Russia's President Putin to Hitler because he is using stories about potential mistreatment of ethnic Russians as a pretext to intervene in the Ukraine and, specifically, Crimea.
In the lead-up to the World War II, German dictator Adolf Hitler complained that the government of Czechoslovakia was mistreating ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, a Czech region near the German border. At the same time, Nazi agents were stirring up anti-Czech activities among the Sudeten Germans. The British and French governments carried out a "mediation" of this conflict that resulted in the Munich betrayal of 1938, which stripped Czechoslovakia of its fortified border regions and left the country defenseless in the face of the German intervention.
In the current crisis over the Ukraine, Russia has intervened in the Crimean Peninsula, where most of the population is Russian (to be precise, 12 % are Crimean Tatars, 24% are ethnic Ukrainians and most of the rest are Russians). Crimea is autonomous within the Ukraine and is the site of a major Russian naval base at Sevastopol, currently leased from the Ukraine.
This base is of supreme importance to Russia because it guards Russia's only means of access to the Mediterranean. Use of the Black Sea makes essential a friendly relationship with Turkey, which controls the Bosporus between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmora, and the Dardanelles between the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean. During World War II, very tough battles were fought in the Crimea between Nazi German and Soviet troops.
Secondly, the forces that have taken over the Ukrainian government in Kiev include neo-Nazi and fascist elements with pre-Word War II roots. Some elements from these groups have been given key positions in the "interim" government put in essentially by a coup d'état against the discredited but nevertheless legally elected President Victor Yanukovych. Both political leaders and corporate-controlled media in the United States and Western Europe have either not mentioned this fact or have downplayed it.
But in Russia the memories of the Nazi invasion of June 1941, of the war that followed and of the activities of local Nazi collaborators, including Ukrainian ones historically linked to the present crowd of extremists in Kiev, are strong.
High school history texts and Hollywood war films have trained two generations in the United States to believe that the United States almost singlehandedly beat Hitler. In fact, the Soviet Union's armed forces killed far more Germans and also suffered losses of both military personnel and civilians far greater than the losses suffered by the United States. In the process the Soviet forces pinned down huge numbers of Nazi troops who would otherwise have been deployed against the Western countries.
In the United States there are many thousands of people who still mourn for loved ones killed in World War II. But in Russia, various estimates put the military and civilian losses in that "Great Patriotic War" in the tens of millions. At least 8.6 million Soviet soldiers, sailors and officers were killed. The war also killed at least 13 million Soviet civilians, in bombing and shelling attacks, mass executions, and individual murders, and as the result of slave labor in Germany and other axis countries. Jews, Roma and communists were subject to genocide. Thousands of villages, towns, cities, factories and farms were completely razed by the Nazis and their allies, including Ukrainian and other local fascist collaborators. Vast numbers of livestock were destroyed and areas occupied by the Nazis were plundered of all wealth.
There is no way to quantify the suffering.
Soviet soldiers and civilians killed in the war included people from all ethnic groups, including more than a million Ukrainians who fought with great bravery against the German invaders.
So when people in Russia hear about a revival of fascist tendencies in the Ukraine they don't think about the amusing Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz of "Hogan's Heroes." They think of their dead; there is nothing more horrible to contemplate that that the history of fascism in the 20th century should repeat itself.
Since the Soviet Union fell apart, the United States and its allies have worked hard to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), bringing it right up against the Russian border. The idea of NATO- allied anti-Russian fascists occupying the Sevastopol base must not be pleasant. To compare Russia to the Nazi Germans adds insult to injury.
Russia today is not the Soviet Union. I make no apologies for Putin, who is a backward, heavy-handed nationalist. But Hillary Clinton and others, in acting and speaking as they do, fail to recognize that Russia, like any sovereign state has legitimate security interests, and that history has taught its people to take fascism seriously.
U.S. politicians and media should also do so.
Photo: Ukrainian fascists have been rallying for years in Kiev. In this 2005 photo a Ukrainian veteran who fought on the side of the Nazis carries a portrait of Ukrainian fascist leader Stepan Bandera during a march in Kiev. Efrem Lukatsky/AP