I was a little disappointed a few nights back when USA President Joe Biden launched his carefully worded critique of Vladimir Putin without once chiding the Russian leader for using one of the oldest lies ever spoken by a dictator to justify the conquest of a neighbour.
Maybe President Biden isn’t quite old enough to remember the last days of summer in 1939 when Germany parked what was the best trained and armed military machine in the world as close as it could to the border of Poland. Just a military exercise, German leader Adolf Hitler said, nothing to worry about. He had used the same response in the past and had never been seriously challenged – not even when his border exercises got a little wild, and several small European countries awakened one morning to find their own national flags replaced by the swastika.
The great powers – France and the British Commonwealth – were concerned, but not unduly, and the USA was resting in contented isolation. England’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been over to Germany for a man-to-man chat with Hitler and returned to England waving a piece of paper and proclaiming “Peace in our time.”
In mid-August 1939, Chamberlain’s promise got lost in a flood of speculation on the new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. The pact, signed August 23, pledged non-aggression between Russia and Germany for at least 10 years and plans for a joint invasion of Poland by separate armies but under their national commanders.
In late August, Germany started reporting attacks on their in-training troops by Polish army units. Following one such attack, they invited a few American reporters along to see a scattering of Polish uniformed bodies repelled by vigilant German soldiers. It was later established the Germans had set up a “false flag” unit to stage the attacks.
In 1939, when the Germans finally launched their attack on Poland, they said it was simply to expand Germany’s “living room.” That attack started on September 1, and two days later, at 11 o’clock on an English Sunday morning, the nation listened to Prime Minister Chamberlain, in a fragile voice, inform us that diplomacy had failed and “we are at war with Germany.”
I remember how loud the kitchen clock ticked when the radio was turned off. And, the calmness of my Dad’s voice as he assured his wife, his 18-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son that “everything will be okay, they’ll never get this far.”
He was wrong. They did get “this far,” but not for six months or so and then only by air. After the brutal conquest of Poland, Hitler took a break for a few weeks (known as the “phony war”), then launched his “blitzkrieg” that ravaged the Netherlands, Belgium and France and almost destroyed the entire British army before it was plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk.
We did wonder from time to time if it would ever end, especially during those never-ending nights of sirens, explosions, fires, shattered homes and broken people.
Then came a series of events, each more momentous than the last in human and financial costs. But none of those costs were big or painful enough to convince humanity there must be a better way.
To continue as a big guy on the world stage, Hitler – tired of trying and failing to bring England to its knees – inexplicably turned his attention on Russia. Remember, he had a 1939 non-aggression pact stipulating that there would be no aggression between Germany and Russia for at least 10 years.
On June 22, 1941, Germany stunned the world with a surprise attack on Russia. The German army comprised three million foot soldiers, 19 Panzer divisions, 3,000 tanks, 2,500 aircraft, and 7,000 artillery pieces. What followed was a Russian “scorched earth” retreat … nothing left for the Germans but charred remains.
The onslaught of Russian winter and inadequate supply line provisions did much to defeat the invaders. The vast German army never made it home. In its charge across the steppes of Russia, the Germans used a three-pronged attack column formation. The right column reached as far as Ukraine and died there.
I wonder if it would have helped if President Biden had reminded Mr. Putin that Ukraine once played in the big leagues and won? And that even though mentally unbalanced Hitler was an expert at “false flag” tactics, he was ultimately a loser.