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Commentary: Ukraine’s ‘Historical Crisis’

  • April 12th, 2022
  • Posted by EU Australia

Learning from history: It can be done but may require work and won’t tell everything you want to know.

The invasion of Ukraine by the neighbouring Russian Federation this year is a crisis of history, if this definition of such a crisis is accepted: an event affecting many people in a life-changing way, confounding all expectations, that will divert the general course of history from its pathway so far – the change will involve opportunity and danger.

Lee Duffield writes:

Like the start of World War II

  From the perspective of people of Ukraine the war is a terrible emergency, a  time for acting. Words can come at another time and then, with reservations, comparisons may be used to get clearer understandings.

In living memory, the 1939 invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany – both Poland and Germany both secondary players in the present European conflict – saw the capitulation of the capital city in 28 days, the whole army two days later. Another comparison, the initial phase of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States under President George W Bush (along with Australia, Britain and Poland), “shock and awe”, was achieved in six weeks – “mission accomplished” declared.

Allies of Poland in 1939 were dragged into the conflict, but did not deliver any aid as would affect the outcome there. In 2022 effective aid has been forthcoming, at least to date, if not as much as asked for. It has enabled the defenders to slow the Russian advance if not stall it, inflict heavy casualties on the enemy and mount some successful local counter-attacks. It may mean that the defence of Ukraine lasts much longer than the five to six weeks achieved by Poland and Iraq, which may not matter greatly if there is a forced capitulation later on, but may matter if it leads to a negotiated finish.

Bringing other powers into the war is the other factor reminiscent of the Polish tragedy of the 1930s. Given the new and transformative element in the present situation, nuclear arms held by both Russia and the western allies, the prospect of the war spreading — for example through an ultimatum served on Poland, and subsequent attack by the Russians — as President Joe Biden states, would mean an Armageddon, World War III.

Do comparisons with history work?

Historical parallels might be treated as universalistic, even if cancelled out to a big degree by the influences of culture and time. Consider the evident strategy of Ukraine, which based on the first weeks of fighting would be the only strategy available to it, to fight the enemy to a standstill and achieve an armistice. Is anything new? Such was in the mind of the American insurrectionist general, Robert E Lee in the 1860s, who won a succession of major battles while generally in retreat, and ultimately lost the civil war to the national government. His chief option had been to wear down the government and capitalise on any disunity or dissension in its ranks – failed in that case. Are such comparisons at all productive?

My own research into “historical crises”, with the opening of the Berlin Wall, met that definition of crisis, where lives were suddenly turned around, the expectations of generations changed overnight, the march of history diverted into different directions. In the midst of it however was a strong case of recent history not helping with an effort to make predictions: Western journalists accompanying the then Chinese Deputy Premier Yao Yulin on a visit to East Germany, in mid-October 1989, a month before the Wall came down, had just come out of the massacre at Tienanmen Square, and under that influence injected into their narratives the idea that a new massacre was in the offing. East German leaders had made some forbidding references to the Beijing solution, and a violent police action against enormous crowds in the city of Leipzig was narrowly avoided. Yet there was really no ground to affirm that because the Chinese Communist Party had deployed lethal force, the German communists would do the same. (1)

One argument of Russians in this year’s war, containing the meanest shred of credibility, is over the ethnic or language question.  In the era of Czarist imperialism substantial ‘Russian’ minorities came to exist in many of the dependent states, later Soviet republics, including Ukrainians identified as Russian speakers, mostly in the country’s east. The complaint made in Russia is that elected Ukrainian governments have created unjust laws to privilege the use of Ukrainian language over Russian, maybe as the tip of an iceberg of discrimination as they would see it. Hence the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, claims that he is liberating Russians in Ukraine. He has further tinkered with a mystical notion of a common  destiny, that the country is ‘naturally’ part of Russia, joined at the hip. There are mounting fears that in unleashing his poorly run, poorly disciplined army, and the toll of outrages against civilians mounting, his impulse is more towards annihilation of culture, if not a genocide.

Embitterment – even on the aggressors’ side

The Kremlin outlook is made especially embittered by the engagement of violent ultra-right nationalists both in the politics of Ukraine, where they have marginal influence, and in the war, where they have contributed their militia forces to the national defence. Whichever way the war ends, authorities in Ukraine will be under pressure from all sides to ensure these groups receive no reward for their sacrifices.

Their presence invokes bad folk memories in Russia, though the same must be true in Ukraine from the same source — the two countries were on the same side. An example of how the Nazi invasion, 1941-45, was felt at different levels, is contained in the journalism of Mikhail Sholokhov (2), who interviewed German prisoners; one he found ready to please his interrogators,  “garrulous and stupid”; another still showing hatred: “perverted by Nazi propaganda this young ruffian has not ceased killing.” Sholokhov, a Stalinist, was a compelling writer for such work, though openly suspected of stealing and plagiarising ‘his’ masterpiece, And Quiet Flows the Don, from a writer condemned to the Gulag. This is not to say that an anxiety about the fate of ‘Russians’ in Ukraine, loathing of the extremist militias there, or nostalgia for an old empire, would actually justify Russia’s invasion of the sovereign state across the border.

‘Losers’ in great conflicts

Getting back to parallels in history and what they might show; consider, generally, the story of peoples once in a dominant position made vulnerable when the state changes over to control by previously suppressed majorities – something like the Ukrainian ‘Russians’ focused on by Putin as their self-appointed saviour.   It will happen after de-colonisation.

For example, from Southern Africa, there are the abundant complaints of robbery and abuse made on behalf of former ‘Rhodesians’ and white-coloured South Africans, after the end of colonisation and apartheid. It is keenly felt at a personal level by people you might meet, telling journalists their stories: driven off farms, denied jobs, poor protection from getting mugged. Hearing it does not extol any virtue at all in the case of the rebel regime of ‘Rhodesia’s’ Ian Smith, in the 1960s, and for sure not apartheid. Many survived the change in their lives in a better way. The bad feeling among many of the world’s enforced ‘losers’ raises just the question of how much the same kind of psychological phenomenon might be replicated across countries and continents – then how it might be dealt with.

More than a contest between saying that the new losers have been getting their come-uppance, or invoking the precept that “two wrongs don’t make a right”, according to one’s prejudices or point of view; there is the question of what can be learned. If not declaring a zero sum game every time, winner-take-all, can the case of these losing parties be handled in a way to cause their cooperation instead of provoking generational resentments? It has been tried with some success: the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa itself, or the Marshall Plan in Western Europe. Such discussion might now go on to consider the making of wisdom, knowledge extending to affect the condition of all, which might invoke Plato, but not by only-me; this short piece is long enough already.


L Duffield 19.3.22

(1) “The Aborted Tienanmen Solution for Leipzig”, in Duffield L (2002: 181-84, 120-21), Graffiti on the Wall: Reading history through news media … , thesis for degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Townsville, James Cook University., (19.3.22).

(2) “Prisoners of War”, in Sholokhov M (1967), One Man’s Destiny. London, Abacus.

Other articles and discussion on Ukraine :,16091, (19.3.22);,16131, (19.3.22).