The last few weeks have been trying times for us all. It seems we are lurching from one crisis to another. With regards to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we hear a lot about it being reminiscent of 1938. But what exactly does that mean? Does history really repeat itself? Well, you be the judge.
In the summer of 1938, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler went after the Sudetenland, the northern part of Czechoslovakia, with the goal of adding the territory to Germany. He felt that because the majority of its population were ‘ethnically’ German, it was Germany’s right to bring these people home. European powers were reluctant to enter a war (many still were recovering from the First World War).
That sentiment emboldened Hitler who was confident the Allies would accede to his demands. The Germans made their move and threatened war over the issue. In an attempt to find a diplomatic solution, the British, Italian, French and German leaders met in Munich in September 1938. The outcome saw the Allies agree to concede the Sudetenland to Germany, evading another war. This agreement became known as the Munich Pact and war was postponed for what would turn out to be a year.
Before I go any further, I am not suggesting that we are in the same predicament as the world was in 1938, however, it is always good to look at past events to better understand some of the things we are hearing about today. So, from the appeasement of 1938, we move to this in September 1939.
“For months we have been suffering under the torture of a problem which the Versailles Diktat created – a problem which has deteriorated until it becomes intolerable for us. Danzig was and is a German city. The corridor was and is German. Danzig was separated from us, the Corridor was annexed by Poland. Proposals for mediation have failed with the sudden Polish general mobilization, followed by more Polish atrocities. This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our territory. Since 5:45 am we have been returning fire, and from now on bombs will be met by bombs.” – Adolph Hitler to the Reichstag, Sept. 1st, 1939.
And with those words, Germany declared war on Poland, leading Europe into yet another massive war. In his speech noted above, Hitler takes exception with the limitations placed on Germany in the Versailles Treaty, signed at the end of the First World War. He sincerely believed that Germany should be able to annex countries and acquire land where German speaking people lived. He used this reasoning in 1938 when he took over Austria – and as we have seen, parts and then all of Czechoslovakia by March 1939.
Thinking that Europe would not block any move he made, Hitler moved quickly on Poland. He staged an attack at the border and used it as an excuse to launch the Blitzkrieg. At 4:45 a.m. on Sept. 1st, 1.5 million German soldiers, 2,000 tanks and 1,900 planes faced fewer than a million Polish troops with less than 500 aircraft and a small number of armored vehicles. The Polish air force was destroyed on the ground.
The attack on Poland did not go unanswered. Great Britain and France sent Germany an ultimatum – get out of Poland immediately or war would be declared against Germany. Hitler did not move, and diplomatic efforts were not working.
On Sept. 3rd, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain spoke to the people of Great Britain: “This morning, the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note, stating that unless we heard from them by 11 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received and that consequently, this country is at war with Germany.”
The French were not far behind. France’s Ambassador to Germany delivered the following note to the German Foreign Minister: “I have the painful duty to notify you that as of today, Sept. 3rd, at 5 p.m., the French Government will find itself obliged to fulfil the obligations that France has contracted towards Poland, and which are known to the German Government.”
Unlike its position in the First World War, Canada had gained the authority to declare war on her own with the Statute of Westminster. Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King did so in a speech from Ottawa on Sept. 10th, 1939.
However, it should be noted that the people of the Porcupine did not wait for McKenzie King’s declaration; according to an article in the Porcupine Advance newspaper, by Sept. 7th, plans for a home guard were well underway and ex-servicemen were pledging their loyalty to the Crown and to Canada at the local Legion halls.
Are we there yet today? I am hoping we are not. The stakes are a lot higher now than they were then; and as in all war, the outcomes are always the same.
Karen Bachmann is the director/curator of the Timmins Museum and a writer of local history.