It’s natural for historians to look for historical parallels, but also – if they’re good historians – to warn people that these should not be taken too seriously. Recent world politics is littered with examples of far too much weight being put on such parallels, often with disastrous results. British ‘appeasement’ of Germany in the 1930s is of course the main example; with its being called into service repeatedly to warn against – for example – ‘giving in’ to Nasser in Egypt in 1956, to Saddam Hussein in Iraq in the early 2000s, and (in Britain) to the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984. I’ve already drawn one such parallel here, and the most generally misused one at that, the Hitler one (https://bernardjporter.com/2023/01/17/putin-hitler/); but without I hope implying that any particular ‘lessons’ should be drawn from it. There’s enough in the historical pasts of both Russia and Ukraine to help explain what is going on there today, without resorting to superficial ‘parallels’.
So what follows is just for interest, or perhaps for idle speculation. Walking the dog this morning, I was wondering whether there are any precedents in the recent history of the two countries I’m presently a citizen of, for either of them going to war with a neighbour on the grounds that the latter is or was in fact an integral part of the invading country; as Ukraine is conceived to be of Russia, in Putin’s (quite plausible) view. Both Britain and Sweden used to be attached to nearby countries, in ways that could be seen as comparable with Russia’s attachment to Ukraine. In Britain’s case the ties are with Scotland – which still remains, for the time being – and with Ireland (or most of it), which was broken in 1921. In Sweden’s case her ‘Ukraines’ would be Norway (independent 1905), and Finland (independent, but ceded to Russia, 1806). Both involved substantial breakaways from ‘Great Britain’ on the one side, and from the ‘Union of Sweden and Norway’ (or Förenade konungarikena Sverige och Norge) on the other. Swedish and British nationalists of course objected at the time; but I don’t think they ever went to full-scale war to try to reclaim them. (Ireland is a possible – even likely – exception.)
Of course Britain did go to war (or ‘special military operations’) in order to secure some of her overseas colonies after they had rebelled. But these were never considered to be integral parts of the dominant nation – not even Rhodesia – except by a few extreme imperialists in the early 1900s. France in North Africa is probably a better example. There may be others in more distant parts of the world. China and Tibet? And Taiwan soon? So far as Eurasia is concerned, however, Russia seems to stand alone.
It’s all part of the ‘MAGA’ complex, of course: ‘Make America Great Again’; or in this case, ‘MRGA’, ‘Make Russia Great Again’. There are hints of it even in present-day Britain, in Boris’s and other Ukippers’ dreams that the UK might retrieve some of the ‘glory’ of its imperial past: ‘MUKGA’, if you will. Britain has much in common with Russia, including a recent history of humiliating decline, a feeling of national paranoia in the face of Brussels tyranny and ‘invading’ refugees, and the undermining of her moral standards by libertarianism and fashionable ‘wokery’. At present this appears to be a mainly far-Right phenomenon in Britain (and Sweden); although it may be working its way into the centre ground of politics. So far, however, there’s no sign of its developing into an urge to re-conquer Ireland (or Finland), on the grounds that the Irish and the British (or the Finns and the Swedes) are one. Or of national ‘greatness’ being measured again by the extent of territory a country ‘owns’. That’s a Russian, and – one would think – a very old-fashioned thing. So there’s very little to ‘learn’ from here; as is the case with most of these parallels.
PS. Sorry. Forgot the Falklands War. How marginal it seems after all these years!
I’m not sure Russia has a MRGA complex. It certainly, and rightly after the Yeltsin years, has a “don’t want to be a US vassal” complex but, despite the West’s cries of Russian empire building I don’t think Russia wants to regain Eastern Europe.
I rather wish Britain wasn’t a US vassal, doing what it is told by the neocons including actively participating in an illegal war of aggression against Iraq, despite the biggest popular demonstration against it in British history (and those were just the ones who turned up!).
One wonders how Blair became so rich (but not much wondering needed…) or how Johnson can now, and so quickly, afford a reported £4M house…clearly nothing to do with his trips to Ukraine…
Prime Ministers did not, historically, end up rich. The Tory ones usually were already but others not so much. But back then the post was occupied by people who wanted to change things for the better, not use it to get rich.
Churchill did not end up rich, nor Attlee, Eden, Macmillan already was, Home already was, Wilson certainly didn’t, nor Callaghan nor even Thatcher. Major did (but very quietly…) and since then apparently the sky is the limit.
But, of course, once upon a time the Chief Executives of British companies didn’t get colossal multiples of their workers wages for doing…what?
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