My great-aunt was Observer correspondent in Prague in 1938. It was said that she wept the whole way home by train after the Munich agreement, as she returned to launch a rather belated Penguin Special called Europe and the Czechs. By then, Britain and France had agreed to Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland.
I keep thinking of her as the depressing and frightening news from the Ukraine pours in, especially now it seems clear that the Russians seem intent on annexing the Crimea.
It is depressing because of the growing parallels between the two events, just 75 years apart.
The point about Munich was that it was a failure. It was intended to end Nazi expansion and it only fed the beast, but that only became apparent six months later when they annexed the whole country. Before that, there was a context of self-determination by the Sudeten Germans which made it seem as if there was a case to answer.
The key question before Chamberlain and Daladier was not whether it was right or wrong to let what seemed to be the majority have its will in the Sudetenland - but: would this be the limit of Nazi territorial ambitions?
That is the great fear about Crimea. There is clearly a slither of a case for self-determination. But would taking over the Crimea satisfy Putin, or would it just encourage him to look hungrily at Estonia, Latvia or Georgia?
That is why NATO is now patrolling the airspace in Poland and Romania. It is why this situation is so dangerous.
It is also why people like Owen Jones, who believe that it would be hypocritical for the West to complain about Russian incursions, are wrong. It is the most dangerous stand-off since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
We all know that European wars begin in Poland. It is possible to imagine how Poland could be the source of another one.
But Owen Jones is right that self-determination is too simple a yardstick. He is also right that we cling to it when it suits us, as it does in the Falklands or the Balkans. Yet we also promote it when it doesn't suit us. Scotland springs to mind. Self-determination is important, but it is more than just winning elections - as any observer of Northern Ireland can see over the past generation.
This is why I remember my great-aunt, Shiela Grant Duff, whose book about the period describes vividly the fake self-determination of the Saar Plebiscite, and the terrible consequences after the vote for those who had opposed unification with Germany.
The question is this: will the Crimea vote be another Saar Plebiscite, with its terrible aftermath? It begins to look like it will.
The Joy of Six 1092
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