Yes, Putin Is Like Hitler—but So Was James K. Polk

I broke my own rule this week and compared somebody to Hitler. It was only a little argumentum ad nazium. I suggested that Russian’s recent move to seize the largely Russian-speaking Crimean region of Ukraine had a lot of historical parallels to Hitler’s 1938 invasion of to annex the largely German-speaking Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia.

Apparently, Hillary Clinton has been thinking the same thing, and has taken the predictable fire that such comparison’s inevitably bring. There was only one Hitler, and to compare anybody else to him disrespects the memory of the millions of victims of the Holocaust. Godwin, Godwin, we have another one. I have said this myself so many times that I can barely bring myself to unsay it now.

But I will. This does not mean that Putin is like Hitler in other ways, that he will start having ethnic Ukrainians shot or that he will set up concentration camps. It does not mean that Putin is as bad as Hitler or that his next step will be to invade France and start lobbing bombs at St. Paul’s Cathedral. It just means that the two situations have a lot of historical parallels and that some of them are reasonably instructive.

And it especially does not mean that Hitler and Putin are in a class by themselves and that all other leaders throughout the world’s history are in another category entirely. In fact, in the specific area of using superior force to acquire territory where one has both nationalistic and strategic interests, Putin, like Hitler before him, is being almost embarrassingly predictable. Very few nations in the world today did not, at one time or another, add to their boundaries in a similar way.

Not even the United States. Especially not even the United States. And the more I think about it, the more I think that James K. Polk’s invasion of Mexico is an even closer historical analog to the current situation than anything Hitler did. Polk, of course, sent the troops into Mexico in 1846—ostensibly to protect Americans in the newly created Republic of Texas, but also to fulfill America’s “Manifest Destiny” to spread from sea to shining sea.

Along with securing those borders, of course, Polk also managed to acquire the rest of Texas—along with Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California, and portions of Colorado and New Mexico. There is no way to frame this as anything other than a naked land grab by a stronger power against a weaker one. The same is true in Ukraine. And it has been true in tens of thousands of other places as well.

So much of what the Nazi’s did was uniquely evil, but the seizure of the Sudetenland was not. It was non-uniquely evil in that it played by the same rules that have always governed the affairs of nations. This means that if we study it carefully, without succumbing to the “how-dare-you-compare-anything-at-all-to-Hitler-you-Trogladyte” rhetoric that surfaces from time to time, we might learn some useful things about human nature and political motivations–things that might actually help us address the current crisis.

Russia’s seizure of the Crimea, while inconsistent with the aspirational norms of the 21st century, is completely consistent with the way that nations and empires have acted since the invention of nations and empires. It is how most of the nations of the world, including ours, came to be. And, though America’s recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been wars of territorial expansion, they do not exactly give one confidence that the world’s most powerful nation has abandoned the “might makes right” theory of international relations.

I am not trying to excuse Russia’s actions here or to badmouth America first. And I am certainly not suggesting that Hitler was anything other than purely evil. What I am suggesting is that the international response to Russia’s aggression has been predicated largely on selective memory and manufactured disbelief. If we want to say that the world has changed—that there is a new sheriff in town and his name is the International Community—we are going to have to start acting all of the time like we believe it.