by Wayne White
Most historic parallels are far from perfect. Yet regarding what transpired in Ukraine leading up to the current crisis, an episode from World War II does seem instructive about the risks associated with shifting from accommodation to defiance in dangerous neighborhoods. It is not, however, the tiresome Munich analogy already being trotted out by some observers.
During 1939-1941, Yugoslavian Regent Prince Paul did whatever he could to avoid a Yugoslavian confrontation with its increasingly dominant Axis neighbors. But when he thought he had cut a deal buying lots of valuable time for Yugoslavia, he was overthrown by the Yugoslav Army supported by Serbian nationalist and other anti-Axis elements. The result was the swift Axis invasion of Yugoslavia — just the beginning of a ghastly wartime ordeal for that nation.
Ironically, Prince Paul’s sympathies were with the Allies, having close ties to England, but he was realistic. By 1940 Germany, Italy and Axis Hungary adjoined nearly every Yugoslav border. Yugoslavia also harbored German, Italian and Hungarian minorities left over from the carving up of Europe after World War I. Paul feared that with its domestic Serbo-Croatian rivalry (that would later tear the country apart under Axis occupation and again in the 1990s), Yugoslavia might not be able to fight a war against the Axis as a united country. Worse still, there was no possibility of meaningful near-term help from a beleaguered Great Britain or any other outside powers (despite repeated appeals by Paul to England, France — before its defeat — and the United States).
So, under intense pressure from the Axis for greater accommodation and in order to insure Yugoslavia’s survival, Prince Paul signed the Axis Pact on March 27, 1941. He did, however, insist on important reservations. Yugoslavia’s sovereignty was to be observed fully, the Yugoslav military would take no part in the war, and no Axis troops could transit or be based in Yugoslavia. As a result, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Paul thought he had spared his country from catastrophe until the time came when Yugoslavia might be in a position to take a stand.
A furious Winston Churchill, however, encouraged a coup against Paul by anti-Axis elements in the army and among the country’s politicians, replacing him with the youthful King Peter II. Upon hearing of the successful overthrow of Paul, Churchill announced: “Yugoslavia had finally found its soul.”
Catastrophic consequences were not long in coming. An angry Adolf Hitler, perceiving Yugoslavia now as potentially hostile and possibly aligned with England, ordered that it be occupied. A German blitzkrieg was unleashed on April 6, with military assistance from both Italy and Hungary. The hopelessly outclassed Yugoslavian Army surrendered unconditionally less than two weeks later, on April 17.
Yugoslavia was subsequently carved up among the Axis victors, along the creation of a new pro-Axis Croatian state. Between the excesses of Croatia, a civil war between Communist and anti-Communist partisans (won by Josip Broz Tito), Tito’s campaign against Axis occupying forces, and the extension of the Holocaust into Yugoslavia, the country suffered terribly. For example, of its roughly 80,000 Jews (several thousand of whom came to Yugoslavia from countries occupied earlier) nearly 80% perished.
For quite some time history treated Prince Paul, who fled abroad, as a traitorous scoundrel who sold out his country. The British kept him under house arrest in Kenya until 1945. Tito’s Post-war Yugoslavia declared him an enemy of the state. Only much later did Churchill acknowledge that his treatment of Paul had been unfair and overly harsh. It also took decades after Paul’s death in 1976 before was he rehabilitated by Serbia.
This historical backgrounder is not intended to brand, by extension, the deeply flawed Victor Yanukovych as a Prince Paul or Russia’s Vladimir Putin as an Adolf Hitler. Nor is it meant to cast Western leaders today in the mold of the Winston Churchill whose dangerous 1941 gambles in Yugoslavia (and Greece) turned both into Axis-occupied countries in short order.
But all this does show that under certain circumstances, as with the Ukrainian opposition of today, substituting hope and defiance for reality based caution can prove very dangerous. Putin’s aggressive reaction to Yanukovych’s overthrow was unjustified. Nonetheless, there was reason to fear, drawing upon historic scenarios like that of 1941 Yugoslavia, that the anti-Russian tone of the Ukrainian opposition (and the Westward-leaning first statements by the new leadership in Kiev), would likely bring some sort of grief to the Ukraine. And amidst the ongoing crisis, considerable caution is warranted regarding Moscow on the part of the new leadership in Kiev — as well as the West — if Ukraine is to extract itself from its face-off with Russia with a minimum of adverse consequences.