1936, the Sequel

Paul Greenberg

3/5/2014 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

What an Oscar-winning production: No sooner had the Olympic torch been doused at Sochi than Russian troops, in uniform and out, began landing in Crimea. The script was as familiar as "Casablanca" as key points are seized, highways blocked, airports occupied, parliament buildings taken over, and the flag of the once and future Occupying Power raised everywhere.

Not since the 1936 Olympics in Berlin has aggression been so glamorously presaged, the mailed fist wrapped in such a velveteen glove. Even the excuse for this barely concealed act of aggression is borrowed from the Nazi Anschluss with Austria: An oppressed people has appealed to the fatherland for protection. And it had responded by sending help to assure their rights. The statements out of the Kremlin these days sound like poor translations from the German. What next -- a plebiscite in Crimea rigged to ratify this takeover? That would be another page out of Herr Hitler's playbook in Austria.

The courses at this poisonous banquet have been served in the customary order: First the Olympian appetizers, then the barely concealed aggression. The whole show lacks only a filmmaker of genius like Leni Riefenstahl to record this "Triumph of the Will" for posterity, or a poet like Ezra Pound to sing a song of surrender.

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The past isn't dead; it's not even past. It keeps being revived, like a show that may have flopped the first time out but is worth another try. Call it "Springtime for Hitler," and it's working well enough. War-weary Americans so long for peace that we've been willing to settle for appeasement by a different name, at least till now. The truth becomes harder and harder to ignore, but there will always be those who try.

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The more things don't change, the less the "leaders" of the Western democracies seem to have learned as they fumble and fume at these late developments, nonplussed as their dream of a post-Cold War world dissolves before their unbelieving eyes. It wasn't supposed to be like this. Didn't they assure us it wouldn't be like this? They must have forgotten to tell the Russians.

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The unforgiving past is back, and those who don't remember it are still condemned to repeat it, again and again, like a recurring nightmare from which we seem to have learned nothing. And so the John Kerrys of the world skitter to and fro, from Geneva to Kiev and back, offering futile words that cannot hope to match forceful deeds.

He has a great gift, our secretary of state, that of compressing the greatest amount of words into the smallest amount of thought. Like appeasement, now showing under the title Reset. And we're all supposed to pretend that what he's saying matters as we go down the same old road, passing old ruins and now new ones in the making as the remake of this costume drama continues. All our current president needs is a wing collar, a black umbrella, and a microphone into which he can proclaim Peace in Our Time, and an Oscar would be assured.

Once again the West marks time as aggressors march on, and one outpost of freedom after another crumbles before the Tide of the Future, which looks suspiciously like the tide of the past. The forces of freedom await a leader -- if not another Churchill, then at least a Reagan, but none is in sight. And so one red line after another is crossed without any real response, or even real shame on the part of those who drew it in disappearing ink.

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The latest national "defense" budget our president proposes shrinks American land forces down to pre-World War II levels, but it isn't supposed to matter. Chuck Hagel, our esteemed secretary of defense, said so. Not since a forgettable like Louis Johnson was in charge of stripping away American defenses preparatory to the Korean War has incompetence been so obvious. And dangerous. Some still don't see any connection between an increasingly disarmed America and an increasingly disorderly world. And the rest of us are supposed to be shocked, shocked to learn that old aggressors are moving into the vacuum left by another Grand American Retreat from the world.

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Let there be no mistaking what is happening. "This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time."

Those words were spoken in the House of Commons in 1938 by a long-ignored parliamentarian whose foresight would not be recognized till he was called on to take the helm years later in what would prove his and Britain's finest hour. But, sad to say, those words are just as relevant now. Others will now rise to echo them, but it will not matter if the spirit behind them is not rekindled.