Starting from Hitler, or perhaps even before that, all potential invaders have used a strategy very well-suited to the modern world. The novelty of it is perhaps what led Europe to slip into appeasement, a term much ridiculed these days but considered to be the very foundation of a moral foreign policy in the inter-war years. Unfortunately for the peace-loving, and to the great delight of warmongers, though the term has come under great scrutiny, the guiding though vague principle behind it serves as the very foundation of the modern state. It is a principle that has contributed as much to the cradles of nations as it has to their graves. The principle, when put into a verbal construct, transmogrifies into a term familiar with almost everyone- nationalism.
The term, nationalism, is as familiar to people as it’s principle is unfamiliar. Go to a post-colonial African country and ask two different people what they base their nationalism upon. The chances of getting two wholly divergent answers is very high; higher still is the chance of not receiving a proper answer at all. For the nationalism of today is, in fact, based upon a principle that was introduced formally into world affairs after the First World War- self-determination for people based on ethnic and linguistic ties. It is for this reason that the relatively new states in Africa, created not by ethnic or linguistic ties, but by a couple of diplomats in a room in Berlin, have such tumultuous political situations with military dictatorships being the norm. Without this principle to cement their nation, they have a very high potential to simply crumble.
But while the absence of this principle can cause intra-state tensions, the presence of it has caused innumerable inter-state tensions, culminating in the deadliest war mankind has witnessed till date. Following World War One, the victors, happily adopting Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination, used it to breakup Germany and Austria-Hungary into several smaller states. What they ignored at the time, and what German’s were made acutely aware of by Hitler’s fulminations against Versailles, was that the states carved out from German territory had a significant quantity of Germans. Once in power, Hitler used the same principle the victors had buoyed up to gobble up one state after the other, always on the pretext that he was uniting Germans under a single state. One after the other, Czechoslovakia, Austria and Poland came under the dark shroud of Nazi tyranny. It was, in fact, the attempt to take Danzig, a mainly German-inhabited area, from Poland that precipitated the Second World War.
What’s frightening is that evidence points to a possibility of war having been averted if Hitler had waited for a while longer before he made the Danzig demand, taking some time before that to digest his Czechoslav acquisitions. To the people of the world then, Hitler wasn’t seen as a menace. In fact, he was seen as a rightful leader in the same countries that stood up against him due to his attempts to unite the German people. Sadly, such scenarios are even more likely in our world today. With Russia now a resurgent power and jingoistic nationalism on the rise, the dangers of such nationalism must be recognized. Putin has already used this strategy to conquer part of Ukraine, on the pretexts that Russians there were having their rights violated, and has used this principle to stoke up tensions in Eastern Ukraine. What’s to say that other countries with sizable populations in weaker neighbouring countries won’t resort to similar techniques? With the ease of transportation today, it’s even conceivable that a country may even try to create such an opportunity than simply making use of it; in other words a country create policies which deliberately create sizable populations of its ethnic majority in other countries. Then it could cook up an excuse, similar to the one used by Hitler before he invaded Czechoslovakia, that the rights of it’s people are being violated. It could stoke up some fervour among these populations thereafter, and the protests would soon be followed by tanks.
Such is the vulnerability of weaker states though. The only balancing factor appears to be the hegemonic power of the US. But with that now on a relative decline, the world might be heading blindly towards a replication of the catastrophe it witnessed a century ago.