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Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898)

Does Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea mark the outbreak of a new Cold War? Or are we witnessing the return to an earlier epoch: the period before 1939, perhaps, or even the pre-1914 era? 

The earliest example of Putin's strategy in modern European history was the resolution of the once-notorious Schleswig-Holstein Question by Bismarck in 1864. Its complexities exasperated the then British prime minister, Lord Palmerston, who is said to have remarked: "Only three people . . . have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business — the Prince Consort, who is dead — a German professor, who has gone mad — and I, who have forgotten all about it." Bismarck deliberately complicated what should have been a clear-cut dynastic dispute, in which his own Prussian monarch had no claim at all, by provoking the ethnic Germans in these two Danish duchies to agitate for secession. The Iron Chancellor gloated in a private letter that "it seems to suit our purpose . . . to let loose against the Danes all the dogs that want to howl (forgive this hunting metaphor); the whole howling pack together has the effect of making it impossible for the foreigners to place the Duchies again under Denmark." Palmerston had encouraged the Danes to rely on Britain, but when the Prussians and Austrians invaded, "Pam" and his foreign secretary Lord John Russell disagreed, so the Royal Navy did not intervene. The French concluded that the British "could not be relied upon when war was in the distance". Spurred on by his successful annexation of Schleswig-Holstein, Bismarck fought wars against Austria and France, culminating in the proclamation of the German Reich at Versailles in 1871.

Hitler obviously learnt from Bismarck, and in the present Ukrainian crisis many have drawn comparisons with his use of the Sudeten Germans to destabilise Czechoslovakia in 1938. What should not be forgotten is that it was The Times, in a fatally influential leader written by its editor Geoffrey Dawson, that first mooted the idea that the Sudetenland, the borderlands of Bohemia where ethnic Germans were in a majority, might be detached from Czechoslovakia in order to "appease" Hitler. It was the British, in the incongruous form of Neville Chamberlain, who encouraged the world to think that with the worthless Munich Agreement he had not only secured Czechoslovakian sovereignty, but "peace in our time". This impression of the British as unreliable allies was reinforced when the Poles, too, found themselves abandoned, first in 1939 and then in 1945 at Yalta. The Jews, the most vulnerable people in Europe, who had found a protector in Britain with the Balfour Declaration in 1917, were later cold-shouldered, with refugees turned away from Palestine and Britain. Only with Nato's creation in 1948 did the British forge an alliance that has endured.

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March 26th, 2014
9:03 PM April 1949 not 48. Probably a typo.

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