Any reasonable, empathetic person can find any number of reasons to find troubling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The suffering, dislocation, and grief that any war inflicts on anyone in its path. The odiousness of Vladimir Putin, who had the gall to say that one goal of his “special military operation” was the “denazification” of Ukraine: a country — like Russia — with a difficult history of anti-Semitism, but one that has more recently democratically elected a Jewish president who has family members who perished in the Holocaust. The stomach-turning sound of a former American president praising Putin and his aggression, even as the current American president and other world leaders struggle to choose their response from among a limited set of options.
Then there’s the specially complicated frustration I feel as a European historian who teaches courses on World War II and the Cold War: both because watching these events unfold is so familiar (echoes of Poland in 1939, but also Finland and the Baltic Republics in 1939-1940, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968), and because I’m not certain that historical analogies offer perfect advice moving forward.
But one way or another, it’s hard to sit here on this side of 1945 and 1991 and watch the world struggle to respond to a scenario that we were supposed to have outgrown: a powerful, illiberal state invading its democratic (or, at least, democratizing), sovereign neighbor, while other great powers either condone that action with their self-interested silence or find it hard to effectively employ the multilateral tools of collective security created to deter and address this very problem.
I’ll pray for peace and justice to somehow prevail, but right now, I’m also second-guessing some of my modern assuredness that history, however imperfectly, is moving in those directions. Since last night, I’ve been thinking not just about the 20th and 21st centuries AD, but the 5th century BC…
In his history of the Peloponnesian War (431-405 BC), the Athenian general-turned-historian Thucydides tries dispassionately to explain why and how his city-state and its allies waged war against Sparta and its allies. Remarkably, he doesn’t tilt the scales in Athens’ favor. Thucycides lets Pericles praise the Athenian democracy as “an education for Hellas” (2.41), a special polity whose (male, non-enslaved, native-born) citizens valued freedom, equality, and lawful order all at once. But history’s first great historian famously undercuts his nation’s pretensions to progressive, principled exceptionalism by inserting stories of Athenian self-aggrandizement, none more brutal than its conquest of Melos.
An island state in the Aegean Sea that had originally been colonized by Sparta, tiny Melos understandably sought to sit out a war pitting Greek against Greek. Not satisfied with neutrality, an Athenian diplomatic mission sought to compel military or material support from Melos, whose leaders see the situation clearly from the very start of Thucydides’ most famous dialogue:
We see that you have come as the judges of all that is said, also that this will presumably have the outcome of war if we make the better case and accordingly do not give in, or of servitude if we are won over. (5.86)
To their credit, I suppose, the ambassadors from Athens cut right to the chase. Notably unlike Pericles, they decline to “use noble phrases to furnish a lengthy and unconvincing speech” establishing “the right to rule.” For they know “that in human considerations justice is what is decided when equal forces are opposed, while possibilities are what superiors impose and the weak acquiesce to” (5.89).
Out of what the Athenians later mock as “touching naivety,” the Melians press on, warning that the application of “might makes right” risks “destroying a universal benefit… that at all times there be fairness and justice for those in danger” (5.90). And even if your own faith doesn’t accord with these ancient polytheists’ hope for “our share of fortune from the gods,” it’s hard not to sympathize with people who can reasonably describe themselves as “righteous men who stand in opposition to unjust ones” (5.104).
To no avail. The Athenians are unmoved by appeals either to divine justice or human righteousness:
…nothing in what we assert or in what we are going to do is a departure from men’s concept of god and attitude toward themselves. According to our understanding, divinity, it would seem, and mankind, as has always been obvious, are under an innate compulsion to rule wherever employed. Without being either the ones who made this law or the first to apply it after it was laid down, we applied it as one in existence when we took it up and one that we will leave behind to endure for all time, since we know that you and anyone else who attained power like ours would act accordingly. (5.105)
So here we stand, almost 2500 years after Athenian forces slaughtered the men of Melos, added Melos’ women and children to their existing pool of enslaved workers, and colonized the island for themselves, and the Athenian ambassadors’ understanding of power and justice continues to endure. It’s as clear in Russian as the original Greek.
So I can’t tell you the way forward; I’m not here to recommend one policy over another. But as you watch what’s transpiring in Ukraine, I can suggest that you ask yourself: shall the weak continue to suffer what they must at the hands of their powerful neighbors, or can others wield their power in defense of universal principles of fairness and justice?