Modern-Historical Comparison: The Media Then and Now

Allison Slovak and Sophie Picone

In the late 1930s, the Warren Hills newspaper featured numerous articles pertaining to the conflicts that would lead to World War II. Although not all the articles were authored by students, but rather sourced from an outside newspaper, they accurately show the events prior to WWII, and the public’s sentiments in regard to the early stages of conflict. The concerns expressed by these old newspapers bear similarities to those about the War in Ukraine today.
The first similarity observed was between Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland and Russia’s of Crimea, both events that contributed to WWII and the War in Ukraine, respectively.
One article in a March 4, 1938 Blue Streak reads: “Premier Chautemps and other high French officials saw, in Hitler’s words concerning German minorities in other lands a definite threat against Czechoslovakia… There are about 30,000 Germans in that country.”
The Sudetenland was a small section of Czechoslovakia, and the home of many ethnic Germans, as well as natural resources. The projected threats conveyed in the newspaper were certainly based in fact; Hitler had already been aggressive toward Czechoslovakia since 1936 and Nazis in the Sudetenland advocated joining Germany.
The fears of the French and United Kingdom then bear likeness to those of the world now, right before and during an event from eight years ago: the annexation of Crimea—a peninsula formerly a part of Ukraine and made up mostly of ethnic Russians.
As a February 2014 New York Times article “Deeply Bound to Ukraine, Putin Watches and Waits for Next Move” by Steven Lee Myers states, “fears that Russia would use the disenchanted populations there [Crimea] as a pretext to intervene to reverse Ukraine’s new trajectory—even militarily” arose during a period of political unrest in Ukraine, directly prior to the annexation of Crimea. In March 2014, Crimea declared its independence and just days later, Russia annexed the peninsula.
The media in both these cases of annexation showed such similar fears before the events that ended up coming true and turning into something worse in both cases as well: WW2 and the current War in Ukraine.
The responses by governments to the two annexations, however, were different. For the Sudetenland, in an agreement of appeasement, France and the UK attended a conference in Munich in September 1938 with Germany and Italy, during which they handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler without a single Czech representative present, but for Crimea, the United Nations did not recognize its independence nor its annexation, and to this day consider Crimea a part of Ukraine.
Both the annexation of the Sudetenland and Crimea led to the invasions of the larger countries they both lay within, proving the almost identical fears raised at those times undoubtedly true, and eerily relevant during the conflict now.
The second similarity between the media then and the media now is found in modern and historical coverage of speeches and the language of leaders in charge of invasions before and during WWII and the War in Ukraine.
A speech by Hitler leading up to the start of WWII is described in one 1938 Blue Streak as “sensational” and showed Hitler’s “intention to make Germany one of the most powerful nations in the world… [and] did not fear war though it desired peace.” The tone of the description displays the public’s interest—not positive, and undoubtedly based in disquietude—piqued by Hitler’s words.
The part of his Reichstag address referenced in the article in fact states, “The German people is no warlike nation. It is a soldierly one which means it does not want a war, but does not fear it. It loves peace, but it also loves its honor and freedom.”
A speech by Putin on Feb. 21 contained similar themes: “Let me say right away – we do not accept this behavior and will never accept it. That said, Russia has always advocated the resolution of the most complicated problems by political and diplomatic means, at the negotiating table,” as reported on the website “President of Russia.”
The “behavior” referenced is the attempted expansion of NATO eastward. Again, the New York Times reacted to this speech, pointing out in the article “Putin’s Case for War, Annotated” by Max Fisher: “Putin’s explicit case for war to seize parts of eastern Ukraine and his implied case for possible war against all of Ukraine.”
The coverage of Putin’s speech has the same effect as that of Hitler’s speech decades prior: stirring readers by zeroing in on the bold claims of peace-making, yet obvious desires for war.
The final similarity is in the coverage of relations with Western powers.
The March 4, 1938 Blue Streak stated that “Hitler’s speech might be summarized as a declaration that Germany will ignore Great Britain, France and other western powers in carrying out her international policies,” interpreting that Germany was shunning the West in its actions and desires.
Fisher interprets a statement of Putin’s to show how in Putin’s speeches, he has made it clear that his War in Ukraine is actually a war against the West and NATO.
The statement in question is “No matter who tries to stand in our way…. Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history,” and the threatening tone described by the New York Times is no doubt present and ominous.
Fisher points out Putin’s perceived meaning: “This statement is widely seen as a threat of nuclear strikes against any Western country that might militarily intervene against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
The choice to focus on the conflicts of Western powers vs Germany or Russia is an intriguing one. In doing so, the media is able to show readers the extent of conflicts between powers, and the frightening results of such divisions between the “West” and in the past, Germany, and now, Russia.