03/04/2014 10:31 am ET Updated May 04, 2014

The Current Crisis: It Takes Me Back to the Sudetenland, 1938

I was a kid of ten in 1938. I can remember traveling with my Father to Boston, and seeing posters in the subway, announcing Adolph Hitler's threatening moves against Czechoslovakia. I can also remember listening to Hitler's speeches on the Crossley radio in our living room; the near hysterical voice -- of which we could understand nothing -- was nevertheless frightening, because it was part of the atmosphere of a coming war.

Putin's Hitler-like Optic

What was Hitler's claim? It stemmed from the Versailles Treaty having kept some three million Germans inside the borders of the newly-created state of Czechoslovakia, one of several carved out of the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. The region was known as the Sudetenland, and its leader, Konrad Henlein, stridently supported Hitler's claim to the area, maintaining that the population was being persecuted.

There was a certain ambiguity to the situation. These people were Germans, not Czechs. And Hitler asserted that this was his last irridentist claim. Given this ambiguity, it made it easier for some to appease Hitler rather than confront him.

Does this sound familiar today? Since when does the presence of one's own compatriots in a foreign country give one the justification to invade that country? Certainly not since 1945 and the creation of the United Nations.

There are also ambiguities in the current crisis. The Crimea was in the possession of Russia from the 18th Century until 1954, when Nikita Khrushchev ceded it as a "gift" to Ukraine. And Russia has authorized military bases there.

Nevertheless, Putin has set a dangerous precedent, with his claim to protect the rights of Russians in other countries. Will eastern Ukraine, with its heavy population of Russian speakers, be next? Or in a further time, will the Baltic states come into the cross-hairs, just as Poland followed Czechoslovakia at the end of the 1930s? (And shortly after World War II began, the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic states.)