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12 April, 2011  ▪  Oleksandr Pahiria

Ukraine: "The Largest European Problem"

Thinking that Hitler was going to set up a puppet Ukrainian state in Transcarpathia and Galicia, the West did not support the formation of a new state - Carpathian Ruthenia

In signing the Munich Pact which gave the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany on September 29–30, 1938, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy exposed their appeasement policy vis-à-vis aggressor countries in Europe. The UK and France effectively agreed to view Central Europe as Hitler’s “internal domain” and his expansion to the east as a “natural process.” After a long break, following the Munich conference, the Ukrainian question was again on the international agenda. The reason was the proclamation of an autonomous Ukrainian region in Transcarpathia.

German plans

On October 11, 1938, after 20 years of waiting, Carpathian Ruthenia was granted autonomy as part of Czechoslovakia. The autonomy was proclaimed as Western diplomacy was at a loss over Hitler’s immediate plans and was considering ways to protect Western European countries from possible Nazi aggression. The prevailing opinion was that Germany would rush to conquer Ukraine, and thus the autonomy was perceived in Western capitals as a German idea and the first step on the way to seizing Soviet Ukraine. Sensing the strong threat that emanated from Russia, Western governments viewed Hitler’s “Ukrainian card” as a way to turn German expansion to the east.

Despite Germany’s non-committal attitude to the autonomous Carpathian Ruthenia, Western diplomats erroneously believed that its propaganda was geared completely toward Ukrainian nationalism. For example, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was convinced that before attacking Soviet Ukraine, Hitler would split off Western Ukraine from Poland to unite with Carpathian Ruthenia in an effort to set up a satellite Ukrainian state. French ambassador to Germany Robert Coulondre was of the same opinion, thinking that Germany wanted to secure the leading role in Eastern Europe for itself, conquer Czechoslovakia and Hungary, and then create a “Great Ukraine” under its control. Despite the fact that Western diplomats shaped and promoted these misconceived ideas about German plans for “Great Ukraine” in their own interests, the Ukrainian question was again high on the international agenda in 1938–39 as a pan-European issue and was actively covered in the world press.

Anglo-American perspectives

During this period the Ukrainian question featured prominently in the British press, for example, in The News Chronicle, The Times, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph, and The Manchester Guardian. In this time, the British media mentioned Carpathian Ruthenia nearly 500 times. The New York Times, the French Maten, and other periodicals closely followed events in the autonomous region.  The Ukrainian question was reviewed and debated by ministers, diplomatic representatives, and the public.

As Carpathian Ruthenia became increasingly settled after Hungary called off its plans to invade the region in November 1938, the Ukrainian question became more European and independent in nature in the political context without any German involvement. On November 25, 1938, German ambassador to Czechoslovakia Andor Henke reported to Berlin that British diplomats were taking an interest in Carpathian Ruthenia and the Ukrainian question. In addition to journalists, British politicians and specialists in Eastern European affairs came to Czechoslovakia to take a closer look. In late November 1938, the British government began to seriously study the Ukrainian problem which attracted special interest from British Labor politician William Wedgwood Benn. Journalist Michael Winch described his experience of Carpathian Ruthenia in a book.

In December 1938, the British viewed Carpathian Ruthenia as a one-off phenomenon and were fairly cautious in their Eastern European policy. Although the UK had its own concept regarding the Ukrainian question, it did not include Carpathian Ruthenia or Poland. London’s position rested on the belief that Germany would sooner or later start putting “Great Ukraine” together. In this case, Britain would have to accept the Third Reich’s expansionist policy in the region.

The British government viewed this alleged policy and Germany’s eastward expansion in the light of its plans to protect British colonies and mandated territories from the Nazi threat. Furthermore, it hoped that by cutting off Naddniprianska Ukraine with its industrial and agricultural resources, the Nazis would weaken the Soviet Union. In these circumstances, London was even willing to accept the fact that Poland would face political and military problems.

On February 1, 1939, British journalist Lancelot Lawton, member of the Anglo-Ukrainian Committee and the chief spokesperson on the Ukrainian question, delivered an address entitled “Ukraine: the largest European problem” in London. Analyzing the most immediate potential desires of Nazi Germany, Lawton said that the main target of its next expansion would be Ukraine with its unique resources and geographical location. He called on official London to support Ukraine and Ukrainians in their pursuit of freedom and voiced his conviction that these steps would open the way to solving many European problems. However, the recommendations and preliminary results on the Ukrainian question obtained by the Anglo-Ukrainian Committee, which included British MPs, politicians, military men, historians, and journalists, were ignored by the Neville Chamberlain government, which essentially agreed to recognize Eastern Europe as Germany’s special interest zone.

In what can be viewed as proof of the European scale of the Ukrainian question, the UK Department of Overseas Trade drafted a project for an independent Ukraine in early February 1939. The British conjectured that Ukraine’s separation from the USSR could plunge the Soviet economy into a final collapse and trigger the breakup of the USSR.

Observant American diplomats noticed that against the backdrop of the unprecedented publicity given to the Ukrainian question and the autonomous Carpathian Ruthenia by the Western European press, the German mass media were conspicuously non-committal or completely silent on the topic. In his report to US President Franklin Roosevelt, American ambassador to Poland A. J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. wrote on December 15, 1938, that German propagandists forced foreign correspondents to serve their interests by focusing the attention of the world community on the issue of “Great Ukraine.” The American diplomat came to the conclusion that the press campaign was inspired by Berlin itself and was a tactical maneuver to disguise the true targets of German policy on Eastern Europe. He claimed Germany would not start a war against Poland, Romania and the Soviet Union over the Ukrainian question.

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