Ebb | March 15, 2022
The past week has seen a flurry of public figures drawing direct parallels between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the former dictator of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler. In some cases, Hitler has even been compared favourably to Putin – said to be less corrupt and less brutal as he had never killed ‘his own people’ and ‘did not use Chemical weapons’. As offensive and ahistorical as these comparisons are, to be fully understood they must be placed within the broader historical pattern of the US and its allies time and again cynically portraying leaders of their officially designated enemy states as some form of re-incarnation of Hitler in order to generate the emotional public reaction needed to justify their belligerent policies and add a superficial moral veneer to them.
Even a cursory look at the historical record of recent decades shows clearly that this comparison has been made so consistently and in such a way that it is effectively tantamount to a form of Holocaust denial and even an insidious rehabilitation of Nazism. In repeatedly making these comparisons to serve the needs of an imperialist and expansionist foreign policy agenda, and in exaggerating (and in many cases fabricating) the crimes of US enemies, the crimes of the Nazis have been systematically downplayed, distorted and, at times, outright denied. This trend has reached a crescendo in recent weeks as mainstream commentators and politicians whitewash overtly neo-Nazi paramilitary groups in Ukraine and, at the same time, declare Putin to be the new Hitler – or worse.
It is a trope that has surprisingly long roots and goes at least as far back as only a decade after the end of the Second World War. When the Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, purchased arms from Communist Czechoslovakia in 1955, much to chagrin of the US, The New York Times – an always reliable mouthpiece of the US establishment – began to refer to him as ‘Hitler on the Nile’. This label became even more widespread after the anti-imperialist Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956, and a host of British and French politicians, including the British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, repeatedly compared him to Hitler in order to pre-emptively justify their and Israel’s disastrous joint invasion of Egypt that took place later that year. Without offering any evidence, the Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, even went so far as to declare that vehicles of Egyptian military officers were decorated with the swastika – a claim that was then reported uncritically by the press in both Israel and the US. The Cuban President Fidel Castro was also compared to Hitler by the US in the 1980s when as a part of its decades-long campaign to slander the revolutionary leader, its permanent representative to the United Nations declared:
I am old enough to remember those who apologized for Hitler and Stalin. I remember the cries of shock and betrayal when the truth of what those dictators had done filtered out to the world. I think that sooner rather than later the same cries will go up when the world finally acknowledges the horrors of life under Castro.
It appears, however, that the sustained prominence of this ‘new Hitler’ framing did not come into full swing until the post-Soviet period, in which the US – now the uncontested global hegemon – had virtually free rein to overthrow any government that opposed its dominance, but still required public outrage to be generated in order to secure enough domestic support for its serial ‘interventions’. For instance, when speaking at a public rally in the US just two months before the launch of Operation Desert Storm and the start of the First Gulf War in January 1991, President George Bush Sr. compared the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein – formerly a close ally of the US – unfavourably with the German dictator and accused him of a level of ‘brutality that I don’t believe Adolf Hitler ever participated in’, a disturbing interpretation of events that is in effect Holocaust denial in itself. He would go on to make the same comparison to justify the conflict once it was raging and the US had already committed multiple war crimes in the space of only a few months. A particularly obscene irony of Bush’s rhetorical use of Hitler in this war-mongering fashion is that his own father, Prescott Bush, was directly involved in financing the Nazi Party’s rise to power and profitted from his position on the board of companies directly involved with the financial architects of Nazism up until 1942. Bush was far from alone in drawing this comparison of course. A Gallant Foundation study found that, between 1 August 1990 and 28 February 1991, the U.S. print media alone compared Hussein to Hitler on 1,035 occasions.
The same trope re-appeared in 1999 when, in order to justify NATO’s assault on Yugoslavia and portray it as motivated by humanitarian concerns, the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milošević, was repeatedly compared to Hitler by US officials. Perhaps most significantly, when making a live address to the American nation from the Oval Office on 24 March 1999, the day that NATO’s military assault on Yugoslavia began, Bush Sr.’s successor as President, Bill Clinton, drew direct comparisons between Milošević and the Nazi ruler, asking sombrely: ‘What if someone had listened to Winston Churchill and stood up to Adolf Hitler earlier? Just imagine if leaders back then had acted wisely and early enough, how many lives could have been saved, how many Americans would not have had to die?’. The following month, the Labour Party MP, Ken Livingstone, echoed Clinton’s words, arguing that it wasn’t wrong to compare the two leaders as the President and many others had done.
When Milošević died in 2006, The Wall Street Journal published an article about him written by the man who led NATO’s murderous bombing campaign on Yugoslavia – its former Supreme Allied Commander, Wesley K. Clark – that was titled simply, ‘A Petty Hitler’. That Clark, who led what the former Nuremberg Trials Prosecutor, Walter J. Rockler, described as ‘the most brazen international aggression since the Nazis attacked Poland…[in which] the United States has discarded pretensions to international legality and decency, and embarked on a course of raw imperialism run amok’, was given the last word on Milošević says much about the moral blackhole at the heart of the US media and the seriousness with which any of its condemnations of a ‘new Hitler’ should be taken.
Next, when defending his hostile intent towards Iraq in March 2003, shortly before the US-UK invasion of the country was launched, the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, also invoked the spectre of Hitler – arguing against any ‘appeasement’ and claiming that although ‘a majority of decent and well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler and that those who did were war-mongers’, such people were wrong. As his father had done before him twelve years previously, President George Bush Jr. also compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler more than once and like his counterpart Blair argued that ‘[a] policy of appeasement could bring (devastation) of the kind never seen on the face of the earth’ – an especially sickening line of argument to read in hindsight knowing the immense devastation that the invasion and its reverberations have inflicted upon the people of Iraq and the broader region ever since.
This by now familiar rhetorical device was dusted off again in 2011, this time to justify NATO’s destructive assault on Libya and help provide it with a humanitarian intervention narrative. At a time when lurid, evidence-free claims of mass-rape and other atrocities being committed by Libyan forces (later proven to be unsubstantiated) were being uncritically reported in Western media, ABC reported on the ‘New Hitler’ Gaddafi. Two years later, as the US’ proxy war against the Syrian state was well underway, it was the turn of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, who was compared directly to Hitler (and also Saddam Hussein) by the-then Secretary of State, John Kerry, and subsequently labelled the ‘New Hitler’ in the US tabloid press. This argument was later built on in especially deranged fashion when David Simon, most widely known as the creator of The Wire, tweeted: ‘Possessing sarin gas, Hitler wouldn’t use it on soldiers even as his Reich fell. He’d been gassed in WWI. Assad has used it 2x on civilians.’ Simon’s implication that Hitler took a praise-worthy moral stance to not use sarin is disturbing enough in isolation, but is all the more outrageous in hindsight as substantial evidence exists that indicates the chemical weapon attacks in Syria that were alleged to have been carried out by ‘Assad’ (i.e. Syrian government forces) were in fact perpetrated by Western-backed ‘rebel’ forces.
More recently the ‘worse than Hitler’ framing has even been used by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, who in 2018 while in conversation with Jeffrey Goldberg, a former IDF prison Guard and now editor of The Atlantic, claimed: ‘I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe… The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.’ A similarly absurd recent example of this phenomenon is when The Daily Mail referred to the DPRK leader, Kim Jong-Un, as ‘channelling his inner Hitler’ simply for wearing a leather jacket.
The recent comparisons between Putin and Hitler have been especially vociferous and widespread, not only because of the outrage generated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine but because those making the argument have been able to draw indirectly on a related and long-standing political project underway to conflate Hitler and the Nazis with Stalin and the Soviet Union. The tactics, rationale and history of this campaign, in which the work of historian Timothy Snyder is central, are of direct relevance to the current moment and can be read about at length in this detailed essay on the topic.
Testament to just how disingenuously and cynically this emotionally manipulative framing has been used is not just the vastly different character, circumstances and political direction of those leaders to whom it has been applied over time, but how the label appears to have been used for everyone except the rulers of the very states that actually inspired Hitler’s vision: the US and Britain. What then unites this disparate group of states and their leaders is that, one way or another, they have either directly resisted or somehow stood in the way of US-led imperialist hegemony and of the penetration of Western capital wherever it desires. Putin, who has previously made no secret of his opposition to the US’ repeated undermining of international law and checks and balances, is a case in point in this regard.
By focussing on the ostensibly irrational, blood-thirsty and unhinged actions of individual leaders and stressing their supposed similarity to Hitler, a figure who is justifiably the bête noire in the minds of so many in the West, the US is able to effectively obscure the broader political context of the given crisis in question and whitewash its direct role in causing it. This process of the personalisation of conflicts by focussing on leaders serves to de-contextualise events from their broader setting and erases relevant geo-strategic, economic, and political factors in favour of a myopic focus on the leader in question’s alleged character traits. Thereby aggressions against entire nation-states become commonly understood as virtuous campaigns against a single ‘bad man’ who must be stopped and those who seek to analyse the relevant political context and the role of the West are condemned as ‘apologists’ for the leader in question.
Both in its own rhetoric and by using its extensive propaganda apparatus in the media, academia and beyond to portray itself as continually fighting a ‘new Hitler’ of one form or another allows the West to maintain the fiction – in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary – that it uses its military power (and other means of aggression including sanctions) in pursuit of justice and a commitment to some kind of universalist norms aimed at improving the conditions or alleviating the suffering of the peoples impacted. In doing so, their real motivations – namely the relentless pursuit of their state political interests and goals, are hidden from view. It is incumbent upon those of us who know what those true goals are to not be intimidated into silence about them by the same old accusations of being apologists of tyrants or whatever other disingenuous insults are slung at us by those whose job it is to bolster the perpetually crumbling façade of Western benevolence at all costs.
 Ali Rowghani, ‘The Portrayal of Nasser by the New York Times’ (unpublished manuscript, Stanford University, Department of History, Mar. 1994) as quoted in Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of Modern Diaspora (University of California Press, 1998).
 Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry Culture, Politics and the Formation of Modern Diaspora (University of California Press, 1998).
 Richard Keeble, ‘The Myth of Saddam Hussein: New Militarism and the Propaganda Function of the Human-Interest Story.’ in Media Ethics Ed. Matthew Kieran. (Routledge, 1998), 73.
 For discussion of the broader context of NATO’s war, its true intent and the media’s portrayal of it, see: Philip Hammond & Edward S. Herman, Degraded Capability: The Media and The Kosovo Crisis (Pluto Press, 2000) and Diana Johnstone, Fool’s Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (Pluto Press, 2002).
 President Clinton, ‘Address to the Nation,’ The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, Washington, D.C., 24 March 1999.
 See Maximilian Forte, Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (Baraka Books, 2012)
 A particular theme of praise was offered for British ‘ruthlessness’ and ‘lack of moral scruples’ in building and defending their empire, which was held as a model for the Germans to follow. Hitler professed an admiration for the imperial might of the British Empire as proof of the racial superiority of the Aryan race, and British rule in India was held up as a model for how the Germans would rule Eastern Europe. Gerwin Strobl, The Germanic Isle, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 42-43, 91.
Louis Allday is a writer and historian based in London. He is the founding editor of Liberated Texts, the first published volume of which can be purchased via Ebb.