FAIR | July 21, 2022
Earlier this month, a New York Times (7/2/22) report, “How the Russian Media Spread False Claims About Ukrainian Nazis,” argued that falsely branding people as Nazis is inherently propagandistic:
The lie that the government and culture of Ukraine are filled with dangerous “Nazis” has become a central theme of Kremlin propaganda about the war.
To say Ukraine is “filled” with Nazis is an obvious exaggeration, although even a relatively small number of Nazis has wielded disproportionate influence in the Ukrainian government (Kyiv Post, 3/26/19; Euronews, 8/4/21). Nevertheless, FAIR (3/7/14, 1/15/22, 1/28/22, 2/23/22) has covered the Western media’s denial of the far-right’s role in the Ukrainian 2014 coup, as well as their complicity in amplifying Ukrainian neo-Nazi publicity stunts during the war.
But if it’s true that falsely associating a government with Nazism is a manipulation worthy of condemnation, how then should one judge Western media efforts to tie Russian President Vladimir Putin to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler?
FAIR (3/30/22) has previously noted how evidence-free caricatures in Western media of Putin as irrational (and perhaps psychotic) make diplomatic efforts to end the Ukraine crisis seem pointless. Tracing a connection between Putin and Hitler is an even more insidious attempt to make the idea of a negotiated end to the war seem like a moral outrage.
In the early days of the Ukraine crisis, former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul implied to guest host Ali Velshi on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show (3/11/22) that Putin was worse than Hitler, because Putin was killing his own people, while Hitler “didn’t kill ethnic Germans.” McFaul’s comments were later shared without attribution or pushback by the Maddow blog on Twitter (3/12/22)—suggesting that Maddow’s show endorsed McFaul’s comparative ranking of Putin and Hitler—before being removed following social media backlash and a correction by the Auschwitz Memorial. (Many of the Jews killed by Hitler were, of course, ethnically German, as were countless other victims of Hitler, if that makes a moral difference.)
Historian Richard J. Evans (New Statesman, 4/9/22) listed several ways Putin could be compared to Hitler, including the argument that genocide was at “the heart of the Nazi project,” and Russia’s actions in Ukraine amount to genocide because Ukrainians “are being killed because they are Ukrainians, and for no other reason.” Furthermore:
Both men had imposed dictatorial rule over their respective countries, both men suppressed dissent and eliminated independent media, both men had no hesitation in murdering people they considered a threat to their rule. Both Hitler and Putin invaded a series of neighboring countries, both used lies and disinformation to justify their actions, both used a symbol–in Putin’s case “Z,” in Hitler’s the swastika–to advertise support for their aims. Both men had no hesitation in causing death and destruction on a massive scale to further their ends.
Many of these features would seem to apply to virtually any authoritarian ruler, from Augusto Pinochet to Ferdinand Marcos—though not every dictator has a distinctive logo, were they all Hitler as well?
Political scientist Alexander Motyl wrote an op-ed for The Hill (5/3/22), “Putin’s Russia Rose like Hitler’s Germany—and Could End the Same,” that argued that the “striking similarities between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Adolf Hitler’s Germany are not accidental,” because their “imperial mindsets, militaristic ambitions, personality cults and demonization of minorities (Jews and Ukrainians)” made it “almost inevitable that Hitler and Putin then embarked on major wars.”
Historian Timothy Snyder’s New York Times op-ed (5/19/22), “We Should Say It. Russia Is Fascist,” averred that we “err in limiting our fears of fascism to a certain image of Hitler and the Holocaust,” but claimed there are similarities between “Mr. Putin’s war” and “Hitler’s main war aim” of conquering Ukraine in 1941. In any case, Snyder suggested that, as with Hitler, there was no point in negotiating with Putin, because the only way to deal with such leaders is to hand them a military defeat: “The fascist leader has to be defeated, which means that those who oppose fascism have to do what is necessary to defeat him,” he asserted, warning that if “Ukraine does not win, we can expect decades of darkness.”
‘More dangerous’ than Hitler
In the London Telegraph (5/10/22), Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that Putin is “more dangerous” than Hitler (or Stalin), because not only does Putin “have deadlier weapons at his disposal, but he also has the new media at his fingertips to spread his propaganda.” While it “seems impossible that Hitler or Stalin could return in our time,” Morawiecki wrote, they apparently did so when the “inconceivable became fact when rockets fell on Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities of a sovereign, democratic state in the heart of Europe.” (Serbia was also, like Ukraine, a sovereign state with an at least nominally elected government—but NATO rockets falling on its cities during the Kosovo War did not seem to herald the second coming of World War II–era dictators.)
Morawiecki claimed that Putin’s “Russkiy Mir” ideology is “the equivalent of 20th-century Communism and Nazism,” and a “cancer” that poses a “deadly threat to the whole of Europe.” It is “not enough to support Ukraine in its military struggle with Russia,” he declared; nothing less than rooting out this “monstrous new ideology entirely” would be satisfactory to him.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a violation of international law, condemned by 141 out of 193 countries in a UN General Assembly vote. But claims that Russia is committing genocide—a charge that carries automatic repercussions under international law—have to reckon with the comparison between the Ukraine invasion and the largest US military operation of the 21st century, the Iraq War. The UN’s count of civilian deaths in the first four months of Russia’s war was 4,677; the tally in the first four months of Iraq, according to Iraq Body Count, a project that monitored press accounts of civilian casualties, was 8,576.
Both numbers are horrific, and each surely underestimates the true civilian toll of these wars. But if Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine, what was the US doing in Iraq?
“I know it’s hard…to swallow that the carnage and destruction could be much worse than it is,” a US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst told Newsweek (3/22/22). “But that’s what the facts show. This suggests to me, at least, that Putin is not intentionally attacking civilians.”
If one genuinely wants to compare Putin’s brutality to Hitler’s, one has to look at the actual civilian toll of World War II. In the European theater alone, tens of millions of civilians were killed; some 14 million of these deaths were inflicted in the Soviet Union, which comprised both Russia and Ukraine. When you assert that the enemy of the day is as bad as Hitler, you’re also asserting that Hitler is no worse than the enemy of the day.
A parade of new Hitlers
Political scientist Michael Parenti pointed out in Against Empire that the corporate media often demonize the leaders of Official Enemy states as an evil personification of the entire population in order to justify US aggression against them, and there are few better ways to vilify foreign leaders in the West than by making exaggerated accusations that they are Adolf Hitler reincarnate. The glib trope demonstrates how frivolously historical comparisons are thrown around to advance US geopolitical goals.
British journalist Louis Allday (Ebb Magazine, 3/15/22) compiled a list of instances where Western journalists and officials have compared foreign leaders to Hitler—with Hitler sometimes coming off better in the comparison. Hitler-like leaders include Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milošević, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and even Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
If we take all of these allegations at face value, we should all be shocked by how many Hitlers have emerged after World War II. Or one could reasonably infer that Western journalists and officials will compare any foreign leader they dislike to Hitler, trivializing the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the suffering endured by their victims. Allday argues that these flippant Hitler comparisons are “effectively tantamount to a form of Holocaust denial and even an insidious rehabilitation of Nazism.”
Diplomacy = ‘appeasement’
One inevitable feature of these Hitler comparisons is frequent reference to “appeasement” when reporting on the US’s dealings with foreign leaders. This presents any attempt at diplomatic negotiations with foreign leaders opposed by the US as a misguided or unprincipled effort to placate an irrational or evil dictator bent on expansionist conquest.
Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, as it amassed troops near its border, British Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace worried that “there was a whiff of Munich in the air.” This was a clear reference to what is commonly perceived to be a failed policy of diplomatic efforts to prevent World War II in the West, when European powers agreed to let Hitler annex part of Czechoslovakia in the 1938 Munich Agreement (BBC, 2/13/22).
Ian Bond (Guardian, 2/22/22), the director of foreign policy at the Center for European Reform, wrote that although Putin is “not a charismatic madman,” there are still “echoes of 1938 in current developments,” as what “Putin has in common with Hitler” is a “mystical belief in a nation stretching beyond his country’s current borders.” Bond criticized Western officials for appearing to focus on “accommodating” Putin instead of deterring him, arguing that deterrence is “impossible” if “leaders keep telling Putin what they are not prepared to do” by ruling out in advance escalation into World War III.
New York Times columnist David Leonhardt (5/9/22) made it seem as if US leaders can only choose between their “old strategy” of “appeasement,” which supposedly caused Putin to “become more aggressive,” and their “new strategy” of “confrontation,” which would risk “a fight with a nuclear power that many Americans and Europeans do not want.”
This is a false dichotomy. Although establishment Western pundits and officials like to claim that the Russian invasion was “unprovoked,” FAIR (1/28/22, 3/4/22) has pointed out that this self-serving narrative omits a record of conscious provocations against Russia via NATO expansion towards Russian borders, in violation of promises made to Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. Leonhardt falsely described the US’s previous foreign policy toward Russia as a “strategy of non-confrontation ” rather than encirclement and antagonism.
(A poll of Ukrainians conducted by the Wall Street Journal and the National Opinion Research Center—6/9-6/22—found 58% thought the US bore “some” or “a great deal of responsibility” for the current conflict, along with 55% for NATO, while 82% said the same of Russia. This majority opinion in Ukraine would be difficult to utter in an establishment US media outlet.)
Accusations of “appeasing” Russia or Putin have been raised towards influential Western officials who have either engaged in diplomacy or advocated de-escalation through negotiations. Zelenskyy has made contradictory remarks throughout the conflict, arguing that diplomacy is the only way to end the war, while also advocating for escalation through more NATO military support and setting up a “no-fly-zone.” Western media outlets (e.g., Reuters, 5/26/22; Newsweek, 5/26/22) amplified Zelenskyy’s Munich references, with no pushback, when he criticized former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger for advocating Ukrainian territorial concessions as a path to ending the war. Zelenskyy mocked Kissinger, stating that his “calendar is not 2022, but 1938,” and suggesting that Kissinger was speaking to an audience “in Munich back then.”
Former German chancellor Angela Merkel has also had to defend her record of diplomacy with Putin numerous times from charges of “appeasement,” as Zelenskyy blamed her and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy for not doing enough to prevent the situation. Other op-eds (Politico, 5/23/22; Bloomberg, 6/9/22) denounced her as the “Neville Chamberlain of our time”–evoking the British prime minister who met with Hitler at Munich–because of her insufficiently aggressive policy.
Russia’s ‘appeasement’ history
Comparisons that depict diplomacy with Russia as a reenactment of Munich gloss over Russia’s unique history with Nazi Germany. The popular narrative of “appeasement” in 1938 often omits that World War II might not have happened if Britain and France had accepted Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s offer to form a military alliance to preemptively attack Nazi Germany in August 15, 1939 (Telegraph, 10/18/08). Britain and France’s rejection of Stalin’s offer arguably led to the USSR signing a nonaggression treaty with Nazi Germany (also known as the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact) on August 23, 1939; it was this agreement that set the stage for WWII, not Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler in Munich.
World War II is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, because approximately 26 million Soviet citizens died in the conflict, while around three-quarters of all Nazi wartime losses came from fighting the Red Army (Washington Post, 5/8/15). But there are other historical memories that drive Russia’s perception of threats coming from the West. Another fact seldom recalled in US media is that Russia was invaded by the US and 14 other nations in 1918, who were intervening on behalf of the White Russian Army against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War (National Interest, 9/3/19; Consortium News, 7/18/18).
Indeed, Putin cited Russia’s history of being invaded by the West in the 20th century as a major reason behind the timing of his decision to preemptively invade Ukraine. In his speech announcing the “special military operation” in Ukraine, Putin invoked his own version of the “appeasement” trope in justification of military aggression:
The attempt to appease the aggressor ahead of the Great Patriotic War proved to be a mistake which came at a high cost for our people. In the first months after the hostilities broke out, we lost vast territories of strategic importance, as well as millions of lives. We will not make this mistake the second time.
An oft-repeated corollary to the Western media’s frequent Hitler comparisons is that there was little point before the invasion in addressing Russia’s security concerns surrounding NATO expansion and the US’s unilateral abandonment of arms control treaties, since Putin supposedly wanted to recreate the Soviet Union or Russian Empire despite his repeated explicit denials. Putin’s alleged belief that the modern state of Ukraine has no right to exist, the argument goes, is proof of his supposed Hitlerian expansionist ambitions.
The two sources Western media most cite to make this claim are Putin’s speech (2/21/22) recognizing the independence of the separatist Donbas republics, and an essay he wrote last year (7/12/21) titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp (2/24/22) wrote that Putin “believes that Ukraine is an illegitimate country that exists on land that’s historically and rightfully Russian.” Ha’aretz (3/17/22) published an op-ed comparing Putin’s July essay, with its “Hitlerian motifs,” to Hitler’s Mein Kampf—particularly “the notion of an artificial and tragic division of a people that must be rectified by reunification.”
Perhaps the most frequent purveyor of this narrative is Timothy Snyder (4/18/18), who claimed that the war in Ukraine is a “colonial war”:
In a long essay on “historical unity,” published last July, [Putin] argued that Ukraine and Russia were a single country, bound by a shared origin. His vision is of a broken world that must be restored through violence. Russia becomes itself only by annihilating Ukraine.
However, when one actually reads both sources, rather than relying on secondhand sources to explain what Putin meant, it quickly becomes apparent that these are blatant misrepresentations of what Putin said. Putin’s essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” is long and convoluted, but although Putin talks about Russia and Ukraine’s shared historic, religious and linguistic heritage, and claims that “modern Ukraine is entirely the product of the Soviet era,” he also stresses that Russia has acknowledged new geopolitical realities:
Things change: Countries and communities are no exception. Of course, some part of a people in the process of its development, influenced by a number of reasons and historical circumstances, can become aware of itself as a separate nation at a certain moment. How should we treat that? There is only one answer: with respect!… The Russian Federation recognized the new geopolitical realities: and not only recognized, but, indeed, did a lot for Ukraine to establish itself as an independent country.
This point was repeated in Putin’s later speech (2/21/22), where Putin blamed the existence of the modern Ukrainian state on Vladimir Lenin and the USSR. Putin’s claim was not that Moscow should continue to govern all of Ukraine, however, but that Russia’s recognition of Ukrainian independence was an act of political generosity, in contrast to what he presented as Kyiv’s ungenerous treatment of the residents of Donbas:
Despite all these injustices, lies and outright pillage of Russia, it was our people who accepted the new geopolitical reality that took shape after the dissolution of the USSR, and recognised the new independent states. Not only did Russia recognise these countries, but helped its CIS partners, even though it faced a very dire situation itself. This included our Ukrainian colleagues, who turned to us for financial support many times from the very moment they declared independence. Our country provided this assistance while respecting Ukraine’s dignity and sovereignty.
Putin’s efforts to justify Russia’s invasion are not based on events that happened centuries ago; his historical accounts in these two texts, however self-serving, are not linked to attempts to justify violence. Rather, the speech (2/24/22) that declared the “special military operation” did so on the grounds that the “eastward expansion of NATO” that began in 1999 is “a matter of life and death,” and a “red line” for Russia’s security that had been crossed despite several warnings.
He also maintained it was to “protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime” in the Donbas region. Such concerns are generally dismissed as pretextual in the West, but the UN’s count of civilian deaths in the Ukrainian civil war—3,321 as of January 2019 (UN OHCHR, 9/23/21)–is comparable to the UN civilian death toll from the Russian invasion, with a tiny fraction of the international outrage.
The cost of ‘appeasement’ charges
The hyperbolic comparisons between Russia and Vladimir Putin to Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, as well as constant accusations that anyone who attempts to negotiate with Russia for a peaceful end to the war is engaged in “appeasement,” have cost the world opportunities to de-escalate. The Biden administration has not encouraged the Ukrainian government to engage in serious negotiations with Russia (Jacobin, 5/30/22), no doubt well aware that doing so would bring more Chamberlain analogies.
Adam Johnson and Nima Shirazi, cohosts of the Citations Needed podcast (10/9/19), point out that the emotionally manipulative and thought-terminating comparisons to Hitler and Munich are designed to suggest that
every so-called dictator is a new Hitler and every negotiation, every potential negotiation even, with those countries is a new Munich, is a new abdication of world responsibility that will inevitably lead to what else: a new Holocaust.
The extreme caricatures of Putin as equal to or worse than Hitler are setting up Ukraine and the world for a grim fate. A BBC report (6/20/22) last month featured NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urging the West to “prepare to continue supporting Ukraine in a war lasting for years,” while the head of the British Army, Gen. Patrick Sanders, asserted that the “UK and allies needed to be capable of winning a ground war with Russia.” The frequent Nazi comparisons and Munich references made by Western media paint those who would prefer a negotiated settlement to years of bloodshed, the risk of World War III and nuclear war as “appeasers” of a Hitlerian dictator with genocidal ambitions.
Featured Image: Illustration by The New York Times; Photographs by Clive Rose, Alexander Nemenov and Kirill Kudryavtsev, via Getty Images