It turned out that the “false flag” that Vladimir Putin employed to justify his incursion into Ukraine featured a black swastika on a white circle placed on a red background.
The Russian president said that he ordered a merciless air attack on Ukraine and a relentless march of troops into the country to force the “denazification of Ukraine,” a country led – since a democratic election three years earlier – by Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish. Four members of his family – perhaps more – perished in the Holocaust.
There is, of course, no need to denazify Ukraine, as the Nazis left that country in defeat – and, in fact, after the onset of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the German repudiation of its 1939 alliance with the Soviet Union that set in motion the great battle on the war’s eastern front – many Ukrainians actually sided with the Soviets against the Nazis.
Ukraine is soaked in Jewish history, with the third-largest Jewish community in Europe today and the fifth-largest in the world. According to the World Jewish Congress, Kyiv alone has 110,000 Jews, about three times as many as the North Shore. And when it comes to Nazis, Ukraine was the setting of one of the many tragic episodes of the German involvement in World War II, the slaughter of nearly 34,000 at Babi Yar that is sometimes known as the “Holocaust by Bullets.” The Russians added ashes to the Babi Yar memorial site with an airstrike Tuesday on Kyiv.
Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv, is well known in Russian circles. It was memorialized by both the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the composer Dimitri Shostakovitch, who set it to music in the first movement of his 13th Symphony. However, one of the themes of the 1961 poem was the persistence of antisemitism in the Soviet Union, the Communist country whose disintegration Putin regards as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The Soviet authorities whom Putin reveres denounced both Yevtushenko’s poem and Shostakovich’s 1962 symphony.
Official Nazism died in 1945, but poisonous trace elements have persisted in both the United States and Europe and the use of Nazi and Hitler comparisons have only grown in the 21st century. Writing in Wired in 1994, Mike Godwin developed what has become known as Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion continues, the probability of a comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches one.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Germans and the Dutch of using Nazi tactics during a 2017 dispute. Donald Trump once compared American intelligence agencies to “Nazi Germany.” American liberals often compared Trump to Hitler. One of the rioters in the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol had a Hitler mustache. Another wore a Camp Auschwitz sweatshirt. A third compared her treatment after the riot to that of “the Jews in Germany.” The last edition of The Jewish Journal included an account of how former Republican senator David Perdue of Georgia, defeated for reelection in 2020 by a Jewish Democrat, compared Trump’s removal from Twitter to life under Nazi rule.
On and on it goes, and now Vladimir Putin is emerging as a principal example of Godwin’s Law. But like so many historical metaphors, just about every example of what I might call Nazi Redux Syndrome misrepresents history.
“Misplaced comparisons trivialize this unique tragedy in human history – particularly when public figures invoke the Holocaust in an effort to score political points,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote six years ago as it became clear that Trump might become the Republican presidential nominee. “The analogy has shown up inappropriately in countless discussions of public policy because it is the most available historical event illustrating right versus wrong.”
In the Putin case, the Nazi references about Ukraine mix history with irony.
The elements of Nazism were, as characterized in “The Coming of the Third Reich,” Richard J. Evans’ 2003 book, “military conquest, social and cultural mobilization and repression and racial extermination” – a description more appropriate for the Putin years in Moscow than the Zelensky years in Kyiv.
In his classic 1960 “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” witness to history William L. Shirer turned out to be wrong in saying that “Adolph Hitler is probably the last of the great adventurer-conquerers in the tradition of Alexander, Caesar and Napoleon, and the Third Reich the last of the empires which set out on the path taken earlier by France, Rome and Macedonia.” He did not anticipate the winter 2022 invasion of Ukraine. Even so, it is Putin, not Zelensky, for whom the adventurer-conquerer comparison is apt.
Shirer went on to say that “the curtain was rung down on that phase of history, at least, by the sudden invention of the hydrogen bomb, of the ballistic missile and of rockets that can be aimed to hit the moon.” Not so fast. That phase of history – at least the phenomenon of the blitzkrieg into a legitimately constituted democracy –isn’t past but is right here in the present, though not prompted by Ukraine but by Putin’s Russia.
Alan Bullock, in his 1952 “Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” wrote that Nazi propaganda “built up a legend which represented Hitler’s coming to power as the upsurge of a great national revival,” arguing that “The truth is more prosaic.” The truth that Putin has tried to promote by summoning false charges of Ukrainian Nazism is fairly prosaic, too. The Russian president’s assertions are a misreading of history for the convenience of a tyrant.
“The reason Putin involved Nazism is because the Russians hate the Nazis more than anyone else,” the Canadian historian Irving M. Abella, a specialist in Jewish history, said in an interview. “He clearly thinks that by turning the Ukrainians into Nazis, he can build some support for his invasion. But the idea of accusing a country with a Jewish leader of Nazism is obscene, vile, hateful, spiteful – and ridiculous.’’
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.