Vladimir Putin’s excuse for his senseless attack on Ukraine is “denazification.” With a straight face, the president of Russia claimed that he needs to replace a neighboring democracy with his own foreign tyranny in the name of World War II. He also referred, as he has several times, to an entirely imaginary “genocide” of those who speak Russian in Eastern Ukraine. In fact, speakers of Russian enjoy far greater freedoms in Ukraine than they do in Russia.
The very government that Putin has vowed to topple makes this clear enough. Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, is himself a Russian speaker. Just before the Russian invasion began, he gave the best political speech given in Russian in many a year, turning directly to Russians and asking them if they really wanted war. He also referred to the grotesque Nazi charge, pointing out that Ukrainians had died by the millions in World War II fighting the Germans. “Tell it to my grandfather,” he said, “who fought in the infantry of the Red Army and died a colonel in independent Ukraine.”
What Zelensky did not say, but which is worth knowing, is that his grandfather’s family was murdered in the Holocaust. He is Jewish and won 73 percent of the vote in the last presidential election in Ukraine. For a while, both the president and the prime minister of Ukraine were Jewish, something that has never happened anywhere else, aside from Israel. This does not make them better or worse politicians than anyone else. It simply means that Putin’s claim about “denazification” is not only baseless and wrong, but also cruel and grotesque. It is hard to think of something darker than invading a democracy with a Jewish leader in the name of fighting Nazis.
Using the language of World War II in this way makes it meaningless, and that is part of the point. Putin perhaps imagines that Russians can be mobilized through references to historical trauma, even one that makes no sense. But he is also taking aim at the Holocaust itself. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum called Putin’s claims “groundless and egregious,” which they certainly are. They are also trivializing, and deliberately so. When a political leader invokes genocide and Nazis in a way that Putin has done, he is mocking people who actually care about history and insulting people who survived and remember.
Even as Putin was busy with his own absurd historical propaganda, his former political partner, Dmitry Medvedev, was characterizing Ukraine in a way that was clearly antisemitic. His view was that the presence of Jewish leaders meant that Ukraine is not a real country. Medvedev weds this antisemitic canard to the perverse insult that if Zelenky is not a Nazi himself, he serves Nazis. All of these senseless and painful exploitations of history that people rightly take seriously serve a purpose: to make it harder for anyone to do so in the future.
Adolf Hitler had some public relations advice: Tell a lie so big that people will not believe that you would ever try to deceive them on such a grand scale. The Putin regime does something similar. Call it not the Big Lie, as with Hitler, but the Big Mock. Russia’s leaders mock symbols that are so important that people just cannot believe that they would do such a thing. Surely Putin must mean something by denazification? But he doesn’t. The Holocaust is just a button to push, and if pounding that button wears out the reference to actual history, so much the better. Mockery of the Holocaust is so shocking that people do not wish to believe that it is happening. But it is happening. Right now. In addition to the other more palpable horrors of Putin’s unprovoked and cruel war, he is assaulting the history that decent people hold dear.
With his “denazification” talk, Putin is also distracting us, preventing us from making what might be otherwise obvious connections. If we take his claim to be fighting Nazis even a little bit seriously, we will not think to ask what he himself has learned from fascism. Our thoughts are directed away from his own debts to Russian fascist tradition. We might forget that Putin is regarded as a leader by white supremacists all around the world. We might overlook that his regime’s cheerleaders include contemporary Russian fascists who are given prominence in Russian media.
We might fail to notice that, in Putin’s speech justifying the invasion, he spoke of the need to protect “people bound by blood” from a “virus.” We might not take in that all of his utterances this week rely on Hitlerian tricks and tactics. The idea that a neighboring democracy is the artificial creation of the international order? Entirely false atrocity talk about compatriots over the border who need military assistance? These were Hitler’s moves in 1938, just as they are Putin’s now. And of course the glorification of violence and the disregard for law is central to the history of fascism. Taking law seriously and preventing senseless war was supposed to be the lesson learned from World War II.
Denazification should really begin at home.
Timothy Snyder is author of a half-dozen books on Russia and Ukraine, including “The Road to Unfreedom” and “Bloodlands.” He is a professor of history at Yale University and writes the newsletter “Thinking About. . . .”