Godwin’s Law states that as an online discussion grows longer, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism. It’s the updated internet version of Reductio ad Hitlerum. I fell into this trap quite early in Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, during its annexation of Crimea in 2014, via a Facebook argument with an old colleague. It wasn’t that I felt that Putin’s actions or his intentions were on a par with Hitler, more that he seemed to be using the same playbook. Drumming up stories of persecuted countrymen (for Sudetenland Germans read Russian-speaking Ukrainians), then intervening to ‘protect’ them, conveniently grabbing a chunk of land as an added bonus.
Being a reasonable chap, and on being directed to Godwin’s Law, I immediately retracted. It was not that I felt any more disposed towards Mr Putin, merely that I acknowledged that I had made a lazy argument, based on emotion and a few vague historical comparisons. Then I dug a little deeper into Godwin’s Law. It was created by an American lawyer called Mike Godwin to be used in internet discussion groups. It was actually never intended to prevent an argument, rather to force people to think a little harder before wheeling out the Fascist comparisons. “If you’re thoughtful about it and show some real awareness of history, go ahead and refer to Hitler and the Nazis.” I felt suitably challenged. Godwin was actually talking about Donald Trump here, but I thought I’d go for the main man in the relationship, Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin.
I’ve mentioned Putin’s justifications for invading Ukraine. And by justifications I mean the excuses he gives for the interference rather than the actual reasons for it. And here we have a valid comparison. Both men, at least in their public pronouncements, claimed to speak for and protect a large group of people, based on ethnicity rather than citizenship, and therefore not constrained by the inconvenience of borders. Thus the Nazi concept of Volksdeutsche was used both to persecute non-Ethnic Germans at home (largely Jews) and to justify the Anschluss of Austria and invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia on the pretext of protecting ethnic Germans abroad. Putin has used the same justifications for invasion of Georgia and Ukraine, and for agitations in Moldova and the Baltic states.
Both played on the fears of their populace, whilst simultaneously stoking those fears. With its large land borders and history of invasion (from the Mongol Horde through Napoleon to Hitler himself) it’s virtually part of the Russian national psyche to feel under constant threat from abroad – and thus need a strong autocratic leader for protection. Putin and Hitler both proclaimed theirs a great country that had been ‘brought to its knees’. With the Germany of the 20s and 30s it was the Treaty of Versailles, with modern Russia it is the break-up of the Soviet Union and the expansion of NATO.
Both leaders spin a tale of betrayal, not only by foreign powers, but by their leaders at the time. Germany’s patsy civilian government of 1918 had no choice but to sign the surrender terms on offer, allowing the myth to develop that the German Army and its citizens had been stabbed in the back, a perception that Hitler was able to exploit to his advantage in his pursuit of power. Gorbachev and Yeltsin are virtual pariahs in Russia now. Gorbachev for walking blindly into a situation he would quickly lose control of, and Yeltsin for presiding over the complete lawlessness that caused chaos in the country, created the oligarchs that now hold the wealth of the nation in a small number of hands, and established the conditions for a strong man like Putin to offer a deal of stability in exchange for the erosion of civil liberty.
Putin famously called the break-up of the Soviet Union the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”. Quite some hyperbole in a century that gave us the two bloodiest wars in history. He constantly talks of NATO encroachment as if Russia is being threatened and penned in. He uses the symbol of the Russian bear – “They won’t leave him alone. They are always trying to put him on a chain. They will always try to put him on a chain and as soon as he is put on this chain, they will pull out his teeth and claws.” This is paranoia as state policy.
Both Hitler and Putin in their way appealed to a false nostalgia and a folk myth. Like many politicians Putin appeals to ‘traditional family values’, although takes it one step further by enacting actively homophobic laws. This is all linked to the regime’s reorientation away from a European rules-based system to a Eurasian set of values where anything goes and might is right. I’m not sure that this actually means anything ideologically, and it is pretty offensive to suggest that Asia and the East are places that do not value rules or respect international agreements. It all just gives Putin a convenient get-out clause for not following international norms. World record pole vaulter and Putin mouthpiece Yelena Isinbayeva backed the regime’s stance: “It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect.”
The Nazis appealed to ‘blood and soil’, the interconnectedness of the people and the land. From an early promotion of physical health and May Day parades, this was to lead ultimately to the Aryan ideal and the final solution. A whole history and creation myth was built around this to justify the horrors about to be perpetrated.
Another common factor between Hitler and Putin is the importance of propaganda to both regimes. Joseph Goebbels took propaganda to levels (depths) that we had never seen before. Hitler himself set out the blueprint in Mein Kampf:
“The art of propaganda consists precisely in being able to awaken the imagination of the public through an appeal to their feelings, in finding the appropriate psychological form that will arrest the attention and appeal to the hearts of the national masses. The broad masses of the people are not made up of diplomats or professors of public jurisprudence nor simply of persons who are able to form reasoned judgment in given cases, but a vacillating crowd of human children who are constantly wavering between one idea and another.”
Putin’s propaganda machine has added several layers of modern sophistication to this, but retained the basic premise. Led by Dmitry Kiselyov as the modern day Goebbels, Russia has two distinct operations running concurrently. For the home market it is all about Brand Putin. Television and the news media are full of his good works, constantly repeating the theme. It’s daily mantra building up a cult of personality around the leader probably not seen since Stalin’s time. It is interesting that they have been so successful in this. Yes, the Kremlin controls virtually all print and broadcast media, just as the Nazis had done, but the internet is still freely available there. It seems that the ‘broad masses of people’ prefer the comforting tones of their state-run television and newspapers, rather than the uncomfortable chaos offered by the internet.
For Russia’s image abroad, it is down to RT and a gaggle of Useful Idiots in the foreign press. Here it is all about the conspiracy theory, where any anti-establishment nut job can be presented as an expert. The aim here is to muddy the waters. Like in the case of MH-17, where every possible and impossible scenario is put forward, not with the aim of establishing a chain of events, but instead to sow doubt in the public’s mind, so they say “Who knows what actually happened?”, instead of examining the overwhelming evidence that the plane was shot down by Russian separatists, using a weapon supplied by the Russian government, which was then removed by the Russian government before international press or investigators could see it. Another theme of RT is to highlight all that is negative in the Western political sphere, to enable the Russian press to indulge in ‘Whataboutery’, demonstrating that Russia may be corrupt, but ‘look, so is everybody else’.
So Godwin’s challenge has been accepted and a case for comparison made. But here’s the thing. Given a fair wind and a modicum of research you could make comparisons between Hitler and just about any dodgy autocratic leader from the past 100 years. But almost all, with the possible exception of Stalin (currently being rehabilitated in Putin’s Russia) pale by comparison to Hitler, the man and his deeds. The American State Department, quite correctly, always states that you should judge Putin’s regime not by what they say, but by what they do. And although what they have done so far has been pretty reprehensible, it does not even come close to the scale, ambition or downright evil of Hitler and the Nazi regime.
For example, despite his claims that he could be in Kyiv within two weeks, Putin has never had any intention of doing so. He may be correct in his bold claims from a military point of view, but he does not have the resources to hold a defiant Ukraine nor to withstand the inevitable condemnation of the international community. Far better to do what he has done in places like Moldova and Georgia. Retain a portion of the country under Russian control, keep the conflict either warm or never very far from the heat, and use the situation for leverage and to ensure that the country in question cannot join NATO or the EU while a conflict still exists in one form or other.
Look to America, as Godwin suggests, where Donald Trump is now being painted as the most dangerous man in the Western world. He is the most dangerous man in the Western world, in that he is ignorant, shallow, petulant and crucially is one step away from having his finger on the nuclear button. And the last place you want to find one of Putin’s Useful Idiots is in the Oval Office. But he stands for nothing. He is a reality TV star thrust into the limelight.
No, the real comparisons to be made lie not in the leaders but in the times. Hitler found a fertile ground in a German populace impoverished and embittered following World War 1 and its subsequent reparations. He could not possibly rise in today’s Germany. Putin came to the Russian people with an offer that they desperately wanted to accept – to bring stability and to make Russia a world power again. Small men of the West like Trump, Johnson and Farage have offered a rejection of a change that people feel uncomfortable with and which has not in their perception improved their quality of life.
No, the dangers today lie not in the autocratic world leaders and their proximity to Hitler. Rather in the conditions that exist in the world and the self-destructive nature of its people. I have no idea whether austerity or anti-austerity is the way forward, but we desperately need some good times. When the world seems to be a mess, its people will reach for any remedy.