Russia and Ukraine are both using the Nazi past to make sense of the present conflict. Vladimir Putin says that he’s “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, while Volodymyr Zelensky has asked the Knesset to stop Russia’s “final solution” to the “Ukrainian Question.”
Putin’s claims were a spiteful attack on Zelensky, who is Jewish and lost family in the Holocaust. He may also have been projecting criticism of himself. Russian dissidents have called him “Vladolf” since at least 2009. And, like all good propagandists, Putin knows that the most persuasive disinformation campaigns are built on a grain of truth. Ukraine is home to the Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi group. But with fewer than a thousand members, they hardly constitute an international threat. The far-right bloc won just 2.15% of the total vote in Ukraine’s most recent election.
More disturbing is the thought that Putin may be trying to woo the American alt-right by borrowing from their playbook. Whether it’s Marjorie Taylor Greene attacking Nancy Pelosi’s “Gazpacho police” or small-time Trump imitators wearing yellow stars to protest Covid-19 vaccines, trivial comparisons with Nazism have become de rigueur for them.
In counterpoint with all this, an RIA-Novosti article – which was accidentally published before the invasion – said that Putin wouldn’t “leave the solution of the Ukrainian Question to future generations.” This echoed the Nazis’ euphemism for their systematic murder of Europe’s Jews. It was meant to make Russia sound ruthless, and the Ukrainians sound both pestilent and inferior.
None of these references to the Nazi past constitute a meaningful comparison with the present. They just exploit history to stir up emotion – to create enthusiasm for the war at home, and to win partisan support in the West.
President Zelensky’s reference to the Holocaust was different.
His speech to the Knesset followed a tactic of inviting countries to reflect on their suffering in World War Two. He spoke to Congress about Pearl Harbor. He paraphrased Churchill when he spoke to the British House of Parliament. This tactic has generally awakened empathy and won support. But it drew criticism in Israel. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said “I personally believe it is forbidden to equate the Holocaust to anything.”
There are certainly meaningful comparisons to be made between the war machines of Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia. Both hit civilian targets out of a belief that brute force and terror are acceptable – that “might is right.” There are also parallels between the turgid 7000-word essay that Putin wrote about Ukraine in 2021 and Hitler’s book My Struggle. Both men come across as drunk on the idea that “world history” is driving them to fulfill their country’s destiny.
Zelensky sidestepped the significant contributions of Ukrainian collaborators to the Holocaust, though. For some this was misguided. For others, it was offensive. Putin hasn’t branded Ukrainians an “inferior race” posing a mortal threat to humanity either. This is how the Nazis branded Jewish people from the beginning.
But the Knesset members’ criticisms were less about historical accuracy than a decades-old belief that the Holocaust is completely unique. By this logic, it’s impossible to compare it to anything.
The Holocaust certainly had unique characteristics. Apart from the sheer number of victims, it remains the only time that a government has used industrial methods to run a continent-wide program of mass murder based on “racial science.”
As with any historical event, though, we can use comparison as a tool to draw out lessons for the present. To learn from the Holocaust, we must measure contemporary hatred against the Nazi past. This will expose patterns of escalation, and it will help us to make informed decisions about when to intervene, and how.
Lazar Berman has said that the Knesset is “conspicuously out of step with its Western allies” in The Times of Israel. They aren’t sending lethal aid to Ukraine, they haven’t sanctioned Russian oligarchs, and they’ve said they want to mediate – all apparently out of concern for their relationship with Russia in Syria.
Zelensky’s reference to the Holocaust was blunt and inaccurate, to be sure. But it called out what must seem to him like intolerable indifference.
His words recalled the speech that Elie Wiesel gave to the United Nations in 2005. Wiesel said that indifference in the face of suffering helps the aggressor, never the victim. As for respecting the memory of the Holocaust, he asked what memory even is – “if not a noble and necessary response to and against indifference.”