Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine carries strong echoes of Hitler’s 1930s aggression against Czechoslovakia and Poland, which led to World War II. How valid is the comparison? Enough to make one worry, in my view.
We can only hope that Putin’s savage, unprovoked action does not lead to World War III which by miscalculation it could, with apocalyptic results. It certainly has upended the world order that has largely kept the peace for nearly 80 years. And it may have shoved the world back into an era when foreign relations were mainly based on raw power of the strong against the weak, with disputes often settled by war.
Hitler killed millions; Putin, brutal as he is, comes nowhere close–yet. Like Hitler, he’s bombed civilians without mercy—in Syria and now Ukraine. And, like Hitler, he may extend his aggression beyond his immediate targets. If he means to recreate the Soviet Union—whose collapse he regards as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century”—he will have to attack NATO members Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, triggering US and NATO involvement and, possibly, World War III.
Putin’s placing of his nuclear forces on high alert Sunday—coupled with his blood-curdling threat that any nation interfering with his Ukraine invasion “will lead to consequences such as you have never encountered in your history”—is either a shrewd, high-stakes bluff or an indication that Putin is “unhinged” or “off the rails.” The same questions were asked about Hitler, who was trying to develop nuclear weapons and surely would have used them. Who really knows whether the Hitler-Putin parallel extends that far.
There are domestic American parallels to World War II. There is the case of Donald Trump, admiring of Putin’s “genius” and “savvy.” Then there is the role of Charles Lindbergh, leader of the powerful isolationist “America First” movement that opposed US aid to endangered European nations in the late ‘30s as the Nazi threat grew.
Trump also marched under the banner “America First,” repeatedly exhibited hostility toward America’s NATO allies, and cozied up to Putin, possibly for personal business advantages. Thankfully, most Republican Congressional leaders have denounced Putin’s aggression—though they’ve also found occasion to blame President Biden for inviting it through “weakness” or “appeasement.”
Charles Lindbergh—and most Congressional Republicans—dropped isolationism after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. Trump almost never admits error and he didn’t change his admiring tune toward Putin when he spoke at the Conservative Action conference Saturday night.
He did declare Russia’s invasion as “an outrage, an atrocity” and praised the “great leadership and great bravery” of Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. But he repeated his statement that Putin is “smart,” adding “our leaders are dumb.” And he said Putin would never have attacked had the 2020 election not been stolen from him.
I suspect Trump partially changed his tune when he found that Republicans, in the main, were not following his pro-Putin line. The shift was not because Trump’s baffling attitude toward Putin has fundamentally changed. There’s also no sign that Trump has changed his enthusiasm for Hungarian President Viktor Orban, another authoritarian strongman.
Fox News’s leading rabble-rouser, Tucker Carlson, is beginning to sound like the 1930s demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin. In Carlson’s case, he omits Coughlin’s anti-Semitism, but is just as hateful toward “the left,” meaning almost all Democrats. But since the invasion Carlson, too, has changed his tune on Russia and Ukraine—previously tilting toward Russia, now holding it responsible for the war. He, too, has endorsed Orban’s authoritarian model. The 1930s parallel suggests that Trump and Carlson, fearful of negative reactions from their party, are distancing themselves from Hitler, but continue to embrace Italy’s Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini.
Rank-and-file Republicans, under Trump’s influence, were becoming more favorable toward Russia during Trump’s presidency. But as Russia began to threaten Ukraine, 85 percent of Republicans viewed Russia unfavorably. Still, more Republicans have a negative attitude toward President Biden than toward Putin, reflecting this country’s deep polarization and the Right’s admiration for Putin’s strongman, pro-oligarchy, pro-religion politics.
Yet another 1930s parallel is the just-declared anti-Western, anti-democratic “no limits partnership” of China and Russia, resembling Germany and Japan’s alliance in World War II. In fact, there are nuances: China has not backed Russia’s Ukraine invasion, abstaining rather than joining Russia in vetoing the UN Security Council’s condemnation of Russia’s action.
Now the world’s democracies face a two-front, existential challenge from an expansive China in the Far East and an aggressive, violent Russia in Europe. China could become violent, too, if it decides to reclaim Taiwan by force.
Yet another parallel between Putin and Hitler is their use of repeated “Big Lies” to justify their actions. Hitler falsely blamed Jews and liberals for a “stab in the back” that caused Germany to lose World War I. Putin falsely claims that, historically speaking, Ukraine is part of Russia and has no right to be an independent country. He also falsely charges that Nazis rule in Kyiv.
Finally, is there a parallel between Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of Hitler and Biden’s of Putin? Roosevelt clearly sided with Britain against Hitler, but was sufficiently afraid of US isolationists that he resisted actual military intervention until Germany declared war after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Biden has a long record of being averse to using force. He opposed the Vietnam war and Reagan’s Central American adventures. He supported the “nuclear freeze” that would have given the Soviet Union a monopoly of nuclear weapons in Europe. He initially voted to authorize both Iraq wars, but quickly turned against them. He opposed troop “surges” in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he abruptly decided to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan, leading to chaos and a humanitarian nightmare.
Trump has claimed that the Afghan withdrawal showed “weakness” and encouraged Putin to attack Ukraine. He may be right. But Biden has received—and deserves—high marks for re-unifying the NATO alliance and bolstering US forces against a potential threat to Poland and the Baltic countries. He has imposed stiff sanctions against Russia. And he is shipping tons of weapons to Ukraine.
Biden has declared the US will not send troops to aid Ukraine. Some critics have said he should have left the option open as a possible deterrent, and that may be correct. One suspects, finally, that CIA operatives are covertly aiding Ukraine as much as possible, as in the Cold War.
I think the Hitler comparison is (with some important caveats) very apt. Listen to what he’s actually saying and the echoes of Hitler, and the ghosts of 20th century Europe, are unmistakeable. Putin really is a species of latter-day fascist. I posted this on my FB page over the weekend, but I’ll post it as a comment here as well:
Until recently, I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention to Putin’s pronouncements in Russia, with a few occasional and glancing exceptions, like when he annexed Crimea in 2014 or when in 2019 Putin denounced “western liberalism” and that moron Trump thought he was talking about the municipal governing cultures of blue West Coast cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
But in the run up to the Ukraine invasion, I spent that last couple of weeks paying close attention to Putin’s rhetoric. And OMFG, Putin seems really batshit irrational to me, in a particularly ominous sort of way. I find his rhetoric to be very, very alarming.
Now, the term “fascist” gets thrown around a lot on social media, mostly in dumb and promiscuous ways that say more about the hyperpolarization that is driving our domestic political wars than it does about the person or subject so described. Trump is a dangerous authoritarian with no respect for the norms of liberal democratic governance, but that doesn’t make him a fascist.
But Putin, on the other hand… the shoe actually fits! Judging by his justifications for this invasion, he really is a fascist, or at least fascist-adjacent, in his mindset. The echoes of a Hitlerian worldview are hard to miss. That he denounces the Ukranian regime — led by a Jewish president — as “Nazis” adds to the chillingly fucked up weirdness of it all, and presents as a very rich, very dark sort of irony.
Listening to his recent rambling monologues and reading that 5000 word Putin essay from last year, I don’t think he’s at all engaged in some sort of rational calculus of geopolitical power (albeit a highly risky one). Rather, he’s more a fuming, raving autocrat emotionally crippled by a deep sense of nationalist historical grievance over the breakup of the Soviet Union, or more accurately (in his mind) Greater Russia.
Like Hitler, he really seems motivated by a messianic semi-racialist desire to unify a singular racial/ethnic people (in his case, Slavs) who he belives have been, via a crime of history, divided by enemies and corralled into false borders. Like HItler, he relies on a twisted amalgam of history intertwined with mystical notions of national greatness and national destiny to make blood-and-soil semi-mythic historical claims.
He is saying — and seems to fervently believe — that Greater Russia’s rightful place in the world has been usurped due to the perfidy of Bolshevik evildoers (who he asserts created a “virus of nationalism” that corrupted the essential Russianness of Ukraine) and decadents and drug addicts in the degenerate, homosexual West who hate Russia’s moral clarity and masculine strength (he’s been railing now about Western decadence and the cultural corruption he sees in the West’s embrace of LGBTQ and transgender rights for at least a decade now).
In his mind, this invasion will restore Greater Russia to its former glory and put it back on the correct historical path. His messianism is just below the surface of his words: he genuinely believes it is his personal destiny to act as the agent of pan-Slavic unification under the banner of Greater Russia, to give the Russian people the sort of lebensraum they are entitled to. It is his historical fate to be the great leader, the restorer and savior of the Russian people. Who does that remind you of?
Now, I don’t mean to push the HItler analogy too far. Russia in 2022 doesn’t have the strength of Germany in 1938; Putin’s armies aren’t about to sweep across Europe. His shaky economy is about to be hit by a Mack truck of sanctions, and he seems increasingly isolated and out of touch, including with his own people. Putin today is more akin to the paranoid, delusional, cornered (but still very dangerous) Hitler of late 1944 than the triumphant fascist strongman of the Anschluss and the annexation of the Sudetenland.
But when you set his language and his arguments against the backdrop of modern European history, in terms of his mentalité he really does sound to me like he’s in the throes of some sort of irrational fascistic fever dream in which he’s purging the historical sins of Bolshevism and striking a blow against Western cultural and social degeneracy. It’s freaking alarming, and it’s not going to end well.
The good news — if you like schadenfreude — is that Putin has already lost, even if he should gain territory. He’s branded a murderer, a pariah, forever. Whatever puppet regime he may put in place will not endure. There is too much hate of him and his blatant grab, too much inspiration in stories of the bravery of the Ukrainian people and its leader. Putin hasn’t even got people except for oligarchs behind him and maybe not even the oligarchs when and where they’re hit with sanctions, seizures and banking cutoffs.
Right, maybe not even the oligarchs. What’s in this, for them?
Hitler was bad news, but he couldn’t have done all that on his own, without the support of his country. People, business magnates, churches, all in. If Putin’s still alive two weeks from now, I’d say there must be substantial support somewhere, that goes beyond just people who don’t know any better, who will believe anything.
We’re actually in World War III already. This is what a world war looks like in the 21st Century — modern economies are so globalized and interconnected that the speed and reach of the sanction responses with which governments around the world acted is breathtaking. And perhaps almost as important, the overwhelming response of corporations, cultural institutions, and technology companies in attempting to help Ukraine.
Additionally, the flow of information coming out of Ukraine, a modern culture with considerable technical infrastructure, means that the rest of the world sees almost in real time unmediated by news organizations, what used to take days or weeks. Oligarchs’ planes are being tracked in real time, their movements and assets catalogued, and assets frozen. It’s even possible to track Russian war planes and military convoys by Google maps as they advance.
None of this may ultimately stop Putin from taking Ukraine by force. But the coordinated actions by the rest of the international community have energized what was thought to be weakened and wavering international defense of democracy and self-determination. And the costs to Russia will be (are already) enormous and will be long-lasting, no matter what happens from here. In such an interconnected world, reputational capital plays a significant role in your ability to prosper. Putin’ has ensured no one will ever trust him again. And for what? Putin might share Hitler’s ambitions for raw power and subjugation. But the interconnected globe of the 21st Century with its near-instantaneous sharing of resources, commerce, systems and information is a far different place than the first half of the 20th Century when raw military power was dominant.
A caveat though: while the escalating salvos of sanctions are hitting the Russian economy hard, Putin has some 21st Century tools of his own to deploy, which may hurt the rest of the global economy, soaring fuel prices and cyber-wars among them. It’s unlikely this will be a global war in which only Russia and Ukraine bear all the hardship. Putin is bound to want to challenge and test global resolve with retaliations of his own.