June 05, 2022

Searching for Nazis


Searching for Nazis
Moscow's 2022 Victory Day parade. RIA Novosti, a Russian state-run news outlet.

It's always so tempting, on the internet, to compare things to Nazi Germany.

The phenomenon has its own name: Godwin's Law, which states that the longer an online discussion goes on, regardless of topic or scope, the more likely a participant is to draw a comparison to Hitler or the Nazis. This is part of an even larger rhetorical tactic: reductio ad Hitlerum, whereby you invalidate an opponent's position by comparing their argument to one of Hitler's.

Bringing Nazis up elicits an emotional response. That ugly chapter of human history is still, 80 years later, seared into our collective memories. The Nazis were bad dudes. We're not that bad. Certainly not! But our enemies... maybe.

It's little wonder, then, that both Ukrainian and Russian leaders have evoked the history of the Nazi threat as they galvanize their peoples to war. Even more so, given just how deeply the Second World War scarred both the Ukrainian and Russian nations.

In the Russian case, Putin's expressed purpose for invading eastern Ukraine has been to "denazify" it: to drive out the Ukrainian rulers who are allegedly oppressing ethnic Russians, preventing them from learning their language and celebrating their heritage. After all, Putin says, some Ukrainians sided with the invaders in the Second World War. Can they really be trusted?

The Ukrainian comparison is much more straightforward. We're under attack, says Zelensky. It's time to rally and defend our homes, like we did in 1941-1945.

May 9 marked Victory Day in both Russia and Ukraine; it's the main patriotic holiday for both, and it marks the defeat of Germany in 1945. In Russia, iconic WW2-era T-34 "victory tanks" drove through Red Square, and Putin doubled down on justifying the Ukraine conflict by pointing to modern Nazis there. In Kiev, while celebrations were more muted, Zelensky said, “Very soon there will be two Victory Days in Ukraine. And someone won’t have any.” He later responded to Putin's speech by saying that Putin was "repeating the horrific crimes of Hitler’s regime today."

A T-34 at Victory Day 2022
A patriotically decorated T-34/85 destroys the pavement on Red Square as part of the Victory Day parade, May 9, 2022. | RIA Novosti

At the same time, Russia and Ukraine are distancing themselves from each other domestically. Labeling the other side's imagery as illegal, based in part on laws that prevent the promotion of Nazi slogans and motifs, has produced results that are both Orwellian and Kafkaesque. Russia has been rebranding logos with a blue-and-yellow color scheme, and using the Latin letters "Z" and "V" improperly can now land you in a Ukrainian prison. Ukraine has even begun changing street signs bearing the names of famous Russians. Russians are changing Ukrainian street signs, too, albeit a little differently.

It's tempting to dismiss this as another immature use of the past to build up one side while discrediting the other, a circular, juvenile playground jeer: You're Nazis! No, you're Nazis! And, indeed, chances are that there are no (or at least very, very few) Nazis on either side. But they’re like Bigfoot: while we all know they don’t really exist (at least not in any appreciable way), sometimes we like to pretend.

So is there any merit in either side's comparison of their foes to Nazis?

On the Ukrainian side, not really. Even as Russia points to Nazi-style Ukrainian "genocide" of ethnic Russians in Donbas, there's little evidence of this actually taking place. Again, some Russians have pointed to the fact that some in Ukraine sided with the invaders in the Second World War, apparently forgetting that the choice between living under Hitler or under Stalin was a tough one, especially after the famine that Ukraine experienced thanks to policies from Moscow in the 1930s (Speaking of which, why is there no reductio ad Stalinum?).

These days, though, Ukraine isn't much of a haven for fascists. On the contrary: for years Kyiv has been aiming for tighter relations with the liberal European democracies. International cooperation, not to mention peacefully protesting government policies and corruption, as happened at the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, is hardly something Nazis are known for.

Invasion, however, is something Nazis were known for. It should be noted that Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938 was done on the pretext of liberating ethnic Germans from a supposedly repressive Czech government: Russia has invaded its neighbor unprovoked, using one of Hitler's own pretexts! Add to this photos of the massive pro-government demonstrations and the patriotic parade on May 9, and stories of widespread propaganda and the repression of dissent, and pretty soon we've reductio ad Hitlerum-ed our way into a pretty dark place.

Putin at victory day 2022
Literally Hitler? Figuratively Hitler? Putin giving his speech at Victory Day 2022. | RIA Novosti

While the comparison may be somewhat justified, let's take a step back.

Yes, Russia is the aggressor here. Yes, Russian ideology is reactionary, obsessed with its past in an almost death-cultish way, and conservative, and yes, it's a textbook autocracy. But whether or not Russia is full-blown fascist is something that scholars have been debating for years.

Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. If the Russian state is fascist, something close to the Nazis, Putin would deny it, given how detestable the Nazis are to the Russian historical psyche. "Of course not! We're anti-fascist!" he would say, likely citing actions like those in Ukraine, "We fight fascists. Don't you?"

At the same time, though, Putin runs a pretty tight right-wing/nationalist/populist ship that takes any opportunity to promote itself and instill its values throughout society. It's easy to see why the comparison could be made.

One thing is for sure: with the invasion of Ukraine, Putin is on the wrong side of history. Time will tell whether the present comparison (Godwin's Law in action) is actually valid. Like so much else happening with the Ukraine conflict, change is constant.

All eyes are on Putin: will the coming years bring peace and prosperity, or further war and hardship?

It's his chance to write his legacy, for better or worse.

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