Thursday, March 10, 2022

Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler

I’ve been wary of Hitler comparisons, cognizant of the danger of Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Adolf Hitler approaches 1.” For example, although I consider Donald Trump a shameful excrescence, I think him more like a venial Central American tinpot dictator wannabe than an American F├╝hrer (although his actions on 6 January shook my confidence).

But now comes Vladimir Putin. Suddenly the Hitler comparison is justified. One can follow almost every step Hitler took and find Putin doing the same.

Hitler played on the widely-held German belief that Germany had been stabbed in the back in World War I, then shamefully treated by the Allies under the Treaty of Versailles. For Putin, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the same: “The greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” Just as Germany had been robbed of its territory, so Russia had been robbed of the supposedly independent constituent states of the USSR. Hitler wanted to restore the German Empire, Putin the former Soviet Empire.

Hitler proceeded step-by-step. He rearmed Germany. He regained the Saarland in a popular vote. He occupied the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936. In 1938 he took over Austria and the Sudetenland, and soon after the whole of Czech territory, making Slovakia and other countries vassals. In March 1939 he seized the Memel region, former German territory that had been given to Lithuania by the Treaty of Versailles (with a clear threat of war if he didn’t get his way). At each step many in the world protested, but Hitler judged no one would use force to resist. He was right. He expected the same easy march into Poland in 1939, but by then the British and French had concluded that they had the option of either fulfilling their treaty obligations or encouraging Hitler to go on and on.

Putin built up the Russian military, which had decayed in the years after 1989. In 2014 his minions took control of the Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. Putin correctly judged that there would be wide protest, but that no one would be willing to oppose him with military force. After 1989, afraid of a resurgent Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia. Montenegro, and North Macedonia hurried to join NATO and often the European Union. Their long experience with Russia made them certain that they were forever at risk if they stood alone.

Ukraine, despite its strivings, remains outside both the EU and NATO. No one is bound by treaty to assist it. Putin judged that no one would risk war to save Ukraine.

Then, using the same arguments Hitler used for seizing Austria and the Sudeten part of Czechoslovakia he asserted that Ukrainians were persecuting ethnic Russians, that Ukraine was a state that did not deserve to exist, that it was historically part of Russia. He may as well have been translating stories from the German press in September 1939, making only the necessary changes in wording.

Most recently he eliminated any vestige of a free press. Hitler had done the same. The Nazis tightly controlled the domestic press before 1939, but it was possible for Germans to listen to International radio. Hitler cut that off when the war began. It became a death penalty offense during the war to listen to the BBC. Putin has severed Internet links, passed laws that forced international journalists to leave Russia or proceed very, very carefully, and coordinated (a good Nazi word) the domestic press even more tightly than before.

Like Hitler, Putin makes demonstrably untrue accusations about Ukraine, confident that few in Russia will disagree. For example, just as Hitler accused the Jews of being behind everything, Putin accuses Ukraine of being a neo-Nazi state, a strange accusation given that Ukraine has a Jewish president. He denies Russian atrocities, while accusing Ukraine of fictitious misdeeds. The point is to provide reasons to believe, even if those reasons are not plausible. A lot of research shows we need reasons, but not necessarily good ones, to support our beliefs.

He has his version of Mussolini yapping at his heels (Churchill’s phrase) in kthe person of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, who even bears some resemblance to Mussolini. In a further parallel, just as Mussolini stayed out of World War II until the defeat of France was certain, Lukashenko, despite initial reports, has not sent his forces into Ukraine.

The parallels are not perfect. The majority of of Austrians welcomed Hitler’s arrival, as did many ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland and Poland. Ukrainians didn’t welcome Russian forces, and as I write are carrying out brave and determined resistance. Putin, apparently, had expected quick and easy victory. The world responded more quickly in 2022 than it did to Hitler. There have been significant protests even within Russia, something Hitler did not need to worry about.

How will it end? As of today, 10 March 2022, I surely cannot say. But it is a dangerous time. Dictators like Putin maintain rule by success and fear. Had France resisted German occupation of the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler might not have survived. Putin’s military has proven less capable than he, and the world, thought. The longer the Ukrainians resist and the more the world supports them, the more precarious Putin’s situation becomes.

The fear is that he could resort to nuclear weapons, as he has already threatened. My entirely uncertain prediction is that he won’t, just as Hitler did not use chemical weapons in World War II, not because of any deep aversion to them, but because of his fear that the Allies would promptly retaliate with the same. Putin knows that his use of nuclear weapons would perhaps destroy his enemies, but also his nation.

I hope I am correct.