Has Vladimir Putin lost contact with any reality outside his own self-perception? Has he gone so far tactically and psychologically that no exit ramp from the current conflict is possible? Is he so firmly entrenched in his own reality that no compromise can take place? If the answers to all these questions are yes, then an analysis of another charismatic leader caught up in his own self-identity, Martin Luther, would be pertinent.
A simple German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), challenged the dominant Catholic Church of the Middle Ages. When he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, he set off the beginning of the Protestant Reformation and horrendous religious wars throughout Europe. When he refused to compromise, declaring before the authorities during his 1521 trial at Worms, “Here I stand I can do no other,” he went against all prevailing norms.
The English philosopher and political theorist Michael Oakeshott describes Luther’s singularity as an individual and his irresponsibility for consequences as follows:
“One who understands himself to be the messenger of a god, to be ‘illuminated’ from above, or to be a voice of destiny, who denies having any thoughts of his own to give meaning to what he says or does, and thus absolves himself from all responsibility for his actions and utterances, is a character of a different sort; he has resigned the character of a human being and has contracted out of the conversation of mankind. He is either an angel or a lunatic.”
Luther’s 1510 trip to Rome where he saw the opulence of the Church including the selling of Indulgences was a major event that turned him against the Roman papacy.
In the same vein, the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent expansion of NATO turned Putin against the West. The Russian president has said that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, greater than World War I and II during which roughly thirty million Russians lost their lives. We have ample evidence that his current strategic fury in attacking Ukraine is also reflected in his tirades against the West and all he perceives as slights against Russia’s greatness.
In a polarized world, Putin is hailed by many in Russia as the savior of the greater Russia and despised by those who see him as an autocratic current-day czar who is stopping Russia from modernizing. And Luther? Roland Bainton, specialist in Reformation history, wrote: “His followers hailed him as a prophet of the Lord and the deliverer of Germany. His opponents on the Catholic side called him the son of perdition and the demolisher of Christendom.”
Has Putin, like Luther, “contracted out of the conversation of mankind?” Has his single-mindedness of purpose in pursuing his cause allowed him to pursue his goal with no concern for the consequences?
Putin has “contracted out of the conversation with mankind” by challenging fundamental international norms. Among the accepted principles and rules that Putin has violated in his self-understanding are: human rights; humanitarian law; the charter of the United Nations; the use of force except in self-defense; the use of illegal weapons; Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign state as accepted by the Soviet Union and the 1975 Helsinki Agreements.
One hundred forty-one countries condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a vote in the UN General Assembly. Putin and Russia are being investigated in numerous tribunals for violating jus ad bellum as well as jus in bello. If Oakeshott concludes the quotation with Luther being “unable to survive in conduct inter homines,” Putin and Russia have become international pariahs.
Psychologists, military strategists, and global experts are pondering what makes Putin tick and how he can be stopped. Their analyses focus on the thin line between his accepting some agreement to end the war and his going all out to accomplish what he said he set out to do; re-establish Ukraine under Russian control. Most worrisome, his actions could include chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons.
While comparisons of Putin with tyrants like Hitler, Stalin or czars such as Ivan the Terrible are helpful, comparisons to Martin Luther are significant in their inflexibility. The eminent psychoanalyst Erik Erikson specifically compares Luther to Hitler, pointing out that both were leaders of rebellions as well as surmising that Luther may have prepared Germany for a leader like Hitler.
Like Putin, Luther had a cause to which he was devoted. Luther’s declaration “Here I stand; I can do no other,” was a statement of self-identity unrelated to the accepted norms. As Oakeshott noted, “In Luther’s ‘ich kann nicht anders’ the emphasis is upon the ich.” Luther’s “stand” highlighted his personal conviction; he was not concerned with the consequences.
Both Luther and Putin felt/feel full responsibility to a cause. Putin’s cause is the re-establishment of greater Russia’s identity. Luther’s denunciation of the Church was intertwined with his cause towards a growing German nationalism against the Holy Roman Empire. And in that position Luther was fearless. “The most intrepid revolutionary is the one who has a fear greater than anything his opponents can inflict upon him,” Bainton wrote. “Luther, who had so trembled before the face of God, had no fear before the face of man.”
If Vladimir Putin sees himself, like Luther, as “a man of destiny,” with “no fear before the face of man,” as someone who “has contracted out of the conversation of mankind,” with no fear of consequences, comparisons between Putin and Luther are not only pertinent, they are frightening.