Is Putin Hitler?

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The signing of the 1938 Munich Agreement. Photograph of a photograph in the Stalingrad museum: Matthew Stevenson.

In searching for shorthand to describe the war in Ukraine, the comparison is often made between Vladimir Putin and Adolf Hitler, who in 1941 attacked Ukraine (and Russia) and laid waste to many of the same towns and cities that Putin is now destroying with his cruise missiles. Is the analogy accurate?

From the early 1920s, if not before, Hitler had an Austro-Hungarian burgher’s hatred of the Russians, lumping the Slavs together with the Jews, both of which he marked for extermination in his earliest writings and beer-hall rantings.

Putin’s anger at Ukrainians stems more from their independence from Russia. He views Ukraine as a subset of Russian culture, not as separate nation or nationality. Like Hitler, he believes he is justified in wiping Ukraine from the map, to prove that Russians (in Hitler’s case it was the Germans) are a master race.

Hitler’s attack on Ukraine came after he had overrun most of Western Europe (England stood alone, defiantly) while Putin’s invasion of Ukraine came long after the liquidation of the Soviet empire. But each man did not believe his realm would be complete without the incorporation of Ukraine’s steppe into their respective fatherlands.

Ironically, both Hitler and Putin, before attacking, preached about the need to destroy Ukraine in order to save it. In 1941, a number of Ukrainians greeted Hitler’s invading forces as liberators from Stalinist oppression, although in short order even these welcoming committees found themselves under the jackboots of the Wehrmacht and rolled up into the Holocaust.

Putin’s rational for invading Ukraine is that it has fallen under the sway of neo-Nazis, a catch-all expression that takes in NATO, the European Union, the United States, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and anyone in Ukraine who does not agree with Putin’s self-declared benevolent paternalism. (Dissent in Russia now comes with a prison sentence of up to fifteen years.)

Prior to his invasion, Hitler spoke of the need to expand Germany’s borders and its access of raw materials in neighboring states, but when he got possession of Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe, the only local product that seemed to interest him was genocide.

By the same token, Putin’s interest in Ukraine stems more from his many hatreds than it does from some imagined call to nation-building. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia’s population has stagnated, as has its economy beyond Moscow’s golden arches. The last thing Russia needs to merge into its balance sheet are more undeveloped lands in need of subsidies. But as a proving ground for extreme and violent Russian nationalism, Ukraine offers a lot.

Hitler’s hold over the state was so that he could exact revenge against his many enemies, both real and imagined, while for Putin national power is a golden ticket to enrich himself and his accomplices. But both managed (at least for a while) to persuade a cowed electorate that it shared a destiny with despotic one-man rule.

Finally, the question has to be asked: is Putin capable of a holocaust? For me the answer lies in his statement that: “Whoever tries to hinder us, and even more so, to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate. And it will lead you to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history…” Is that not a final solution?

Obviously, there is little ideological overlap between the tenets of Hitler’s national socialism and Putin’s yachtocratic oligopoly, but at their core both men chose to subvert their nation’s resources to the cause of their personal power, and then to use that power to visit death and destruction on their neighbors.

I am not saying that history repeats itself or even as Mark Twain said that it rhymes, but to deny many of the similarities between Hitler and Putin—at least in why they chose to rain death down upon Ukraine—would be to overlook a truth that Thomas Jefferson, for one, would have called “self-evident.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.