I started writing this piece a few days ago, before former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. I set it aside because I didn’t want to look like I had fallen for “Godwin’s Law,” which states that if an Internet discussion goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler, Nazis, or Nazism. Turns out Hillary fell for it first.
Actually, that was only part of the reason I put this piece aside. The topic seemed too bookish and boring. It sort of still is. But if history is your thing, read along.
There are a few interesting similarities between the former KGB agent Putin and the former Austrian Corporal Hitler. But there is always a lot of low hanging fruit in comparisons of lawless leaders because they tend to act the same.
Perhaps least interesting to many of you but fascinating to me is that both Putin and Hitler reacted to what is still the most important event in modern European history, the fall of the imperial houses of Habsburg (Austria-Hungary) Hohenzollern (Germany) and Romanov (Russia) during and after World War I. The geopolitical mayhem sprung by this event still makes trouble in Europe 100 years later (The Balkans is still not settled. Russia still has not gotten over the urge to dominate former vassal states like Poland and Ukraine.) And that is extraordinary.
Both post-Soviet Russia and post-Imperial Germany suffered from what I’ll call regional superiority complexes. Both were nations of incredible cultural and political achievement. Both were weak because of political upheaval, yet still saw themselves at the top of the pecking order in their respective necks of the woods. Neo-nationalists like Putin believe Russia has the right to dominate Ukraine, just as Hitler and German nationalists believed the Third Reich could do what it wanted in Eastern Europe. You could liken it somewhat to American attitudes toward Mexico and Central America in the 1800s and 1900s.
But, let’s be clear: Putin’s first reason for the de facto invasion of the Crimea is to ensure that it remains a base for Russian naval operations. That is number one. Without it, there is no way (that I know of) for Russia to defend itself from attacks coming through the strait of Bosporus and the Black Sea. Does anyone WANT to invade Russia? No. But that, to a Russian nationalist, is either not true or not the point.
The second reason for the invasion is that Crimea used to be a part of Russia and is full of Russians. This is a version of “Pan-Slavism.” Hannah Arendt in “The Origins of Totalitarianism” postulated that Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism in the last century was rooted in the twin strains of Pan-Slavism (Russian/Soviet) and Pan-Germanism (Nazism). The concept of the brotherhood of man which permeated most of Western Europe after the Reformation and Enlightenment didn’t affect Germany and Russia as much.
Both cared more about Germans and Russians to the exclusion of other ethnic groups and nationalities (Poles, Jews, Gypsies, and Armenians, to name a few). Hitler used the excuse of protecting Germans in Czechoslovakia as a pretext to invade. Putin did a similar thing in Georgia in 2008 and Boris Yeltsin tried to do it in Serbia. In 1999, Yeltsin warned that NATO military action against Slavic Serbia could force Russia into a “European or worldwide war.” Hello, 1914?
In the Crimea invasion, Russian nationalists want to “protect” both Russians in the “near abroad” and Ukrainians. PRI’s Charles Maynes, covering Russian reaction to the invasion, writes: “Alexei Zhivov, a self-described Russian nationalist, argues that Ukraine and Russia are really just one country. And that the Maidan (anti-government) protesters, backed by Western powers, are trying to tear Ukraine out of Russia's embrace. "We should be one pan-Slavic government.”
Zhivov’s comment also points toward traditional Russian paranoia of being invaded, thanks to Napoleon and Hitler. Maynes further writes, “Maria, a pro-(Putin) activist…suggested that if Moscow didn't come to Ukraine's rescue, the fascists would come to Russia next. Unfortunately, Ukraine isn't the final goal,” she said. “Their final goal is to destroy Russia. And what's really happening is a military intervention by the West … and that's why Crimea is asking for help. They see what's happening and understand that Russia is the only one that can save them.”
One would think people should be saved FROM the Russian government, but Russian nationalists think ethnic Russians in the near abroad deserve to live with, and be under the protection of, other Slavs or Russians.
Finally, the most dangerous comparison between Hitler and Putin is one of the easiest. At the moment when aggression could have been stopped, both Hitler and Putin stared across at weak Western leaders they calculated would do little or nothing to fight them. And you have to admit that Barack Obama does a fine Neville Chamberlain.
Putin has proven he is a lawless man who, like Hitler during his rise in the 1930s, invokes the concept of law only when it is useful to his goals of internal control and external aggression. And make no mistake: Like Hitler, Putin would do anything that he knew he could get away with.
And I have to add that when it comes of Obama and Putin and breaking the law, it takes one to know one.
Dale Hurd reported from Moscow during the Gorbachev and Yeltsin periods. You can follow him on Twitter @dalehurd and on Facebook.