The similarities between Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia are striking – and thoroughly disturbing. Will an increasingly stressed Putin push his country towards war, as Hitler did? Or will his Russian Federation collapse like the Soviet Union? President Putin’s choices depend to a large extent on the attitude of the West.
The similarities between Hitler’s Third Reich in the late 1930’s and Putin’s Russian Federation since 2012 are not simply perceptible, but are becoming increasingly unnerving. The fundamental question is: where is Putin leading Russia? We know how Hitler and his Thousand Year Reich finished, but how will Putin’s Russia end? And when?
Hitler perceived the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as a monumental catastrophe. Similarly, Putin views the collapse of the Soviet Union’s in 1991 as a national disaster – and is seeking to restore it at all costs. Both Hitler and Putin set out to reestablish military and political prominence, nationally and internationally, by leading their nations to eternal glory. Hitler as Germany’s demonic Führer corresponds easily to Putin as the batiusjka of all Russians, literally ”little father”. But he acts more like a Mafia capo di tutti capi.
There is no doubt that both Hitler and Putin are charismatic leaders and that they gained power legitimately. Both have both been supported by massive – and growing -ever growing authoritarian political parties. Hitler had his NSDAP, and Putin has United Russia. Both were supported by fanatical youth organizations – Hitlerjugend and Nashi and Molodaja Gvardia – which are blatantly provocative and violent.
Prior to the rise of Hitler in Germany and Putin in the Soviet Union/Russia, both countries experienced traumatic economic disasters. After the currency collapse in Germany in the early 1920’s and the political disorder during the Weimar Republic, mass unemployment devastated the country after the 1929 global market crash. Russia experienced similar market disruptions in the 1990s of Yeltsin and the oligarchs and and again after the global financial crisis in 2008. Such situations often lead to bonapartism, where a populistic strongman gains power and sustains it through the use of police and military muscle.
By investing heavily in security and their military-industrial complexes, both Hitler and Putin were able to provide jobs, income, self-esteem, confidence and a sense of a brighter future their millions of disillusioned subjects. They profited not only from booming arms and military equipment exports, but they were also supported by innovative propaganda apparatuses. For instance, both of them love to organize impressive military parades and Olympic Games, i.e. like the Roman autocratic emperors: panem et circenses to the subjugated masses.
Ideologically, both Hitler and Putin linked their nations to past mythical greatness. Hitler worshiped the Aryans and admired the ancient Teutons and the 18th-19th century Kingdom of Prussia. The so-called Hitler Cross (Eisernes Kreuz) is in fact a legacy of Prussia’s Napoleonic Wars. While the idea behind Hitler’s Third Reich leaned on the medieval and the 19th century German Empires, Putin can see himself as successor of the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, defender of Christian ideas against the rest of the world. His reverence for predecessors like Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and Stalin – all mass murderers – is well known.
Like all dictators throughout history, Hitler surrounded himself with bodyguards and an elite SS force under his direct control in Berlin. In Moscow, we are confronted with a newly established “National Guard” under Putin’s direct command, for “riot control”, i.e. to crush what may emerge in the streets. Regardless of the suppression, there certainly are opposition groups in disguise in Russia, as there were in Hitler’s Germany.
Even today the Soviet Union’s national anthem is proudly sung in Russia; the communist red star is featured on state symbols and Russia brands itself with the imperial double-headed eagle and the St George Cross.
Hitler’s Reichspropagandaminister Joseph Goebbels placed heavy emphasis on brutal anti-Semitism and Aryan-affirming features in his fast developing German film industry. He had to commit suicide at the end of the war. On the Russian side, we’re now seeing a similar, sinister, manipulation of news and information through Putin’s state news at home but also all over the world by the conglomerate “Sputnik” and its active, infiltrating “trolls”. By now we have all learned what hybrid warfare means.
Russia’s nightly state news broadcasts drip with anti-Western and xenophobic messaging, glorification of militant patriotism, military might and the deification of a roving, neo-fascist biker gang sponsored by Putin himself, “The Night Wolves”. Their aggressive, heavy metal-accompanied partying after the conquest of Crimea, accompanied by military bands and choirs, enormous fireworks and chauvinistic poetry reading, equaled some birthday orgy of the awesome Orchs. In comparison to Putin’s modern multi-media war-mongering, Dr. Goebbels’s and Frau Riefenstahl’s notorious German Parade & Party films of the late 1930’s seem like school-boy essays.
Despite flourishing arms exports all over the world, Russia’s finances have slowed and are now in serious decline as oil prices continue to fall and corruption and lawlessness cripple the economy. This year inflation is officially at 12.9 % while the ruble has fallen to half of its value against the dollar. Meanwhile, the World Bank states that 20 million – one in every seven – Russians live in (Russian!) poverty. Reform plans are non-existent.
To keep their subjects in check, both the Nazi and Putin regimes controlled their people with censorship, through active snooping and physical repression by the secret police, Gestapo and KGB/SVR. Putin’s court and education systems are as corrupt as were Hitler’s. His Chief Prosecutor Rudolf Freisler was hanged in the post-war Nuremberg trials. The names Chodorkovsky, Magnitsky, Pussy Riot and Pavlensky, and if ypu want the taken hostages Kohver and Savchenko tell tales of Russia’s judicial system. People were murdered or political reasons in Hitler’s Germany and are murdered today in Russia. In Germany of the 1930’s, Hitler’s rival Ernst Röhm and his whole SA-leadership were shot during the “night of the long knives”. In Russia, Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov were shot dead, and Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned even in London, just to mention a few of the dozens of victims. The new ombudsman for human rights in Russia is an old KGB/FSB veteran. Lifelong Moscow and Petersburg friends of Estonian intellectuals refrain from contact.
Other government critics are forced to inaction and silence, or are relegated to uncomfortable camp existences. To boost their peoples’ self-esteem and to unite the nations, both Hitler and Putin resorted to an aggressive, unifying and expansive foreign policy. In doing so, they relied heavily on their unscrupulous foreign ministers, von Ribbentrop (hanged in Nuremberg) and grim Sergei Lavrov. They help unify their subjects against imagined external, demonized enemies. Hitler’s primary focus was the Bolshevik Soviet Union, with which he eventually partnered in 1939, and then, together with Stalin, started the Second World War to carve up Eastern Europe. As known, Putin’s enemies are the very evidently hated United States and NATO
On the home front Hitler notoriously incited his brainwashed “Aryan” masses against Jews. Putin’s zombies similarly attack homo-sexuals and chernomazyie, “blackheads”, i.e. immigrant job seekers from the Caucuses. Considering what awaited German Jews during World War II, Russian racism does not bode well for any Russian minority in a future crisis situation…
Regarding military expansionism, it should suffice to mention Hitler’s invasion of the Saarland in 1935, his “connection” of Bohemia and Austria in 1938, and the attack on Poland in 1939. For Putin, the cyber attack against Estonia and the riots in Tallinn in 2007, the onslaught against Georgia in 2008, the Crimea in 2013 and the war in eastern Ukraine, now in its third year, prove his expansive ambitions.
Ongoing Russian rearmament in the Baltic Sea region has gone so far that Putin has built up a colossal attack force in Kaliningrad with the capacity to completely seal off the BALTAPPs, the entrances to the Baltic Sea from the straights around Denmark. Putin also conducts colossal annual maneuvers across his western territory, harassing foreign research vessels at sea, and simulating bomber strikes against Sweden. Yet Sweden, with its declared feminist foreign policy, will allow the Russians to rent more and more dock space in Slite harbor on the east coast of strategically crucial island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea! The Russian military even had the daring to buzz a US destroyer in the Baltic Sea in April. Where will all of this end?
Considering the historical parallels between Putin’s to-the-teeth armed poor-house with Hitler’s Germany, and with the ailing Soviet Union of the 1980s, we can anticipate two possible scenarios:
In the first scenario, and in comparison with Hitler’s Third Reich, we recall how Western powers, with British Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, acquiesced to Hitler’s increasingly bold extortions. In 1938, a smiling Chamberlain accepted Hitler’s invasion of Bohemia / the Czech Republic, declaring “peace in our time”, and “a newer, wider order of peace for the whole future of Europe.” In other words: appeasement. Unfortunately, this did not stop Hitler. In an attempt to mask the downturn in the German economy, Hitler then attacked Poland. We all know how that ended.
In the second scenario, and considering the Soviet Union in the 1980’s, the United States, NATO and the West firmly opposed every Soviet every provocation and sabre rattling. By virtue of economic supremacy, the West stayed ahead of the Soviet Union in military might, as it developed new weaponry and new missiles far superior to the latest Soviet ones in use in the DDR, such as the Pershings in West Germany of the 1970’s. Both President Reagan and Chancellor Schmidt then showed resolve against the endemic military threats by the Warsaw Pact and against domestic pressure to appease the Soviets. They did not yield, as did Britain’s naïve Chamberlain. We would do well to remember also the Berlin Lift of 1948-49, the Korean War of the 1950’s, and President Kennedy’s firm flexibility during the Cuba crisis of 1962. The Cold War international arms race with its Star Wars rhetoric in the 1980s ed to the Soviet Union’s economic melt down and its ultimate collapse just after 1990.
Now: will a beleaguered Putin choose war, as did Hitler? Or will he allow Russia to implode, like Gorbachev’s Soviet Union? It may depend largely on the way the West chooses to deal with him. Will the economically superior West appease Putin, or will it take a strong, principled stand against his escalating provocations?
During the past year NATO has established a presence in the Baltic region with a primary goal to prevent war. In order to maintain peace, NATO must continue to stand up against Putin’s bullying expansiveness and continue to support democracy and independence through political, cyber, counter-narrative and military means within NATO’s frontiers. Containment is key.
HAIN REBAS is a professor emeritus of history. He formerly worked at the Universities of Gothenburg, Kiel, Toronto and Tartu. 1990-1992 he was an advisor to the Foreign Minister of Estonia Lennart Meri (President 1992-2001). Rebas was Estonia’s defense minister 1992/1993.
This article was originally published by Svenska Dagbladet and was translated into English by Alide Forstmanis.