Good News From Ukraine: Everyone Still Hates Hitler

All sides in the Crimean crisis are invoking the Third Reich. Why?
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Alex Kuzmin/Reuters

Russian and Western leaders don't see eye-to-eye on the crisis in Ukraine, but they've reached consensus on another important issue: Adolf Hitler was bad.

For European and American observers, Russia's annexation of Crimea echoes the Nazi leader's foreign policy between the military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936 and the seizure of the Czech Sudetenland in 1938. Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess grandmaster and prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, wrote as the Crimean crisis unfolded that between hosting the Olympics and invading neighboring countries, "[if] Putin wanted to do a better imitation of Adolf Hitler circa 1936-1938, he would have to grow a little mustache." Earlier this month, as Putin justified his moves in Crimea as an effort to protect ethnic Russians, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s."

Examples abound of Hitler's pre-war aggression, and diplomats have compared Putin's actions to just about all of them. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called Russia's seizure of Crimea an "anschluss," evoking Hitler's 1938 annexation of Austria. A former Czech foreign minister, whose country was carved up by Germany after the Munich Conference of 1938, said Putin was "acting on the same principles" as Hitler did then. When Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird was asked if he meant to compare Russia's actions to Nazi Germany's invasion of the Sudetenland, he replied, "When you have one country invading one of its neighbors, using this type of outrageous and ludicrous rhetoric, it's hard not to."

In Ukraine, such criticism is aimed directly at Putin himself. "World War II began with the annexation by Nazi Germany of other countries' territories," warned Oleksandr Turchynov, Ukraine's interim president. "Today, Putin is following the example of 20th-century fascists." Others are even less diplomatic. "Do you have success negotiating with a killer?" wondered Ukrainian legislator Lesya Orobets when discussing diplomatic efforts with Putin. "Do you negotiate with Hitler?"

* * *

Russian officials also see parallels with Nazi Germany in Ukraine, but not the same ones. While the West invokes the Hitler of 1936 and 1938, Putin and his allies instead claim they're fighting the Hitler of 1933 and 1934—the man who transformed the Weimar Republic's weak parliamentary democracy into the Third Reich's totalitarian and genocidal state in less than a decade. "We are seeing a repetition of the Nazi overthrow of the 1930s in Germany," the ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych claimed shortly after fleeing to Russia last month. 

On Tuesday, Putin also justified his intervention in Crimea by claiming that "nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites" were responsible for the "coup" that toppled Yanukovych. He also cited a proposed law that would have stripped Russian of its status as one of Ukraine's national languages. Though the law failed to pass Ukraine's parliament, "we can all clearly see the intentions of these ideological heirs of Bandera, Hitler's accomplice during World War II," Putin warned.

Putin was referring to Stepan Bandera, one of the most controversial figures in Ukrainian history. Bandera, whose Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) fought for national independence during the turbulent interwar years, "aimed to make of Ukraine a one-party fascist dictatorship without national minorities," wrote historian Timothy Snyder in 2010. "Bandera and other Ukrainian nationalists [in the 1930s] saw the Nazis as the only power that could destroy both of their oppressors, Poland and the Soviet Union."

For these reasons, Bandera and some Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with advancing German forces as they swept through Eastern Europe, even allegedly helping the Nazis target Ukrainian Jews. But Hitler had no intention of allowing Ukrainian independence, and the OUN's leaders spent much of the war in a Nazi concentration camp after declaring a short-lived independent Ukrainian state in 1941, eventually forming a paramilitary force, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), that opposed both the Germans and the Soviets. KGB operatives later assassinated Bandera in West Germany in 1959. Linking a Ukrainian collaborator to the Euromaidan revolution allows Putin to portray himself not as a fascist-like aggressor, but as the defender of Russians from fascism.

Svoboda activists take part in a rally marking the 71st anniversary of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army in Kiev, in October 2013. The portrait on the left is that of Stepan Bandera. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Like all good propaganda, Russian claims of neo-fascist thuggery in Kiev are based on a kernel of truth. During the Euromaidan protests, two far-right Ukrainian groups rose to prominence. Pravy Sektor (or Right Sector), a nationalist group, manned barricades and clashed with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square over the course of the uprising against Yanukovych. The militant organization has denied claims that it is anti-Semitic, but it has spoken out against homosexuality and embraces an ideology that, in the words of journalist Simon Shuster, "borders on fascism." But Pravy Sektor is only a minor political player in Ukraine's post-Yanukovych government.

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Matt Ford is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees social media.

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