Good News From Ukraine: Everyone Still Hates Hitler

All sides in the Crimean crisis are invoking the Third Reich. Why?

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?"

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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.

The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom), a political party founded in 1991 and the more powerful of the two organizations, draws upon the ideology of Yaroslav Stetsko, one of Bandera's OUN allies during the war. It holds 37 seats in Ukraine's 450-seat parliament and five of its members are part of Ukraine's new government, including the deputy prime minister. Although its leaders claim to have moderated in recent years, the European Parliament condemned Svoboda in 2012 for racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic sentiments that were "against the EU's fundamental values and principles."

But Russian officials are exaggerating both groups' size, strength, and support. International news organizations, including the Associated Press, have reported no evidence of hate crimes committed after Yanukovych's downfall, and Ukrainian rabbis have also denied Russian claims that anti-Semitic acts had taken place since the revolution. Ukraine's UN ambassador, Yuri Sergeyev, pleaded with the international community earlier this month not to make generalizations about his people, stressing that "millions of Ukrainians in the West are normal European citizens."

Then, to the Russian delegation's fury, Sergeyev claimed without prompting that Moscow had falsified evidence against Bandera at the Nuremberg trials, and that the Western allies on the tribunal had exonerated him of war crimes as a result. "Officials of new Ukrainian authorities glorify fascist crimes of Stepan Bandera," roared Pravda in response.

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Europe isn't the only region where invocations of the 20th century's most notorious dictator are in vogue. Last month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III condemned China's territorial claims in the South China Sea and told a reporter, "At what point do you say, 'Enough is enough'? Well, the world has to say it—remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II." Meanwhile, as part of China's ongoing diplomatic feud with Japan, President Xi Jinping intends to use a visit to Germany later this month to contrast Berlin's successful de-Nazification process with Tokyo's recalcitrance about its own World War II-era history, much to Germany's displeasure.

There's a reason so many world leaders invoke Hitler: it works. The führer and his Third Reich represent the apotheosis of evil and the philosophical negation of Western civilization. A poll this month found Americans were more likely to support U.S. intervention in Crimea if Hitler were mentioned. In countries such as Ukraine and Russia, where millions died in Hitler's wars and the resistance to fascism in the "Great Patriotic War" is at the core of national identity, the comparison is even more potent.

Most references to Hitler are meant to inflame, but in some circumstances they can be relevant. In the wake of World War II, the victorious Allies came to appreciate the importance of territorial integrity in preventing conflict. After all, Hitler's efforts to unify the large numbers of ethnic Germans who lived outside Germany's borders into a "Greater Germanic Reich" directly precipitated the conflict. Since the League of Nations had proved utterly ineffective at blocking Hitler's moves to carve up smaller countries, Allied leaders enshrined a more absolute version of territorial integrity in the United Nations charter and international law, forbidding "the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state." To prevent a future German leader from re-attempting Hitler's revanchist project, Allied governments also expelled German-speaking populations en masse from Eastern and Central Europe. An estimated 500,000 ethnic German civilians died between 1945 and 1950, in what the historian R.M. Douglas has called the "largest episode of forced migration ... in human history."

No such demographic change took place after the fall of the Soviet Union, however. "Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics," noted Putin in his statement announcing Crimea's annexation on Tuesday, "while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders." An estimated 25 million ethnic Russians found themselves living in 14 former Soviet republics no longer ruled by Moscow when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev resigned. In Latvia, Estonia, and Kazakhstan, they represent roughly one-quarter of each country's population. Now, under Putin, Russia has established a foreign-policy doctrine to "protect" them all—even with military force, as shown in Ukraine.

Russia's latest actions, of course, don't make Vladimir Putin the next Hitler. There was only one Adolf Hitler, and he died seven decades ago. That doesn't necessarily let the Russian president off the hook, though. One can rob a bank without becoming Jesse James.