Arrogance like ignorance is a generator of stupidities. But while the latter is excused, arrogance-bred follies must be eschewed. In that way, politicians and academics that know better than to compare Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler cannot be excused. Arrogance is inherently indifferent and frequently malicious.
Invoking Nazism and Hitler tends – at best – to mystify not clarify. In reality, it is propagated to demonise and harm. Indeed, such comparison aims to end a discussion instead of starting a free and frank exchange. If Putin is a modern Hitler, what is there to explore, explain or argue? Any rational explanation becomes an appeasement of evil.
And yet, as we discuss in the next episode of EMPIRE, Western media is abound with such comparisons because the former Cold War enemy makes for an easy target just as “imperialist America” is an attractive target for certain Russian nationalists.
Putin is not an enlightened democrat. As a politician he’s shown persistent totalitarian tendencies. And as a former KGB officer, he’s demonstrated signs of paranoia. But that doesn’t make him a Third Reich type leader. Nor do Moscow’s deployments in Crimea demonstrate that Russia is bent on invading and occupying Eastern Europe. Far from it.
Paradoxically, it was Putin’s government that demonised the anti Russian government/camp in Ukraine, branding them as fascist-led or fascist-infested. This is certainly counterproductive even if a case was made regarding two radical rightist groups that participated in the Kiev uprising: The Svoboda and the Right Sector. The two groups have – indeed – displayed certain fascist tendencies in the past, and waved flags with Swastika like symbols. For Washington, however, and to rephrase President Barack Obama’s sports analogy: “Not everyone who wears an FC Barcelona Jersey is a Messi.”
In response to Moscow’s charges against Ukraine, the US State Department pointed out in a 10-point rebuttal statement that: “Far-right wing ultranationalist groups, some of which were involved in open clashes with security forces during the EuroMaidan protests, are not represented in the Rada.”
This characterisation of events has been widely disputed in Moscow recently. But assuming Putin is paranoid, this doesn’t mean that no one is after him, or after his regime.
I reckon the Russian embassy in Washington, a couple of months before the Ukraine crisis began, had sent Putin the following quote from an article by Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy: “Ukraine is the biggest prize, and there Russia’s bullying has been particularly counter-productive…. Ukraine’s choice to join Europe will accelerate the demise of the ideology of Russian imperialism that Putin represents.”
And I assume the KGB had briefed President Putin about Victoria Nuland‘s conversation with US Ukraine Ambassador telling him that “Yats” was Washington’s preferred “guy”, only for Yatsenyuk to become the interim prime minister a couple of weeks later.
None of that, however, seemed to matter to Nuland’s former boss – and maybe – the future US President, Hillary Clinton when it comes to demonising Putin as an exercise in populism.
From the populist to the slimy
Soon after Putin moved on Crimea, the Washington Post reported that Former Secretary of State Clinton compared Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine to actions taken by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler outside Germany in the run-up to World War II.
“Now if this sounds familiar, it’s what Hitler did back in the ’30s,” she said, adding “All the Germans that were … the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they’re not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that’s what’s gotten everybody so nervous.”
By way of historic contrast, when Clinton was the First Lady in the 1990s, the White House was trigger happy with Russian President Boris Yeltsin despite his violation of the constitution, bombardment of the Parliament and destruction of Grozny among other terrible acts.
At any rate, someone must have told the presidential hopeful that such populist utterance is not only counterproductive, it undermines Clinton herself, since she will probably have to shake Putin’s hand if she ever enters the White House.
As she struggled clumsily to clarify her position the following day, Senators, Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) came to her rescue. McCain endorsed her comments, and affirmed that: “If Putin is allowed to go into a sovereign nation on behalf of Russian-speaking people, this is the same thing that Hitler did prior to World War II.”
Rubio, also a potential 2016 presidential candidate, agreed: “I think the point she was making, in terms of the claims that they needed to move into a neighbouring country to protect an ethnic group tied to them, is certainly similar to the argument that Hitler made in the 1930s.”
A quick research shows that such outrageous statements are frequent. Zbigniew Brzeznski, former National Security advisor and unofficial advisor to President Obama, described Putin as “the dictator in the Kremlin – a partially comical imitation of Mussolini and a more menacing reminder of Hitler.”
Similar demonisation was expressed by a wide spectrum of people, from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird to Anti Putin activists Garry Kasparov through French “philosopher” Bernard Henri Levi as well as British actor Stephen Fry and Russian historian Andrey Zubov.
Bluff and Bluster
Among the “Ten handy phrases for bluffing your way through a conversation about the situation in Ukraine”, the British Spectator magazine suggested rather sardonically: “The similarities with Hitler and the Sudetenland/Anschluss/Peter the Great/Stalin and the Tartars/Genghis Khan are striking.”
The article makes it clear that “Historical analogies are invaluable to the experienced bluffer, but the amateur must tread carefully.”
It follows, “When in doubt, hedge: ‘I am not saying that Putin is Hitler, but …’ or ‘It’s easy to get carried away with these comparisons, but…’ Try to look pained, as if contemplating both the complexity and the imminent possibility of human suffering.”
This is eerily similar to what the likes of Clinton, and Senator Graham and Garry Gasparov tried to do. Unfortunately however, the image of Putin, as modern-day Hitler and Russia acting as Nazi Germany, has continued unabated.
The danger in this type of contrast, analogy and metaphor is the degree to which they enrage, incite and escalate. After all, the entire lesson from 1938 is that military force is the only answer to a Nazi-like aggression. In that way, the demonisation of Saddam Hussein as a Middle Eastern Hitler paved the way towards a horrific 2003 war in Iraq.
Arrogance like ignorance is also a generator of prejudice as it’s generated by it. Otherwise, how does one explain the insensitivity embedded in the comparison with Hitler and Nazi Germany when millions of Russians died in the war with the Nazis – more than the combined deaths among all Europeans.
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.