A key theme of Vladimir Putin’s justification for the war against Ukraine is that Russia is threatened by a Nazi regime empowered by NATO who together constitute an existential threat to his country. A year since the beginning of the Russian invasion, IVOR CHIPKIN asks what we should make of this talk of Nazis and Nazism.
By Ivor Chipkin1
In an address to his country on the 21st of September last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated that the purpose of the special operation in the Ukraine was to “liberate it from the neo-Nazi regime, which seized power in […] 2014 as the result of an armed state coup.”2 In fact, he referred to the Ukraine government as neo-Nazis nine times in this speech alone. It has been easy to speak truth to Putin’s power. Greg Mills and Ray Hartley, responding to an article by Ronnie Kasrils, the former Minister of Intelligence in South Africa, describe suggestions that Ukraine is a Nazi state as “sickening”. Kasrils nowhere makes this claim, though.3
What should we make of this talk of Nazis and of Nazism then? Is it a mere fig leaf for Russian aggression?
I think we should take it very seriously if we understand what is at stake. In Russia, Nazism does not fundamentally recall something that happened to the Jews. This is why it is not a contradiction for Putin to see a Nazi menace led by a Jewish, Ukrainian President. To understand how this is possible, we have to move past glib dichotomies about the war; the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad, democrats and authoritarians.
I want to make three points: the first is about the relationship of Nazism to the Holocaust; the second about the relationship of many contemporary European nationalisms to Nazism; and thirdly, about the relationship of Nazism to the hatred of Slavs/Russians.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF NAZISM TO THE HOLOCAUST
Firstly, Nazism was about the extermination of the Jews and others deemed racially inferior. New histories of World War Two are slowly beginning to unsettle the received wisdom, however, that the Holocaust was conceived, planned and orchestrated by an exclusively German command that implemented it as a great, bureaucratic operation. This conception of the Holocaust and of Nazism has stressed the “banality” of its evil, largely carried out by functionaries who participated in its mass killings as technicians and as administrators.
This image of the Holocaust is only partially true. Not only did millions die in German concentration camps where mass murder was conducted on an industrial scale in places like Treblinka and Auschwitz, millions more also died at the hands of local populations where the killing was so much more personal.
Lithuanians, for example, stabbed, starved, shot, decapitated, raped and burnt nearly 250,000 Jews prior to the arrival of German forces in 1941 (Vanagaite & Zuroff, 2020). The genocide in Lithuania was the most complete of the war. For South African Jews, the majority of whom are Litvaks, that is from Lithuania, it is a morbid realisation that those of our relatives who did not escape, died especially intimate, humiliating and cruel deaths. This was not evil as banality, but as manual, very personal slaughter.
The Croatian revolutionary movement imprisoned and murdered Serbians, Jews, Roma and dissident Croatians, often in ways so intimate and brutal that even Nazi officials are reported to have complained. The history of concentration camps like Jasenovac in Croatia is largely unknown outside of the Balkans and even today in Croatia it is barely acknowledged (Zuroff, 2022).
Similarly, one and a half million Jews were murdered in the Ukraine after the German occupation in 1941, massacred by the Nazi paramilitary death squads or Einsatzgruppen with local supporters. I will return to this because it raises something fundamental about the present.
For the moment let us consider one of the consequences of this situation. If Nazism was not a terrifying althugh brief anomaly of German history, but a mass European social phenomenon, then we have to ask where do Jews belong? European Jewry could not have been expected to return to European societies to live as minorities there.
Many Jews, including Bundists and those that were not Zionists (the vast majority) sought refuge in America, Canada, Britain and South Africa, before immigration laws shut down that option except for the lucky few. Steven Robins has written a very moving account of the correspondence between his father and uncle in Port Elizabeth and their parents in Berlin desperately trying to get out (Robins, 2016). It only strengthened the secular Zionist case for a Jewish majority state somewhere.
Where should such a state have been? Zionists considered many locations, from Uganda to Madagascar to the plains of Peru. That it happened in the former Ottoman territories of Palestine brought Jews into conflict with local, indigenous Arab populations – although a Jewish majority state anywhere would have made conflict almost inevitable somewhere. This was a catastrophe for the indigenous Arab population, though one not borne of Zionism as Western Imperialism – driven by Orientalist racism and capitalist expansion – but of Zionism as the expression of Jewish existential vulnerability and homelessness in the world. (I suspect that the conditions of peace lie in this realisation amongst the global Left, if not amongst Palestinian nationalists).4
THE RELATIONSHIP OF NAZISM TO CONTEMPORARY EUROPEAN NATIONALISMS
Secondly, many European nationalists rose to prominence and power on the coattails of German occupying forces. The Independent State of Croatia (NDH) was established in April 1941, a puppet state of fascist Italy and of Nazi Germany. The Croatian Ustaa combined various ideological elements, including Catholicism, nationalism and Nazi race theories.
In the Baltic, Lithuanian nationalists briefly restored Lithuania as a state as auxiliaries to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa. Contemporary Lithuanian “national heroes” such as Jonas Noreika were orchestrators of the near total destruction of the Jewish population. It took a biography by his granddaughter, Sylvia Foti, to place what was only whispered about in Lithuania in the public domain: that Lithuanian nationalism did not express itself only in relation to the defiance of communism but also in relation to the support of Nazism and the genocidal killing of Jews (Foti, 2021).5 Today, the Orwellian sounding National Genocide Centre in Vilnius (Vilna) is actually a centre of genocide denial.
In the Ukraine, “national heroes” are complex figures. Stepan Bandera was born in 1909 in what was then Austria-Hungary] one of the factions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) the 1930s. By then Lviv and other areas where large Ukrainian populations lived formed the eastern edges of Poland, so that nationalist resistance took the form of attacks on Polish authorities. After the war, he became the leader of an overseas facton of the OUN (known as the OUN-B) where he orchestrated opposition to the Soviet Union until being assassinated by a KGB agent in Munich in 1959. While Bandera himself, unlike Noreika, was not personally involved in the Nazi genocide, the OUN was, allying with SS forces in pursuit of a Ukraine purged of Jews, Poles and Russians.6 7
In 2005, pro-Western politician Viktor Yushchenko awarded Bandera the title “Hero of Ukraine”. There was nothing idiosyncratic about this reinvention. Philippe Sands has shown how quickly after 1945 American and British forces moved to rehabilitate former Nazis and in the fast-emerging cold war recast them as anti-communists. Yushchenko’s successor, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, had the title revoked.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF NAZISM TO THE HATRED OF SLAVS/RUSSIANS
Thirdly, Nazism was about the colonisation and extermination of Russians/Slavs. Drawing on the model of the American West, Hitler saw in the Ukraine Germany’s California, a space emptied of its existing population to make way for a superior race.
When the Soviet counter-offensive in 1944 routed German forces, the horrors that greeted the advancing Red Army are difficult to comprehend. Jewish populations had been decimated, but so had Soviet civilians been starved, reduced to slaves and massacred. In 2005 the historian, Tony Judt, estimated Soviet civilian deaths at 16 million and the total number of Soviet citizens (including soldiers) killed in the war at 24,600,000. Millions of civilians had been killed by “direct, intentional violence”,ore than two million died as forced labourers in Germany and over four million died of starvation and disease in German-occupied areas.
Today, even the figure of nearly nine million Soviet soldiers dead in the war is said to underestimate the millions that died as prisoners of war in horrific conditions in German camps. Russians formed the bulk of these causalities. To put these figures in perspective, the United Kingdom suffered less than half a million combined civilian and military losses. So too did the United States.
In the Soviet Union and in Russia today, Nazism was and is conceived as an existential threat to Russians and to Slavs in general. Part of that framing, it is true, betrays an antisemitic refusal to acknowledge Jewish deaths as Jewish deaths, as opposed to “anti-fascist” civilian casualties. But even taking account of the Holocaust, Nazism expressed a deep-seated hatred of Russians as Russians and of Slavs more generally.
The figure of the Russian and of the Slav, like the Jew and the Black, have long formed the tropes against which Western Europe and America defined both their whiteness and their civility. Churchill’s infamous broadcast of 1939 describing Russia as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” goes to the heart of what Mark Smith calls “Russian anxiety”, the idea that Russians are inscrutable, dangerous and driven by wild and bewildering forces (2019). It is not difficult to see how analysis of Putin and of Russia today reproduces many of these crude stereotypes.
In March 2022, for example, Stephen Kotkin, professor of history at Princeton spoke about Russia in ways that Africanists would recall from colonial historiography. “What we have today in Russia,” he argued, “is not some kind of surprise. It’s not some kind of deviation from a historical pattern. Way before NATO existed – in the nineteenth century – Russia looked like this: it had an autocrat. It had repression. It had militarism. It had suspicion of foreigners and the West. This is a Russia that we know, and it’s not a Russia that arrived yesterday or in the nineteen-nineties. It’s not a response to the actions of the West. There are internal processes in Russia that account for where we are today” (See Remnick, 2022).8
This image of an eternal Russia, largely without history, merely a story of endless repetition, is almost identical to the one repeated ad nauseum by racists about African societies, forever caught up in mindless and repetitive waves of tribal warfare. It is as much a nonsense about Africa as it is about Russia.
Russia is not the Soviet Union, however, whose ideological justification had collapsed long before the 1990s. As an old Soviet joke had it, the party pretends to rule and the people pretend to obey. Putin is not an artefact of Russian collapse, however, but of Russian nationalist assertion – one premised on appeals to a mystical and transcendent Russian soul as well as a deep sense of grievance and existential threat. It is not difficult to see how NATO encirclement, how the celebration of anti-Russian war criminals, how the effective banning of the Russian language in most public places in the Ukraine, how the overthrow of a legitimately elected pro-Russian leader and attacks on the Russian majority regions in the Ukraine resonate with Russian ideas of what Nazism is.
Glib words and actions that make Russians and Russia itself the object of denunciation, rather than Putin and his government, merely aggravate the very conditions of the war itself. Part of the problem is that so much analysis lacks a historical sensibility and without it, an understanding of the meaning of Nazism today. The conditions for peace and democracy in the region are not clear, but the path to nuclear war is.
Foti, Silvia. 2021. The Nazi’s Granddaughter: How I Discovered My Grandfather Was a War Criminal, Blackstone Publishing.
Randall, Daniel. 2021. Confronting Anti-Semitism on the Left – Arguments for Socialists, London: No Pasaran Media.
Remnick, David. 2022.The Weakness of the Despot: An expert on Stalin discusses Putin, Russia, and the West, The New Yorker, 11 March.
Robins, Steven. 2016. Letters of Stone. From Nazi Germany to South Africa. Cape Town: Penguin Books.
Rossoliski-Liebe, Grzegorz. 2014. Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist: Fascism, Genocide, and Cult,Stuttgart: ibidem.
Smith, Mark. 2019. Russian Anxiety. And how history can resolve it, London: Allen Lane (Penguin).
Spitz, Derek. 2022. Confronting Antisemitism on the Left — Arguments for Socialists, Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, 5(2):125-130. Available at https://doi.org/10.26613/jca.5.2.122
Vanagaite, Ruta and Zuroff, Efraim. 2020. Our People. Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust, London: Rowman and Littlefield.
Zaitsev, Oleksandr. 2015, Fascism or Ustashism? Ukrainian Integral Nationalism in Comparative Perspective, 1920s-1930s, Post-Communist Studies, 48, (2–3) : 183–193, June–September).
- Chipkin is a South African writer who comes from a family of Jews and Slavs.
(accessed 9 February 2023.
3.For more on this exchange see Ronnie Kasrils, SA and Russia – from Soviet Times to Conflict in Ukraine,’News24, https://www.news24.com/ news24/opinions/fridaybriefing/ronnie-kasrils- sa-and-russia-from-soviet-times-to-conflict-in- ukraine-20230126m (accessed 08 February 2023). Also see the response by Greg Mills and Ray Hartley, 3 February 2023, The Defence of Russia Risk Taking South Africa Down a Dark and Authoritarian
4.See the excellent review of Daniel Randall’s book, Confronting Anti-Semitism on the Left – Arguments for Socialists, by Derek Spitz.
5.Also see the documentary by Michael Kretzmer, “Jaccuse: a plea for justice from the killing pits of Lithuania”.
6.The biography of Bandera by Rossolinski-Liebe is widely regarded as the most authoritative.
7.Zaitsev proposes that these movements be described by what he calls “ustashism” rather than fascism because they were revolutionary ultranationalist (integral-nationalist) expressions of stateless nations seeking “not [the] reorganization of an existing state according to totalitarian principles, but the creation of a new state, using all available means, including terror, to this end”.
8.David Remnick interviews Stephen Kotkin. Citation: New Agenda: South African Journal of Social and Economic Policy No 87, First Quarter 2023, March: p18. https://ifaaza.org/new-agenda/new-agenda-issue-88/