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Putin’s Big Lie



Yesterday Vladimir Putin went to Stalingrad. It was the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the city once named after the Soviet dictator. The current Russian dictator solemnly bowed his head and knelt before a wreath laid to honor the heroes of the battle that turned the tide of World War II. The day before the ceremony, a bronze bust of Joseph Stalin had been unveiled in the city, whose name was changed to Volgograd in 1961. By then Stalin, perhaps the 20th century’s greatest mass murderer, was out of favor. But for Putin, the city is still Stalingrad, the year is still 1943, Nazis are still waging a scorched-earth war, and the heroic Russian people are still fighting a far stronger enemy in defense of the motherland. Only it’s 2023, and the enemy is the independent, democratic, much smaller nation of Ukraine, led by a Jewish president and armed by Western democracies—including Germany.  

Putin’s purpose in going to Stalingrad was to connect the past war to the present one, and in doing so to rouse Russian pride and warn his enemies of their coming doom. “Unfortunately, we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” he declared in a speech to a military audience. “Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: We are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”

To grasp the enormity of this lie—the foundational lie of Russia’s war against Ukraine—it helps to know something about the history of World War II. During Putin’s visit to Stalingrad, I was rereading the classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer, a CBS radio correspondent who had been based in Berlin in the 1930s. So it was fresh in my mind how Adolf Hitler, in his first move of conquest, annexed Austria in March of 1938, claiming it as a historical part of the German Reich, and then held a plebiscite in which 99.75 percent of Austrians officially voted to join Germany. Putin’s first move in this war was to annex Crimea in March of 2014, claiming it as a historical part of the Russian Empire, and then hold a plebiscite in which 97 percent of Crimeans officially voted to join Russia.

Next for Hitler in 1938 came the annexation of the Sudetenland, the German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia, where local Nazis, on orders from Berlin, instigated phony pretexts for a German takeover. Relentless Nazi propaganda transformed Czechoslovakia, a progressive democracy, into a hellish aggressor, and charged its president, Edvard Benes, with a litany of made-up crimes. “It is unbearable for a world power to know there are racial comrades at its side who are constantly being afflicted with the severest suffering for their sympathy or unity with the whole nation, its destiny and Weltanshauung,” the Fuhrer roared. “To the interests of the German Reich belong the protection of those German peoples who are not in a position to secure along our frontiers their political and spiritual freedom by their own efforts.”             

It isn’t all that hard to replace the German Weltanshauung with Ruskiy Mir, or “Russian world”; Hitler the protector of oppressed German speakers with Putin the liberator of oppressed Russian speakers; Edvard Benes with Volodymyr Zelensky; the Sudetenland with the Donbas; Berlin-backed Sudeten Nazis with Moscow-backed Ukrainian separatists. In both cases, incidents in the breakaway regions were ginned up on orders from the neighboring empire, giving it an excuse to invade. In the Reich Chancellery then, as in the Kremlin now, every gesture toward peace negotiations was a sham to buy more time for war. Within six months of the September 1938 Munich Conference where the Sudetenland was surrendered to Germany, Hitler swallowed the rest of Czechoslovakia—and he was just beginning. Eight years after starting a war in Crimea and the Donbas, Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, bringing destruction, murder, rape, occupation, annexation, deportation, threats of annihilation, and many more lies.

History doesn’t repeat itself; it rarely even rhymes. Putin’s claim that Russia is reliving the defense of Stalingrad shows how misleading and pernicious analogies can be. It’s generally wise to resist them—this one above all, for Hitler truly was unique. But as I made my way through Shirer’s 1,100-page book, resisting the analogies required much more effort than drawing them.


Putin raises the Nazi ghost as a way not just to discredit his enemies with a false charge, but to immunize himself from having a far more plausible charge flung at him. This is propaganda as projection—a common technique of demagogues. Hitler accused the Czechs and Poles of aggression against Germany as he prepared to invade; Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden of corrupting American justice as he turned the executive branch into an instrument of his personal interests. “No puppet!” Trump retorted in a debate after Clinton suggested how Putin regarded him. “You’re the puppet!”

In Stalingrad, Putin used the historical lie where he knew it would hurt most—against the Germans. The agony of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision, after months of hesitation, to send tanks to Ukraine reflected a genuine fear among Germans—not so much that Russia would retaliate with nuclear weapons, as Putin threatened in his speech, but that Germany’s Leopards are still Panzers, that their use in Ukraine might still evoke images of Operation Barbarossa, that the country can never live down its darkest history. I was in Berlin in 2014 during the months just after Putin began the war in Ukraine, and Germans were deeply divided, with a large percentage—though not a majority—sympathetic to Russia. Friends explained that the nightmare of another war with Russia still haunts Germany, but even more, the legacy of 27 million Soviet dead in World War II remains a source of almost transhistorical guilt. Putin, who served in Dresden, in East Germany, as a KGB officer, understands that he has only to say “Nazi” for the German soul to tremble.

I would like to hear Scholz, or Zelensky, or Biden, lay this ghost to rest by reversing the charge. Germany’s Leopards will be used, at last and much too late, to help Ukraine’s military defend the country against a far more numerous and heavily armed invader. The Germans were willing to lose entire divisions in the crucible of Stalingrad; the Russians are willing to do the same in Bakhmut, and they’re sending tens of thousands more troops for a new offensive in the Donbas, where cities and villages lie in ruins. Scholz’s belated decision should be seen not as a failure to learn from history, but as one more step in Germany’s long reckoning with its crimes. The Leopards are part of the same project of national atonement as the Holocaust Memorial, in the heart of Berlin. They won’t erase the past, much less, as Putin does, deform it. They will honor it.

Source: The Atlantic

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