Parallel Lines (with Zarina Zabrisky)
In Ukraine, Putin is operating from Hitler's playbook.
Strongmen copy other strongmen. They study the techniques of their predecessors, appropriate what they can use, add their own wrinkles. As Ruth Ben-Ghiat explains in her book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, Adolf Hitler, a Mussolini fanboy, borrowed extensively from Il Duce. Trump behaved obsequiously toward dictators he admired—Putin, Erdoğan, and Kim Jong-Un—while despotic governors like Ron DeSantis shamelessly mimic Trump, right down to the hand gestures.
In Texas in 2022, the tyrannical governor, deranged lieutenant governor, and criminal attorney general cannot guarantee that there will be sufficient power during a winter cold snap—an abject failure of leadership—just as Vladimir Putin cannot deliver working toilets to a sizable percentage of Russian households.
In Russia, the lack of basic amenities is not the worst of it. As Zarina Zabrisky and I discuss on today’s PREVAIL podcast, Putin has clearly been studying the Nazi playbook. He saw how Hitler improbably rose to power (and eliminated his rivals when he got there) and did the same. Now, the Russian strongman is doing in Ukraine what Hitler did in Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938—and banking on Joe Biden to make like Neville Chamberlain.
This is not to suggest that Putin is equivalent to Hitler. Hitler was singularly, uniquely evil—a genocidal madman—while Putin is, in the words of Rep. Elissa Slotkin, “a fraud and a thug.”
But there are too many parallels for this to be mere coincidence:
RISE TO POWER
Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany. The president, Paul von Hindenburg, the relic of an older generation, remains the nominal head of the country.
Vladimir Putin becomes acting prime minister of Russia. The president, Boris Yeltsin, the relic of an older generation, remains the nominal head of the country.
Fire destroys the Reichstag building. Hitler blames the Communists, although he is responsible. He uses the crisis as a pretext to seize more power.
A series of apartment bombings terrorize Moscow. Putin blames Chechen separatists, although he is responsible. He uses the crisis as a pretext to seize more power.
The Enabling Act gives Hitler dictatorial powers, effectively ending democracy in Germany. He will remain in power until his death in 1945.
Putin is named acting president, the first step toward ending democracy in Russia. He has been in power ever since.
To consolidate power, Hitler has his political rivals executed, including Ernst Röhm, Gregory Strasser, and Kurt von Schleicher, in what is later called the Night of the Long Knives.
To consolidate power, Putin has his critics executed, including investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB organized crime task force head Alexander Litvinenko. (This comes three years after the humiliating trial and imprisonment of Russia’s wealthiest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, gives the other oligarchs pause about crossing him.)
Germany hosts the Olympic Games, a coup for Hitler.
Russia hosts the Olympic Games, a coup for Putin.
Germany annexes Austria. There is little outcry in the West.
Russia annexes Crimea. There is little outcry in the West.
Claiming that German-speaking citizens in the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia are being mistreated by Prague, Germany occupies the Sudetenland. The Allied powers, led by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, decide to appease Hitler, allowing him to keep the territory in exchange for a promise not to invade Poland. Hitler begins amassing troops on the Polish border.
Claiming that Russian-speaking citizens in the Donbas region of Ukraine are being mistreated by Kiev, Russia infiltrates the region, with the obvious objective of finding a pretext to invade. Putin begins amassing troops on the Ukrainian border.
This is where things stand today.
No one wants war. So soon after the Great War ravaged Europe, Chamberlain was willing to do almost anything to preserve the peace. Hitler knew this, and took advantage. “An appeaser,” Winston Churchill remarked, “is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
Ukraine is our ally. The country surrendered its nuclear weapons with the understanding that the West would help defend it in the event of a Russian invasion. How the United States handles the situation there will have long-lasting effects, not just in Eastern Europe, but in Asia as well. As Victor Rud has argued on the PREVAIL podcast and elsewhere, our capitulation to Russia in Ukraine would send a message to China that we would similarly abandon Taiwan.
Russia has launched a disinformation campaign concerning Ukraine, attempting to blame Kiev for the conflict there. That is poppycock. The tensions in Ukraine today are entirely the fault of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s unlawful aggression. And any U.S. political figure who suggests otherwise—looking at you, Josh Hawley—is either ignorant of geopolitics or a straight-up traitor:
Fortunately, President Biden seems to understand this. So far, he has stood firm, uniting the same NATO allies the Former Guy took pains to alienate, and refusing to concede to Russia’s aging bully.
No one wants war. But history makes clear that appeasing Russia now will only make things worse—as appeasing Hitler did in 1938.
Greg Olear and Zarina Zabrisky discuss Vladimir Putin’s motivations, Russia’s Eurasian plan, and the escalating situation in Ukraine. Plus: a new CD collection.
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Photo credit: Hitler and Hinderburg, Putin and Yeltsin.