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What Putin’s talking about when he talks about ‘denazification’

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(JTA) In launching his war on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his goal was the “denazification” of the country – referring specifically to his allegations that Ukraine is responsible for or planning a “genocide” of Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.

Much of the world scoffed at Putin’s justifications for what some are calling the biggest test for the West in the 77 years since Nazi Germany surrendered. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, in a tweet that went viral, wrote, “The president of Ukraine [Vlodymyr Zelenskyy] is Jewish, and has many family members who died in the Holocaust. Putin’s claim that he is invading to ‘de-Nazify Ukraine’ should shock the world.”

Stanley is the author of How Propaganda Works and How Fascism Works, two books that couldn’t be more relevant to the present moment, with Russian forces engaged in a multipronged attack on a democratic neighbour after months – really years – of agitation by Putin.

I spoke to Stanley about the ways Putin has flipped the narrative about fascism and Nazism; how his brand of Christian nationalism plays on what Stanley considers antisemitic tropes; and how Stanley’s work was inspired by the experiences of his parents, both Holocaust survivors.

ASC: Putin’s claim that the war is intended to “denazify” Ukraine seemed to most observers outside of Russia as absurd on its face, but he must have thought it would be an effective message, certainly at home. What makes propaganda effective?

Jason Stanley: It’s an example of “undermining propaganda”. That’s when you use an ideal to undermine itself. If there’s any far-right, ultra-nationalist, imperialist regime that’s similar to national socialism in that part of the world, it’s Putin’s regime. And if there’s any democratic regime surrounding Russia, it’s Ukraine, right? So what de-Nazification means is that he’s going to go into Ukraine, kill or imprison the democratic leaders of Ukraine and all who support them, and replace them with a puppet he can control.

The reason he does this is because he can. He can lean on the history of Russia and the history of World War II, in which the Germans are always the enemies, and he’s the one representing the West and democracy against the fascists and the Nazis.

When does propaganda like that work? Is it a slow, steady process of nationalist brainwashing? Or are there times of crisis where people rally around what are demonstrably false messages?

I don’t think this propaganda did work. Enough people in Russia and certainly the West are fully aware of the facts, that the far-right in Ukraine gains 2% or less of the vote. Or that Zelenskyy is Jewish, that much of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and that Ukraine is the only country other than Israel ever to simultaneously have both a prime minister and president who were Jewish (Zelenskyy and former prime minister Vlodymyr Groysman), other than Israel. So I don’t think that propaganda will work. Russia is going to be seen just as a violent aggressor.

Do fascists tend to believe their own propaganda?

It depends. A lot of people use fascist tactics for power, and it just doesn’t matter. I mean, Hitler was a committed genocidal antisemite. But, he also clearly states in Mein Kampf that you should use the Allies’ propaganda against them. You should reverse it. Even in the most extreme cases, it’s often knowingly cynical, because fascists don’t care about the truth, they just care about power.

You’ve written how propaganda is effective when it makes the dominant group feel like a victim. That’s certainly at play with Putin.

That’s right. What’s not acceptable – and here I get emotional because I’m the child of Holocaust survivors – is the trivialisation of the Holocaust by claiming that there’s a genocide in eastern Ukraine. I mean, Putin’s regime is a Christian nationalist regime, and Christian nationalism is a threat to Jews everywhere. I don’t think he’s trying to convince anyone. I think he’s trying to mock the language of the Holocaust. It’s Eastern European antisemitism. Eastern European antisemitism takes the form of saying that we Jews stole the victimhood narrative. He’s mocking Jews. He saying, “The real victims are Christian Russians in eastern Ukraine. Those are the victims of genocide, not the child of a Holocaust survivor, descended of Holocaust survivors, the Jewish leader of Ukraine.” And that’s where I see the appeal: Christian nationalism is antisemitic to its core.

When does propaganda fail? Is it a matter of overreach – when a message or an action becomes so preposterous that even your followers can’t get on board?

Sometimes the point of propaganda is to demonstrate power by the preposterousness of it. Putin is a master at that. Putin is always lying, like Trump, who imitated this. If you lie openly and obviously, in this mocking, sneering, condescending way – like, “How would anyone think we’re going to invade Ukraine? It’s a Western conspiracy theory!” – what you do is show you can get away with it and that, to supporters, comes off as strength.

You write that cultivating loyalty is a key part of what creates fascism.

Cultivating fascism requires ethnic loyalty ties. Fascism at its weakest is just nationalism, but in this German form of national socialism or white nationalism in America or Russian nationalism, loyalty is formed by a bond of identity. I see Putin appealing to Eastern Orthodox Christian nationalism. He’s trying to re-establish something like the Soviet Union or the pride of Russia. That’s why there’s an unrecognised element of antisemitism, an appeal to Russian Christian nationalism.

Although at the same time, some insist Putin is a philosemite, with good ties to parts of the Jewish establishment in Russia and fairly good – or at least tolerable – relations with Israel.

Because of nationalism. What you have now is different ultra-nationalist groups in different countries, and they’re all saying, “this country is mine”. That’s going to link Putin with nationalists in Poland and in Israel. But they’re going to have competing interests, as was the case with Poland and Israel, because their national histories clash. So when the Polish government starts denying Polish complicity in the Holocaust, that’s going to sit poorly with people in Israel who otherwise share their nationalist sentiments.

In your book on fascism, I got the sense you were somewhat optimistic about the ability – at least in the United States – of democratic systems to push back against the worst impulses of fascists. But in a case like Ukraine, obviously the worst-case scenario, is there an antidote beyond just total war?

I have to say that question goes beyond what I can comment on. I have hope and optimism because there’s no other choice. Ukraine was a moment of hope: the Maidan revolution, the genuine fledgling democracy. Insofar as there was a far-right movement, it was suppressed. And so, that was a moment of hope. But, you know, maybe we can see the terrible violence that greets it as a recognition of the power of hope.

I’ve heard you talk about your late father, sociologist Manfred Stanley, and his library, which was pretty heavy on books about Germany and the Holocaust, and its influence on you.

My father spent his academic career thinking about what led to fascism. I remember asking a colleague at Yale, “Why did my father, a Holocaust survivor, write his dissertation on British imperialism in East Africa?” “Because, Jason,” he said, “part two of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism is called Imperialism.” My father started out studying imperialism and what leads to it, and that’s what we’re seeing in Russia right now.

What would your father have made of the current moment?

My work is reimagining or sketching what I think my father would make of the current moment.

  • The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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