In the case of both Hitler’s Germany and Putin’s Russia, the Leader successfully tapped into popular resentment by pushing a false narrative based on patriotism, revisionist history and xenophobic nationalism.
Great Depression-era Germany was an environment rife with massive economic, social and political turmoil and uncertainty. The Germans desperately wanted stability, security, and answers – and the Nazis eagerly responded to those desires, offering palatable explanations for why Germany was in the state it was in, and holding out the prospect of restoring Germany’s greatness and rightful place in the world. Hitler and the Nazis successfully cultivated and exploited popular resentment again the terms of the Versailles Treaty, the terms of which the Western Allies had imposed on Germany. Rather than truthfully acknowledge the contributing factors that led to Germany’s defeat in the First World War, Hitler, who as a young soldier was wounded in a World War I gas attack, blamed the Western Allies for what he perceived to be the unjust loss of German territory, power and prestige. According to the Nazis, German’s defeat in 1918 did not occur on the battlefield, but came about because (1) foreign powers feared a powerful Germany and wanted to keep her down, and (2) treacherous insiders fatally undermined Germany’s monarchy. Hitler and the Nazis blamed outside forces and internal enemies via the so-called Dolchstoßlegende, the “stab in the back” by anti-Monarchists, Bolsheviks, and Jews. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Hitler repeatedly called upon Germans to stand up and unite against foreign and domestic efforts to keep Germany down and deny Germany its rightful place in the world.
Like Hitler and the Nazis, Putin and prominent individuals in his regime recognized and exploited popular sentiment by cultivating a patriotic narrative based on revisionist history and xenophobic nationalism. Just as Hitler was traumatized by Germany’s defeat in World War I, Vladimir Putin was personally traumatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin, a KGB officer who served in Dresden, East Germany during the waning days of the Cold War, blames the West for not only fatally undermining the former Soviet Union – an event he famously described as being “a major geopolitical disaster of the century” – but also exploiting Russia’s weakness following that collapse.[i] Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the economic and social problems of the Yeltsin years, Russians desperately wanted stability, security, and answers – and the Vladimir Putin responded to those desires, offering palatable explanations for why Russia was in the state it was in, and holding out the prospect of restoring Russia’s greatness and rightful place in the world despite the evil machinations of enemies outside and inside Russia who sought to keep Russia down. In recent years, and especially over the course of 2014, Putin and key Russian government officials have spun a narrative according to which the West: (1) undermined the Soviet Union and brought about its collapse, (2) defaulted on a promise to not expand NATO eastward, and (3) attempted to undermine governments in Russia and other former Soviet republics via democratic social initiatives. Like the Nazis, Putin and his supporters have also included a “stab in the back” component to their revisionist version of recent history: In April 2014, members of the Russian State Duma (parliament) belonging to Putin’s United Russia party called for a criminal probe and prosecution of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, asserting that he was personally responsible for the breakup of the Soviet Union. One United Russia MP even went so far as to label Gorbachev a “US spy”.[ii] Such an assertion, laughable as it may be to a Westerner, does not sound as ridiculous to a Russian ear that for 15 years has been listening to uncontested assertions that the treacherous West brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union through diabolical means and then gleefully exploited the weakness of the Russian Federation. There is yet another interesting aspect to the assertion that Gorbachev was a US spy: If the very head of the country could fall prey to foreign intrigue and machinations, then presumably no one in the country is above suspicion for treason.
[i] Vladimir Putin, “Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation,” President of Russia official website, 25 April 2005, URL: http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/speeches/2005/04/25/2031_type70029type82912_87086.shtml
[ii] Will Stewart, “Russian MPs call for Mikhail Gorbachev to be prosecuted for ‘allowing’ the collapse of the Soviet Union,” The Daily Mail, 10 April 2014, URL: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2601490/Russian-MPs-call-Mikhail-Gorbachev-prosecuted-allowing-collapse-Soviet-Union.html#ixzz3NWkwMnZC