It is easy to overlook or underestimate. Amid the unfolding horror of the Russian invasion of Ukraine this month, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Ukrainian government have weaponized Nazi German and Holocaust history as justifications for actions and reactions. What is the rationale for such appropriations of history that are more than eight decades old, and why might this even be an issue?

Residents of Leningrad try to scoop up water from a broken main in the winter of 1942, during the 900-day siege of the city by German invaders. Some 27 million Soviets died in the German land invasion of the Soviet Union. Associated Press, File

Nazi and Holocaust comparisons, usually for hyperbole, have been an uncomfortable part of the American cultural landscape in recent decades. Some of these include the “Soup Nazi” character on “Seinfeld” in the 1990s; then-Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s 2012 comparison of the IRS to the Gestapo (the German secret state police), and the politicization of mask and vaccine mandates in Maine, the country and around the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these speak to a need to document evil in its intent and manifestations. The more nefarious the assertion or motive, the more Nazi-like someone or something is. Usually, context is hardly a consideration, and such charges are bandied about with hardly a thought to historical accuracy or context.

But in Russia and Ukraine, the use of Nazi and Holocaust imagery and language for comparative purpose takes on a much deeper meaning. When Adolf Hitler unleashed German military forces in the largest land invasion to date against the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941, it began a systemic campaign of genocide, murder and abject terror that would leave some 27 million Soviets dead. (For perspective, close to 400,000 Americans died fighting the Axis powers in both the European and Pacific theaters of military operations.) About 1 million Ukrainian Jews died in this Nazi Holocaust, including members of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s own family. Russians and Ukrainians alike personally know the horror Nazism wrought.

Why, then, would Putin and Russia use the term “denazify” as a rationale for an invasion when both Russians and Ukrainians collectively experienced the full brunt of Nazi terror? Again, historical context is necessary. The Soviet communist regime under Josef Stalin carried out what Ukrainians call “the Holodomor,” an intentional famine leading to genocide of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. When the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941, numerous Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis as liberators from the yoke of communist oppression and death. When the 2014 Ukrainian revolution swept the Russian-backed president from power, a number of these Ukrainian nationalists from the Nazi era once again became symbols of a new pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian identity. Putin is unabashedly connecting Ukrainian nationalists as treasonous to Soviet unity then and “Mother Russia” now. Again, alleged crimes of the Nazi past used in the present to justify forcible regime change of a democratically elected government. This is not your American use of “Nazi.”

So it is not surprising that in response, the Ukrainians have connected Putin’s false assertion that he ordered an attack on Ukraine in order to “denazify” the Ukrainian government and save ethnic Russians from a purported “genocide” back to Hitler and the Nazis. On the first day of the Russian invasion, the official Ukrainian state Twitter feed posted a caricature of Hitler lovingly looking down upon a smaller, boy-like Putin, squeezing his cheek in approval (echoing one of the last photos of Hitler, taken at the end of the war in Berlin while he inspected Hitler Youth troops conscripted to fight Red Army forces). For the Ukrainians, Putin is the one carrying out the work of Hitler and the Nazis today by using military force to topple a sovereign nation.

While the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum responded that such Russian misinformation was not only historically inaccurate but also dangerous, few other sources have noted the misappropriation of historical antecedents to justify Russia’s actions. The reality of death and destruction overshadows historical rhetoric.

But words and historical context still matter. And it is such words that evoke the ghosts of the Nazi past that the Russians are playing with particular skill to an audience all too familiar with the realities of Nazi occupation. May we pay closer attention and accurately remember the legacy of Holocaust and Nazi history.

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