When, nearly a month ago, Vladimir Putin described Russian dissenters as “gnats,” he was using unambiguously dehumanizing rhetoric. I have spent the last 15 years researching this kind of speech and its ties to mass violence. Based on these studies, I have grave concerns about what the future holds for the Ukrainian people.

Putin’s rhetoric exemplified a common dehumanizing trope. Dehumanized people are often described as insect-like creatures. When Col. John Chivington rode with his men into a Native American settlement at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 and slaughtered around 270 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children, he characterized the murdered infants as “nits” – immature lice. Likewise, militant Hutus during the 1994 Rwanda genocide labeled their Tutsi neighbors as “cockroaches,” to be crushed under foot, and Hitler and his cronies characterized Jews as disease-carrying lice.

As I show in detail in my book “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization,” representing others as vermin is not the only way to dehumanize them. Perpetrators of mass violence typically think of their victims not just as subhuman vermin, but also as irretrievably evil, monstrous or demonic beings. This pattern of demonization is key for making sense of Putin’s claim that the war against Ukraine is a war to liberate Ukraine from Nazism.

Putin’s current rhetoric is intelligible only in the context of its historical backstory, beginning in the Middle Ages. At that time, feared and hated others were often seen as literally demonic. As Joshua Trachtenberg explains in “The Devil and the Jews,” the image of the evil, hook-nosed Jew was a mainstay of Christian antisemitism for centuries. Depicted as sworn enemies of Christ, and adept in the black arts, these Jews were believed to possess supernatural powers granted to them by their father, the devil.

The belief that Jews are diabolical did not vanish in the wake of the Enlightenment. It just took a new form, and was reincarnated as the sinister Jewish cabal of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Satan became Rothschild; the swarm of supernatural Jewish fiends were reborn as globalists, communists and international bankers. The Nazis weaponized this new, secular demonology, while linking it to powerful, religiously charged images from the medieval past. Their antisemitic rhetoric was peppered with such references. Goebbels, speaking at the 1937 Nuremberg rally, characterized the Jew as “the son of Chaos, the incarnation of evil … the demon who brings about the degeneration of mankind.” In a letter published in the Nazi rag Der Stürmer that same year, the author claimed that smoke rising from the burning airship Hindenburg took the form of a Jewish face, to which the editor replied, “Nature has shown here … the devil in human form.”

Since World War II, a remarkable inversion of categories has occurred. The menacing figure of the Jew has been displaced by the Nazi as the paragon of evil in the European imaginary. Nowhere is this more salient than in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union lost around 27 million lives to German forces during World War II, and the landscape is scarred with mass graves from the “Holocaust of bullets.” Consequently, in Russia, and elsewhere in the region, to be described as a Nazi is, in effect, to be described as the progeny of Satan. Putin is well aware of this, and his opportunistic invocation of malign spirits is politically expedient for motivating and legitimating atrocities.

Just as Hitler conjured his demons as imaginary Jews, Putin’s conjures his as illusory Nazis. In the war against Ukraine, this inversion is complete. In a world turned upside-down, Ukraine’s Jewish president is now cast in the role of chief Nazi, while the fascist Putin presents himself as a liberator.

Demons are not to be punished. They are to be banished to hell. Given this, the horrors unfolding in Ukraine should come as no surprise. And it suggests that even worse carnage is in the offing.

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