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12 September 2023

What Putin learned from Hitler

The two dictators considered themselves engaged in a life-and-death struggle with Western imperialism – and retaliated with their own plans for world domination.

By Brendan Simms

When Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there were many comparisons drawn with Nazism and Adolf Hitler. The parallels were in some respects justified – for example as regards the waging of aggressive war; and in some respects exaggerated – for instance with respect to mass killings, which thankfully have not yet approached the dimensions of Nazi crimes. But a fascinating and unremarked similarity became very apparent at the recent Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) summit in South Africa, which brought together the leaders of the Sino-Russian anti-Western axis with those of the Global South: both Putin and Hitler were anti-colonial colonisers. Their treatment of Ukraine has a common root: they saw – or see – themselves as colonising others to pre-empt their own colonisation.

Speaking remotely – on account of the threat of arrest for war crimes – Putin told the assembled Brics dignitaries and delegates from the Global South that his attack on Ukraine had been a response to Western “neocolonialism – the same colonialism in a new package”. These words were greeted with sustained applause. Worse still, several African, Asian and Latin American countries routinely abstain on, and some actually vote against, UN resolutions critical of the Russian invasion. From the Western point of view, which condemns both past European imperialism and present-day Russian conquests, this behaviour seems inexplicable. But this is not the first time that we have seen anti-Westernism create strange bedfellows.

We tend, for good reason, to think of Adolf Hitler as the quintessential coloniser. In fact, as I showed in my biography of him, not only was Hitler also an anti-colonialist (of sorts), but his imperialist project was driven by his fear of being colonised. Throughout the early 1920s, Hitler repeatedly claimed that Germany had been “enslaved” by the Jews, the forces of international capitalism and the victor powers, especially the “Anglo-Saxon” British and Americans. He claimed that they sought to break down “national states” because they represented an obstacle to “international money powers”. “World enslavement”, Hitler said, meant “world stock exchange”. 

Again and again, Hitler referred to the Germans as “slaves” who lived on “plantations” in a colony run by allied “overseers”. Germany itself he described as nothing more than a “n****r state”. This was because the country had been beaten, (partly) occupied and subjected to a punitive reparations regime that threatened its national assets, such as the railways, and the very health of its people, who had already been weakened by the wartime blockade. Hitler explicitly compared Germany’s fate to that of areas colonised by the British in Africa, Asia and especially North America. After all, the Führer argued, the American continent had not been presented to the “white man” by a “host of angels”, but instead forcibly taken from the “redskins” with “powder, shot and brandy”. He dismissed international law in the form of the League of Nations as a mere instrument of the Allies.

The “left-wing” Strasser faction of the Nazi Party saw Germany as leading a “League of Oppressed Peoples” in alliance with Russia, Morocco, Persia, India and other victims of Western imperialism. “The fragmented, martyred, exploited and enslaved Germany,” Otto Strasser argued, “was the natural protagonist and ally of all national liberation fighters”, whether they were ground down by “French tyranny, British imperialism [or] American financial exploitation”.

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Hitler, by contrast, saw Germany’s salvation not in solidarity with the other wretched of the Earth, whom he despised, but in establishing its own colonial project. He envisaged an overseas empire not in the Anglo-French style as attempted by Wilhelmine Germany, but as a vast land grab in eastern Europe contiguous with the old Reich. This, he argued, would give Germany the critical mass and resources necessary to survive against the force of Anglo-America and international capitalism. The demand for “living space” or Lebensraum – which Hitler first voiced in the mid-1920s – was thus both a colonial and an anti-colonial project.

[see also: Churchill and the quest for greatness]

Throughout the late 1930s and early 1940s, Hitler repeatedly stressed that Germany – along with fascist Italy and imperial Japan – was one of the “have-not” powers seeking its rightful place among the global “haves”: Britain, France and the US. Hitler attacked the British empire on two fronts. On the one hand, he argued that Germany was simply behaving in Europe as Britain had always done across the world, only with greater justification and effectiveness.

In the late 1930s he contrasted the mayhem in the British mandates over the Arabs of the Middle East with the order the Third Reich had established among the Slavs of central Europe. “If an Englishmen argues today that he is responsible for the fate of peoples of Central and Eastern Europe,” he argued, “then I can only answer that we are equally responsible for the fate of the peoples in Palestine, in Arabia, in Egypt, and even in India.” The symmetry here was clear: if there were to be British mandates in the rest of the world, then why not German protectorates in Europe?

If Hitler wanted to hunt with the imperialist hounds, he was also increasingly running with the colonised hares. He condemned the British for oppressing 350 million Indians, in “exactly the same way” as millions of Germans were trodden underfoot. He lampooned British claims to be fighting for “the right to self-determination of the peoples”, for where were these rights more denied than in the British empire, where the principle apparently did not apply?

For Hitler, the battle against the British empire was an international class struggle, which pitted classes of nations against each other, rather than a Marxist conflict between transnational classes. There was therefore no solidarity between working classes but there could and should be a common cause between the “have-not” nations against the “haves”. The Second World War was thus framed not just as a German war of national liberation against British domination of the Continent, but as a global insurrection against Anglo-American capitalism and imperialism.

In June 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa. The invasion of the Soviet Union was avowedly colonial in design because it envisaged the seizure of land, particularly in Ukraine, to be settled by German emigrants. But the attack was also anti-colonial in conception because Hitler believed that only possession of an empire of its own would enable Germany to emancipate itself from Anglo-American and international capitalist subjection. It was, in his mind, a case of dominate or be dominated.

In 1944, for example, Hitler warned that “the world knows no empty spaces” and that “peoples which are numerically or biologically too weak and cannot fill their Lebensraum will at best receive a reservation”. The term “reservation” was chosen with care and demonstrates Hitler’s fear that the Germans would meet the same fate as the native Americans.

We see a remarkably similar discourse in Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric (with the important exception of anti-Semitism). Over the past 15 years or so, he has inveighed against the “imperialism” of the “collective West” and sought to preserve Russian power and sovereignty in the face of what he regards as the West’s universalising claims in favour of democracy and human rights. In Putin’s eyes the protection of Russia requires hegemony over her neighbours; the emancipation of Russians means the subjection of others.

At first, he sought to dominate the wider Eurasian space through a combination of market measures, such as the establishment of a Eurasian Economic Union, and military interventions such as the invasion of Georgia. More recently, the Russian president moved to direct territorial aggression, beginning with the annexation of Crimea and culminating in the attack on Ukraine last year.

The imperial nature of the invasion was clear for all to see. Putin justified it by simply denying the nationhood and sovereignty of Ukraine, an internationally recognised state. In a series of speeches leading up to and following his attack, the Russian president declared the Russian and Ukrainian peoples to be one and the same. He attributed any suggestion to the contrary to the evil machinations of outside powers. Yet the wider context to his move was the desire to defend Russian sovereignty against supposed Western imperialism.

In the autumn of 2022 Putin gave a revealing speech to mark the formal annexation to Russia of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. He accused “the West” of being “ready to step over everything in order to preserve the neocolonial system that allows it to… plunder the world at the expense of the power of the dollar and technological dictates, to collect real tribute from humanity, to extract the main source of unearned prosperity, the rent to the hegemon”.

The West, Putin claimed, was trying to take away the “sovereignty” of all independent states, not just Russia and “stigmatised” any resisters as “rogue countries”. He condemned Western “Russophobia” as “racist” and inveighed against the “Anglo-Saxons” who were behind every anti-Russian move. The Western “rules-based order” he dismissed as “nonsense… designed for fools”. Who, Putin asked, made the rules?

The president then berated the West for “the global slave trade, the genocide of Indian tribes in America, the plunder of India, Africa [and] China”. If Russia had briefly succumbed to the same scourge in the 1990s when the West “treated us like a colony”, a “great historical Russia” was now necessary to protect “our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren” from “enslavement”. Putin, in short, framed the despoliation of Ukraine as part of a wider “liberation, anti-colonial movement against unipolar hegemony” which he saw “developing within the most diverse countries and societies”. Here he meant the Global South. All this, it is worth repeating, was said to justify not a Russian war of self-defence but the brutal annexation of the territory of a neighbouring sovereign state.

The parallels between the two dictators are striking. Both considered or consider themselves to be in a life-and-death struggle with Western capitalist imperialism, and in particular with the “Anglo-Saxons”. Both reject the Anglo-Saxons’ claims that they are imposing universal values, and both dismissed or dismiss the “rules-based” order – of the League of Nations and the liberal international order respectively – as self-serving hogwash. In response, both articulated projects that are both colonial and decolonising.

[see also: Russia’s war on the future]

You might think that the real Global South, then and now, would have given these ambitions short shrift, but you would be wrong. The Nazi and Putin projects were and have been widely taken at face value by “subaltern” (in the post-colonial sense) actors for whom the main enemy was the West in both its imperialist and international capitalist guises. They had and have at least a sneaking regard for Hitlerist or Putinesque challenges to the prevailing order, which they felt and continue to feel shortchanges them. Many educated Arabs, Africans or Asians who had an issue with Western imperialism in the 1930s and early 1940s either welcomed the humbling of the British empire by the advancing Wehrmacht, or at least felt a frisson of satisfaction at the discomfiture of their masters.

Some went considerably further. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, for example, was so outraged by British plans for Palestine that he endorsed Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies and urged Arabs to collaborate with the Third Reich. Further east, Subhas Chandra Bose, a long-standing critic of British rule in India, set up a legion that was eventually deployed to fight for the Germans in north-west Europe. Across the Middle East, Caucasus and South Asia, hundreds of thousands heeded these calls to serve the Axis powers militarily or politically and millions more sympathised with them.

Likewise, every member of today’s Global South who is resentful of Western dominance – and that is much of the Global South – is likely to rejoice in the West’s discomfiture at Putin’s rule-breaking. This explains the cheers that greeted Putin’s defence of his invasion of Ukraine in Johannesburg as an “anti-colonial” act. To make matters worse, the Global South today is not merely a collection of insurrectionist movements, as it was in the mid-20th century, but a phalanx of sovereign states, many of them with growing economies and some of them in possession of nuclear weapons.

The ironies of the situation were and are obvious, even to the protagonists themselves. Anti-colonial agitators such as Bose and the Mufti knew perfectly well that Hitler held them in contempt, just as their successors today know that the nationalist discourse in Putin’s Russia is virulently hostile to people of colour, and that his regime is far more murderously behaved towards Muslims and other groups in its neighbourhood than the West, which it so persistently criticises. In both cases, though, the overriding imperative was or is to confront the common Western enemy.

At the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security held earlier this summer to engage Russia’s non-Western partners, the country’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, appealed once again to this sentiment. He framed the attack on Ukraine as part of a wider programme for “a fairer and more stable world order, based on cultural and civilisational diversity”, against the pretensions of the dreaded Anglo-Saxons. The West, Lavrov charged, was using force and “unilateral economic sanctions” to “demonise any dissidents in the global information landscape” and to turn “the whole world” into its “backyard”. There is no doubt that his words made an impression among many of the delegates.

All this is depressing, of course, but also reassuring. We have been here before. The West confronted a similar narratival challenge in the mid-20th century. On that occasion, the Nazi project was not only militarily defeated but morally bankrupted by its evident inhumanity. Today, Western diplomats are engaged in a desperate scramble to demonstrate the inherent criminality of the Putin regime to a sceptical and now much more important Global South. Pointing out the tainted lineage of Putin’s world-view should be an important part of their case.

Brendan Simms is professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge University and a New Statesman contributing writer. He is the author of “Hitler: Only the World was Enough” (Penguin Press)

[see also: Putin’s darkest conspiracy theory yet]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites