SOCIETY

Reinventing Nazism for state propaganda: How morality is being replaced by force

June 21, 2022

Ilya Budraitskis

Political and social theorist, previously based in Moscow, now nonresidential visiting fellow at GW's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies

llya Budraitskis explains how the Kremlin understands “de-Nazification” and how this interpretation is driving the war in Ukraine. In the Kremlin’s terms, the difference between Nazi and non-Nazi comes down to alien versus your own
Olga Skabeyeva, anchor of a propaganda show on state-owned TV channel Rossiya 1, 2022. Source: Republic
It’s evident that the Kremlin isn’t pursuing only geopolitical goals in Ukraine, like restoring “historical Russia” or containing NATO. The speeches of Vladimir Putin, as well as the official propaganda, point to an ambitious ideological goal – the complete revision of the political and moral concepts underpinning the European consensus since World War II. The core of that decades-long unspoken consensus can be encapsulated in the laconic “never again/nie wieder.” The assumption was that the page in history in which Nazism was possible as an ideology and a system of practices, had been forever turned and that Nazism couldn’t return in any form. For decades the foundation of this assumption was collective memory, which stood above any national borders and couldn’t become the object of any conflict in pursuit of state interests. However, generations changed. Memories lost their vividness. All that remained of Nazism was its status as an absolute evil that couldn’t be justified. Yet it was in this very status that Nazism was turned into a key justification for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Putin’s “denazification” meant first and foremost that the war was not only acceptable but morally necessary. In a war against Nazism there can’t be any compromises, and the price to be paid doesn’t matter. In the battle between good and evil a peaceful settlement can’t be reached as it would only lead to the good side being corrupted and spoiled. Nazism defied all human laws and thus the Nazis themselves aren’t to be granted any universal rights. Like with terrorists, you don’t negotiate with Nazis – you kill them. Thus, if Ukraine has become a Nazi state, and the entire Western world collectively conspired for that to happen, then it is only Russia that can mete out moral justice. It thus receives the right to restore universal humanity, as the rest of mankind has lost its immunity to Nazism.

This is the monstrous logic of a recent article by Timofey Sergeytsev, which offers a moral justification for the massacres in Bucha. He writes that the fight against Nazism today has become a “purely Russian affair” due to the “anti-fascist nature” of “Russian civilization.” In an equation where military strength equals morality, the opposite is also true: morality is determined by force. If Ukraine is “denazified” as Sergeytsev proposes – through massacres and the “re-education” of the “Nazified” population in concentration camps – then this is exactly what a victory of good over evil, in a new world free of Nazism, will look like. Or, as Sergeytsev puts it, “the ideology of a denazifier cannot be disputed by the guilty party that is to be subjected to denazification.” The alternative is simple: either Nazism must be destroyed without pity or a “new Holocaust” awaits Russians.

In her famous book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that Hitler (unlike Stalin) is a “new type of criminal” as he didn’t seek justification in the distorted humanistic morality of the past but sought to establish a fundamentally new one. The new morality would wash away the very concept of man as such (and, accordingly, his natural rights) and replace it with a struggle of races as biological species created unequal by nature. The right to life and death is thus not universal, but constantly being dynamically redefined in the existential racial battle for living space.

Franz Neumann, another astute scholar of Nazism, analyzed the deformation of Nazi Germany’s judicial system, which was based on a “phenomenological” approach to law. This means that the verdict in the Nazi court was passed on the basis of the essence and not the deed, primarily answering the question “who,” while “what” was entirely secondary. The court thus did not take an impartial position but was merely an instrument for the protection of the race, shielding it from any threats to purity and internal unity. The relativity of morality and law to the laws of nature, turned upside down by the continuous political and military struggle of antagonistic racial “entities,” constituted a key element of Nazi ideology. It was this vision of reality that was defeated in World War II and that should never again be revived (it would inevitably give rise to new wars).
"The monstrous reversal in logic that the Kremlin is trying to bring about today lies in the understanding Nazism should be defined strictly according to the Nazi method."
Musical marathon "For Russia", 2022. Source: Facebook
Nazism thus loses its universal features and turns into a tool to create “the enemy.” The difference between Nazi and non-Nazi would come down to alien versus your own. And making that distinction depends only on brute force, naked military dominance. The biggest prize in the Ukraine war for Putin’s Russia is the opportunity to label a Nazi anyone who refuses to submit to the dictate of the victor (and therefore deprive him of the right to exist).

If in World War II, as Putin believes, the Soviet Union was merely an avatar of the eternal “historical Russia,” then Russia is organically “anti-fascist” and all its external opponents are potentially “Nazis.” In this construction, the fight against the absolute evil of Nazism becomes one and the same as the struggle for global dominance by Russia. Morality and geopolitics merge into a fundamentally inseparable whole, and entire nations become carriers of ideas (good or evil) solely based on their “essence” – their “historical fate,” which contemporaries can’t alter.
"Such a conception of the world – as an eternal struggle of quasi-natural collective entities in which the strongest wins – in fact represents the ideological framework of almost any sort of fascism."
The eclectic window-dressing – be it racial theory or “de-Ukrainization” – is just a matter of specific historical circumstances. Those who believe that fascism is born out of a fanatical obsession by the masses with some “big ideas” are deeply mistaken; on the contrary, fascism is based on the deepest cynicism and the utmost contempt for the ability of people to believe in ideas and pursue them to the end. After all, any idea or concept, according to fascism, is always just a trick in the animal struggle of interests: unlike all universal rights and freedoms, which are actually nothing more than hypocritical chatter, “essence” (“racial instinct,” “human nature,” “cultural codes,” etc.) never lies.

During his 20 years in power, Putin has consistently preached such cynicism, which has corroded society from top to bottom. Today the logical outcome of this unbridled cynicism is the ideological justification of war crimes and the dehumanization of an entire nation. Real denazification of Russia is a difficult task that lies ahead. A central element of it must be rethinking and addressing this dangerous mixture of contempt for the weak and apologizing for competition and violence, which is capable of reinvigorating Nazism again and again.

Original text in Russian was published in Republic.ru

Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy
  • Privacy Policy
  • Contacts
Made on
Tilda