Much of the commentary so far on the Russian attack on Ukraine has focused on the intertwined historical and contemporary contexts of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Ukraine and Russia. And for very good reasons.
But there are also broader contexts that help in understanding this unprovoked war, the Russian assault against civilians in Ukraine, and the flight of about one and a half million people (as of 6 March) to neighboring states in eastern Europe. One such broad context is the weaponizaion of the memory of World War II and the Holocaust. While a number of scholars have provided in the last few days important commentaries on Putin’s weaponization of this memory discourse, the broader context of weaponization has received scant attention. As historian Francine Hirsch has argued, we should understand Russia’s 2021 memory laws about World War II—attaching fines and prison sentences to “any public attempt to equate the aims and actions of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany during World War II, as well as to deny the decisive role of the Soviet people in the victory over fascism”—as setting the stage for the war on Ukraine. Juliane Fürst’s broader analysis of Russia’s post-Soviet memory politics provides further support for this connection. But Putin’s use of memory in this way builds on a much broader history that does not figure in the current discussion on Russia’s war on Ukraine.
This omission strengthens a false view of Putin as an aberration—as if distortion of the truth about the past and present, including the history of World War II and the Holocaust, is not what it is: a systemic problem around the world. This omission, then, maintains other false views of Putin as an exception, especially those depicting him as pursuing war in an increasingly peaceful world after World War II, as Yuval Noah Harari recently wrote. Never mind the evidence to the contrary, such as historian Paul Thomas Chamberlin’s The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace (2018), which discusses the many wars in the postcolonial world after 1945 in which more than 14 million people were killed. This and a growing body of research does not, however, prevent Harari’s distorted historical picture from fueling the Cold War epistemic trap of a dichotomy of good versus evil. Indeed, Putin is now described as leading “an empire of evil,” as Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Twitted on 1 March, and as Anne Applebaum wrote the same day in an article dripping with good old Cold War militancy.
Leaders in the west viewed Putin differently just two years ago, however. On 24 January 2020, Putin was invited to speak at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, to mark 75 years to the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet forces—an event that then Israeli President Reuven Rivlin described as “an historic occasion not only for Israel, but for humanity.” This typical western view definitely did not see Putin as evil. Putin certainly talked the talk: “We have to be vigilant not to miss when the first sprouts of hatred, of chauvinism, of xenophobia and anti-Semitism start to rear their ugly head,” he said in his speech. He also presented a distorted history of World War II and the Holocaust, including distorted maps, to fit a Russian narrative that erased the Nazi-Soviet allegiance in the destruction of Poland in 1939 and presented Ukrainians, Latvians, and Lithuanians primarily as Nazi collaborators. Polish President Andrzej Duda and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were not invited to speak; Duda therefore refused to attend, and Zelenskyy arrived in Israel but eventually also decided not to attend. Yad Vashem historian Havi Dreifuss wrote a couple weeks after the event that the scholars working at Yad Vashem were not in any way involved in what “will be remembered as one of the low points in the struggle about the historical story.” It remains unclear who exactly at Yad Vashem was responsible for allowing this spectacle of weaponization, but for the Israeli government, Yad Vashem, and the leaders from around the world who attended, the history of World War II and the Holocaust were not the main issue; the focus was the contemporary struggle against antisemitism, as indicated by the event’s title, “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism.”
One of the speakers in the Forum, Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer, is the most prominent Holocaust scholar identified with the struggle against antisemitism. He was not as concerned as Havi Dreifuss about Putin’s theater of historical distortion in Jerusalem. Writing in Haaretz on 3 February 2020, more than a week after the Forum, Yehuda Bauer did not, in fact, mention it—even as his article focused on memory wars between Russia and Poland. Zelenskyy or Ukraine also did not merit mention in Bauer’s article. Bauer was very pleased that the event furthered, in his eyes, the struggle against antisemitism and even, he concluded, efforts to prevent mass atrocities: “The conference [i.e., the Forum] in Jerusalem is not a cure, but it certainly can contribute to an atmosphere in which prevention acts are possible. Holocaust memory is a central element in this.” Looking now at Putin’s army destroying Ukrainian cities and perpetrating mass atrocities, it seems that Holocaust memory—as a weaponized discourse wielded by the state—could just as well play a part in enabling state violence.
This was, of course, not the first nor the last weaponization of Holocaust memory by states, especially in Israel. That’s exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin did in summer 1982 when, in the context of Israel’s attack on Lebanon, he compared Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat in Beirut to Adolf Hitler in his bunker in Berlin at the end of World War II. Three decades later, in October 2015, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took this weaponization to new levels when he asserted in a speech in the World Jewish Congress in Jerusalem that the Palestinian Grand Mufti Haj Amin Al-Husseini planted the idea to murder Jews in Hitler’s mind.
The last few years have seen an even more intense weaponization campaign, focused on the aim of the Jerusalem Forum in January 2020—the fight against antisemitism. It is driven by the working definition of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an international organization founded in 1998 and composed of delegations from 35 states. No less than Yehuda Bauer, as honorary chairman of IHRA, pushed for the adoption of the antisemitism definition that he has since defended in the face of mounting criticism around the world.
There is very good reason for this push back, as the IHRA definition of antisemitism conflates critique of Israeli policies with antisemitism and thus instrumentalizes the fight against antisemitism into a weapon to threaten and silence those who speak the truth about Israeli settler colonialism, decades of military occupation of Palestinian lands, and well-documented systemic state violence against Palestinians. While Palestinian scholars and activists are the main target of this intimidation and silencing, Jews have also come under attack for supporting the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. The accusation of antisemitism that Yehuda Bauer himself flung at Holocaust historian Daniel Blatman in 2018 for daring to oppose the IHRA definition of antisemitism is just one example of the absurdity of this discourse. But the main element of this absurdity—its defining structure—is not the targeting of Jews as antisemites or in Putin’s version, Zelenskyy as a Nazi. It is, rather, the depiction of a world turned upside down: Palestinians facing Israeli state violence become antisemitic aggressors, and Ukrainians facing a brutal and unprovoked Russian attack become Russian-hating Nazis.
What this broad context challenges, then, is a view of the world that labels Putin as exceptional, an evil beyond comprehension. The same view also sees Hitler and the Nazis as exceptions—and the Holocaust as unique. This decontextualization is comforting: we are not Putin, we are not Hitler, and there is absolutely nothing that we share with them. Reality is far more complex, and mountains of scholarship have demonstrated, in various ways, how the Nazis were an integral part of the modern world and how the Holocaust unfolded as an integral part of modern process of genocidal violence. Broad contexts help us understand history and the world around us better, highlighting in this case why it is so important to study and teach the Holocaust—and why we should consider the broad context of the weaponization of Holocaust memory by states.
It is thus not surprising that Putin latched on to decontextualization and Holocaust uniqueness in Jerusalem in January 2020, but with a twist, a weaponization of weaponization: on the day before the Forum, Putin joined Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in dedicating a memorial in Jerusalem to the German siege of Leningrad during World War II. “The Holocaust and the siege of Leningrad cannot be compared to anything else,” he said in his speech. Jews and Russians, in other words, share in a unique suffering and thus can only stand on the right side of history, always, as the good guys.
Describing Putin as evil is the mirror image of Putin describing himself as righteous. Both images elide the broad contexts that we need to consider urgently in order to move beyond Putin’s world rather than remain trapped within it. Many have commented on social media in dismay that Russia’s murderous attack on Ukraine is the end of the international order after World War II. But if the weaponization of Holocaust memory by states is part of that international order—not an aberration—we should consider this indeed as an opportunity to end Putin’s dictatorial and violent rule in Russia without reproducing, yet again, the structural and systemic problems that have brought us here.
Raz Segal directs the Master of Arts in Holocaust and Genocide Studies program at Stockton University. He is the author of Genocide in the Carpathians: War, Social Breakdown, and Mass Violence, 1914-1945 (Stanford UP).