What Putin’s Nazi Talk Reveals About His Plans for Ukraine
Language defines reality. Language defines who is a “real” person, and who isn’t. The one who can control language is in charge of life and death.
Viktor Klemperer was attempting to understand Nazi propaganda during the 1930s and 1940s. Klemperer was a Dresden Jew and lost his home, academic job, as well as his health. Klemperer was married to a nonJew and managed to keep his life. He worked odd jobs in factories and was beaten and interrogated by the Gestapo. His diary documented his attempts to discover how normal, friendly Germans were captivated by Nazi propaganda.
He concluded that the core of Nazi power was the way the Nazis created a language he named Lingua Teretii Imperia or LTI. LTI created new out-groups as well as in-groups. When the Nazis came to power Propaganda Minister Goebbels claimed grandly that “the individual will be replaced by the Community of the People”—Die Volkskommune, populated by Volksgenosse driving Volkswagens, reading Der Volkischer Beobachter listening to Volksempfanger. Anyone outside the Volk weren’t ‘real people’, and were underserving of rights or even life. Furthermore, when the Nazis defined the world in terms of “Ubermensch” (superman) and “Untermensch” (inferior person)—Germans felt they were part of a special caste, unique and valued, while the “Untermenschen” deserved to be wiped out. When the Nazis reinforced this distinction with the concept of being “Aryan,” people got to feel ever more superior, while the Jews were classified as vermin, a blot upon the world that needed to be erased.
Putin and his cronies are using similar linguistic tactics in order to pave the way the destruction of the Ukrainian state—which they frequently define as “not a real country” unlike the “real (for that read mythical) unified people of Russia-Ukraine-Belarus.” Meanwhile patriotic Ukrainians, anyone who doesn’t agree to Russian colonial suzerainty, are dismissed as Nazi: “de-Nazification” is the supposed reason for Putin’s invasion. The charges are obviously absurd: unlike the U.S. and many Western European countries where the far-right are in parliament (and sometimes funded and supported by the Kremlin), Ukraine has a Jewish President, a multi-ethnic cabinet and the far-right don’t even make it into the current legislative chamber.
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But though ridiculous, Putin’s language is intentional and strategic. He is using the term “Nazi” in exactly the same way the Nazis used “untermensch.” After all who is more despicable than Nazis? This term is used to enable mass murder of civilians by illegal cluster munitions that have already been pulverizing residential areas. It also paves the way for the repressions that are meant to come with occupation: the Russian “kill lists” of civil society activists and journalists and the mass arrests. After all if you are fighting “Nazis” then every measure is acceptable, the perverse logic goes, it says just look at the lengths the Allies went to in World War II when firebombing German cities (most notably Klemperer’s own Dresden). Putin says that the Soviet leadership destroyed Eastern Europe after World War II. They killed many people who tried to express their opinions and sent many others to the Gulag. Putin needs to eliminate all people who are free to think if he wants to achieve his dream of taking out a sovereign Ukraine. His plan is proving faulty—but that is clearly his intent.
As Putin and his propaganda lackeys repeatedly misuse the term “Nazi” this once powerful word becomes drained of meaning, it gets reduced to meaningless sound, and becomes bled of its power as a taboo against the worst behaviour. A word that is meant to contain the memory of all that is horrendous in history loses its power to define the world- and thus makes Putin’s own essence-of-fascism easier to pursue. “You’re behaving like a Nazi” we want to scream at Putin—but he’s already sucked the meaning out of that term in this debate. “Oh no it’s you lot who are Nazis” he taunts back. Instead of an effective word to stop evil at its source, one only hears endless tweeting from both sides calling each other Nazis until the words cease being meaningful.
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Ultimately, however, it’s not audiences in the West who are the targets of Putin’s sadistic word games. He is primarily targeting domestic audiences, which are dominated by the state-dictated World War II cult. The Language of Putin’s Putative Imperii bellows non-stop from all the Kremlin media, especially on TV, readying the linguistic ground for very real murder. Something strange happens between his propaganda attack dogs barking. There will be advertisements for western cosmetics and fast food, western toothpaste, and western banks. This murder propaganda is funded every day by advertising dollars. The entertainment program is before the Kremlin’s vile vomitarium for political talk shows. They are western reality TV shows and movies that draw viewers to the news, where they then follow the politics. These TV programs use western editing software, multichannel mixing boards, and video equipment.
This can all be stopped. The Russian system can be undermined if Western corporations stop funding the Kremlin through ad money. Western companies should stop licensing Russian television formats or programs. Companies that supply editing equipment must stop offering online updates. The hate machine will have a lot of spanners.
Putin has been attacking Ukrainian media infrastructure. One of his most recent missile attacks against densely populated areas included an attack on the Kyiv public television station. He also hit Babyn Yar next to him, which was the scene of the Nazi genocide against Kyiv Jews in 1941, when 33,771 people were executed within two days. According to Ukrainian authorities we now have the possibility of adding five innocent civilians to this horrifying figure. Putin’s metaphorical “denazification” literally, lethally continues in the traditions of the Nazis.