Hannah Arendt versus Vladimir Putin

It is probably due to our biological origin as primates that our most intense feelings are so often associated with triumph over enemies. The Iliad is a hero song, where the bloodiest victories are celebrated with the utmost effort of poetical inspiration. No wonder, then, that the new Russian Czar invites his countrymen to indulge in these atavistic intoxication. More and more often, one can hear from his mouth how heroic the Russian people had fought against fascism and finally overcome it. Endless parades, endless incantations. From the faces of young soldiers and methuselah veterans alike, you may see how it gives them the goose bumps when they think of the glorious days …

And, of course, Putin does not miss the opportunity to accuse the West, who for obviously dishonest motives envies the Russians their triumph over Hitler. Without the Red Army, Putin insists, the Western powers would never have succeeded in ousting fascism. They, the Russians, had turned history to the better and they had made by far the biggest sacrifices. It shows the corruption of Western media that they persistently suppress this undeniable truth. Even now the public only hears and reads that the West has achieved victory over the plague of fascism.

The great talent of the Russian president consists in amalgamating truths and lies in such an ingenious way that, at the end, the one can hardly be separated from the other. Putin is, of course, quite right as to the material facts – no historian would seriously deny that Hitler’s aggression was repelled by the Russian counteroffensive and that this victory had demanded much greater sacrifices from the Russians than any victory due to the Allies. For the Soviets the war was, moreover, a right one as their country was brutally and unjustifiably attacked by Germany without any Russian provocation. If Hitler had not committed far more terrible crimes, this act of barbarity alone would be enough to make him not only a monster, but also, as Sebastian Haffner rightly says, the greatest enemy of the Germans. For Hitler has fundamentally damaged their relationship with their Russian neighbors. which, because of deep-lying cultural affinities, had often been friendly and blessed with mutual understanding.

Nevertheless, Putin is most blatantly faking history, and he is doing so deliberately for political purposes. Or can we really believe that the decisive role of the West in the suppression of National Socialism should escape him? The facts are obvious to everybody who wants to know them. Without the intervention of the Western Allies, the only result of war between Russia and Germany would have been a quid pro quo: One dictatorship would have taken the place of the other. History would have seen Josef Stalin’s mafia-like regime instead of Hitler’s rogue state. Obviously that was not what the suppressed longed for. It was the hope for freedom which saved Europe, the promise of a return to political, economic and social self-determination, that is, to everything that had been suppressed by Stalin as much as by Hitler. Certainly, the Russians heroically defended themselves against a treacherous attack – the unalienable right of every mistreated nation – but in the process nothing was gained for the cause of freedom. The Soviet system scrunched millions of corpses as did the National Socialists. That is why it is wrong to say that the Soviet Union, victorious as it was, “liberated” Europe from Fascism. It only ensured that freedom could re-enter through a door opened by others. The peoples attacked by the Nazis had reason to thank the Russians for their help – but that was all. Wherever the Soviets established themselves as occupiers, they merely took over the inheritance of the vanquished, that is, they continued to crush freedom by means of armored tanks. If the promise to Gorbachev that NATO would not extend further east was broken so quickly, this was due to the quite comprehensible fear of Eastern European nations, that they might again fall prey to the tutelage of such “liberators”.

This is history known to everyone – including Putin. Nevertheless, he persistently works on the project of retroactively whitewashing the Soviet past, as if Stalin were a liberal, freedom-loving benefactor of mankind. The truth is, of course, totally different – and it has already been expounded in an unsurpassed way by Hannah Arendt. Why, do we nevertheless have to repeat it? Because in our present time of upswing populism we meet again with the most obvious lies. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state based on the most blatant injustice, just like the Nazi regime. Individuals counted for nothing, they were sacrificed in the millions, whenever state ideology, or – to put it more correctly – the will of a distrustful, vindictive dictator thought this to be the most expedient thing to do. Both regimes were unscrupulously murderous.

One difference, however, seems, at first sight, to speak in favor of the Soviet regime. The communist ideal of a brotherhood of all men was of transcendental beauty and purity – indeed, it could have been borrowed from the New Testament. On the other hand, Nazi ideology appeared to be atavistic from the outset: it divided humanity into WE and the OTHERS. It was this difference that led a large part of Western intellectuals – even a man like Arthur Koestler, who later on made a self-critical account of his intellectual aberrations – to trust the Soviet regime for so long. They did not see or did not want to see that the cleavage “WE against the OTHERS” had an equally frightful aspect in real life socialism: WE – to this category belonged loyal party soldiers who enjoyed all the advantages of the nomenclature; The OTHERS were the rejected, the unbelievers, the aberrants and heretics, in other words the human trash which the regime had to eliminate at home as well as in the rest of the world. Totalitarianism is when you want to realize paradise by murdering all people who do not believe in it.

Beware of falsifying history!, that is what Putin eagerly tells the world. Many are naive enough to believe in his honesty. They fail to see that a cherished instrument of demagogues consists in imputing to others the tricks oneself wants to perform. Before the crisis of 2007 nobody would have listened; people would only have shook their heads. Meanwhile, Putin may not only count on intellectuals eager to grasp his intent but on a broad following of believers. It would be too easy to explain this strange turn of events with a change of the Russian tsar. From the very beginning of his presidency, Putin acted with perfect consistency: he wanted to strengthen Russia. It is hard to blame him if he makes use of all available means in order to reach this goal.

The explanation for the success of his obvious historical falsifications is, therefore, not to be found in Putin himself. Not he has changed, but those he wants to persuade, namely Europe and its peoples. Present-day Europe is no longer that self-confident, optimistic continent, which, at the EU summit of the year 2000, boasted to overtake the US ten years later. And it is no longer the continent that for half a century considered itself something like the moral conscience of the world. Since the crisis of 2007, Europe has been haunted by a disease that threatens to paralyze it: a rapid loss of confidence in politics and the future. As in the late twenties, after the outbreak of the world economic crisis, its population is plagued by doubt and perplexity which in the South and East has turned into a growing rage. The consequences of this outrage are expressed by the polarization of the political camps, the rebirth of extremism especially in France, Italy, Poland and Hungary. Many Europeans mistrust the present which to them seems rough, inextricable and ever more difficult to understand. Mistrusting the present they no longer trust the past – in other words, they become receptive to historical falsifications. For this to happen we should not blame Putin, we should blame ourselves. We should ask how come that the ghoulish ghost of the late twenties threatens us with again hovering over Europe?