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Germans Shun Comparisons Between Hitler and Putin. What Are They Avoiding?

The backlash against a finance minister’s recent remarks exposes a weakness in Germany’s embrace of their unique legacy

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A TV screen showing Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, March 4, 2014. (Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images)
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Likewise when it comes to political debate, Germans shun charismatic leaders—with some exceptions when it comes to foreign leaders; see Barack Obama’s 2008 visit to Berlin—and intemperate language, haunted as they are by the ghosts of the past. The jolly back and forth of Prime Minister’s Questions in Britain or the screaming matches on American talk radio would, if replicated in Teutonic form, give Germans the chills. Listening to and watching German politicians, one gets the sense that, in their collective subconscious, an image of the führer maniacally delivering a speech before tens of thousands of adoring listeners plays on loop.

But the German predilection for emphasizing the uniqueness of the Nazi era, combined with a culture of banal political comity, can leave them blind to today’s threats. If one of the chief purposes of learning history is to ensure that its tragedies are not repeated, then that requires gleaning lessons about how the past remains relevant. The situation in Crimea certainly merits such analysis.

On the discrete question of whether Putin’s behavior in Crimea warrants association with that of Adolf Hitler in the years leading up to World War II, Schäuble was entirely right. Hitler justified his Anschluss of Austria, as well as his annexation of the Sudetenland and later all of Czechoslovakia, on the pretext of “protecting” his ethnic brethren in another sovereign state. Putin, seven decades later, justified his annexation of Crimea on precisely such terms, alleging, without evidence, that ethnic Russians in Ukraine were under threat from a “fascist” government in Kiev. His now infamous speech on the subject, in March, established a heretofore-fundamental Russian right to intervene abroad wherever ethnic Russians require further “protection.”

Hitler’s actions led to the worst war the world has ever witnessed, and while no one is predicting—or even really claiming—that Putin has such a monstrous vision, has actions represent a grave threat to the state system and utterly destroyed the postwar assumption that European borders would never again be redrawn via force. For those who still think that this comparison is ludicrous or unfair, try seeing if you can tell the difference among these 16 quotes, compiled by the Washington Free Beacon, of Putin and Hitler justifying their annexations of Crimea and Austria/Czechoslovakia, respectively.

In their quickness to condemn Schäuble, Germans are mimicking Russia’s own crackdown on dissenters and allowing Putin to portray himself, absurdly, as victim. Last month, after the Russian history professor Andrei Zubov wrote a newspaper article headlined “It’s Happened Before” comparing the annexation of Crimea with the Anschluss, he was fired from his job at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. Zubov, the Russian government claimed, was guilty of “harming the learning environment” merely for warning that Russia “must not behave the way Germans once behaved, based on the promises of Goebbels and Hitler.”

Germany’s low tolerance for Hitler comparisons comes from a good place: a desire to ensure that the Nazi era and all of its atrocities are never minimized or relativized. But denying the Hitler comparison with regard to Putin is also politically useful in that it lets Germany avoid the consequences that such a comparison entails. After all, if Putin is acting like Hitler, then surely Europe, led by Germany, would have to take stronger measures against him.

Most Germans, however, want nothing of the sort; only 38 percent support any sanctions on Russia. Another poll found that 49 percent of Germans want their country to take a “middle position” between Russia and the West, only 45 percent favor Berlin joining a united Western response. The country seems to sympathize with Social Democrat MP Ralf Stegner, who described Schäuble’s comments as “definitely not useful.” Indeed, if pacifism at all costs and appeasing tyranny are a country’s core foreign policy principles—as most Germans seem to want them to be—then speaking clearly about Russian aggression is certainly “not useful.” Denying the gravity of Putin’s behavior and chastising those who properly call him out as the expansionist brute that he is absolves Germany of taking the responsibility incumbent upon a country to which many are fruitlessly looking for leadership.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story suggested that Guido Westerwelle remains active in the Free Democratic Party; he stepped down as party leader in 2011.


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Germans Shun Comparisons Between Hitler and Putin. What Are They Avoiding?

The backlash against a finance minister’s recent remarks exposes a weakness in Germany’s embrace of their unique legacy

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