The rhetoric around Russia’s invasion of Ukraine serves to construct the other side as evil, helping to justify military aggression and human suffering, argue Dr Maren Rohe and Professor Sara Jones

That President Putin sought to justify the invasion of Ukraine as part of a ‘de-Nazification’ process seemed absurd to many Western observers – not least because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and several of his family members were murdered during the Holocaust. 

But for Putin’s intended audience for his propaganda – the Russian and Russophone public – talking about de-Nazification is a reference to World War Two and Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. 

This moment of national pride is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War. Throughout the second half of the 20th Century, the victory over fascism was used to legitimise the Soviet Union as a world power and its domination of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The Russian Federation since 1991 has continued memorialisation of the conflict in a comparable way. 

References to de-Nazification are therefore a reminder of this victory and designed to invoke Russian national pride at this time of violence and conflict.


Warring Narratives

The idea of the Great Patriotic War as a manifestation of Russian power is connected to a downplaying of the Western role in the 1939-1945 conflict. 

While the Soviet Union cooperated with the Western allies in World War Two, since the early days of the Cold War, Soviet and Russian narratives have emphasised Western appeasement of Nazi Germany – especially the Munich Pact of 1938. The historical narrative they have of the war attaches little importance to Western involvement in the eventual victory. 

Similarly, Western Europe tends to downplay Russian involvement and emphasise the victory of the Western allies over appeasement and collaboration. In a survey conducted in 2018, 50% of British respondents stated that Britain had played the most significant role in defeating the Nazis in the Second World War with only 13% believing that it was the Russians.

De-Nazification of Germany was also understood quite differently on the two sides of the Iron Curtain. 

The Soviet narrative was that West Germany had not been properly de-Nazified, claiming former Nazis remained in positions of power. This narrative was bolstered by scandals surrounding the chequered pasts of individuals such as Kurt Georg Kiesinger, West German Chancellor from 1966-1969. Kiesinger had been a leading figure in the Nazi German foreign ministry involved in producing antisemitic and war propaganda.

De-Nazification in the Soviet occupied zone and East Germany was in many ways more thorough – while also used as a weapon against political opponents. 

Former members of Nazi organisations were interned, and any political unrest blamed on Nazi sympathisers. The rest of the East German population were encouraged to view themselves as anti-fascists liberated by the Soviet Union.

It’s this history, then, that is evoked in Russian minds when talking about de-Nazification. Unlike the West, which is viewed as appeasing rather than fighting Nazism, according to this narrative only Russians can recognize and put a stop to Nazis.


Ukrainian Nationalism

Debates about the past in Central and Eastern Europe also fuel this perception. 

In Ukraine, historical memory of World War Two is divided between accounts that support the Russian narrative of the Great Patriotic War. and those that celebrate Ukrainian national resistance against the ‘double occupation’ – first by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union. While the former narrative emphasises the shared past with Russians in the Soviet Union, the latter emphasises the history of conflict between Ukrainians and Russians. 

The Russian public are sold a narrative of Ukrainians as ‘Banderites’: a term derived from Stepan Bandera who, along with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, collaborated with the Nazis and were involved in atrocities against Jews. This has meant the lumping together of neo-Nazis with any Ukrainians who oppose Russia.

Of course, recent history has shown the link between Nazism and some forms of Ukrainian nationalism is not confined to the past. Far right battalions led by neo-Nazis, such as the Azov battalion, were incorporated into the Ukrainian Army in recent years. Neo-Nazi groups were also active in the Maidan Revolution of 2014. 

These only represent a small minority of Ukrainians. However, there has been a failure on the part of the Ukrainian state and anti-Russian public to ostracize them. This allowed for people who opposed the Maidan Revolution to portray it as a movement of neo-Nazis – a narrative pushed by Russian propaganda ever since. 

As such, when talking about de-Nazifying Ukraine, Russia is talking about returning it to pre-2014 status when it had a pro-Russian Government.

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Different Definitions

While in the West, the term Nazi has a clear connotation of antisemitism, this has not been the case in Russia. 

In the post-war Soviet period, the emphasis was on the war victory and a generalised experience of suffering that tended to marginalise memory of the Holocaust. 

This started to to change after the fall of communism, for example the Park of Victory at Poklonnaya Gora now includes a Holocaust Memorial Synagogue. Nonetheless, as the title of the Park indicates, even this recognition of the genocide of the European Jews remains embedded in a memory foregrounding the Russian victory over fascism. 

In 2020, the Jerusalem Post reported that 48% of respondents in 11 Russian cities were unable to answer the question “What is the Holocaust?” 

The main crime of Nazi Germany, from the Russian point of view, was instead unleashing World War Two and killing millions of Soviet citizens. This account conveniently ignores that most Nazi victims in the Soviet Union were not, in fact, ethnic Russians, but Jews, Belarusians, and Ukrainians. 

The Holocaust is regarded as a sub-chapter in this Great Patriotic War narrative – it certainly does not play the same central role in commemoration as it now does in many Western European countries. 

The absurdity of ‘de-Nazifying’ a country with a Jewish leader is therefore not as clear from a Russian point of view as it is from a Western one.

For all these reasons, the term Nazi – and the more frequently ‘fascist’ – are often used to indicate “enemies of Russia” rather than a narrower usage following their historic meaning. 

This is of course highly problematic. 

Firstly, Ukrainians in their majority were victims of Nazis, rather than collaborators. Secondly, it hides the imperialist, supremacist, racist worldviews prevalent among the Russian Government, and their cooperation with Russian and international far right groups. Thirdly, it delegitimizes any criticism of Russia as ‘Nazism’ and crucially hinders the fight against actual neo-Nazis in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere. 

Finally, as has become clear in the current war, it serves to construct the other side as evil, helping to justify military invasion and human suffering.

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