The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin’s ‘denazification’ claims and the self-serving manipulation of history

Days before taking office in 2019, then-Ukraine President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky shared this photo on Facebook of him visiting the grave of his Jewish grandfather, who fought the Nazis in World War II. (Facebook/Volodymyr Zelensky)
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When Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, he styled himself as a moral policeman, standing up against the repetition of history’s darkest chapters. In reality, Putin is the opposite, the sole agent of an unnecessary catastrophe and a mounting death toll that will likely rise higher.

History is at the heart of this war. In a sense, history is the war.

Putin has decried what he called “the band of drug addicts and neo-Nazis that sits in Kyiv” that has “taken the Ukrainian people hostage.” He has also urged the Ukrainian population not to “let neo-Nazis … use your children, wives and elders as human shields.” In the way that the Soviet Union fought against Hitler’s fascism in World War II, the Russian president now insists he is just doing the same.

Putin’s baseless justification for this unnecessary bloodshed is the need to “denazify” Ukraine and stop an ongoing “genocide” of Russian-sympathizing Ukrainians. This is a claim that is both flagrant antisemitism and a complete distortion of reality, a deliberate assault on the truth. It also shows the true dangers of the rampant historical revisionism, particularly regarding the Holocaust, that has steadily risen in Europe for years.

In the region that bore the brunt of actual genocide less than a century ago, the memory of mass slaughter of 6 million Jews and others has been manipulated for so long in so many ways that it has now become a rallying cry, a perverse excuse for enacting delusional fantasies in the present.

These are the facts: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not a Nazi. He is a Jew, and one whose family suffered immensely at the hands of the Nazi death machine. Three of Zelensky’s great-uncles were murdered in the Holocaust, while his grandfather survived. “Forty years later, his grandson became president,” Zelensky said recently.

In 2019, Zelensky was elected with 73 percent of the vote, a reality few could have imagined. In the site of the attempted liquidation of the Jewish people, a Jew was chosen as president with a groundswell of public support.

Putin’s claims that his government’s sudden invasion of Ukraine is somehow about “denazification” is an insult not only to Zelensky but also to the course of history. Are we to simply forget the long and terrible history of Soviet and Russian antisemitism? The czar’s pogroms in the Pale of Settlement, the Doctor’s Plot or the crackdown on Soviet refuseniks?

An invasion that could very well end with the toppling or, God forbid, the killing of the first Jewish head of state Ukraine has ever known is not an “anti-Nazi” operation. If anything, it has clear echoes of the Nazi campaign Putin claims to loathe: It is a baseless invasion based on an imagined threat, and it targets a Jewish leader at the same time it triggers the evacuation of a vibrant Jewish community.

Last week, a synagogue leader in Odessa, once home to one of the world’s largest Jewish communities, lamented the need to leave the city. “We just evacuated the whole community, and all the children, with the pets,” said the gabbai, or sexton, of Odessa’s Great Choral Synagogue, in a Hebrew-language video. “We ask everyone to pray.” Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich appealed for donations and prayers late Thursday as members of Kyiv’s Jewish community prepared to evacuate the capital. “If anyone can help, please do what you can to help. Daven and donate money,” he said.

This, if anything, is Putin’s “anti-Nazi” campaign. There could be no better illustration of the unnecessary brutality of the Russian offensive.

It’s true that the Soviet army fought Nazi Germany, and that Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz in January 1945. It’s also true that a number of Ukrainian fascists did collaborate with the Nazis in hunting down Ukrainian Jews during the war. But this is a fact that Putin has sought to manipulate for nothing more than his own political ends.

Putin has invaded Ukraine, but he has invaded the historical record as well, as if it belonged to him. He is not alone. Revisionism is rampant, in Eastern Europe, in Western Europe and even now in the United States.

The tragedies of the past are often seen as lessons, a way to avoid future atrocities: Because the unthinkable happened, we are told, it should never be allowed to happen again. But in the world as it is, the horrors of the past have all too often become props and pretexts for the violence of the present. If the past can be bent every which way, so can the present.

Putin must be stopped, and so must his assault on history.