(JTA) — In launching his war on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his goal was the “denazification” of the country — specifically referring to his allegations that Ukraine was responsible for or planning “genocide.” Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. provinces.
Much of the world mocked at Putin’s justifications for what some call the biggest test for the West since Nazi Germany’s surrender 77 years ago. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, in a tweet that went viralwrote: “The President of Ukraine [Vlodymyr Zelensky] is Jewish and has many family members who died in the Holocaust. Putin’s claim that he is invading to ‘denazify Ukraine’ should shock the world.
Stanley is the author of ‘How Propaganda Works’ and ‘How Fascism Works’, two books that couldn’t be more relevant to the present moment, with Russian forces engaged in a multi-pronged attack on a democratic neighbor after months – really years – of agitation by Putin.
I spoke to Stanley on Friday, about how Putin flipped the narrative on fascism and Nazism, how his brand of Christian nationalism plays on what Stanley sees as anti-Semitic tropes, and how Stanley’s work was inspired by the experiences of his parents, both Holocaust survivors.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ASC: Putin’s assertion that the war is meant to “denazify” Ukraine seemed absurd to most observers outside of Russia, but he must have thought it would be an effective message, certainly at home. What makes propaganda effective?
Jason Stanley: This is an example of “undermining propaganda”. And that’s where you use an ideal to undermine itself. If there is a far-right, ultra-nationalist and imperialist regime similar to National Socialism in this part of the world, it is Putin’s regime. And if there is a democratic regime around Russia, it is Ukraine, isn’t it? So what denazification means here is that he’s going to go to Ukraine, kill or imprison Ukraine’s democratic leaders and anyone who supports them, and replace them with a puppet he can control.
The reason he does this is because he can, he can draw on the history of Russia and the history of World War II, in which the Germans are still the enemy, and c he is the one who represents the West and democracy against the fascists and the Nazis.
So when does propaganda like this work? I mean, is this a slow and steady process of nationalist brainwashing? Or are there moments of crisis where people rally around blatantly false messages?
I don’t think that propaganda worked. I think enough people in Russia and certainly in the West are fully aware of the facts, that the far right in Ukraine gets 2% or less of the vote. Or that Zelensky is Jewish and much of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and that Ukraine is the only country other than Israel to have a Jewish Prime Minister and President simultaneously. [Zelensky and former prime minister Vlodymyr Groysman]other than Israel So I don’t think propaganda will work. As a result, Russia will simply be seen as a violent aggressor.
Do fascists tend to believe their own propaganda?
It depends. Many people will use fascist tactics just for power, and it doesn’t matter. I mean, Hitler was a committed genocidal anti-Semite. But he also clearly states in “Mein Kampf” that you must use Allied propaganda against them. You should reverse it, you know, “you’re the fascist”. Even in the most extreme cases, it is very often knowingly cynical, because fascists don’t care about the truth. They only think about power.
You wrote about how effective propaganda is when it makes the dominant group feel victimized. It is certainly at stake with Putin.
That’s right. What is not acceptable – and here I become emotional because I am the child of Holocaust survivors – is the trivialization of the Holocaust by claiming that there is a genocide in the east of Ukraine. I mean, Putin’s regime is a Christian nationalist regime, and Christian nationalism is a threat to Jews everywhere. And I don’t think he’s trying to convince anyone. I think he is trying to mock the language of the Holocaust. This is the anti-Semitism of Eastern Europe. Eastern European anti-Semitism is that we Jews have stolen the narrative of victimization. He makes fun of the Jews. He said: “The real victims are the Christian Russians in eastern Ukraine. They are the victims of genocide, not the child of a Holocaust survivor, descendant of Holocaust survivors, the Jewish leader of Ukraine. And that’s where I see the appeal: Christian nationalism is inherently anti-Semitic.
When does propaganda fail? Is it a question of overreach – when a message or action becomes so absurd that even your followers can’t get on board?
Sometimes the purpose of propaganda is to demonstrate power by the absurdity of it. Putin is a master in this area. Putin always lies, like Trump, who imitated this. If you lie openly and obviously, in this mocking, sneering, condescending way, for example: “How could anyone think that we are going to invade Ukraine? It’s a Western conspiracy theory! – what you do is show that you can manage, and that the supporters are a force.
You write that cultivating loyalty is a key part of what creates fascism.
Cultivating fascism requires ties of ethnic loyalty. The weakest fascism is just nationalism, but in this German form of national socialism or white nationalism in America or Russian nationalism, loyalty is formed by a bond of identity. I see Putin appealing to Eastern Orthodox Christian nationalism. He’s trying to reestablish something like the Soviet Union, or the pride of Russia. That’s why I think there’s an element of unrecognized anti-Semitism, an appeal to Russian Christian nationalism.
Although at the same time some insist that Putin is a philo-Semite, with good ties to parts of the Jewish establishment in Russia and fairly good – or at least tolerable – relations with Israel.
Because nationalism. What you have now is that you have different ultra-nationalist groups in different countries and they all say, “this country is mine”. And that will link Putin to the nationalists in Poland and nationalists in Israel. But they are going to have competing interests, as was the case with Poland and Israel, because their national histories collide. So when the Polish government begins to deny Polish complicity in the Holocaust, it will not sit well with Israelis who otherwise share their nationalist sentiments.
In your book on fascism, I had the impression that you were somewhat optimistic about the ability, at least in the United States, of the capacity of democratic systems to repel the worst impulses of fascists. But in a case like Ukraine, obviously the worst case scenario, is there an antidote beyond all-out war?
I am a philosopher. I have to say that this question is beyond what I can comment on. I have hope and optimism, because there is no other choice. Ukraine was a moment of hope: the Maidan revolution, the true nascent democracy. To the extent that there was an extreme right movement, it was suppressed. And so it was a moment of hope. But, you know, maybe we can see the terrible violence that greets him as a recognition of the power of hope.
You have alludes in your work to your family’s experience of the Holocaust. Can you tell me what it was?
My father was almost 7 years old when he left Berlin in August 1939. And his grandfather was the chief cantor of the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, the largest Jewish congregation in all of Germany. His mother, Ilse Stanley, was a hero in the late 1930s when she entered Sachsenhausen [concentration camp] several hundred times disguised as a Nazi social worker to free prisoners. And my father remembered Kristallnacht. He was there, in Charlottenburg. He had very clear memories of standing on my great-grandparents’ balcony, watching Nazi parades and begging to be allowed to join. He did not understand that he could not participate.
My mother is from Chelm (but no jokes) and was born during the march from Poland to Siberia in 1940 and grew up in a Siberian labor camp. His whole family was wiped out, his eight aunts and uncles, all his first cousins. My great-grandmother died in Sobibor. They returned to Poland the only survivors. She told me the other day that she had met her father by accident on the Trans-Siberian, returning from different labor camps. They came to the United States in 1948 when she was 8 after three years in Poland.
I heard you talk about your late father, the sociologist Manfred Stanleyand his library, which contained many books on Germany and the Holocaust, and its influence on you.
My dad spent his college career thinking about what led to fascism. I remember asking a colleague at Yale during my first years here: Why did my father, a Holocaust survivor, write his thesis on British imperialism in East Africa? “Because, Jason,” he said, “the second part of Hannah Arendt’s ‘The origins of totalitarianism is called “imperialism”. My father started out studying imperialism and what leads to it, and that’s what we see in Russia right now.
What would your father have thought of the current moment?
My job is to re-imagine or imagine or sketch out what I think my dad would do in the current moment.
is editor of The New York Jewish Week and editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
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