The Hilterisation of Putin
(Business New Europe – bne.eu – COMMENT – Ben Aris in Moscow – May 21, 2014)
Hitler has followed me to Russia and won’t leave me alone. The cover of the Daily Mail on May 21 has a shock-sensation banner headline: “Charles: Putin is behaving like Hitler.”
Before I go any further let me say for the record that Hitler is pretty much on his own in the evil stakes. The industrial effort to murder an entire ethnic group, done with all the industrial efficiency Germans can bring to any enterprise, is pretty much unique in history. Stalin and perhaps Pol Pot are amongst the very few figures who come close. But the number of dead in Ukraine is still below 500 according to most estimates. More people die from smoking and crossing the road each day than have been killed in the Ukrainian fracas. Ukraine is nothing like Nazi Germany. The comparison is silly – and dangerous.
But Hitler keeps coming up. When I was running the Guardian bureau in Berlin in 2003 you were obliged to pitch any mention of the H-word or the N-word as part of the morning memo – irrespective of how stupid the story.
And the editors in London always took those stories, from the paint on the Jewish memorial that was made by the daughter company of the company that invented Zyklon B, to the French artist that made visitors to the gallery wear gas masks to “simulate the feelings of a gas chamber.”
“Why do you write about Hitler so much?” the Germans used to ask me. “Why do you keep talking about him?” I’d reply, because Hitler and the Nazis remain fixtures in magazines and TV as part of the “never forget” policy. I hated these stories, but you had to do them as London always wanted them. Hitler stories are like picking a scab: you know you shouldn’t do it, but there is some sort of masochistic pleasure from the low-level pain it causes. And now he is increasingly invading the Ukraine story.
The same is true for the Daily Mail story. If you actually read the details, you’ll discovere that Charles’s remarks were totally innocuous. The Prince was chatting to a Mrs Ferguson in a Canadian Art Museum.
“He [Charles] asked when I came to Canada, I told him 1939,” said Ms Ferguson.
“He made the remark that now Putin is doing some of the same things that Hitler was doing.
“I agreed – you know, he is taking countries the same as Hitler did.”
BBC Royal correspondent Peter Hunt commented: “This was an unplanned foray into a vexed international issue.”
So in reality the Mail story is a complete non-story. However the banner headline does real damage. The whole point of the front page is to invade the readers conscience as effectively as possible by making issues black-and-white in the headline. The upshot is readers will now form a link between Putin and Hitler that doesn’t exist, because that sells papers.
Hitler has been dead for more than 60 years, but he is alive and well in the minds of editors and pretty much anyone that aspires to be a pundit. In the arms race between commentators, desperate to be heard above the “rhubarb” (as actors in a crowd scene say) of commentary, the inevitable end point is “XXXX is just like Hitler.”
It’s known as Godwin’s law: the longer an online discussion goes on about any topic, the probability of someone mentioning Hitler approaches rises. The original law referred to online Usenet discussion groups, but then was extended to online discussions in general – and now should be extended again to include any reporting on Russia and Putin.
The Hitler meme is dangerous, as it skews the attempts to discuss and understand what is happening in Ukraine, so finding a way out of this mess becomes increasingly difficult. Prince Charles’ comments can easily be dismissed, as he is obviously not qualified to comment on the situation (and he didn’t really say anything controvertial anyway). However, others that should know better have reached for the same idea, partly for its shock value one suspects. For example, in the runup to the Olympics earlier this year, pretty much every US magazine that covered it went for a concentration camp motif on their cover stories.
Amongst the most egregious was Swedish political scientist Anders Aslund’s op-ed in the Moscow Times at the end of March entitled: “Russia Will Pay Dearly for Putin’s Anschluss [of Crimea],” which didn’t mention Hitler by name, but compared Russia to “Nazi Germany in 1938.”
“A new low in commentary,” analyst Chris Weafer said in a one-line email sent to clients commenting on the piece. Indeed.
However, the Nazi meme is not entirely irrelevant. The propaganda used by the pro-Russian ultranationalists clearly pulls on some of the classic National Socialist themes, like the importance of traditional family values, which is worrying to say the least. But with some real fascists in the game, the arms race of punditry then takes over and it is a short step to “Putin is Hitler.” London editors must be delighted, as for once they can do stories with the H-word in with some real justification.