THE ABUSE OF HISTORY IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR: AN INTERVIEW WITH TARIK CYRIL AMAR
The below is a transcript of an email interview I conducted recently with Tarik Cyril Amar about the use and abuse of history in connection with the Russia-Ukraine war. Amar is an historian of the twentieth century, writing about World War Two, the postwar period, as well as our twenty first-century present. He has lived, studied, done research, and worked in Turkey, the United States, Great Britain, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, and Germany and is now teaching at the Department of History of Koc University in Istanbul. His website is www.tcyrilamar.com.
In recent weeks we’ve seen people comparing Putin to Hitler and even going beyond that and implying that Putin is somehow worse than Hitler — e.g. that Hitler didn’t kill ethnic Germans (a claim that Michael McFaul begrudgingly backtracked on) — and then we had Lloyd Blankfein tweeting out that “even Hitler didn’t permit his military to use chemical weapons…” I’ve found this deeply disturbing on a couple of different levels. The first — this gross misrepresentation of history when comparing Putin to Hitler. The second — that it’s clearly being used to manipulate people on behalf of an agenda, to support more escalatory policies. So my questions are:
NB: We can oppose Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but comparing him to Hitler who occupied most of Europe and perpetrated a holocaust that killed millions seems like an affront to historical accuracy and to Hitler’s victims. What are your thoughts?
Amar: Equating Putin and Hitler betrays historical ignorance, disrespect for Hitler’s victims (deliberately or not), and irresponsibility. There is no doubt that Putin has launched a criminal war of aggression, which is a crime in and of itself. Moreover, the Russian military is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. Putin is also an authoritarian who has repressed opposition and media at home. And we could go on.
Yet the fact remains that he is, at least at this stage, not in the same category as Hitler — or, for that matter, Stalin. Regarding launching a war of aggression, he is no worse or better than George W. Bush and Tony Blair (Iraq, 2003); regarding authoritarianism, he has all too many peers, some allied with the West. Regarding war crimes and crimes against humanity, again, he is not, unfortunately, exceptional. There may be differences of degree and, as it were, “style,” but it is a fact that we can find such crimes committed against Palestinians by Israel, for instance, or against Yemenis by Saudi Arabia. It may be depressing, but in our world, Putin, with all his crimes, is much less exceptional (in the statistical, not moral, sense) than equating him with Hitler suggests. In fact, one psychological function of this misguided practice may be to avoid precisely that uncomfortable fact.
NB: I tend to think that a major contributing factor to this phenomenon is that nearly all of the people who fought/lived through WWII are dead now. The horrors of that war are not in living memory for 98% of the population so there’s not as much pushback on this kind of nonsense. Do you agree or do you think there’s something else at play?
Amar: It’s possible that the passing of the immediate witnesses makes a difference. But World War Two has always been open to “creative retelling” and misleading, politicized appropriation — in the West as well as in Russia (and, formerly, the Soviet Union). So, I am not sure how important that specific factor is now. Concerning what else may be in play, one powerful factor is the fact that — unlike with, for instance, the Korean or Vietnam Wars — World War Two still has a mostly unquestioned reputation as the West’s and especially the USA’s “good war.” This has to do with the fact that darker sides, such as the horrific crime of dropping of not one but two atom bombs on cities in Japan, an already defeated country, have not been dealt with with sufficient honesty by the public in general. The critical scholarship is, of course, there. But the public image has not responded with a genuine, adequate reckoning. In Russia, meanwhile the narrative of the Great Fatherland War (see below) has made it very hard to honestly come to terms with, for instance, the fact that at the beginning of World War two, there was a period of de facto German-Soviet collusion. Moreover, the biases of that narrative have also contributed to a partial and, of course, deeply misguided rehabilitation of Stalin.
NB: Similarly, we keep seeing commentary and questioning from the US mainstream media and pundits who are minimizing the dangers of nuclear war, like they’re trying to get people to accept the possibility of WWIII as no big deal. A recent poll in the US found that 35% of respondents thought it was worth supporting policies against Russia that risked nuclear war between US/NATO and Russia. Again, I can’t help but think that because the horror of the atomic bombs being dropped on Japan is not in the living memory of 98% of Americans, it’s easier for people to take this lackadaisical attitude. It seems to be an indictment of our education and culture. As an historian and an educator, what do you think?
Amar: I agree that, in general, we lack a robust awareness of the nature of nuclear war. In the early 1980s, for instance, that was different, at least to a degree. There was widespread and healthy fear of such a war. My sense is that it has largely dissipated. More worryingly, again, is that we see clear attempts to “popularize” the idea of “limited” nuclear war. That toxic illusion could prove devastating, literally.
NB: I know you think that there has been a serious misuse of history in Russia also in relation to this conflict. Of course, I’m more aware of examples in the US. Can you discuss how you think the distortion of history on the Russian side has contributed to this conflict?
Amar: The single most important and worst factor is the Russian instrumentalizing of World War Two, or, to be precise, of the memory of the war between Nazi Germany (and its allies) and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945, known in Russian as the Great Fatherland War. It is true that this has long been an important memory, which, in and of itself, is natural, since it really was a decisive part of the defeat of global World War Two fascism and, at the same time, enormously costly — in human lives and everything else — for the whole Soviet Union.
What is anything but natural is the nationalist appropriation of that experience and its memory by the Russian leadership, its media, and conformist intellectuals and talking heads. This policy has produced the intellectual and moral perversion of trying to “justify” an attack on Ukraine as “denazification.” This is as pure a case of the abuse of “history” as you can find anywhere.
One key aspect of this specific lie is the false Russian allegation that the far right dominates contemporary Ukraine. In reality, while the latter has played an unusual and worrying role, especially since 2014, it has never ruled Ukraine or represented a majority view, even while it certainly would like to achieve cultural hegemony.
Russian propaganda, however, is, in essence, equating the Soviet World War Two struggle against Nazism and what is currently, in reality, a Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. This is not only deeply wrong, it also has very disturbing implications: By depicting its war in these false and apocalyptic terms, Russia has made possible massive escalation, including by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, both of which have already occurred, to one precise extent or the other.
Ultimately, in retrospect, this Russian propaganda strategy will also do something else, namely sully and diminish the memory of the real struggle against Nazism, that is the one that did actually take place during World War Two. From now on, for many the shadow of the current Russian manipulation and instrumentalization will inevitably fall on this past. It is a stunning and horrifying irony, but the worst offense against a true, or at least a truer memory of the Soviet World War Two fight against Nazism is committed by Russia’s leadership, by it is its decision to misuse this past to seek to “justify” a war of aggression.