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Is Putin Comparable to Hitler? Who's the Closest Historical Match for Vladimir Putin?

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There has been a lot of comparison of Putin to Hitler recently, due of course to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is an interesting comparison. Of course, Hitler is the go to leader who anyone we dislike is compared to, and so in this sense it isn’t too wise to take much out of it. But it does raise the question: who is Putin most comparable to? I think that the Hitler comparison is an intriguing one, but misses many of the elements of Putin’s rule and policy. Let’s search for what dictator is the best antecedent for Putin.

Hitler is the standard vision of evil in the Western world, and for entirely good reason: Hitler carried out an aggressive war of conquest against surrounding states, engaged in genocide against a wide variety of groups ranging from, most famously the Jews, to notably the Eastern Slavs such as the Poles and Soviets, had a repressive internal regime which denied civil rights and liberties to large swathes of the German population, built up a massive military which threatened to bankrupt the country, and aimed for a campaign of territorial expansion against Eastern Europe. Calling someone “Hitler” is overstated, both in number of times this device is used, but above all else in that few come anywhere close to matching this record. In North America, Obama, Trudeau, Trump, all received some form of comparison to Hitler, which is patently absurd: even if you believe they are bad, it is akin to comparing a firecracker to the Tsar Bomb (at least domestically: externally American foreign policy is capable of committing great destruction, although it’s still ridiculous to compare it to Nazi Germany). But for better or worse it has entered the record - as the height of evil, to call someone Hitler is both simultaneously dramatically overdone and the greatest insult.

Putin does strike some of Hitler’s beliefs and policies. Like Hitler, Putin is willing to countenance aggressive foreign war, on dubious principles. Other leaders do this too of course, but it is a comparison that is legitimate regardless. Like Hitler, Putin believes strongly in a nationalistic history and history justifies his actions: Putin’s article On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine can be viewed as best presenting Putin’s historical views of Russia and Ukraine, justifying his belief that they are essentially one people but split apart by outside historical actors. Like Hitler, Putin believes in reuniting his own group of people within the borders of one nation: Hitler after all, sought to do so with the Sudetenland, Austria, and various German minorities throughout Central Europe. There is a great degree of contempt for democracy and human rights shared by the two. Russia is willing to embrace a certain degree of official racism which would be ill viewed in other countries, although it is certainly nothing comparable to the German kind. And Putin is willing to use brutal methods to achieve his objectives: the Russian war in Chechnya was marked by massive usage of artillery which levelled Grozny, and the Russians are increasingly turning to such heavy handed tactics in Ukraine, just like the Germans countenanced the first use of terror bombing.

But there are some very clear differences as well. Above all else, Putin does not aim for genocide: Russia might embrace a relative degree of racialization, such as police identifying people of “Slavic appearance,” but Putin’s Russia, despite stereotypes, has its own form of diversity and tolerance. The largest mosque in Moscow, the Moscow Cathedral Mosque was commissioned in Moscow in 2015 by Putin, with a speech which declared that Islam is part of Russia’s cultural history. Chechnya might have been flattened and ground down by the Second Chechen War, but the Russians didn’t attempt to annihilate Chechen identity, and Chechen mercenaries and soldiers form some of the elite troops of the Russian military. As long as Chechens have been willing to work with Moscow and been loyal to Putin, there has been no problem.

Of course, it could be said that the Nazis were pro-Islam themselves: the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem favored the Nazis, Hitler made various pro-Islam statements and regretted that the weak, non-martial religion of Christianity had been adopted by the Germans instead of Islam: a Bosnian Muslim SS unit was formed and there was a Free Arabian Legion. This however, ignores that this isn't a question of just Islam: rather it is a question of internal minorities. This isn’t a unique area of tolerance in Russian policy: there’s been no real effort to crush the identity of the vast numbers of other ethnic groups throughout Russia, such as Tatars, Yakuts, Kalmuks, etc. Russia is certainly nationalist, but it can’t really be called ultra-nationalist nor definitively exclusionary, and certainly there is nothing in the slightest comparable to the Germans and their conduct towards the Jews or other internal (and conquered) minorities.

Which leads to another critical point: plans for expansion and the future. Hitler was concerned that Germany would be hemmed in and its population, subjected to the power of the Jewish-controlled international market, would be strangled and removed from its nationalized link to the soil: the famous blood and soil link. To counter this, Germany needed to expand to be able to be self-sufficient, pushing to the East, controlling the vast territory of the Soviet Union to give land for its farmers, resources and economic scale for its industry, and space for the population to grow. This style of expansion inherently called for a massive degree of genocide to remove people from the land and resettle Germans.

Of course, this is incomparable to Russia. The Russians have plenty of space, and have a population which is already declining. At most, the greatest similarity is that the Russians, like the Germans, see themselves in the long run as a declining power. But beyond this there is no comparable Russian idea of genocide and extermination of people. If anything, Russian nationalist thinkers, and to some extent Putin’s On the Historical Unity of Russia and Ukraine, speak to the idea that the Ukrainian people themselves are the target of Russia’s war: to bring together the Ukrainians with the Russians and the Belarussians to form an updated form of the Russian empire, a superpower capable of competing with other great states or regions like the United States, China, and Europe. Of course, this view is proving dramatically at odds with reality: Ukrainians have no desire to be part of Russia and are clearly showing that they do not consider themselves Russian, but it is still a view which is utterly at odds with Hitler’s ideal of colonization-extermination. And in the rest of the “near abroad,” the former Soviet Union, Russia’s efforts are above all directed to a sphere of influence.

Just as important is the internal difference. Hitler sought a radical reshaping of German society. While he was forced to compromise with elements of the conservative and military elite, the Junkers famously, Nazi ideals called for a radically remade German people, nationalized, allied to the soil, imbued with a new Nazi spirit and the fuhrerprinzip. Constant war would breed a new German man, fit for never-ending race war. In a sense it is very similar to other totalitarian ideologies for reshaping the human character, most notably the Soviet Union and its New Soviet Man.

Nothing comparable is occurring in Russia and nothing similar envisioned by Putin: if you can say something about the Russian people as a whole, it is that they are tired of ideology. Putin doesn’t speak of a new Russian man, and while he seems to have the idea of nationalizing the Russian elite, which became extremely cosmopolitan and West-bound in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union, he is in most regards simply an update of the Yeltsin system. There are still oligarchs and an immensely corrupt, wealthy, and powerful people at the top of it who skim off the wealth of the country, and Putin is probably one of them, with circumstantial evidence that he might even be the world’s richest man thanks to the huge earnings from the system. This is impossible to confirm, and I have my doubts: Putin owns Russia and is in many regards indistinguishable from Russia’s government, so why feel the need to skim off the top, ie. make a distinction between your personal and public person when the two are the same? But regardless Putin’s role in the system is that as long as people are loyal to him, and as long as they don’t challenge his power, he has been willing to let it keep running, with just enough changes to prevent the 1990’s crisis from returning.

Putin fundamentally is a reactionary figure. Hitler was too in his own way: he had an idealized past of the Germans and their race to return to. But Hitler was also extremely radical in how he south to reshape German society and how he dealt with it, as it was steadily Nazified over the course of the Third Reich. Putin has had nothing comparable, and he is reactionary in the sense that he responds to external stimuli. The Crimean Invasion and the War in the Donbass were reactions to Euromaidan. The Ukraine Invasion was based on the steady drift of Ukraine to Europe and the West. Putin’s Russia is based on fears of external enemies and internal decline, and despite its outbursts is fundamentally responding to what it perceives as its threats.

This makes the comparison to Hitler an incomplete one: a useful shorthand for violence, coercion, transgressing international law, and invasion of other countries, but with massive differences between the two. This isn’t to defend Putin, but rather to point out his differences. With this said, what sort of other dictators could serve as a model? There's a long list of European dictators, but out of brevity I'll just look at a few to whom Putin is the most comparable. Horthy in Hungary, Tsar Nicholas in Russia, and possibly Mussolini in Italy strike me as the clearest, although Napoleon III is also an interesting comparison.

Mussolini before 2022 would have seemed like a vacuous comparison: after all, Mussolini’s main reputation is that of failure. In our popular memory of WW2, he serves as comic relief to Hitler, with his string of failed invasions and military disasters, based on a bombastic over-estimation of Italy’s capabilities. Putin by contrast, has been perceived as leading an extremely military powerful and effective state, whose army won decisively in Chechnya, smashed Georgia in 2008, almost effortlessly seized Crimea in 2014, whose troops decisively outmatched the Ukrainians in the Donbass fighting following that, and which proved decisive in saving Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime from collapsing via effective usage of airpower. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 revealed severe shortcomings in the Russian military. These were partially caused by poor leadership decisions and an under-estimation of Ukrainian forces, but also by systemic problems in logistics, communications, rear area security, suppression of enemy air defense, precision munition striking capacity, paratrooper operations, infantry fighting capacity, and even air defense, previously assumed to be a Russian strong suit. Russia’s military clearly suffers from many more shortcomings than was assumed prior.

This makes the Mussolini comparison more reasonable. Russia’s army received generous funding but it adopted questionable military organizations (such as the battalion tactical group, with its lack of infantry and flexibility which has made for problematic operations in Ukraine due to insufficient integral capacity and infantry for security, although to be fair most of the problems come from its poor deployments rather than any inherent Russian organizational difficulty), there are prestige projects mounted on top of a military which as a whole is substantially less advanced (see Italy’s battleships and excellent airshow formations while much of the military suffered, and Russia’s naval spending and new T-14s or Su-57s on a largely Soviet-era military), and above all else its doctrine and standard mode of employment was thrown by the wayside in favor of politically mandated orders and invasions – just like Italy. Mussolini’s comparison stank of incompetence, and this is less outlandish to talk about nowadays.

An athletic dictator

An athletic dictator


Mussolini also has individual characteristics which match Putin somewhat. A notable similarity between the two is that in their public cult of personality, not nearly as strong as for say, Hitler, but still extant. There is substantial focus on their personal physical prowess. One of Mussolini’s most famous photos is him on a tractor during the Battle for Grain, showing off his muscles as he helped in the harvest, and there are plenty of him bare chested Mussolini was a very athletic figure, very muscular, and state propaganda idolized this. Similarly, Putin bare-chested while horse riding or swimming, or hunting, is one of his most recognizable depictions, and an important part of the public persona. It’s a relatively minor point but a fascinating similarity. This has not escaped attention and there are multiple comparisons on the subject online.

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Mussolini and Putin both share more limited goals while still being willing to use unsavory and aggressive means to achieve them. Mussolini’s war in Libya is an excellent comparison to Putin’s war in Chechnya: in both cases, the usage of force by the Italians or Russians was massive, inflicting vast casualties, much of it on a civilian population. But at the same time it wasn’t designed to eliminate the people per se, and just as Putin has declared Islam an integral part of the Russian identity, Mussolini declared himself the Protector of Islam and cultivated various Arab groups’ loyalties. Both are irredentist, with Putin aiming for various territories, such as Crimea or the Donbas, which he views as being traditionally part of Russia, and potentially an absorption of Ukrainians and Belarussians, while Italy had designs on France (In Savoy, Nice, Corsica, and Italy), Yugoslavia in the coastal regions denied to Italy after WW, and the United Kingdom with Malta, as well as ambitions for spheres of influence and control over Greece and various other Balkan countries. And like Russia today with its resentment of the United-States centric world system, Italy felt constrained by the British Empire whose control of the entrances and exits of the Mediterranean at Gibraltar and the Suez effectively imprisoned Italy within. Despite this the direct foreign ambitions of Italy were mostly directed against France and Yugoslavia up until the last years before WW2, just like how Russia has been mostly concerned with Ukraine and other states of the Russian Near Abroad.

And just like with Mussolini, who ruled Italy from the mid 1920s to the mid 1940s, Putin has been in charge of Russia for a very long time relatively, certainly compared to Hitler who only had a brief 6 years before war broke out. This has produced varying degrees of agressivity and nationalism: in Italy the 1920s were noted by a relatively orthodox Italian economic policy and international relations (with, admittedly, some flares of bellicosity, such as the Corfu Crisis), followed by more interventionist and aggressive policies in the 1930s. Putin did the same, with an orthodox and mostly conventional period of peace in the 2000s, other than the Georgian War and the Second Chechen War, with a more active policy from 2014 onwards.

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Certainly, the two are more comparable when it comes to nationalities policy and minority. Mussolini did tolerate pluralism to some degree: in Libya as mentioned before, but most notably with his declarations on race and his stance on the Jews. "Race! It is a feeling, not a reality: ninety-five percent, at least, is a feeling. Nothing will ever make me believe that biologically pure races can be shown to exist today. ... National pride has no need of the delirium of race." And Mussolini was not anti-Semitic until he veered closer to the German line in the late 1930s. Certainly, Mussolini’s actions could vary and the Italians committed many war crimes and engaged in their own degree of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in WW2, and Italy also famously used poison gas on the Ethiopians in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War. But Mussolini is far closer to Putin as a biased but fundamentally non-radical nationalist than he is to Hitler.