Staunton, December 3 – Prophets, it is sometimes observed, are ignored twice: the first time when they make their predictions and the second when those predictions come true and the full consequences of what they had said could happen begin to appear. That has happened to those who suggested in the 1990s that Russia was the Weimar Germany of today.
Few wanted to accept that analogy because of what it suggested about the future: the rise of a Hitler-like leader who would be prepared to go to war to recover “lost” Russian territories abroad and the country’s status as a super power, and who would use “hurrah patriotism” to silence and suppress critics and boost his standing at home.
But now, with mounting evidence that this is exactly the trajectory on which Putin is taking his country, Mark Saamov, a Russian analyst at the University of Bremen in Germany, has returned to a consideration of this analogy and, more bluntly than most of those who used it earlier, considered its ultimate implications. They are disturbing indeed.
In an essay on Rufabula.com today, Saamov begins gently, observing that “historians often say that history is cyclical and that many political, economic and other processes have a tendency to be repeated decades or even centuries after they first occurred,” a pattern that is true in Russia as well.
Only the lazy do not make comparisons between the post-Crimean Russian state and Stalin’s USSR, he argues: the same notion of Russia standing up against the West, the same powerful propaganda effort at home and abroad, the same search for a “fifth column,” and the same desires for the rebirth of “’a great Empire’” to show the world Russia’s glory.
These developments, Saamov says, are disturbing because together they point toward a situation in which the Russian regime will again “finally be transformed” from an authoritarian to a totalitarian one, with all the consequences, domestic and foreign that such a change inevitably entails.
In the 1990s, the West hoped that Russia would “step by step overcome the heritage of the Soviet period,” but those hopes have turned out to be in vain: “A market economy and Western democracy” did not take root in Russia. Instead, there was “a tightening of the screws” immediately after Putin came to power.
This pattern should not have surprised anyone given what Russia went through in the 1990s and the parallels with what happened in Weimar Germany in the 1920s. Many did talk about that 20 years ago, but this comparison is “again important because many of the most distressing predictions about the strengthening of a dictatorship in Russia are being confirmed.”
Faced with a sense of loss of status and economic hardship, Putin like Hitler before him, first moved to improve the lives of his own citizens, using in the Kremlin leader’s case high prices for oil. “Life did become better; it did become happier” for most Russians compared to what they had experienced in the 1990s.
But “after establishing relative order inside the country, Putin, again like Hitler, turned his attention to foreign policy.” For him, “the West again became enemy number one, which is guilty for all the misfortunes of the country and only [he] is capable of taking the long-awaited revenge for all this.”
“Of course,” Saamov continues, “one must not compare Putin and Hitler in everything: the former is a calculator while the latter was a fanatic. But in this case, “the comparison of personalities does not have any significance because Putin and Hitler are acting in a similar fashion” as a result of similar circumstances.
If one extends this analogy, the scholar says, then it follows that “the Putin regime should suffer the very same fate that Hitler’s did – a fall as a result of an unsuccessful war.”
“Is that possible?” No final answer is available now because “no one knows or can predict Putin’s actions. But the following is obvious: the situation in the Russian economy is becoming ever worse as a result of sanctions and cheap oil … and this is not helping to strengthen the Putin vertical.”
In such circumstances, any dictator faces a choice: either acknowledging his inability to overcome the crisis, something few are prepared to do, or increase repression at home to keep the population in check. That will allow the dictator to extend his rule “for several years,” but economic collapse will ultimately end this.
But there is a third option beloved of dictators: “a small victorious war” to distract the attention of citizens and thus keep power. Here is where the comparison between Putin and Hitler becomes “most interesting,” Saamov says.
“The West today is inclined much more decisively than it was in 1939. Hitler thought because he had been able to swallow Austria and Czechoslovakia without problems that he would be able to do the same in Poland; he was mistaken. Putin thought that the West would put up with [his Anschluss of] Crimea and not introduce sanctions, and he too was mistaken.”
Moreover, in the event that the Kremlin leader expands his attack, he will have to fight with all of NATO including the United States. And given the nuclear capability of the latter, Putin won’t be able to use nuclear weapons lest he start down the path to mutual destruction or at least the use of such weapons on Russian territory.
As a result, Russia would lose that conflict. Its economy would be in ruins and its army destroyed. Indeed, it would likely face “foreign occupation.” And with that, Saamov suggests, would end the cycle that started when Russia again tried to solve its problems by turning to a strong hand once again.
“Russia like Germany after 1945 would be demoralized and destroyed and simply would not be able to speak any more about its imperial ambitions.” Germany was willing to go to war in the 1930s because it “had not known the horrors of destruction and occupation during the First World War.”
Indeed, Saamov continues, Russia is willing to talk about wars of revenge now because, like Germany 90 years earlier, but not like Germany after 1945, Russia “was not defeated and occupied as a result of a cruel war and was only harmed politically and economically.” That pattern has led to the current situation and points to a tragedy ahead.
That tragedy reflects the fact that in this regard, “Russians are like Germans.”
The cycle in which Russia now finds itself can be ended, Saamov concludes, “only by such radical measures as war. It turns out that Russia like Germany in 1945 has to be ‘forced’ to be free and to take responsibility for its actions by someone from the outside however wild and hard to bear that may sound.”