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Is Putin the New Hitler?

FILE - A protester holds a photo depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin as Adolf Hitler during a demonstration against Russia's invasion of the Ukraine, in Skopje, North Macedonia, March 6, 2022.

Even before Russia's military began its invasion of Ukraine, the comparisons between the contemporary Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and the Nazi-era fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, began propagating.

As Ukrainian cities are hit by missiles, resulting in civilian mass casualties and refugees fleeing across the border to Poland, Putin faces accusations of following in the footsteps of the reviled former leader of Germany. The hashtag #PutinHitler has been trending on social media as Europe faces its biggest crisis since World War II.

'Disturbingly mirrors traits'

According to Jonathan Katz, a German Marshall Fund senior fellow and director of Democracy Initiatives, Putin "is this century's equivalent to Hitler, and the threat he poses to Europe, U.S. and global security extends far beyond the current conflict in Ukraine."

"Like Hitler, Putin has amassed unquestionable power in Russia, wiped out political opposition with little to no check on his regime and its use of military force or other hybrid tools to brutally carve out and illegally conquer territory in surrounding nations."

Putin, Katz tells VOA, "disturbingly mirrors traits of Hitler — cold and calculated, showing no remorse or interests in the sanctity of human life."

Katz, who formerly led the U.S. Agency for International Development's Europe and Eurasia programs and co-chaired a trans-Atlantic task force on Ukraine, says akin to Hitler and the Nazis in justifying force, "Putin also uses disinformation, scapegoating and dehumanizing language."

"Tragically, what the world is witnessing today invokes memories of the Nazi blitzkrieg," says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization.

"To be clear, no one is accusing Vladimir Putin of preparing death camps and gas chambers. But the brutality of the Russian military in invading a peaceful neighbor that includes indiscriminate targeting of civilians and decimating cities evokes memories of Nazi armies invading the USSR (Soviet Union) in 1941," Cooper tells VOA.

Putin's behavior, statements and demeanor give "a real insight into his character, and for me, he's a 21st-century Hitler," former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said recently on CNN.

Former Ukrainian politician Svitlana Zalishchuk, who has fled Kyiv after intense rocket fire, said on Fox News that Putin is "a Hitler of our time."

The popular news aggregation website Drudge Report led its coverage of the invasion of Ukraine on a recent day with the headline "FUHRER 2022" and an image of Putin altered to look like Hitler.

The Putin-Hitler comparisons are not new. In 2014, following Russia's annexation of Crimea, Prince Charles of Britain was widely chastised for offhandedly declaring that "Putin is doing just about the same as Hitler."

The prince was in Canada, speaking to a Jewish survivor of World War II.

Pointing out differences

Jewish groups repeatedly have rejected numerous modern-day "Hitler" and "Nazi" analogies, noting that the Third Reich was responsible for a genocide that targeted and murdered 6 million Jews and that offhand comparisons trivialize the scale of human suffering experienced in the 1940s.

Hitler held power in Germany for a dozen years. His forces annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia, occupied nine other countries, including France, and invaded — but could not hold — five countries in northern Africa.

Prior to this year's full-scale invasion, Putin had his military invade Georgia in 2008. Six years later, they seized Crimea from the Ukrainians without a fight and actively supported separatists in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

Asking if Putin is the new Hitler misses the point, according to John Stoehr, editor and publisher of The Editorial Board, an online politics newsletter.

"I don't think that matters as much as the fact that his army is arbitrarily shelling civilians, that his soldiers are shooting children, and that he seems bent on doing to Ukraine what Bashar al-Assad did to Syria. Which is to say, mass murdering a people," he tells VOA.

"To ask whether he's the new Hitler is to confess priorities that are upside down, backward and prolapsed," says Stoehr, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative.

Some historians are more apt to compare Putin to Otto von Bismarck, the late 19th-century prince who became imperial chancellor of the German empire.

"My confidence that Putin is Bismarck rather than Hitler has been undermined by his recent speeches, which sound a lot like Hitler. However, my hope that he is more like Bismarck is based on my overall evaluation of his career and general orientation. The recent speeches might just be tactical," says Paul deLespinasse, professor emeritus of political science and computer science at Adrian College.

'It's a strategy'

Some see irony in Putin's comments attempting to justify what he calls a special military operation, claiming it is intended to rid Ukraine of control by neo-Nazis. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish and had family members perish in the Holocaust.

"It's not an irony. It's a strategy. Putin wants to bring Ukraine's government to ruin. He just needed a reason," according to Stoehr, who added that Putin seized on the fact that there are a small number of neo-Nazis in the Ukrainian National Guard.

The war started by Russia "is not with some fictional Nazis" but with a country consisting of "Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, people of various nationalities," exiled Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky told VOA's Russian Service on Tuesday. "It is a united Ukrainian nation, with whom we are waging an unjust war of aggression."

Eighty years ago, notes Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, "Hitler ordered the results of the Wannsee Conference that decided to kill European Jews to remain a secret. Putin, on the other hand, invited the world media and diplomats to have a front-row seat as he planned and launched his invasion with the goal to erase an independent country and culture."

Putin's de-Nazification language "is the same type of perverted rhetorical tricks deployed by Hitler to justify and carry out mass atrocities against Jews and others in Germany and across Europe in the 1930s and during World War II," says Katz, at the German Marshall Fund.

"Like the Nazi's use of the swastika as a symbol of power, Putin is using the letter Z as a symbol to rally Russians and to justify unconscionable action in Ukraine. In the end, history will view Putin and his regime as war criminals just like Hitler and the Nazis."