Who are you calling a Nazi?


Once again I am writing about events in Ukraine.

The protesters in Kiev have chased a kleptocrat from office, the mayor of Lvov in western Ukraine supports the protesters and a new era has begun, a new and better Ukraine. The sharp-shooters who killed protesters did not succeed in quelling protest. The Euro-centrists have emerged victorious.  The US and Europe have hailed the democratic success of a popular movement. But a resolution has not yet emerged among Ukrainians themselves.

Suddenly the internet, the airwaves are resonating with old swear words. Ukrainians of Russian heritage are calling western Ukrainians right wingers, fascists, and finally Nazis.  This is a vocabulary going back to the Hitler period in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

To confuse the name calling even further, no less personage than our former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has adopted the same vocabulary. But in a surreal twist, it is the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, who is being compared to Hitler, a defacto fascist, a quasi-Nazi.  How can the same insult be used to smear two opposing forces?

As is so often the case, a look at history will clear up this oxymoronic puzzle. First let’s look to Clinton’s use of the World War II terminology.  She worked hard today to explain exactly what she meant in her off- the-cuff remarks. She referred to the events of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Non-Aggression pact and the causus belli which launched the Blitzkrieg against Poland in August. Hitler claimed he had to protect ethnically German citizens from Polish oppression; Stalin promised to allow this lie to stand.  The territorial integrity of Poland was laid waste to protect a group that needed no protection.  Thus Putin=Hitler when Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea to “protect” ethnically Russian citizens of Ukraine.

Eastern, Russian Ukrainians calling western Ukrainians right wing/fascist/Nazis is a more intricate puzzle.  Ukrainians were part of Imperial Russia for centuries, but they hoped that their national aspiration would be met after the World War I in the intricate Versailles Peace Treaty. The treaty makers created an independent Poland, a jury-rigged Czechoslovakia and an entirely fictitious Yugoslavia. Ukrainian hopes were dashed when Bolsheviks from the new Soviet Union created a Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic instead of an independent Ukraine.

Fast forward to 1941. Hitler shortened the “ten year” non-aggression pact to two years and attacked the Soviet Union in June. Ukrainians had little reason to feel loyalty to Stalin who had devastated Ukrainian society in the 1930’s.  So, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, then the invading Germans might provide an opportunity to oust the Soviet overlord.

It did not take long before Ukrainians had evidence that the Nazi overlord installed a psychotic, racist terror regime. But the die had been cast: all Ukrainians who joined or supported the German take over to oust the Soviets were defacto right-wing, fascist, Nazi collaborators in Soviet eyes.  The Soviets won the war in the East and had long memories.

Fast forward to 2014.  The Cold War is a historical artifact. The Soviet Union disintegrated into fifteen new states.  New treaties were signed guaranteeing the integrity of an independent Ukraine.  But signing a treaty is not sufficient to erase local memories.  Russians, ex-Soviet citizens, can still call to mind the swear words of the 1940’s: supporters of the Nazi regime, a western capitalist state, were traitors.

Today the Ukrainian province of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are heavily populated by Ukrainian with a deep Russian past and using Russian as their daily language.  What comes more naturally than to call Eurocentric western Ukrainians by old, potent swear words?

Yesterday the parliament of the Crimea called for secession to rejoin Russia. This is in clear violation of the treaties defining the territory of an independent Ukraine.  However, there is a interesting example at hand:  the Czechs and the Slovaks had been cobbled together into a single state, but have agreed to an amiable separation.

Perhaps those treaties defining Ukraine need to be revisited?

But in the meantime, inflammatory name calling should cease.  We weaken the definition of “Nazi” by using it as an all-purpose term of defamation. The Nazis represent a criminal regime of such virulence that no one should use their name in vain. It’s a dangerous game to vitiate the memory of their crimes just to slander an opponent.

About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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