In launching his war on Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his goal was the “denazification” of the country – referring specifically to his allegations that Ukraine is responsible for or planning a “genocide” of Russian-speakers in Ukraine’s eastern provinces.
Much of the world scoffed at Putin’s justifications for what some are calling the biggest test for the West in the 77 years since Nazi Germany surrendered. The Yale philosopher Jason Stanley, in a tweet that went viral, wrote, “The President of Ukraine [Vlodymyr Zelensky] is Jewish, and has many family members who died in the Holocaust. Putin’s claim that he is invading to ‘de-Nazify Ukraine’ should shock the world.”
Stanley is the author of “How Propaganda Works” and “How Fascism Works,” two books that couldn’t be more relevant to the present moment, with Russian forces engaged in a multi-pronged attack on a democratic neighbor after months – really years – of agitation by Putin.
I spoke to Stanley on Friday, about the ways Putin has flipped the narrative about fascism and Nazism, how his brand of Christian nationalism plays on what Stanley considers antisemitic tropes, and how Stanley’s work was inspired by the experinces of his parents, both Holocaust survivors.
Our conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
ASC: Putin’s claim that the war is intended to “denazify” Ukraine seemed to most observers outside of Russia absurd on its face, but he must have thought it would be an effective message, certainly at home. What makes propaganda effective?
Jason Stanley: It is an example of “undermining propaganda.” And that’s when you use an ideal to undermine itself. If there is any far-right, ultra-nationalist, imperialist regime that is similar to National Socialism, in that part of the world, it’s Putin’s regime. And if there’s any democratic regime surrounding Russia, it’s Ukraine, right? So what denazification means here is that he is going to go into Ukraine, kill or imprison the democratic leaders of Ukraine and all who support them and replace them with a puppet he can control.
The reason that he does this is because he can, he can lean on the history of Russia and the history of World War II, in which the Germans are always the enemies, and he is the one representing the West and democracy against the fascists and the Nazis.
So when does propaganda like that work? I mean, is it a slow, steady process of nationalist brainwashing? Or are there times of crisis where people rally around what are demonstrably false messages?
I don’t think this propaganda did work. I think that enough people in Russia and certainly the West are fully aware of the facts, that the far right in Ukraine gains 2% or less of the vote. Or that Zelensky is Jewish and that much of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and that Ukraine is the only country other than Israel ever to have simultaneously both a prime minister and president who were Jewish [Zelensky and former prime minister Vlodymyr Groysman], other than Israel So I don’t think that propaganda will work. As a result, Russia is going to just be seen as a violent aggressor.