At first glance, this question seems stupid, completely out of place. And I am certainly not thinking of Hitler’s ultimate goals – conquering the Soviet Union and annihilating Europe’s Jewish population. These horrendous crimes will remain unique. However, what I am concerned with is the problem of ‘revanchism’.
Germany (and its allies) had lost World War I and it was branded as the sole culprit in the Treaty of Versailles. As a consequence, it lost territories in the East (e.g. resulting in the Danzig enclave), had to demilitarise the territories west of the river Rhine and was forced to accept drastic curbs on its military. Hitler’s rise to power was closely linked to Germany’s resistance to the Versailles “Diktat’ (dictated peace), as it was called. Domestically, the Nazi party took advantage of the fact that the ”Weimar Republic” was not accepted by important groups of society, particularly on the Right. Many regarded a “strong hand”, a Führer, as necessary to end domestic infighting and to restore “German national pride”.
In December 1991 the Soviet Union ceased to exist, after Russia and the other post-Soviet republics had declared their independence. After 40 years competing with the Western democracies, the Soviet Union’s last Secretary General, Mikhail Gorbachev, had decided to end the arms race and to put an end to the East-West conflict. The reason was the Soviet Union’s virtual bankruptcy, because perestrojka (the rebuilding of the economy) had not managed to overcome the intrinsic defects of the state-controlled economy. As some observers argued, the Soviet Union had “lost the Cold War”. It not only lost its East European “allies”; Russia, as the biggest and most important successor, was confronted with its own disintegration – as the two Chechen Wars in the 1990’s showed.
Vladimir Putin’s rise to power was the result of the partial breakdown of the Soviet internal power structure: the Communist Party was outlawed (for some time), and the military was in disarray. Only the Secret Service managed to survive, first in camouflage and at the end of the 1990’s openly, with former Secret Service agent Putin first becoming Head of the Russian Secret Service (FSB) and then successor of the ailing President Yeltsin. Putin, with his young and dynamic appearance, openly stated that he regarded the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” (24 April 2005). From the very beginning his goal was to restore Russia’s “greatness”, probably appealing to many Russians who had endured the miseries of the late Gorbachev years and the Yeltsin years. Beyond safeguarding Russia’s territorial integrity, Putin sought to “bring back” the former Soviet republics by increased economic integration and the stationing of Russian troops in the “near abroad”.
Six former European Soviet Republics initially resisted the Russian ambition: the three Baltic states immediately joined both NATO and the European Union, Georgia and Ukraine (particularly after 2014) aimed at joining the “West”, following the Baltic example. For several years Belarus, ruled by the dictator Lukashenko, tried to pursue an “independent” course, but finally had to give in to Russia’s “brotherly help” to suppress its own pro-Western popular movement. Ukraine’s and Georgia’s ambition to join the West, particularly NATO, resulted in Russian military aggression and the loss of territories. Despite Russia’s previous assurance to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Putin took the Crimea by force and encouraged the secession of south-eastern parts of Ukraine, resulting in a prolonged, simmering military conflict with more than 13,000 people killed. And now Ukraine, surrounded by massive Russian military forces, is facing the threat of a full-scale invasion.
As this short summary demonstrates, Putin’s foreign policy activities are revanchism in action. And this brings us back to Hitler’s actions until spring 1939: His openly stated goal was to finish off the “Versailles Diktat”, first by massive rearmament, by stationing troops west of the Rhine (March 1936), by annexing Austria (March 1938), taking the Sudetenland (October 1938) and finally occupying the rest of Czechoslovakia (March 1939). To be sure, this was already beyond Hitler’s first, revanchist, goal and the initial step towards his ultimate plan of creating “Lebensraum im Osten” (‘living space’ in the East).
One certainly should be cautious when drawing historical analogies. Accordingly, this article only points to the structural similarity of the situation which two great European powers faced, after having lost a major war (be it a “hot”, like WWI, or a “Cold” one, like the East-West conflict). After the failed Weimar Republic, Germany got Hitler; after the painful Yeltsin years, Russia got Putin – both seeking revenge.
While revanchism is the external aspect, totalitarian rule is the domestic side of the same problem: only dictatorial systems can pursue a long-range goal of reverting international conditions. Democratic governments are mostly concerned about internal stability and safeguarding prosperity – and winning the next election (which sometimes can happen quite soon). On the other hand, totalitarian rulers, after having secured their domestic power, can focus on longer-range external goals, as described above.
Democratic systems, where power is limited by the rule of law (since we humans are not perfect, significant exceptions can happen, such as dinner parties in government buildings during a general public lockdown, caused by a pandemic) and free elections (this does not exclude winning referendums and elections by fake news, deception and fraud), are “natural enemies” of totalitarian rulers: by their sheer existence, they constantly deny the legitimacy of dictators. This is why the nascent, but incomplete, democracy in Ukraine constitutes such a challenge to Putin. He might hope to gain popularity at home by “bringing back” Ukraine to Russia’s “brotherly rule”. Russia’s population, however, will have to pay the price of having to live under the Putin dictatorship and endure the disastrous economic consequences of his “heroic ambition” for more years to come.
Whether the Kremlin ruler might have any further-reaching goals, after having fully conquered Ukraine, remains to be seen.