Skip to main content

Hillary, Putin's no Hitler

By Timothy Stanley
updated 7:15 PM EST, Wed March 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Timothy Stanley: Hillary Clinton compared Putin's Ukraine moves to Hitler's in 1930s
  • He says the comment was ill-considered; Putin's justification is similar, but not much else
  • He says Ukrainian nationalists are more Nazi-like, and Putin not planning Europe invasion
  • Stanley: If Putin eyeing Baltic states, which are in NATO, EU, his ambition must be checked

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for the Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the forthcoming "Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration between LA and DC Revolutionized American Politics"

(CNN) -- It's called Godwin's law. The longer a debate rages, the greater the likelihood that someone will compare someone else to Hitler.

And Hillary Clinton has done just that: On Tuesday the former secretary of state reportedly told a private fund-raising party that Russian President Vladimir Putin's actions are similar to Hitler's in the run up to World War II.

Her quote (according to the Long Beach Press-Telegram): "All the Germans that were ... the ethnic Germans, the Germans by ancestry who were in places like Czechoslovakia and Romania and other places, Hitler kept saying they're not being treated right. I must go and protect my people, and that's what's gotten everybody so nervous."

Of course, what also gets everybody "so nervous" is leading statesmen comparing Putin to Hitler and, thereby, raising the specter of another world war.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

It's unlikely that Clinton intended to gain politically from these remarks -- and they were carefully qualified. She added that "there is no indication that Putin is as irrational" as the German dictator was. But they could indicate that if she wins the 2016 election, America might gain a slightly more forceful president in foreign affairs, someone more willing to engage directly in Europe than Obama has. You may recall that in the 2008 primaries she was the Democrats' hawk candidate -- so much so that Ann Coulter preferred her to John McCain (Coulter called her "our girl").

But was Clinton right? Mostly no. It is true that Putin's justification for intervention in Ukraine is similar to Hitler's, that is, threatening to invade a sovereign territory to defend his ethnic brethren. But the situation is complex, and the historical comparison is tenuous at best.

Opinion: Has Putin broken international law?

After all, in the eyes of many ethnic Russians, it is the Ukrainian nationalists -- not Putin -- who are the Nazis. The Russians have asserted, quite accurately, that the revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian, democratically elected leader has resulted in the elevation of Russophobe fascists into key government positions. For example, the new secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council is Andriy Parubiy -- co-founder of the Neo-Nazi Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU).

Another creator of the SNPU is Oleh Tyahnybok, a high-profile leader of the Kiev protests who has blamed Ukraine's problems on a Jewish conspiracy run out of Moscow. Ukraine's new deputy secretary of national security is Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector group, which regards Tyahnybok as a soft liberal and which flies the old flag of the Ukrainian Nazi collaborators at its rallies.

In other words, in this situation, who exactly are the Nazis? Putin's ethnic Russian nationalists? Or the fringe of the ethnic Ukrainian nationalists? Neither is particularly pleasant.

Clinton clarifies Putin-Hitler comments
Cupp: Kerry's cleaning up Hillary's mess
U.S. stepping up presence near Ukraine

Of course, the Ukrainian Nazi movement is small, and Ukraine is dwarfed by Russia, which puts Putin in the role of the dominant regional power picking on a small country and exploiting its extremist politics for the purpose of propaganda. But Putin is still no Hitler, because he lacks the German Fuhrer's global vision.

Opinion: Putin 2014 vs. Putin 2004

Hitler worked by an all-encompassing racist ideology that dreamed of turning Europe into a giant living space for his people. Putin -- the leader of a democracy, albeit a highly corrupt and politically stagnant one -- simply meddles in the affairs of countries that could reasonably be said to fall within his country's historical sphere of influence. Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union until two decades ago (whereas Crimea was part of Russia until 1954), the country contains millions of ethnic Russians and, crucially, it has Russian military installations that are key to Russia's strategic interests.

In other words, a Russian invasion of Ukraine is not going to be a stepping stone to the invasion of France. Unfortunately, it may well be a stepping stone to involvement in the affairs of the Baltic states -- which are firmly in NATO and the EU. This is why Putin's latest ambitions have to be checked.

Nevertheless, calling Putin Hitler is careless. Even reckless. As Marc Tracy points out in the New Republic, it's historically insensitive and ignores the tapestry of cultural clashes and political calculations going on. It smacks, too, of the Manichean division of the world between good and evil that permeated the war on terror and led to so many terrible mistakes and so many American deaths overseas. Worse, still, is that such provocative language should be applied to a confrontation with a state like Russia.

We are dealing with a major power with nuclear weapons that has the capacity to reduce the world to so much irradiated ash. The West needs to be careful with its words.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT