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 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT