Editor’s Note: Anthony D. Kauders is professor of modern history at Keele University in the UK, specializing in German-Jewish history. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish identity have occasioned shock, dismay, and outrage. In an interview on Italian television, Lavrov defended his country’s portrayal of Ukraine as a “Nazi” state, Zelensky’s background notwithstanding. “So what if Zelensky is Jewish?” he asked. “The fact does not negate the Nazi elements in Ukraine.” Indeed, Hitler himself had “Jewish blood,” and “the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews,” he said.
The show’s host, not unexpectedly, declined to challenge these assertions, delegating this task to other journalists, international politicians and the public at large.
Some of the reactions have been predictable. Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that “today’s Russia is full of hatred towards other nations.” US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned Lavrov’s “insidious lies.” Germany’s government spokesman Steffen Hebenstreit suggested that such “absurd” propaganda required no further comment.
In Israel, Lavrov’s provocations touched a particularly raw nerve, prompting the country’s leaders to abandon their diplomatic balancing act. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid dismissed the statements as both inexcusable and historically erroneous. “The Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust,” he said, adding that it was the “lowest level of racism against Jews to blame Jews themselves for antisemitism.” Dani Dayan, head of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, denounced Lavrov’s account as “absurd, delusional, dangerous and deserving of condemnation.”
(On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said Russian President Vladimir Putin had apologized for Lavrov’s comments.)
Whatever Lavrov’s intentions, it is important to counter his version of events. There are three issues at stake: first, his depiction of Ukraine; second, his characterization of Hitler; and third, his conception of Jewish (or any other) identity.
Antisemitism is not unknown to modern Ukraine. Tens of thousands of Jews lost their lives after World War I, as antisemitic violence became an “acceptable response to the excesses of Bolshevism.” Ukrainians were not alone in perpetrating these crimes: Poles and White Russian troops were equally implicated. Pogroms and mass murder returned with a vengeance two decades later.
Anticipating the re-establishment of an independent state, nationalists in western Ukraine collaborated with the Nazis, sometimes as members of the auxiliary police force, sometimes as concentration camp guards. Again, they were not unique in taking advantage of German advances against the Soviet Union.
Present-day Ukraine has its fair share of right-wing extremism. Militias have attacked anti-fascist demonstrators and municipal politicians, as well as foreign students and Roma. Still, in the country’s 2019 parliamentary election, a coalition of far-right parties secured just over 2% of the vote, a figure that pales in comparison with the successes of racists elsewhere in Western and Eastern Europe.
As much as Russian collective memory may have prejudiced Lavrov’s depiction of Ukraine, it is evident that so-called “denazification” is merely a pretext to “de-Ukrainize” a territory that, for Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin alike, lacks historical legitimacy.
Hitler was not Jewish. To this day, his paternal grandfather is unknown, which has led some to speculate without any evidence that the dictator’s mysterious ancestor may have been Jewish – and Hitler’s antisemitism a form of self-loathing that induced him to exterminate European Jewry.
According to the legend, Adolf’s grandmother, Maria Schicklgruber, worked as a cook for the Frankenbergers of Graz, where she was impregnated by a family member, possibly the 19-year-old son. As tales go, this one is especially fantastic. There is no evidence that Maria ever worked or lived in Graz. There is no proof that a Frankenberger family resided there. And there is certainly no documentation of a Jewish Frankenberger household in Graz.
Indeed, Jews had been expelled from the city in the fifteenth century, only to be allowed to return decades after the alleged Schicklgruber-Frankenberger affair. The source of the legend should have raised eyebrows at the outset.
Hans Frank, the notorious Governor-General of Nazi-occupied Polish territory, concocted the story as part of his memoirs while awaiting execution in Nuremberg. The fabrication included so many other factual errors that no serious historian has ever considered Frank’s record reliable.
Such falsehoods aside, the most interesting aspect of Lavrov’s polemic relates to his throwaway comments about Zelensky. On the one hand, Russia’s foreign minister is right: the President’s Jewish ancestry says nothing about the extent to which Ukrainians harbor certain views. Zelensky did not run for president in the name of the Jewish people. Ukrainians elected him for several reasons, his ethnicity playing a marginal role at best. For all we know, some voted for him despite his Jewish background.
To take another well-known example: Bruno Kreisky, born to Jewish parents in 1911, served as Austrian chancellor from 1970 to 1983, at a time of exceptionally high levels of antisemitism in the country. Neither did “Jewishness” determine Kreisky’s politics in any significant manner nor did it predict his supporters’ political preferences. The recent French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour is a further case in point. Zelensky, Kreisky, and Zemmour, in other words, happen to be Jews, but nothing automatically follows from this fact.
On the other hand, Lavrov is patently wrong, contradicting his own principle by maintaining that many antisemites were Jews. According to this logic, Zelensky’s Jewish origins are irrelevant as far as Ukrainian politics is concerned yet quite germane as far as antisemitic sentiments are concerned. We do not know whom the Russian foreign minister had in mind when he referred to Jewish antisemites – apart from the non-Jewish Hitler.
What we do know, however, is that Lavrov’s comments are a familiar rhetorical device in the arsenal of Jew-baiters then and now. Antisemites have always found it helpful to quote from the odd Jew unhappy with their genealogy or to exploit Biblical passages in an effort to document Jewish malevolence.
Russia’s foreign minister may have been aware of this tradition when he said the things he did. He may have even been aware of the inconsistencies in the passages cited above. After all, Russian propaganda today is all about spreading falsehoods and misrepresentations, so much so that lack of commitment to consistency is the only reliable feature of Moscow’s communications at the present time.
It is a shame, nevertheless, that the Italian television moderator refused to call out Lavrov for playing another reckless game.