Skip to main content

Hillary, Putin's no Hitler

By Timothy Stanley
March 6, 2014 -- Updated 0015 GMT (0815 HKT)
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
September 13, 2014 -- Updated 1620 GMT (0020 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
A Scottish vote for independence next week could trigger wave of separatist tension in Europe, says Frida Ghitis.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2212 GMT (0612 HKT)
You couldn't call him a "Bond villain" in the grand context of Dr. No or Auric Goldfinger. They were twisted visionaries of apocalypse whose ideas were to be played out at humanity's expense.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1705 GMT (0105 HKT)
As a Latina activist I was hurt to hear the President would delay executive action to keep undocumented immigrants with no criminal record from getting deported.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 2224 GMT (0624 HKT)
Stevan Weine says the key is to stop young people from acquiring radicalized beliefs in the first place.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1730 GMT (0130 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
US Currency is seen in this January 30, 2001 image. AFP PHOTO/Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Lisa Gilbert says a million people have asked the SEC to make corporations disclose political contributions.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
Christi Paul says unless you've walked in an abused woman's shoes, don't judge her, help her get answers to the right questions: Why does he get to hit her? And why does nobody do anything to stop him?
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1932 GMT (0332 HKT)
Mel Robbins says several other NFL players arrested recently in domestic violence are back on the field. Roger Goodell has shown he is clueless on abuse. He must go.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says President Obama has a remarkable opportunity Wednesday night to mobilize support for a coalition against ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 0041 GMT (0841 HKT)
The Texas senator says Obama should seek congressional authorization for a major bombing campaign vs. ISIS.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT