By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
The striking similarities between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Adolf Hitler’s Germany are not accidental. Both regimes had — the past tense is intentional — the same historical trajectory because both were the product of imperial collapse and its destabilizing aftermath on the one hand and the emergence of a strong leader promising to make the country great again on the other.
In contrast to most empires, which decay and progressively lose their colonial possessions over time, both Wilhelmine Germany and Czarist Russia collapsed — swiftly and completely — at the height of their power in 1917-1918. Decay inures imperial elites to the loss of colonies, enables them to formulate different ideologies centered on the nation state, and reduces the number of institutional and economic ties between the imperial core and its colonies. The Ottoman Empire is an excellent example of the decay dynamic. Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, fought the Greeks but was perfectly satisfied with the Turkish state.
Empires that collapse — usually as a result of a war or some other severe crisis — experience a sudden severing of political ties between the imperial metropolis and the colonies, but the imperial mindset remains dominant in the metropolis and the economic and institutional connections between core and periphery remain strong.
Almost inevitably, the post-collapse economies, societies and cultures of the metropolis experienced enormous disarray — as in Germany in the 1920s and Russia in the 1990s. The blame for this sad state fell on the democratic elites who came to power after the authoritarian empire ended. Once democracy was discredited, strong men appeared — Hitler and Putin — promising to return their countries to their rightful place in the sun and establishing cults of personality. The Nazis argued that Germany should have one people, one empire, and one Führer; the Putinists claimed that Putin embodied the state. Nazi propaganda emphasized Hitler’s genius and benevolence; Putinist propaganda focused on Putin’s virility and ability to outwit the world.
In such circumstances, the former metropolis had every incentive to rebuild the old empire. Imperial revival was popular, enhanced elite legitimacy, promised to revive the economy and extirpate humiliating memories of collapse, and seemed to guarantee great-power status. Central to their attempts at re-imperialization was the false claim that their ethnic brethren in the newly independent colonies were being oppressed: the Germans in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland; the Russians in all the post-Soviet states, and especially Ukraine.
Tentative stabs at expansion followed. Hitler grabbed the Rhineland, Austria, and the Sudetenland. Putin grabbed Chechnya, parts of Georgia, and parts of Ukraine. Given their imperial mindsets, militaristic ambitions, personality cults and demonization of minorities (Jews and Ukrainians), it was almost inevitable that Hitler and Putin then embarked on major wars. In 1939, Hitler attacked Poland; in 1941, he attacked the USSR. Putin’s war with Ukraine began on Feb. 24, 2022.
As often happens with leaders who believe their own propaganda, both Hitler and Putin committed strategic mistakes that resulted in their downfall. The Bolsheviks were able to reestablish most of the czarist empire because their militaries and economies were stronger than those of the former colonies, while the powerful countries of the West were distracted by the war.
Hitler’s and Putin’s fatal error was not to have heeded the Bolshevik example and, instead, to have antagonized a whole array of states with more hard power than they had. Expansion was one thing: Europe and the United States ignored or downplayed it. A major land war threatened the stability and survival of Eurasia and could not go unheeded.
Hitler’s generals knew they had lost when they failed to win the Battle of Britain and the United States entered the war. It took millions of dead and the Holocaust before Germany was finally defeated and Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.
Putin’s generals also appear to have known they would not win after their attempt at a blitzkrieg failed to capture Kyiv. It has taken thousands of dead and Russia’s genocide of Ukrainians to align scores of countries — and, in particular, the United States and the United Kingdom — with Ukraine and to provide it with the heavy weaponry it needs to defeat Russia.
Fittingly, Putin reportedly also resides in a bunker. In all likelihood, that’s where he, too, will meet his end.
The death and destruction will have been as enormous as they will have been unnecessary. But, as after World War II, the West again will have the opportunity to create a security architecture that provides for Russia’s de-Putinization and a durable peace.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, as well as “Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires” and “Why Empires Reemerge: Imperial Collapse and Imperial Revival in Comparative Perspective.”