What about « denazification »?

There are the facts: the violence of the Russian force that is bearing down on Ukraine. There are the words: Putin’s propaganda, Zelensky’s desperate appeals to win the support of a West unable to provide a conclusive solution. Then there is the perception of the facts and the words in Europe, stunned by the event and forced to reflect on policy approaches. The return of war to our continental home already points to options for future European integration. These options, ineluctably, find themselves imbricated with questions of Jewishness and Holocaust memory. It is mainly on this issue that Julia Christ proposes her analysis, paying attention to the words used and to the representations deployed on both sides.

 

Vladimir Putin on March 18, 2022, during a big concert-meeting. The banners say: “For a world without Nazism” and “For Russia”.

 

When Russia enters the scene in the third season of House of Cards, it is represented by Lars Mikkelsen, playing the role of Russian President Petrov, a patronymic that poorly conceals, if ever it was meant to, that it is Putin himself who is being referred to when America and Russia meet in this series. The least we can say about this casting choice is that Netflix has shown a sense of fairness unimaginable in the Cold War era: Mikkelsen is a terribly attractive actor who yields nothing, in terms of charisma or sex appeal, to Kevin Spacey playing the American president. Less paunchy, combining a haughty bearing and steely blue-gray eyes, which coldly examine the world more than they do look at it, it is the Russian president who embodies the old Western fantasy of powerful virility. His American counterpart, homosexual on occasion, respectful and dependent on a wife who is as beautiful and intelligent as she is cynical, gives a new, more complex version of masculinity – even though Spacey’s character is domineering, unscrupulous, and even murders a young woman when she decides to evade his desires.

The Russian president of House of Cards no longer has anything to do with the bureaucrat, gray and boring like one of those Moscow suburban housing blocs, which Hollywood cherished in the Soviet era.

Lars Mikkelsen playing President Petrov in House of Cards.

His strangeness for the West no longer manifests itself in the aesthetic backwardness of the “Russian man” who, on the contrary, has fully arrived in a well-to-do consumer society and has taken on the veneer of it. His strangeness reveals itself rather in a certain mental backwardness, in the belief in brute force as a means of politics. From this belief, which is described as being out of tune with geopolitical reality since the fall of the Soviet Union, comes – the series insinuates – a certain tendency to paranoia where any action in the field of foreign policy is interpreted primarily as an attempt to seize strategic resources, whether economic or military. If the “Russian man” appears limited today, it is no longer by his inability to enjoy earthly goods and to fully claim his individual right to enjoy them, but by his inability to understand that one can act in a selfless way with regard to peace in this world.

For it is on this point that America and the Russia of House of Cards clash: the Israeli-Palestinian peace that the American president wishes to promote in collaboration with the Russians by installing UN peacekeeping forces in the Jordan Valley. However, the Russian president can only see this as an American attempt to install troops less than 2,000 kilometers from Russia’s southern border and, with complex machinations worthy of a former KGB officer, scuttles the peace mission.

The parts of the series where President Petrov appears were shot between 2015 and 2018. After the annexation of Crimea by Russia, but in a situation where one believed that negotiations with Russia were still possible. There is no doubt that today, and for years to come, no Western producer will allow himself a representation as seductive of pure power as that given by Mikkelsen. It is a safe bet that Russia will return to its charmless evil face and that the manly strength of the East that is secretly admired in the West will now be embodied by heroic young men in green khaki sweaters.

However, the series is more than a document of the West’s fascination with brute force dressed in Armani. It also shows a certain reading of Russian foreign policy, presented as obsessed with the question of its borders. Whether it is the southern border, the protection of which seems more important to Petrov than the peace process in the Middle East, or the western border, which keeps coming up in the negotiations between the two presidents and which Petrov demands to be demilitarized, what we see is a Russia that feels militarily threatened by the West and whose policy is determined by the anxiety of seeing it too close.

*

This reading was also one of the first reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and it is undeniable that Putin demands the demilitarization of Ukraine as a condition for future peace between the two countries. But in the phrase that justified the outbreak of the war at the beginning, there was a second term alongside the word “demilitarization.” The latter placed the conflict at the heart of European politics, whereas the question of protecting Russia’s borders placed it more on the Cold War stage, structured by the confrontation of America and Russia, leaving Europe politically passive, caught between the two blocs. This second term was “denazification”. Unlike “demilitarization” – which everyone understood, since even a mainstream TV show could explain what it was all about for Russia – this story of “Nazis” in Ukraine that Russia was preparing to throw out of the country do still leaves us wondering. Depending on who hears the term, very different images come to mind, so that the reactions to the use of the term differ. And although the indecency of Russia’s claim to use it as a justification for its attack on Ukraine is beyond doubt, it is important to parse the different meanings it takes on in the space where this war is taking place, in order to grasp what Putin is trying to do – and, by the same token, to do to Europe.

Vadym Meller, Mask, 1919, wikiart

Let us first notice that the expression is rather unusual in Russian political rhetoric itself. The war of defense against the Nazi aggressor entered Russian history as the “Great Patriotic Anti-Fascist War” and not as the “Anti-Nazi War.” At this level, the use of the term “Nazi” instead of “fascist” indicates at least that Russia is not claiming to be attacked by Ukraine, is not claiming a defensive war. Does the reference to Nazism justify the war of aggression that Russia is waging? This is clearly not the case. The Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with the Nazis; there was never any question of waging a war against Germany to liberate Europe before Hitler sent his tanks into the Russian plains. So it is not surprising that Russia presents its invasion of Ukraine not as a war but as a law enforcement operation.

Denazification, in the political vocabulary inherited from the Soviet era, is that activity assigned to Soviet political commissars, carried out by the NKVD, which consisted in tracking down, condemning, and finally deporting or killing the native collaborators of the Nazi regime in the Eastern states occupied by Germany between 1941 and 1945, which were now under Soviet domination. That among these “collaborators” were many simple opponents of the Soviet regime who never collaborated with the Nazis is a fact; that this opposition was most often rooted in the legitimate desire of nations to finally acquire the sovereignty that the European order of 1918 promised them is also true.

In other words, what the Soviet Union called “denazification” of the countries of the East was based on a deliberate confusion: that between the real collaboration of the Ukrainian, Latvian or Polish nationals with the Nazi regime, which was essentially illustrated by their active participation in the extermination of Jews, and the legitimate aspirations for national autonomy of these countries after the end of the Second World War. No wonder Putin is now doing the same thing, claiming that “representatives of Ukraine vote again and again against the UN General Assembly resolution condemning the glorification of Nazism,” that “marches and torchlight processions in honor of the remaining war criminals of the SS units are taking place under the protection of the official authorities,” and explaining that “Mazepa, who betrayed everyone, Petliura, who paid for Polish patronage with Ukrainian land, and Bandera, who collaborated with the Nazis, are classified as national heroes,” so that “from the memory of the younger generations the names of the true patriots and victors, who have always been the pride of Ukraine”[1] are erased.

It is clear that he is trying to equate the aspirations for national sovereignty of today’s Ukraine to its criminal past, while at the same time declaring a genuine Ukrainian national will non-existent. Ukrainians can only be collaborators of the real “Nazis” who occupy their country – a term that is aimed at the West itself, whose goal would be to eradicate the Russian culture. It is within this framework of thought that Putin now compares the sanctions against Russia to the pogroms against the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s[2]. It is worth noting that by following this path, he is getting dangerously close to the idea that Russia is indeed being attacked by Nazis, which would eventually justify a “defensive” war against the West. But before the reduction of the West to these “Nazi” powers which, through the collaboration of Ukraine, aim at the destruction of eternal Russia – that is at the beginning of the aggression of Ukraine – we were not yet there: the term “denazification” simply meant to prevent any national desire of Ukraine.

*

As much as things seem rather coherent on the Russian side, they are confusing to a European ear. First, because over the past decades it has become increasingly clear to everyone that the West’s “denazification” of Western Germany was a big joke. It is now known that the Allies built up Western Germany with the help of former Nazi elites, especially in the judiciary, the economy, the police and the secret service, and that they profited greatly from Nazi scientists to further their military projects. It is also known that most of the Nazi executioners were never brought to justice: the murderers of the European Jews lived peacefully in their gardens full of grotesque dwarfs, while going on with their business as doctors, lawyers or sales clerks. On this horizon, the “denazification” of Ukraine means absolutely nothing, except a change of regime in which the old elites of Ukrainian society could find or keep their place.

Denazification certificate, which the Germans called and still call the “Persilschein”, literally the piece of paper that washes you white as Persil detergent.

But the term “Nazi” has also come to mean absolute evil in recent decades. “Nazi” is the party in a conflict that is, or stands ideologically ready to exterminate the opposing party for ethnic or racial reasons. It is likely that Europe, in Putin’s mind, was then supposed to hear that Russia was waging a “humanitarian” war, aimed at preventing or stopping a “genocide,” in this case of Russian speakers in the east of the country. It was this kind of reference that the West, especially Germany, which had to overcome massive internal reluctance against military intervention abroad, had mobilized to explain its entirely just intervention in the Kosovo war. From this point of view, the Russian rhetoric probably also aims to sow doubt in the European conscience, sending it back to the question of which nationalist policies are legitimate in its eyes and which should expect to be fought not only from within.

Indeed, the European Union is in constant conflict with its member states Poland and Hungary precisely because of the policies of these countries, which are deemed too nationalistic: they are effectively violating Europe’s values in terms of civil liberties and minority protections and trying to place their national constitutions above European law. In view of this, Putin may have expected a questioning of Europe over the Ukrainian policy toward the Russian minority since 2019[3]. This did not happen. The European Union responded with one voice to the Russian aggression by supporting Ukraine in its entirety without being drawn into debates on the direction of the internal policy of the invaded country. This unanimous reaction of Europe, which for once has overcome its internal tensions, was for many the proof that it has finally found a consistent political identity that could serve as a more soulful supplement to a Europe whose integration currently depends more on its internal market than on a thoughtful and desired internal politics of the European Union.

Nevertheless, this unanimity in reaction does not mean, unfortunately, that the initial ploy of Russian anti-Nazi rhetoric has failed. For if the reaction to the deliberate Russian confusion between the will for national self-determination and Nazism can be summed up in an inability to distinguish between a substantial definition of the European nation-state and nationalism, something of the European project is lost in this war. Something that is however essential to it: first the deconstruction of nationalisms insofar as they are based on the homogenization of populations according to the majority national culture, leading finally to a unitary national narrative; and second, the composition of nations from the groups they integrate.

So it is not enough to reveal the inanity of Putin’s claim to be waging a “humanitarian” war in order to prevent the exactions of unbridled nationalism. It is also necessary to avoid the binary logic of “Nazi” or “European” in which Russia is trying to confine Europe’s political thinking. For between Nazism and the political project of Europe lies a whole range of more or less democratic nationalist policies. Among these policies, of course, are those that deliberately infringe on the rights of minorities. In general, it should be noted that these policies have no difficulty in promoting individual freedoms, as long as the identity choices of the individuals declared free are expressed as individual preferences or personal tastes, and do not take the form of collective claims. This sometimes even makes them attractive to the West, which sees in them a sign of adherence to democratic principles, or at least to the human rights of which Europe declares itself to be the native land and guardian. Nevertheless, they are based on the denial of the rights of minorities insofar as they form groups that are consistent in themselves, with their own culture, language and history.

Kazimir Malevitch, Suprematism, ca. 1920, wikiart

Of course, it is noteworthy that the enlightened part of Western Europe naturally fights against these outrageously nationalistic policies in its midst – the salutary outcry against the fundamentalist nationalism of Éric Zemmour bears witness to this. But it has all the less reason to renounce this impulse when it rejects the rhetoric of denazification used by Putin. It can do this fully, without at the same time having to refrain from honestly questioning Ukrainian nationalism without prejudice. Let’s go further: it must do so, precisely if it does not want to fall into the trap of Russian rhetoric. In any case, it must do so if it wants to continue to develop as an internal policy project of the Union that articulates the protection of individual freedoms and that of the collective rights of the groups that make up its societies and irrigate the demands for social justice that are expressed there.

*

There remains a question, which is not the least important in view of the self-consciousness of the Europe that has rebuilt itself since 1945. It resonates particularly, and takes on an understandable vividness, for the Jewish ear that has to endure this rhetoric of denazification. If one is willing to adopt this listening position, one notices that it is undeniably as if the Jews were suddenly projected into the center of this armed conflict in Europe, which, at first sight, does not concern them any more than other groups. As the object of the discourse rather than the subject of its utterance, they must realize, torn between disbelief and renewed optimism for the European project, the ambiguous importance of their existence for European politics. Just as in House of Cards world peace depended on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the constant reference to the Jews in this conflict suggests that peace in Europe must include the Jews in order to be spelled out. But then, “include” can mean eminently contradictory things. For, it can either be what reminds Europe of the crucial character of respect for minority rights, or – through the use of their image in the prism of the unchecked accusation of Nazism – the means of not thinking about it.

Ukraine has a long and bloody history of anti-Semitism, but there is nothing in the life of the Ukrainian Jewish community in recent years to suggest that Jews are particularly endangered by the internal political life of the country, however nationalistic some of its orientations may be. The president himself has Jewish origins, the country has had a Jewish prime minister between 2016 and 2019, and apart from the anti-Semitic attacks that any European Jewish politician can expect on social networks, it does not seem that the climate is particularly dangerous for Ukrainian Jews. However, this does not change the fact that both Putin’s rhetoric and Zelensky’s counter-rhetoric attempt to place the history of European Jewry at the heart of the war. Putin does this by implicitly referring to Ukraine’s collaborationist past through the Nazi signifier, and by reminding us, in no uncertain terms, that the country practices a policy of memory that is very reluctant to recognize the responsibilities of the Ukrainian people in the genocide of the Jews. Zelensky does it by the opposite operation, by identifying the Ukrainian people with the Jewish people persecuted by the Nazis and by explaining, in a speech before the German Parliament, that “once again, in Europe, an attempt is being made to exterminate an entire people.”[4]

If Putin has failed insofar as no Jewish voice is raised asking to remain passive in the face of the invasion of a nation whose murderous anti-Semitism in the past is known to all, Jews have the right to question the use of the Jewish signifier in this conflict, on both sides of its convocation. Not because in times of war one does not have the right to use all the propaganda weapons at one’s disposal, even if it means saying that “history is repeating itself” when a Russian bomb falls on the territory of Babi Yar, on which there is also a television tower. The problem is elsewhere. What makes one wonder, and proves dissonant for a truly attentive ear to European history, is that the use of the Jewish signifier, on both sides of the belligerents, is based on a pure and simple identification of “European Jew” and “victim.” Whether it is the Russian-speaking people of Eastern Ukraine for whose protection Putin claims to be waging war, or the Ukrainians under attack by their overpowering neighbor, by calling the adversary a Nazi both sides claim for themselves the status of an innocent victim of a potentially exterminating aggression. Note that a Ukrainian MP went even further in explicitness, before Zelensky’s speech to the Knesset, predicting that “he will talk about the Holocaust and the situation of Ukrainians today, because it is really similar – killing Ukrainians only because they are Ukrainians. We hope that they will understand us”[5]; just as Putin’s comparison of the sanctions against Russia to the pogroms in Germany in the 1930s was intended to make the current situation more “understandable.”

Vlodomir Zelensky during his speech by video conference in the Knesset

One fears that in reality we must understand something quite different. Namely, that these mobilizations of Jewish history express the fact that Jews can only play the role of an active force in Europe’s political and cultural space as dead Jews. This is the message on which Putin and Zelensky seem to agree, for opposite reasons and with opposite motivations, but without wavering. It is likely, moreover, that they do not suspect this themselves. This shared feature of their representation of Europe is eluding them. In both cases, it is a Europe that was built as a Europe of peace without the Jews, on their ashes and by mourning them with more or less sincerity, but without including them as living Jews in the post-war European political project. In this perspective, the history of European Jews ended with the Holocaust; if they still have a history, it can only be elsewhere.

For the Jews, this revelation of the unconscious of the East is painful, and all the more so because Western Europe does not really tremble to hear it. As if for the whole of Europe, the Jews were present on the continent only as those who have always left it. As the instrumental object of a political discourse that wants to express the essence of Europe – “never again” – their European history is erased. Deprived of their status as subjects of this history, they discover, some of them bewildered, that they have been given a place in it exclusively as those who are gone from it forever.

But the history of the Jews in Europe is not limited to their destruction. Not only does it continue, including on the European continent, but it was essential to its construction even before the Holocaust. What has been called “the Jewish question” was much more than the problem into which the Nazis transformed it. It was the place where Europe learned to ask itself about the foundations or obstacles to individual freedom, which undeniably constitutes the heart of its political project. The Jews were the ones before whom the early European nation-states stopped, amazed, when they noticed that, despite the archaism that was invariably attributed to this group, its members were capable of being free individuals. That this astonishment produced anti-Semitism is certainly true; but it also prompted Europe to question one of its original presuppositions, namely that membership groups are the enemies of individual freedom, and that the state must therefore deactivate their power to produce free citizens. The specifically European conception of democracy, which articulates individual and minority rights, not through a multiculturalism of passive tolerance, but through the integration of all groups in society into a common project of emancipation, has found one of its major impulses in the Jewish question thus understood.

When Europe, as it is doing in this war situation, reduces the significance of Jewish existence to the status of this victim that must never be produced again, it forgets this long history of the Jews of Europe. By forgetting this, it runs the risk that its political project, for which we hope that this war will be the expected crucible, will be reduced to the simple militarization of the continent with a view to the defense of individual freedoms detached from the construction of a society which thinks of itself as more just. In other words, by forgetting what the Jews have meant for the construction of political Europe, it declares definitively resolved the question that their participation in European history has opened up; and by reducing them to the destruction that they have effectively undergone, it also declares, between the lines, by whom.


Julia Christ

Notes

1 Vladimir Putin, « On the historical unity of Ukrainians and Russian », July 12, 2021
2 Vladimir Putin, Visio Conference of March 17, 2022.
3 What is at issue is the 2019 Language Law, which discriminates against Russian among Ukraine’s minority languages. For a detailed analysis of the law, see: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/01/19/new-language-requirement-raises-concerns-ukraine, and https://www.axl.cefan.ulaval.ca/europe/ukraine-3valorisation-ukrainien.htm.
4 Speech by Vlodomir Zelensky to the Bundestag on March 17, 2022.
5 https://fr.timesofisrael.com/zelensky-invoquera-la-shoah-dans-son-discours-a-la-knesset-dit-une-elue-ukrainienne/

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