Historians on What Putin Gets Wrong About ‘Denazification’ in Ukraine

6 minute read

In seven days of fighting, Russia has launched hundreds of missiles into Ukraine, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported Mar. 3 that about a million refugees have fled the country. The U.N. also reported there have been at least 752 civilian casualties in Ukraine and at least 227 fatalities, as of Mar. 2.

As the war in Ukraine rages, so does a war of words. In a TV address on Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that the goal of invading Ukraine was “to protect the people that are subjected to abuse, genocide from the Kiev regime” and to “demilitarize and denazify Ukraine.”

But historians tell TIME that Putin is misusing the term “denazify,” pointing out that denazification refers to a particular moment in time in the post-war era, and that Putin’s use of the term is propaganda aimed at his fears about the current democratic government in the Ukraine, and is disconnected from the history around the Nazi regime of the 1930s and 1940s.

“There’s a very specific historical meaning [to denazification], which is the process undergone in Germany after the Second World War,” says Timothy Snyder, an expert on Ukraine and author of The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. “In West Germany, there was a certain amount of attention paid to high Nazi officials, by the Americans, the other occupying powers, and an attempt to remove them from public life…Using it, as Mr. Putin does, out of context, is an attempt to transform the country and the people he’s talking about, into Nazi Germany.”

Read more: After World War II, Most ‘Ordinary Nazis’ Returned to Lives of Obscurity.

“A Nazi can only be a German,” he adds. “So sometimes we throw the words around, but a Nazi is a member of the National Socialist Party in Germany in the 1930s or 1940s. There were certainly efforts in the postwar Soviet Union to find collaborators, but not to find Nazis per se…You cannot denazify when there are no Nazis.”

There were many layers to denazification.

As Jason Stanley, Yale University professor and author of ​​How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them explains, “Denazification was the process the Allies took to Germany. Beginning with the Nuremberg trials, they tried and convicted a number of Nazis, a number were executed, and then they replaced Nazi ideology in all the major institutions [with] people who were untainted by Nazism— or this is what they tried to do. They replaced them with leaders who are loyal to democracy, and they replaced Nazi ideology with democratic practices.”

After the Allies occupied Germany, they did investigate some former members of the Nazi party to make sure they didn’t maintain Nazi loyalties. But many slipped through the cracks. “It was a flawed process used by the Allies occupying Germany that generally applied to the small fry and left the big fish off the hook,” as Omer Bartov, a Brown University professor and author of Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, puts it.

Read more: How American educated the children of Nazis after World War II

So why is Putin using a term from the 1940s and 1950s in 2022?

The Soviet Union helped the Allies defeat the Nazis. There were more than 20 million casualties, and memory of the fighting still lives on in the region. So using a term like denazification resonates deeply with his domestic audience and is a “very powerful piece of propaganda,” says Stanley. “From the perspective of many of the Russian people, Nazism is something the Germans brought from the West, which resulted in the horrific mass murder of many Soviet citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish…Putin—and he’s been doing this for many years—is saying that anything that comes from the west is Nazism.”

About 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews died during the Holocaust. While there were Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazi German occupiers during World War II, the historians TIME talked to stress those instances are contained to that era.

“At one point, there were some Ukrainians who collaborated with Nazis,” explains Jeffrey Veidlinger, author of In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine. “This is why Putin can use that term, because it has resonance and people are familiar with this history of Ukraine having sympathies with the Nazis, but this was 80 years ago, and isn’t reflective of the current Ukrainian Government…It’s a meaningless term when Putin uses it. He’s not afraid of Nazis in Ukraine. He’s afraid of democracy in Ukraine. And he recognizes that as democracy encroaches upon Russia as it comes closer to Russia, there’s a threat that those people will demand democracy.”

The current Ukrainian government is not a fascist dictatorship or in any way associated with the Nazi past. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is democratically elected in a fair election, winning 73% of the vote in the 2019 presidential election.

Read more: How Volodymyr Zelensky Defended Ukraine and United the World

“What Putin tries to rely on is the fact that there are extreme right-wing elements in Ukraine that could conceivably be described as neo-Nazi. But these are fringe elements, as the landslide election of President Zelensky has demonstrated,” says Bartov.

Zelensky is also Jewish. His grandfather fought in the Soviet Army against the Nazis, and his family lost relatives in the Holocaust.

“It’s a classic form of antisemitism to say that the Jews are the Nazis. And that’s what he’s doing,” says Snyder. “The purpose of this war is to target a government which is headed by a Jew. So if you call that denazification, what you’re saying is, the Jews are the real Nazis, and we are the real victims. He’s appealing to a certain tradition in antisemitism, which tries to flip around who are the victims and who are the perpetrators…But, as I say, I think his main purpose here is just to pervert these terms and to confuse us.” Such “perversions,” as he puts it, could “pollute the whole moral inheritance of the Second World War.”

But historical accuracy is not the priority, argues Snyder. “He’s deliberate. He’s deliberately abusing these concepts in this tradition and trying to turn it around,” he says. “He’s not really referring to any true history. He’s just taking advantage of the fact that there are strong emotions around these concepts.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com