Ideas
March 4, 2022 11:34 AM EST
Pomerantsev is the author of This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality. He is a Senior Fellow at SNF Agora Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

Language defines reality. Language defines who is a “real” person, and who isn’t. He who controls language controls life and death.

That was the conclusion of the literature professor Viktor Klemperer, as he tried to make sense of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s and 40s. As a German Jew in Dresden, Klemperer lost his home, his academic position, his health. But he kept his life, thanks to being married to a non-Jew. He spent the war doing odd jobs in factories, being interrogated and beaten by the Gestapo, and keeping a diary where he tried to figure out how ordinary, pleasant Germans became spellbound by Nazi propaganda.

At the centre of its power, he concluded, was how the Nazis developed a certain language, which he called Lingua Tretii Imperia, or LTI. LTI defined new in-groups and out-groups. When the Nazis came to power Propaganda Minister Goebbels claimed grandly that “the individual will be replaced by the Community of the People”—Die Volkskommune, populated by Volksgenosse driving Volkswagens, reading Der Volkischer Beobachter listening to Volksempfanger. Anyone outside the Volk weren’t ‘real people’, and were underserving of rights or even life. Furthermore, when the Nazis defined the world in terms of “Ubermensch” (superman) and “Untermensch” (inferior person)—Germans felt they were part of a special caste, unique and valued, while the “Untermenschen” deserved to be wiped out. When the Nazis reinforced this distinction with the concept of being “Aryan,” people got to feel ever more superior, while the Jews were classified as vermin, a blot upon the world that needed to be erased.

Putin and his cronies are using similar linguistic tactics in order to pave the way the destruction of the Ukrainian state—which they frequently define as “not a real country” unlike the “real (for that read mythical) unified people of Russia-Ukraine-Belarus.” Meanwhile patriotic Ukrainians, anyone who doesn’t agree to Russian colonial suzerainty, are dismissed as Nazi: “de-Nazification” is the supposed reason for Putin’s invasion. The charges are obviously absurd: unlike the U.S. and many Western European countries where the far-right are in parliament (and sometimes funded and supported by the Kremlin), Ukraine has a Jewish President, a multi-ethnic cabinet and the far-right don’t even make it into the current legislative chamber.

Read More: Putin’s Attack on Ukraine Is Attempt to Delay His Own Demise

But though ridiculous, Putin’s language is intentional and strategic. He is using the term “Nazi” in exactly the same way the Nazis used “untermensch.” After all who is more despicable than Nazis? Using the term enables the mass murder of civilians with illegal cluster munitions that are already pulverising residential areas. It also paves the way for the repressions that are meant to come with occupation: the Russian “kill lists” of civil society activists and journalists and the mass arrests. After all if you are fighting “Nazis” then every measure is acceptable, the perverse logic goes, it says just look at the lengths the Allies went to in World War II when firebombing German cities (most notably Klemperer’s own Dresden). After World War II the Soviet leadership, which Putin claims to respect, crushed the countries of Eastern Europe by killing many who dared to speak their mind, and carting many more off to the gulag. Putin will likewise need to get rid of any free-thinking people if he is ever to make real his dream of wiping a sovereign Ukraine off the map. His plan is proving faulty—but that is clearly his intent.

As Putin and his propaganda lackeys repeatedly misuse the term “Nazi” this once powerful word becomes drained of meaning, it gets reduced to meaningless sound, and becomes bled of its power as a taboo against the worst behaviour. A word that is meant to contain the memory of all that is horrendous in history loses its power to define the world- and thus makes Putin’s own essence-of-fascism easier to pursue. “You’re behaving like a Nazi” we want to scream at Putin—but he’s already sucked the meaning out of that term in this debate. “Oh no it’s you lot who are Nazis” he taunts back. Instead of a powerful word that acts as a check on evil, all one hears is endless twittering with each side calling the other Nazis until it is rendered meaningless.

Read More: Putin’s Invasion Has Sparked Protests in Russia. Could They Be His Undoing?

Ultimately, however, it’s not audiences in the West who are the targets of Putin’s sadistic word games. His main target is domestic, where the state-dictated cult of World War II is all pervasive. The Language of Putin’s Putative Imperii bellows non-stop from all the Kremlin media, especially on TV, readying the linguistic ground for very real murder. But in between the barking of his propaganda attack dogs, something strange occurs. You will likely see adverts, for western fast food and cosmetics, western tooth paste and western banks. We fund this murder propaganda every day, pouring in advertising dollars. And before the vicious vomitarium of Kremlin political talk shows come the entertainment programs: western reality shows and movies, which help reel the viewers in who then stick around for the politics. All these TV shows run on western editing systems, multi-channel mixing boards and video equipment.

All this can stop. We can undermine the Russian system if Western companies stop empowering the Kremlin with ad money, Western companies stop licensing programs and formats to Russian TV, the companies who provide editing equipment stop providing online updates to their software. This will put a thousand spanners in the workings of the hate machine.

Putin, meanwhile, is attacking Ukrainian media infrastructure. Among his latest missiles attacks on densely populated urban areas was an attempt to bomb the Kyiv public broadcaster. His weapons hit next door Babyn Yar, the site of the Nazi genocide of Kyiv Jews, where 33, 771 were executed in two days in 1941. To that horrific figure we can now add, according to Ukrainian authorities, at least five more innocent civilians. Putin’s metaphorical “denazification” literally, lethally continues in the traditions of the Nazis.

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