The aggressiveness of Putin’s regime has been described as a trait of the Russian people. The same pseudo-scientific generalizations were also used to describe Nazi Germany.
“As a race, Germans hate peace”
January 1941. Great Britain appeared to be the only country in the world left to battle Nazi Germany, which had expanded its dominion across most of Europe, from France to Romania, and from Norway to the Balkans. Londoners had already grown accustomed to using the tube at night, not for travelling, but rather to take shelter from the Luftwaffe bombings which had been sweeping the British capital for months and would continue to do so until next spring. The German air campaign, commonly known as the Blitz, would kill nearly forty thousand civilians, half of whom in London alone.
That year, as the Blitz seemed to rage on, a book was published in London whose title seemed to echo the uniform of Gestapo officers, the very essence of Nazism – “Black Record”. The subtitle, “Germans Past and Present” came with the promise of a logical reason that people under threat are always so willing to look for and accept. The author, Lord Robert Vansittart, was a British diplomat who had built the backbone of his career focusing on the German question. Vansittart had stepped down from the Chamberlain Cabinet, disgruntled with the latter’s conciliatory tone towards Berlin. And his book reflected his harsh attitude: Nazism was no accident, but an inevitable byproduct of an inherent German character, perceivable as early as the Roman period.
Sir Vansittart’s book came out in a total of 14 editions that year. Adding to its success was an entire tradition of reporting, going back to the 19th century. A large part of British elites had always perceived Prussian militarism as a threat to the Empire. The Great War did little to change the direction in which this perception was evolving, save make it more accessible to general audiences. In the interwar period, more and more Brits (including Vansittart) visited Nazi Germany. Upon their return home, many of them gave accounts of the terrible repression targeting the opposition and the Jews. Moreover, “Black Record. Germans Past and Present” also enjoyed widespread publicity. Before the volume came out, its chapters had been initially read by the author live on the BBC, addressing not just strictly a British public, but the entire Commonwealth made up of colonies and dominions. Shortly after its release, Vansittart himself went to great lengths to promote his ideas both right and left of the British political spectrum.
“As a race”, Robert Vansittart argues, “Germans hate peace”, a reference to an authority in the matter – Roman historian Tacitus. Hitler and his acolytes are not “an aberration”, but an outcome of a long line of German political leaders hailing from the common folk. “The German is often a moral creature: but Germans never; and it is the Germans who count”, Lord Vansittart writes. And besides, we should no longer publicly refer to them as “Nazis”, but as “Germans”, because Nazis are a minority of German society, Vansittart would argue in the early days of the Blitz in high-brow circles he frequented.
The theory of national flaws, debunked shortly after its publication
The reverberation of Vansittartism was felt over the coming period in Great Britain and beyond, spreading to the entire Anglo-American space. The Morgenthau plan of 1944, officially abandoned by the Americans only in 1947, called for the partition of Germany, depriving this country from any future hope for a normal industrial development, something which Vansittart himself had advocated. In concrete terms, such a scenario suggested that nothing good could be expected of the Germans except more aggression and war, even after Hitler’s removal.
The shortcomings of Vansittartism, which is what the doctrine of an alleged German aggressiveness came to be known, became transparent as soon as the theory came into shape. Among other things, critics pointed to the practical difficulties the theory entertained. British authorities wanted to promote a grassroots opposition to Hitler. But how could that be encouraged if all the Germans shared the same inherent traits? Nevertheless, the theory about “the Good German” had to wait a good many years before restored to its rightful place, and the first steps towards that came only when the Brits started consolidating their military victories.
Having fled Germany, Thomas Mann commented on Vansittart’s latest volume on the BBC. Historically speaking, Vansittart is wrong, Mann argued, but his theory might have psychological underpinnings. The recipient of the 1929 Novel Prize in Literature had touched a sensitive topic: there is a certain psychological reflex that makes people identify with their leaders. “Every people has the leader it deserves”, is one argument we often tend to hear. In the case of Nazi Germany, it referred to the fact that Hitler had been appointed Chancellor following due democratic process, and after taking office, Hitler received enthusiastic support from a large part of the population.
In fact, this psychological reflex can still be easily perceived to this day, and will likely continue to manifest itself in the future. It is one way of understanding why people refuse to step outside the boundaries of the estate an authoritarian regime creates for them. And we can perceive many such examples in our modern world: Saudi Arabia, North Korea, China or Russia.
There are two assumptions that stem from the theory about a correlation between a leader and his subjects: that there is a national character that prevails over the individual features of its representatives, and that this national character is immovable across centuries and, with any historical luck, millennia. There are considerable theoretical challenges as to the sound logic of these assumptions. A point of reference in this respect is the theory upheld by anthropologist Benedict Anderson, presented in his famous 1983 work “Imagined Communities”. To Anderson (as well as to the entire school of thought that followed in his steps), nations too are “imagined communities”. Not in an illusionary fashion, of course, but rather as a fictional construct, much in the vein of Hans Vaihinger’s philosophical concepts, because, in fact, the members of a “nation” have no knowledge of each other. According to Anderson, nationalism and other related notions (in this case, national character) are recent concepts, not at all the old and immemorial realities we are commonly presented with.
Besides, those who do support such arguments overlook one important aspect: in all the aforementioned examples, we are dealing with authoritarian regimes that are working with powerful instruments of repression. Criticizing an authoritarian regime (let alone any attempt at toppling it) could spell the most serious of consequences. Fear is one instrument that prevents people from leaving their homes, with some exceptions. You will always find people who are willing to resist, even when the regime throws them back in a bad way, particularly to discourage the resistance from gaining momentum.
From “German militarists” to “Russians are a barbaric nation”
In Russia’s case, the Kremlin’s acts of aggression against Ukraine breathed new life into Vansittart’s theory. Crises such as wars appear to empower the harmful link between leaders and their subjects. Just as, according to Vansittart, the Germans were incompatible with European civilization, Russians too are characterized as a barbaric nation, one which will never be willing to abide by the standards of modern cohabitation. Historically speaking, the Germans were a militarist nation. Russians are imperialists and this is what they’ve been since the advent of Russian statehood, which was always based on expansion rather than due economic management. There are obvious exceptions to this theory, its exponents say. Suffice it to look at great German or Russian cultural figures. But the bulk of the population would be incapable of cherishing freedom and justice as they are understood in the West.
Expressions of Vansittartism, in more or less advanced forms of development, are transparent not just in the occasional media articles or in half-whispered conservations outside government or university halls, but also on the world wide web. Ordinary Russians provide Putinist neo-imperialism with a wide-ranging support. They still admire Stalin and approve of the foundation of the “Third Russian Empire”, after the Russian Empire and the USSR. Can Russia become a normal country and break with half a millennium of imperial conquest and propaganda? another commentator asks, adding that the question is sound, given that the imperial mindset is inseparable from the Russian nation. Admittedly, Putin did foster a number of illiberal domestic policies, but he too is a democratically elected president, and his decisions reflect the will of the majority of the Russian people. The Russians have created a new model of democracy, based on “four underlying elements: authoritarianism, order, egalitarianism and the cult of nation. Liberalism is not one of them”. Russians don’t protest. Even the Iranians take to the streets, but not Russians. The Russians didn’t protest when Boris Yeltsin bombed the Parliament building back in 1993, nor when the second president, Vladimir Putin, infringed on citizen rights and altered the electoral process. Moreover, opponents of Russian regimes, whether we’re talking about Solzhenitsyn or Navalny, supported “Russia’s claim” regarding Crimea and invoked Russian exceptionalism.
Sir Vansittart’s concepts are transparent in each of these arguments. I’m not saying these authors are Vansittartists, but merely that their theories work with concepts pertaining to this intellectual school of thought. And this has to do particularly with the national character, which in one case is “barbaric” and “imperialistic” in the other, although both nations display hostility to neighboring peoples. Hence the explanation of the “deserved leader”, which is no accident too, but merely the expression of popular education, mindsets, propensities and desires. And finally, both cases provide “historical” proof of the incompatibility with European civilization, both Russians and Germans fashioning their own systems of political rule.
The fallacy of the people at the heart of European civilization vs. the people on the periphery of wilderness
The ultimate argument proposed by diehard advocates of Russia’s incompatibility with democracy might very well be the following: well, Germans are completely different from Russians. There’s no point of comparison between the two. Perhaps Vansittart was wrong. In this case, we’re talking about Russians, not a people at the heart of European civilization.
There are many ways of responding to such an argument, but the best counter-example available is Ukraine. Ukrainians and Russians share a lot of things, such as a common Slavic origin, a political past and cultural elements. “Historical inertia” should have made Ukrainians just as poorly equipped for democratic transitioning as the Russians. Nevertheless, the reality “on the ground” appears to differ. How were the Ukrainians able to hold elections, change presidents and governments, carry out reforms and shore up their defenses against the Russian military aggression? Despite their obvious shortcomings and the drawbacks of their recent democratic transition, Ukrainians are the living proof of what neighboring Russia would have looked like had it not been pushed back by its recent leaders.
After all, Putin himself seems to acknowledge that, if we consider what the targets of his adversity were long before Russia attacked Ukraine: independent media and civil society in Russia and “color revolutions” in ex-Soviet countries. The former are the very channels used to undermine and challenge the authoritarian state, while the “color revolutions” are expressions of popular will that can easily impose a new model of government, even in “the Russian world”. Putin’s war against Ukraine itself shows that Russian leaders fear liberal democracy (as a system of government, not as political entities or military powers) as a direct threat to their regime. Ukraine was not attacked in 2014 for seeking NATO rapprochement, but due to the Euromaidan protest, triggered after Viktor Yanukovych (under pressure from Moscow) refused to sign the EU Association Agreement, resulting in the demise of the pro-Russian regime and its replacement with pro-European factions that wanted Ukraine first and foremost to align itself to the body of European values.