Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine will have momentous consequences for many — above all for Ukrainians, those who are fleeing the country and those who have stayed to fight off the invading army or to helplessly endure the devastation. But the effect on Russians, too, will be enormous, whether or not we realize it now. It’s time for we citizens of the aggressor state to try on the shoes of post-World War II Germans.
The comparison will seem hyperbolic to many. The Nazis, after all, committed genocide on a grand scale, leveled cities in many countries, set up death camps. It is difficult for Putin to measure up to Hitler’s homicidal madness, hard as he might try. Yet it is 2022, not the 1940s. Putin’s war crimes are instantly documented on social media, and the global audience’s sensibilities have also changed: No matter how limited your bombing of civilians might be, it’s unforgivable from the moment the first missile targets a residential area. Because of the abundance of evidence, Russia doesn’t even have to lose the war for its people — and not just Putin personally — to be held responsible even in lands far removed from Russia and Ukraine.
Many Russians, especially those leaving to escape the official war hysteria and the economic and lifestyle consequences of unprecedented Western sanctions (no more IKEA! No H&M!), don’t blame themselves for the war. Like the many Russian celebrities who have posted “No to war” or “I’m for peace” on social networks without taking the next step — calling for an end to Putin’s mad aggression — they feel no personal responsibility for the leveled neighborhoods of Kharkiv or Mariupol. “I’ve never voted for Putin,” I hear from them. “What do I have to do with this? I’m against war!”
Everybody’s for peace, of course — even Putin says he is. Hitler spoke of his “love of peace” and his intention to “establish peace on the eastern border” in his speech to the Reichstag on Sept. 1, 1939. Individual responsibility, however, hinges on what one has done to make war impossible — and collective responsibility stems, no matter how we might hate this, from a polity’s inability to avert the dictatorship that, as we see now, cannot but lead to war.
That’s the logic behind the tendency of many Ukrainians to blame the Russian people, not just Putin. A fresh poll by Ukraine’s Rating Group shows 38% of respondents say Russians as a nation share responsibility for the war; that goes up to 42% in central Ukraine and 46% in the country’s west.
In 2014, after I’d just emigrated from Russia because of my opposition to the Crimea annexation, I bristled when Ukrainians told me the move didn’t erase my responsibility. I was sure I couldn’t have done anything to change the nature of the Russian regime. “You go fight Putin,” I snarled back at my Ukrainian accusers. “See where you get with that.” It fills me with shame to remember that now, because of course they are fighting him as I write this — and we didn’t really do so even when it wasn’t as dangerous as in the current climate of cruel suppression.
When Hitler took power in 1933, he did it on the strength of a 44% national vote, meaning that a majority of Germans didn’t back him. Just one year before, he didn’t even have a third of the vote. It was not too late to stop him, and too few Germans cared enough to do it.
This is true of us, too. We swallowed blatantly stolen elections (and our protests in 2011 were, though impressively large, too vegetarian, too cute to matter). We swallowed the gradual stifling of independent media. We shrugged off massive corruption and the increasingly hysterical “patriotic education” of our kids. We adapted as the government became the only meaningful economic player and as the police state swelled, feeding on our helplessness and its own impunity. We acquiesced, by and large, to the Crimea invasion; Russian celebrities became adept at creative answers when Ukrainians asked them on camera to whom Crimea really belonged. Meanwhile, too many of us enjoyed the semblance of normality — the brands, the clubs, the skyscrapers, the tech, the money. Now, it has all collapsed like the cardboard scenery it always was.
We turned into Putin’s passive serfs — or equally passive, powerless observers outside the Russian borders, for those of us who left often rationalized and normalized what was happening at home. I know I did. We made Putin culturally possible, made him our own even as we distanced ourselves from him. We allowed him to set the rules even as we clung to the illusion that we weren’t playing.
In other words, it doesn’t matter that I was against it all. I’m guilty of not having done enough to assert my protest. I ran instead of fighting. That makes me responsible. Those who run in panic from Russia now — and a lot of people I know are catching planes to wherever they still fly or abandoning everything to drive all night to the border — can’t outrun the shared responsibility either.
Once Hitler lost the war and the victorious allies began making it clear to Germans, including civilians, that they shared responsibility for his atrocities, many resisted, saying they’d never backed the Nazis, blessed their atrocities or even knew about them. They suffered from what psychologists Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich termed an “inability to grieve” for the victims of the Nazi crimes; that kind of grief was displaced by regret about their own losses.
“Germans show no trace of a sense of responsibility, let alone guilt,” the writer Klaus Mann wrote upon his postwar return to Germany from the US “They fail to grasp that their current misery is the unavoidable result of what the German people have done to the world in recent years.”
His bitter prediction in a letter to his father, Thomas Mann, was that “this sorry, horrible nation will be physically and morally maimed and crippled for generations.” He was right in a way — the symptoms of the disfigurement aren’t all gone even now. We should take heed — I see the same symptoms in many Russians I read or talk to.
The payback doesn’t come, for those who stayed, in the form of an imported alcohol shortage, an ATM empty of euros or a credit card that no longer works because the issuing bank has been taken off the SWIFT transaction messaging system. Many Russians still remember what near-autarky feels like. Soviet habits will come back quickly to those who decided to stick around in Putinland. And perhaps some signs of normalcy will return after the war, as many of those who stayed, or intend to return, hope.
Nor does the payback come, for those who left, in the shape of the inevitable microaggressions, the graffiti on the windows of a bilingual school in Berlin, the new forms of bullying Russian kids have to endure from classmates whose parents discuss the news with them. There likely won't be any serious 20th century-style blowback — no mass expulsions, no internment camps. Even as the West confronts Russia, its leaders make sure not to blame Russians as a people — it’s especially important for the Germans, who have been on the receiving end of similar attitudes themselves for decades.
“I know how hard this situation is on the citizens of our country who were born in Ukraine or in Russia,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said last week. “So we won't let this conflict between Putin and the free world open old wounds or lead to new deformations.”
Besides, for most people not directly affected by war crimes, the negative image of the nation that has committed them fades relatively quickly. A study of attitudes toward Germans in New Zealand found that negative sentiment toward them peaked in the first post-war years as the horrors of the concentration camps were widely reported — but sank to “indifference levels” by 1953. In this era of short attention spans, Russians will likely no longer be pariahs on an everyday level a year or two after the war ends, no matter who wins it in the military sense. Only in Ukraine will the attitude persist: The ripped-up cities and dead soldiers will not be forgotten for generations.
The true payback comes in the form of having to start over — and not from scratch, but from a mountain of debris left over from our efforts to build a new country after the fall of communism. Everything we’ve done since the heady days of 1991, when walls were falling and the world seemed ready to embrace us, has led us to this — the missiles embedded in Kharkiv pavements, the explosions booming through the empty Kyiv streets, the refugee trains carrying misery westward.
Where does one go from the top of that mountain of rubble? I don’t have a good answer. All I can do is hum to myself Bertolt Brecht and Hans Eisler’s Kinderhymne, the song many Germans once wanted as the reunited country’s hymn. Notwithstanding Brecht’s unrepentant communism, it’s a very post-Putin song for us Russians to sing, hopeful
...that the people give up flinching
At the crimes which we evoke
And hold out their hand in friendship
As they do to other folk.
And because we'll make it better
Let us guard and love our home
Love it as our dearest country
As the others love their own.