The congratulations may be a little premature: the Wannsee Conference is still two months short of its 81st anniversary. But what’s a month or two among friends?
On 20 January, 1942, Reinhardt Heydrich called a conference at Wannsee to coordinate the work of various services involved in the Final Solution, the wholesale extermination of Jews. That was the first time in modern European history that a major country expressly identified genocide as its policy. But, as it turns out, it wasn’t the last time.
Speaking through his dummy Lukashenko the other day, the ventriloquist Putin enunciated in short, punchy words that, unless the Ukrainian people surrendered, they’d all be annihilated. Not their army routed. Not their ministers arrested and tried. No – for the second time in modern European history genocide was explicitly enunciated as the strategic aim of state policy.
To his credit, Vlad is as good as his word. Though he didn’t specify his preferred genocidal expedients, with nuclear and chemical weapons widely mentioned in this context, his immediate stratagem involves destroying the Ukraine’s infrastructure.
That would have the most satisfactory effect of having the whole population freezing and starving to death during the inclement Ukrainian winter. It has to be said that Russia has form in the same type of genocide in the same place.
Holodomor, the man-made famine deliberately engineered by the Soviets to educate Ukrainians in the benefits of collectivised agriculture, killed 3.5 million of them, conservatively estimated. The actual number was probably twice as great, plus as many again in Kazakhstan at the same time.
Really, when it came to genocide, it was the Nazis who learned from the Soviets, not the other way around. Even the use of exhaust fumes pumped into locked vans full of people was a Soviet invention, which their Nazi disciples gratefully borrowed, adding their own embellishments later.
After the war, all the Germans not directly involved in the mass murder claimed they didn’t know it was going on. Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners proves most of them were lying. But at least, what with mass media still embryonic at the time, the Germans’ denials had a modicum of plausibility.
In our Internet age, the Russians haven’t got that. Every one of them knows exactly what kind of mass atrocities their army is committing in the Ukraine – and what kind Putin is planning to commit soon.
He, his generals and everyone who has followed this criminal war knows Putin’s hordes are incapable of defeating the Ukrainian army on the battlefield. Hence the Russians have switched from warfare to terrorism, with genocide their ultimate and stated aim.
The whole country of 140 million souls knows about this, yet their reaction varies from enthusiastic support to passive acquiescence to shoulder-shrugging indifference. They seem to be re-enacting the last line in Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov: “The people remain silent”.
It’s obvious they have been either scared or, more likely, brainwashed into silence. The question is, how. What strings in their hearts did Putin’s propaganda tug on so expertly and successfully?
One line taken by Putin’s Goebbelses is that, since Ukrainian fascists were planning to attack Russia, his genocidal war was a last-ditch preemptive strike. I’m sure some especially feeble-minded Russians believe that lie, but their numbers can’t be sufficient to ensure overwhelming support.
Another falsehood was that Putin had to liberate the fraternal Ukrainian people, especially their Russophone part, from the yoke of their fascist rulers. Again, each Russian missile hitting a Kherson block of flats, a Kiev hospital, a Kharkov school or a power station anywhere in the country unmasks that lie for what it is.
Yet neither lie would have resonated in the Russian soul en masse. The two lies can function as a starter, but not as the meat and potatoes. It’s another propagandistic ploy that delivers enough stodge to sate that restless soul.
This is how it goes. The Ukraine is only a proxy for Nato. It’s not the Ukraine that heroic Russians are fighting, but “the collective West”. That dastardly collective entity has devoted its entire history to the single-minded conspiracy to conquer Russia, dismember her and plunder her natural resources.
Now, any adman will tell you that the best campaigns succeed by appealing to the audience’s innermost beliefs and feelings. Once such triggers are credibly identified, it’s all down to the resources committed to the campaign. Throw enough money and time at it, and a throng of lemmings will flock to the product advertised.
That’s the case here. For Putin didn’t invent that effective line. The notion of a saintly Russia being surrounded by Western enemies wishing her ill is a core concept resident in the Russian psyche, implanted as it was when Russia was still a patchwork blanket of separate and mutually hostile principalities.
What united them was their shared repudiation of the West, starting with its religion. In fact, that was probably why the Kievan Grand Duke Vladimir rejected numerous attempts by the Catholic West to bring Russia into the fold.
It was in the reign of his grandmother Olga that Bishop Adalbert had arrived in Kiev to baptise all her subjects. The bishop failed, but not, according to the Primary Chronicle (the source of much information about ancient Russian history), “for any lack of industry on his part.”
Instead Vladimir baptised Russia in the Byzantine rite in 988. There were many reasons for that choice, including those mentioned in the Primary Chronicle. But the principal one had to be Vladimir’s rejection of the inchoate liberties already evident in Western Christendom.
The Byzantine confluence of autocracy and theocracy in the person of the ruling Basilisk appealed to Vladimir and his subjects much more. And the eventual demise of Kievan Rus’ did nothing to mitigate the inherent occidentophobia of the Russians.
They fought tooth and nail against every Western adversary, while their propaganda elevated even victories in minor skirmishes (such as those won in 1240-1242 by their hero Alexander Nevsky) to the status of historic triumphs. At the same time, they put up only token resistance to the Mongols who conquered most of Russia at the time Alexander was raiding Swedish caravans, and then lorded it over the country for the next 300 years.
In the reign of the second Romanov tsar Alexey Mikhailovich (d. 1676), Patriarch Nikon introduced a Westernising church reform, trying to bring Russian Orthodoxy closer to Greek Catholicism. That created a great schism, for the peasant population regarded “the collective West” as a collective Antichrist.
When Alexey’s son Peter (the Great) embarked on a whole raft of Westernising reforms, he himself was widely (and suicidally) portrayed as the Antichrist. Hence both Nikon’s and Peter’s reforms only succeeded, after a fashion, by most egregious violence. Thousands of surviving Old Believers immolated or buried themselves alive, preferring horrible death to Western heresy.
Hence anti-Western sentiments have been deep-rooted in Russia throughout her whole history. Tapping into that reservoir of hatred has been an easy task for even tsarist propagandists, never mind Soviet and post-Soviet ones.
Under Stalin, a casual praise for, say, a Western car or film could get the perpetrator charged under the “Worship of the West” law and sentenced to an automatic tenner (if he was lucky). Under Khrushchev, young people wearing conspicuously Western clothes were routinely roughed up by the police and often arrested. Under Brezhnev, reading and disseminating banned Western literature was covered by Article 70 of the USSR Penal Code. The maximum punishment was seven years of hard labour, plus another five of internal exile.
The people kept silent then too. They had their own reasons to hate the Soviets, but hostility to the West wasn’t one of them.
The Russians aren’t a civilised nation. But that alone wouldn’t have turned them into perpetrators or at least supporters of sadistic, genocidal violence. It’s just that the KGB junta ruling the country has used its professional expertise to perform an op of collective recruitment.
I do hope the actual anniversary of the Wannsee Conference on 20 January will be widely celebrated in Russia. That at least would be honest.