Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and its full-scale war against civilians has led Russian leaders to engage in the worst kind of conspiracy theories to justify their crimes. They have repeatedly accused Ukrainian leaders of being authoritarians and even “Nazis,” trying to evoke sympathy for Russia as if it were fighting World War II all over again.
None of this is working, of course, as much of world opinion has remained overwhelmingly on the side of the Ukrainians, and rightfully so.
The Russians understand that a lot of that sympathy for Ukraine derives not only from the horrific images of destruction being rained upon that country, but likewise is due to the courageous and steadfast leadership exhibited by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the latest conspiracy theory articulated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov focused on Zelenskyy. Speaking in Russian, the foreign minister claimed in an interview with Italian television on Sunday that just because Zelenskyy was Jewish didn’t mean he couldn’t lead a neo-Nazi regime. He went on to suggest that people should look to the “fact” that Hitler himself “had Jewish blood” and that “for some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish.”
In his desperation to delegitimize this symbol of Ukrainian resistance and freedom, Lavrov is resuscitating the long-discounted notion that Hitler was partially Jewish. This plays into the odious idea that the 6 million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust were victims of their own people, rather than the scourge of hatred of the Jewish people that had besieged Europe for centuries.
Rumors had circulated even in the 1930s that Hitler’s grandfather, who was unknown, may have been Jewish. Those rumors were based on the mysterious origins of his father’s father, the sensationalizing of coverage of Hitler by some European newspapers, and unverified reports that Heidler, a variant name of Hitler, was a Jewish family name.
However, there is no historical evidence to sustain any of these claims. They have been repeatedly debunked by World War II historians as the stuff of fantasy.
After the war, convicted Nazi war criminal Hans Frank gave the rumor new life in his memoir. Similarly, another Nazi war criminal, Adolf Eichmann, in his trial in Jerusalem played into this idea — without expressly making the claim of Hitler’s Jewishness — by suggesting that Hitler had turned on his own people to explain Germany’s defeat by the allied forces.
What Lavrov is doing here is engaging in the big lie technique, mastered by Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, in accusing the Nazis’ enemies of heinous crimes. The technique consists of repeating an outrageous falsehood over and over — in this case that the Ukrainians are Nazis — so that people start believing it because, well, why else do they hear it so often?
Lavrov is doing this at the expense of the Jewish people — those who suffered most in the Nazi slave camps and who perished in their death and concentration camps. It reinforces the point that invoking the Holocaust, even in the context of a horrific event like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is dishonest, unhinged and full of dangerous pitfalls given the echoes of European history being repeated once again in Ukraine.
The Russian lies about Nazis in Ukraine can have the effect of diminishing the unique event that was the Holocaust while making it harder to deal with the historic antisemitism that made the Holocaust possible. After all, if the Jews were in some way at least partially responsible for the Holocaust, then the important lesson about what disastrous consequences antisemitism can have is lost or diminished. It’s not surprising that this theme of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust is a leitmotif routinely employed by Holocaust deniers and rabid antisemites.
In fact, one of the things that makes the Nazi genocide of Jews stand out is that they were murdered whether they were on the side of those resisting the Nazis or whether they lived in countries that were controlled by or allied with the Nazis. For Hitler and the Nazis, the extermination of the Jewish people was given a high priority even as the Nazi war effort foundered.
To be sure, it was also problematic when Zelenskyy, in remarks to Israel’s legislature in March, compared what Ukrainians were experiencing to the Holocaust. Had Zelenskyy chosen to articulate how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine echoes German expansionism of the 1930s — not just in Putin’s references to Nazis but also in his propagandistic false flags, massive arming of forces without any real provocation and attempt to overturn the existing international order — he would have been much more on target. Instead, his remarks also misappropriated the Holocaust in an unfortunate and unnecessary distraction from the Russian atrocities unfolding in his country.
The occasion of Lavrov’s horrendous comments reinforce that we must stand with the Ukrainian people in their fight to defend their homeland against an unprovoked attack. It is a pure Russian conspiracy theory to falsely accuse Zelenskyy of leading a government of Nazis. This is more than intellectual dishonesty: This is historical revisionism and disinformation that only serves to trivialize and undermine the real history of World War II and the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and we must denounce it forcefully.
At the same time, let’s commit to avoid comparing the tragedy that is happening today in Ukraine to the unique genocide that was the Holocaust and, particularly, doing anything that either diminishes that epic tragedy or suggests — falsely — that the Jews themselves were responsible for it.