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Putin’s dangerous Holocaust distortion skews both present and past

4 min read

Vladimir Putin’s brutal acts of aggression against the Ukrainian people is being met with a firm response by the West.

We must, of course, be doing all that we can to support Ukraine and the people whose lives have been devastated by this unprovoked war. But our response must also challenge the dangerous undercurrents of historical revisionism and Holocaust distortion being propagated by Putin to justify his brutality.

With death and destruction raining down on Ukraine, it might seem petty to pick Putin up on his language. But words matter; this is one of the lessons of the Holocaust. Dictators use language to distort and demonise an opponent in order to then destroy them. Putin has launched this deathly war under the false pretense of fighting “neo-Nazi” terror in Ukraine. He has sought to justify the indefensible cruelty under the aim of “denazifying” the country, claiming that the senseless violence is to save the Ukrainian people from a “genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime”.

We must not let our history or language be devalued by dictators like Putin

Putin’s language is, for a start, factually incorrect. Denazification refers to a particular period of time in post-war Germany and cannot be applied in any other setting. Putin’s words are more than just incorrect, they are a dangerous and an offensive misrepresentation and misappropriation of Holocaust history that must be confronted, lest others be tempted down a similar distorted and misguided path

Because the truth couldn't be any more different to Putin’s lies. President Volodymyr Zelesnky is the first Jewish president of Ukraine - something that should not be overlooked given Ukraine’s difficult history.

Just a few months ago we marked the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, where 33,771 Jews were shot dead over two days just outside of Kyiv. Under Joseph Stalin’s Soviet rule, Jews were cast as permanent outsiders and forced to keep their culture and religious practices to themselves. For Putin to call a democratically elected Jewish president - who has lost relatives in the Holocaust - a Nazi, as a pretext to staging his own violent war, is to gaslight the many millions of people whose lives were ended or altered by the Holocaust.

At a time when Holocaust distortion and denial is on the rise, Putin’s rhetoric is doubly treacherous. That’s why we have a duty to call out this behaviour and educate people on the dangers that can be manifested by our words.

For anyone who has listened to the harrowing tales from those who have lived through genocides - from the Holocaust, and subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur - understands that the subject is not one that should ever be distorted or misappropriated. The unscrupulous violence experienced by these communities is an unyielding fact, which is why Putin’s claims of a genocide being perpetrated by the Ukrainian government is such a grotesque lie.

Given the severity of Putin’s manipulations, it is encouraging that some of the most accomplished and celebrated scholars of World War II, Nazism, genocide, and the Holocaust have united to condemn this cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War Two, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression.

Whilst there is so much more many of us would like to do to help Ukraine, and while it can feel powerless watching scenes of violence unfold on our televisions, one thing we can all do is discuss, educate and condemn the dangerous equations Putin makes with the Holocaust, Nazism and genocide. Doing this remains the best way to avoid future tragedy.

We must not let our history or language be devalued by dictators like Putin, as this is the road to ruin.


Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE is the Chief Executive of The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

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Read the most recent article written by Olivia Marks-Woldman OBE - Lessons from Hitler’s rise to power


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