Russia’s Anti-Ukraine Propaganda Has Its Roots in Soviet Anti-Semitism

March 15, 2022 | Jeffrey Herf
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For much of the past eight years, the Kremlin has sought to portray the Ukrainian government as dominated by neo-Nazis, going so far as to describe its current military engagement as a campaign of “denazification.” Jeffrey Herf investigates the historical precedents of this rhetoric:

Ukraine today is the only state in the world besides Israel that has a president and a foreign minister who are Jewish. Accusing political opponents within, liberal democracies without, and Israelis of being fascists and Nazis is a lie with deep roots in the history of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy after World War II. In the “anti-cosmopolitan” (read: anti-Semitic) purges of 1949 to 1953, the Soviet Union hurled the accusation [of fascism] at Communists who supported the state of Israel, and at political opponents who rejected Communist one-party rule. During the cold war, the Soviet Union repeatedly denounced the United States and West Germany as fascist or Nazi. In 1961, when East Germany built the Berlin Wall—a wall that turned that country into a prison with 17 million inmates—it described it as “the anti-fascist protection wall.”

In 1967, the Soviet ambassador Nikolai Fedorenko at the United Nations described Israel’s military operations as examples of “fascist aggression.” During the Yom Kippur War of 1973, his successor, Jakob Malik, compared Israel’s response to the Arab attack to Nazi aggression during World War II. . . . The Israeli-as-Nazi canard spread to the radical left around the world. On the West German far left, it served to justify terrorist attacks against Israelis as a form of revolutionary anti-fascism. Such falsehoods about Israeli democracy played a role in Islamist and radical leftist attacks on Israel.

This reversal and transformation of the meaning of antifascism . . . was consequential. It lent apparent legitimacy to what were, in fact, anti-Semitic and false conspiracy theories about the policies of Israel. Sadly, the Soviet Union achieved great success with its “Israeli as Nazi” propaganda. Associating attacks on the Jewish state with the language of antifascism comprised a crucial chapter in the reemergence and renewed respectability of anti-Semitism in the international radical left during the cold war. So, it is not at all surprising that Putin, whose roots lie in the Soviet-era KGB intelligence services, denounced Ukraine as a state of Nazis and fascists.

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