Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said the West wants to destroy his country in a speech Wednesday, March 16, and he used some eerily familiar language. Putin issued a dire warning to “traitors,” demanding Russia go through a “self-cleansing.” If you’re wondering where you’ve heard those words before, they’re the nuts and bolts – meat and potatoes, if you prefer – rhetoric of genocides past.
“Any people, and especially the Russian people, will always be able to distinguish the true patriots from the scum and traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths,” Putin declared. He went on to say that he’s “convinced that this natural and necessary self-cleansing of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion, and readiness to meet any challenge.”
Emanating from the mouths of genocidal dictators throughout history, those words carry a weight beyond simple, individual hate. Before the first death of any such massacre, this language was encouraged.
Pol Pot took control of Cambodia in 1975 and worked to “cleanse” the nation of its western influences. The Khmer Rouge targeted doctors, monks, police, and intellectuals in general. Pol Pot labeled these people “enemies,” who were either external – meaning they were agents of western influence – or internal – meaning they weren’t loyal to the new regime. He went on to dehumanize these enemies by calling them monsters, parasites, and vermin, and talked of “purification” of the society. Citizens were encouraged to practice “cleanliness” by abusing the rights of the “enemies.” From 1975 to 1979, between 1.5 million and three million of these so-called enemies were exterminated.
The Holocaust was the systematic elimination of European Jews during World War II between 1941 and 1945 by Germany’s Nazi regime. Six million people – about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population – were murdered, and there were a good many other targeted classes before the end. Nazis categorized Jews not as true Germans, but as a different race, which didn’t belong to the national community. “We heard the words,” Holocaust survivor Aron Krell told Time. “[T]he Jews were cursed, the Jews are traitors and all of the problems in the world starts with the Jews, therefore what we have to do is get rid of the Jews.” Adolf Hitler even called Jews a “dangerous bacillus” in Mein Kampf and referred to them on other occasions as a “racial tuberculosis” in “German lungs,” indicating the Jewish population was an infection to be cured.
Though it only lasted 100 days, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 brought about the brutal death of between 491,000 and 800,000 Tutsi people. Again, great emphasis was put on the word “enemies” in reference to the dreaded Other. Additional labels, such as “cockroaches” and “devils,” were also used to dehumanize the Tutsi people, and radio programs were reported of Tutsi massacres against the Hutu people that never occurred.
Whether or not he’ll follow in the unholy footsteps of history’s worst, Putin is certainly reading from the same speech notes. Thousands of people have been detained in Russia for protesting the current war – which the Kremlin calls a special military operation to “denazify” Ukraine. Some have been investigated for spreading so-called fake news about the army on social media – a crime now punishable by 15 years in prison. Putin justified his “not-invasion” as an attempt to free ethnic Russians in Ukraine from a Nazi regime and to protect the Russian Orthodox Church from persecution. The army would never attack civilians or cities, Russia said.
Meanwhile, major cities across Ukraine have suffered multiple bombardments throughout the war. Around 50 schools have been destroyed in Kharkiv, ten people standing in line for bread in Chernihiv were gunned down, and a theater in Mariupol clearly marked as a shelter for civilians containing children was bombed – all by Russian forces. Some might say the foreshadowing suggested by Putin’s rhetoric has already begun.
~ Read more from James Fite.