The inexplicable horror of war often invites us to look for parallels to try to understand it. And despite the difficulty of the exercise, the last great war period that Europe experienced offers some answers. Antonio Scurati (Naples, 52 years old), author of The deaf rumble of battle (Alianza, 2008) and the monumental biography on Benito Mussolini is currently writing the third volume of his work, in which he narrates the moment in which Italy embarked on World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. And in that character, he explains by phone from his home in Milan, is the one to look at to understand the psychology and strategy of the protagonist of the current conflict, Vladimir Putin.
Ask. Writing this third volume, have you found any analogy with the current moment?
Answer. I am cautious drawing parallels with a century ago. The world situation is very different. And anticipating that the conflict widens, I don’t see how it can look like it. But the analogies between the behavior of Hitler and that of Putin exist. In the way of waging war or justifying the invasion of a border country. Also Hitler, like Putin, in the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Poland justified the use of arms as a need to defend the German-speaking minorities. It is true that Hitler did not use the word genocide like Putin…
P. Because it did not yet exist in the political vocabulary, right?
R. Sure, but he denounced the violent persecution and extermination of the German minorities in the Sudetenland area and the Danzig corridor. He justified it with the need to protect them from a real extermination, even though everyone knew it was a lie. But there is another stronger analogy. As the German historian Johann Gottfried Gruber noted, what neither Mussolini nor the rest of the world understood about Hitler is that he was no longer a political man. His vision and way of thinking about Europe and international relations responded to an eschatological type of quasi-religious perspective according to which he had rushed into a final battle against a deadly enemy. The other day, the oligarch [Mijáil] Jodorkowski pointed out that Westerners do not understand Putin because we apply a political logic, when there is only a criminal logic.
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P. In what sense?
R. In the sense of true criminality. The only thing that counts is strength. So if Putin continues to violate international law and does not run into a show of force that forces him to stop, he will continue. He probes the enemy’s availability to that resource, and if he doesn’t find it, he moves on. He is a leader with a post-political strategic vision animated by hegemonic ideas and projects that respond to a historical and religious reading of Russia’s destiny. It’s what Hitler did, when he didn’t stop with the annexation of Austria and changed the map of Europe; but then he invaded Czechoslovakia, and then Poland. It is a stubborn and obsessive advance that does not meet the rational expectations of a world that still reasons in political terms.
P. Ukraine is not the last stop of the conflict?
R. I don’t know if he has a design with a “first Ukraine, then the Baltic countries” program, but he is moved by the idea that the former Soviet republics have been removed from Russia’s legitimate right to dominate them. So every military action of invasion is a legitimate reconquest. I don’t know if Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania are already on the programme. But the attack on Ukraine is not the result of a diplomatic incident, it is the expression of an idea of hegemony and domination that could extend to other states. The other aspect that he resembles Hitler is the military. That desire for power inspired by a parareligious fanaticism that does not stop at the hypothesis of the total annihilation of the enemy and his cities. He presupposes a consideration of the enemy as a type of subhuman. He does not recognize the enemy’s right to wage war on him. It is as if he considers that he has the right to extermination. Ravaging cities is what Nazism did, what it did to Rotterdam at the start of the war to demoralize the Dutch.
P. Diplomacy, then, does not seem to be going to stop him.
R. It will not stop. And it is a characteristic of Russia, against which Nazi Germany collided. It will continue to the end. That is why it goes beyond politics. There is no prudential or economic calculation.
P. Would history say that without Putin this war would end?
R. I hope that the solution can come in the defenestration of the tyrant. There is talk of autocracy to refer to Russia, but the Putin regime was sustained by the broad support of the Russian population, created in a certain way by that idea of wealth and well-being organized around oligarchies. But currently the support is somewhat sustained by nationalism and propaganda. And this type of regime in Russian history does not survive a military defeat, a lost war. If that happened, even if it was not on his land, it is possible that he would be deposed. And that gives a sense to strategically defend Ukraine.
P. And what would happen to Russia?
R. The problem would remain of a Russia that after a moment of hope, halfway between Gorbachev and Putin, moves away from an opening to the West and from democratic life. The fall of Putin would not solve that problem. Russia is not Europe from the political point of view. The only coincident field is that of culture, but politically it has never been.
P. Are we at the gates of World War III?
R. No, and that argument that is used in Italy by the equidistant: those who say that they are neither against nor in favor of Putin bothers me a lot. The syllogism that if we don’t give in to his violence we will go to World War III is false. It is not a reaction by Putin to a threatening geopolitical situation for Russia, it is an expression of his will to power that can only be stopped with deterrence exercised by force. So the choice cannot be between submitting to the violence of Russia’s despotism or preparing for World War III.
P. Were we prepared for a war in the back garden of the European Union?
R. It is a true anthropological change in European society configured between the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, when what I call the total viewer was born. A destructuring of the human experience through the media. The total viewer grammaticizes the television experience and converts it into a behavior of life: it is the abandonment of commitment, of political participation, of civic action… And that is created by the television show of the war, with a specific date: the night between the January 17 and 18, 1991, when you attend the first television direct on a war front with CNN and Peter Arnett broadcasting with the satellite dish.
P. Will Ukraine be able to change this paradigm?
R. It is an unknown. Now the media say that there is a very strong emotional response from the people, that there is no longer any indifference. But the change presupposes that the appropriate response to the image of death and destruction is to go beyond democratic emotions, compassion and against tyranny. It will have to transform itself into reasoning and renew the feeling of civilization and of being Europeans. If it is mere emotion caused by images, it will only confirm our status as viewers.
P. In Iraq, the power of images was also learned with that oil-stained duck. But Putin can bomb a maternity hospital at no cost to his image.
R. Those were media wars. They fought each other on the field with blood and bodies, but with great attention to the impact that the images broadcast could have. In 2001, with the image of the Twin Towers vomiting fire, this type of media weapon was used against the West. But Putin seems oblivious to that historical development between the way of fighting a war and the way of telling it, which have always been united here. His only concern is that the Russians don’t know about it.
P. And what does it mean?
R. Simply that Putin does not belong to the West. He doesn’t give a damn about the narrative of the war and he can develop a dirty and dark war that will not give rise to a glorious memory. He is an oriental tyrant. He is not a military leader of the West.
P. And what kind of leader is Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine?
R. Some intellectual friends criticize him, they call him a charlatan. A guy who actually becomes the character of one of his shows… Yes, it may be true. But from the moment a leader places himself at the head of a people who take up arms to defend their freedom, he becomes a great leader. In this, war is the mother of all things. Zelenski in an international scene dominated by weak leaders, is a giant.
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