Russia and Germany: Is History Repeating?

Russians balk at the notion that Vladimir Zhirinovsky is a new Adolf Hitler, but the economic problems and political deadlock that characterize modern Russia and pre-Nazi Germany are similar

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

VLADIMIR ZHIRINOVSKY stands by the map covering his office wall and, gesturing with a sharp metal pointer, carves up the world. With a jab here, Western Europe is awarded Africa. With a thrust there, Russia receives India, the Middle East, and the Far East.

``I stand for negotiating a deal with the West,'' the extreme Russian nationalist leader pronounces. ``It is necessary to divide up the spheres of interest.''

It is just such extravagant talk that has earned Mr. Zhirinovsky the derision of many of his countrymen and many outside these borders. They balk at the notion that Zhirinovsky is a Russian version of Adolf Hitler, on the verge of seizing power in a country whose deprivations and mood parallel those of Weimar Germany in the 1920s and `30s.

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Even after his party won almost a quarter of the vote in the Dec. 12 parliamentary elections, the dominant reaction is to dismiss this as a one-time phenomenon, a ``protest vote'' over economic hardships.

``There are many poor people,'' Russian President Boris Yeltsin said this week. ``It is they who voted for the Liberal Democratic Party. They voted not for its leader [or] for the program, but in protest against poverty.''

Certainly historical parallels are dangerously seductive simplifications. But even a cursory view of events here and in Germany 70 years ago is enough to give veteran observers pause.

``One parallel does exist,'' insists Otto Graf Lambsdorff, leader of Germany's liberal Free Democratic Party. ``We have ridiculed Hitler, we have laughed at Hitler, we have called him a fool and a lunatic. Yet he had written in 1923, in Mein Kampf, absolutely everything he did after coming to power. Now we think everything Zhirinovsky wrote and said is ridiculous.''

Even in the notion of a ``protest,'' there are echoes of Weimar Germany.

``Although history does not repeat itself, nevertheless conditions in Russia are hauntingly reminiscent of Germany,'' says John Dunlop, an expert on Russian nationalism at the Hoover Institution. Both states experienced the loss of a war, the collapse of an empire, rising unemployment and inflation, and a sense of national humiliation, he says.

The Nazi movement grew out of this ferment, an extreme expression of German nationalism and a widespread sense of national betrayal, fed by hyperinflation. With the encouragement of elements of the defeated German Army, Hitler led a putsch in Munich in 1923; when it failed he was sent to jail.

Out of this defeat, Hitler slowly rebuilt his organization. But it was not until the Depression struck in 1930 that the Nazis emerged as a serious political force. ``Ever since he came out of prison at the end of 1924, Hitler had prophesied disaster,'' writes Hitler biographer Alan Bullock. ``Those who had ever heard of Adolf Hitler shrugged their shoulders and called him a fool. Now, in 1930, disaster cast its shadow over the land again, and the despised prophet entered into his inheritance.''

Elections were held in September 1930, amid an economic crisis, with the parliament deadlocked by fractured parties and power concentrated in the hands of an aged President Paul von Hindenburg and his advisers.

``Let Germany awake and renew her strength, let her remember her greatness and recover her old position in the world, and for a start let's clear out the old gang in Berlin,'' Mr. Bullock summarizes a typical Hitler campaign speech. The Nazi party shocked everyone by jumping from nowhere to grab 18 percent of the vote. By 1932, the Nazis peaked at 37 percent support. The rule of threats

Between that first election victory and January 1933, when Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor, the Nazi leader pursued a complicated game. As Bullock recounts, he used the threat of his revolutionary movement to force the German elite - the Army and the industrialists - to give him the power he would never achieve through elections.

For some observers, the Russian elections of Dec. 12 are Zhirinovsky's 1930. Others put him at an earlier stage. But either way, some see the scheduled Russian presidential elections of 1996 as his 1933.

Russian historian Leonid Istyagin accepts certain parallels but also sees important differences. ``Our political elite is enlightened by historical experience,'' he says. ``The West has also become wiser,'' not undermining Russia's democracy as it did the Weimar democracy in demanding de-meaning postwar concessions.

The Russian leadership is stronger and more cohesive than that of Weimar Germany, Mr. Istyagin says. ``Hindenburg, who was almost senile and dying, and his clique cannot be compared to Yeltsin and his younger team.''

Even if conditions in Weimar Germany and Russia today bear similarities, other historians say, Zhirinovsky's movement lacks many of the ingredients that brought Hitler's National Socialist Party success.

``True, there are certain parallels - economic crisis, a feeling of bitterness due to the loss of empire,'' American historian Walter Laqueur told Izvestia on Dec. 18. ``But Zhirinovsky represents a movement which, unlike the German National Socialists, is not well organized. He has slogans but he lacks any program.''

Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party claims tens of thousands of members, but has neither the tight discipline nor the core of talented leaders found in the Nazis, he says.

Mr. Laqueur, the author of numerous works on both Russia and Germany, attributes Zhirinovsky's success largely to his skills as a brilliant demagogue. ``He feels exactly what should be said and when. He is a liar of genius. He speaks of injustices and fantasies of people who have been suffering all these last years, both morally and physically.''

Now that he has achieved some success, Zhirinovsky is trying to acquire the legitimacy of a ``responsible politician,'' Laqueur observes. ``I don't think, given his temperament, that he will keep this role up for a long time. And if he succeeds, his followers will turn their backs on him.''

But such a description also fits Adolf Hitler. After his initial election victories, Hitler ousted the wing of his party that believed in socialism while he sought and found backing among Germany's capitalist elite.

``All programs to Hitler were means to an end, to be taken up or dropped as they were needed,'' Bullock writes. ``Hitler's own program was much simpler: power for himself, for the Party, and the nation with which he identified himself.'' Only a demagogue?

While Hitler cobbled together an ideology from the conspiratorial anti-Semitism and geopolitical doctrines of the German nationalist movement, he was first and foremost a master at moving people, the historian says. ``Hitler was the greatest demagogue in history. Those who add `only a demagogue' fail to appreciate the nature of political power in an age of mass politics.''

Both Hitler and Zhirinovsky, however, share a central idea: the desire to restore a national supremacy that has been stripped away by enemies. Both men are statists, seeing the concentration of power in an authoritarian state as the political expression of the nation's character.

Zhirinovsky apparently lacks the consuming hatred for Jews and the belief in an all-powerful Jewish conspiracy that was key to Hitler from his earliest days in politics. Instead, he shares a xenophobia that is common to Russian nationalism, says Dunlop, of which anti-Semitism is only one facet. Reclaiming the empire

``Zhirinovsky does have a strong idee fixe,'' Dunlop says. ``Clearly, reclaiming the Russian empire means a lot to him.''

Asked by the Monitor to identify the writer with the greatest influence on his political ideas, Zhirinovsky immediately named Russian nationalist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, who died in exile in Switzerland in 1954. ``I was in Zurich, and I stood at his grave, and I had a bitter feeling that by far the best Russian philosopher is buried outside Russia,'' Zhirinovsky recounts.

Ilyin is a favorite in the contemporary nationalist movement for his imperialist ideas, his belief that Russia represents a ``very specific and unique geographical, geocultural, and geopolitical entity which should stay intact,'' says Russian historian Igor Torbakov. This was accompanied by a strong anti-Westernism. ``He believed there is a clandestine and broad conspiracy, led by the West, which is aimed against Russia,'' Mr. Torbakov says.

Such views have a far broader resonance than simply among Zhirinovsky's followers, and a far deeper appeal than the notion of a ``protest vote'' against economic downturn might imply.

``Here people say Zhirinovsky will never come to power, he will disappear,'' German politician Lambsdorff says, referring to the views he found among many Russians during his visit to Moscow this week. ``Maybe. Maybe he will be replaced by someone who could use the platform Zhirinovsky has created.''

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