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The Genocidal Identity

As the Kremlin has made clear in its own public statements and media releases, its effort to "denazify" Ukraine by force is in fact a campaign of genocide. Russia's leaders want to erase the very idea of Ukrainian identity, and they are fundamentally altering Russia's own national identity to accommodate that bloody project.

NEW HAVEN – The crime of genocide involves a proven attempt to destroy, “in whole or in part,” a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group – to erase all traces of it, culturally and physically. This objective is pursued through methods including mass murder, rape, kidnapping, and involuntary abortion and sterilization. While children may be re-educated to adopt an entirely new identity, their old culture will have been systematically erased from books and other media, the goal being to deny that their ancestors ever existed at all.

When we think of genocide, we of course mourn the victims. Beyond the unspeakable physical violence, the erasure of identities – the rendering of entire peoples into myth – is deeply tragic. But this phenomenon can be fully understood only by looking at it from the perpetrators’ perspective, too. Genocide has played an instrumental role in many countries’ national histories. And sometimes it is the result of a people’s conscious and willing decision to identify themselves – to define the very essence of their nationhood – in terms of the elimination of another group.

I want to hold up an empathetic mirror to some of genocide’s worst perpetrators. I want to speak about the lasting harms done to the peoplehood – the sense of community and group identity – of those who commit genocide specifically as an expression of their own nationality. I want to focus on the special status of such legacies.

Born in Blood

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Germany was one of the world’s most revered centers of culture and civilization. It had produced some of the greatest thinkers on what it means to be human: Kant, Goethe, Hegel, Schelling, Einstein, to name a few. So many great minds from this middle-size country have bequeathed to us a vision of a better world.

My grandparents and father were German. They had a passionate love for their homeland and a deep pride in its greatness. But then their citizenship was stripped; they were expelled for the crime of being Jewish. Some Germans had decided that German national identity could be understood only by separating it from and contrasting it to the identity of my people, the Jews. With the rise of Adolf Hitler, Germany concluded that killing the Jews was constitutive of German identity.

In my own country, the United States, genocide was committed against indigenous people, and this will forever stain America’s legacy, no matter how much right-wingers try to deny or whitewash the history. But few countries make a conscious decision to base their national identity on active participation in genocide. A country that goes down that road attains a permanent place in the annals of horror. Germany was not the first.

The American Confederacy, for example, based its national identity on the practice of slavery. In his infamous “Cornerstone Speech,” Alexander Stephens, the Confederate vice president, declared that “our new government[’s] foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

Stephens made clear that the essential nature of being Confederate is determined by enthusiastic support of chattel slavery, not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good. Confederate identity is thus essentially shameful, which helps to explain why very few identify as Confederates today. The shame of its essential nature eliminated it as a viable political stance.

It is different with Germany. Almost no German today wants to live as an Aryan, because that would be like living as a Confederate. But Germans do still live as Germans, and thus have held on to the legacy of ancestors who did come to express German identity through the act of genocide. By continuing to live as Germans, warts and all, they bear an immense burden. If Germans shrug off the burden or refuse to live with it anymore, they will vindicate the deep, justified historical suspicion of their country.

Nazi propaganda convinced Germans that what it meant to be German was to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth. Germans thus adopted a conception of German identity that was inextricably intertwined with Jews, who were defined as a mortal enemy. Today’s Germans know in their hearts that their national identity was irrevocably altered by a world-historical decision made by their ancestors.

Even many decades after the Nazis’ crimes, many Germans have a sense of shame for being German. When Germans meet me, they can feel embarrassment and often pretend not to care or notice that their grandparents defined their Germanness in terms of a murderous hatred for my grandparents. Germany is and always will be defined by that earlier conscious decision to identify explicitly and proudly as people who eradicated European Jewry. History and morality demand such eternal remembrance.

Rationalizing the Irrational

What can lead a people to tie their national identity to the explicit genocide of another people? By definition, genocidal rhetoric singles out a specific social group and justifies its eradication. An “antagonistic ideological social group” is a cohort whose self-definition involves a strongly negative collective response to another group. Genocidal speech creates the most extreme kind of antagonistic ideological social group, nurturing this negative emotional attunement in a specific way. By advancing false narratives about history, it defines the targeted group’s essence as an existential threat. A “genocidal antagonistic ideological social group” is thus one whose identity is based on the notion that its own existence is imperiled by that of another group.

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Justifying enthusiastic, open genocide is a complicated process, and these highly abstract concepts are central to understanding it. But examples can make the abstract concrete. On April 3, 2022, the official Russian press agency RIA Novosti published an article titled, “What Should Russia Do with Ukraine?” The historian Timothy Snyder has aptly described this text as “Russia’s Genocide Handbook,” noting that it is “one of the most openly genocidal documents I have ever seen.” As a pre-eminent historian of mass killing, Snyder’s assessment carries weight. It indicates that we are dealing with one of the most explicit examples of genocidal speech that has ever been written.

From the outset, Russian President Vladimir Putin has justified his war in Ukraine as a campaign of “denazification.” The handbook fleshes out this justification in disturbing detail. After describing Ukraine as “the enemy of Russia and a tool of the West used to destroy Russia,” it develops an elaborate argument to support this claim.

Readers are told that the West has abandoned its traditional European values in favor of “Western totalitarianism, the imposed programs of civilizational degradation and disintegration, the mechanisms of subjugation under the superpower of the West and the United States.” Viewed in these terms, Russia is “the last authority in protecting and preserving those values of historical Europe (the Old World) that deserve to be preserved and that the West ultimately abandoned, losing the fight for itself.”

In a 1935 speech, “Communism with the Mask Off,” Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels describes the threat of Bolshevism in similar terms, albeit with Jews as the target. “In its final consequences,” he warned, “it signifies the destruction of all the commercial, social, political, and cultural achievements of Western Europe, in favor of a deracinated and nomadic international cabal which has found its representation in Judaism.” Just as Goebbels portrayed the Nazis as the protectors of the West’s traditional values against a cosmopolitan, decadent ideology, so, too, does the current Russian leadership promote its vision of a timeless and indestructible Russkiy Mir.

Russia’s New Identity

“What Should Russia Do with Ukraine?” offers a pseudo-historical litany of the grave wrongs that Russia has suffered at the hands of the West. “Russia did everything possible to save the West,” it proclaims, but “the West decided to take revenge on Russia for the help that it had selflessly provided.” In this telling, Ukraine is the primary tool of Western treachery, and the country’s identification as an independent nation reflects the ascendancy of “Ukronazism.”

This, we are told, is an especially bad version of Nazism: “Ukronazism poses a much bigger threat to the world and Russia than the Hitler version of German Nazism.” Ukrainian identity is an “anti-Russian construct that has no civilizational substance of its own.” Its central feature – the essential nature of the Ukrainian nation – is its antagonism toward Russia. Thus, “unlike, for example, Georgia or the Baltic States, history has proved it impossible for Ukraine to exist as a nation-state, and any attempts to ‘build’ such a nation-state naturally lead to Nazism.”

The document then describes all the practices that constitute “denazification” of Ukraine. They include “mass investigations” to uncover personal responsibility for “the spread of Nazi ideology” (Ukrainian sovereignty) and “support for the Nazi regime” (the duly elected Ukrainian government and its appointed officials). The punishments for these transgressions include forced labor, imprisonment, and death. Denazification also requires “the seizure of educational materials and the prohibition of educational programs at all levels that contain Nazi ideological guidelines” (anything mentioning Ukrainian identity).

In focusing on Russia’s historical role vis-à-vis the West, the document offers a new conceptualization of Russian identity. Specifically, it defines Russians as a genocidal antagonistic ideological social group. To be Russian is to be committed to the total annihilation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. The “denazification” of Ukraine is the purest expression of Russian identity. According to its logic, Russian identity is best exemplified in acts of brutal and violent revenge.

To justify Russia’s actions in Ukraine requires changing what it means to be Russian, by inscribing genocide into the national identity. To be Russian is to revel in the eradication of Ukraine. The cost of this change will be borne by all who identify as Russian, forever.

A Horrifying Legacy

Like my father, I love my ancestral homeland, Germany, which recently restored citizenship to me and my children. I love its philosophy, its literature, and its contemporary role as a champion of peace in the world. Even so, my first thought when meeting another German is that their grandparents most likely would have enthusiastically supported murdering me and my family. My first thought is that Germany knowingly chose to become a genocidal antagonistic ideological social group, to define itself as the people who would finally eradicate the Jews.

They didn’t quite succeed. But they did murder eight of my great-aunts and uncles and all their children. They gassed my great-grandmother in a concentration camp, and they beat my six-year-old father to a bloody pulp in the streets of Berlin. My German compatriots’ grandparents and great-grandparents had decided that that was what a German does.

I know that today’s Germans want to forget this history – to leave the past in the past. Germans have retained Germanness while valiantly overturning their grandparents’ conception of it. But there is still fear and shame in their eyes whenever they attempt to steer the conversation away from their country’s dark legacy. There always will be, because genocide will not and cannot be forgotten – ever.

If Russia’s genocide in Ukraine continues, and if the reconceptualization of Russianness succeeds, assertions of Russian identity will forevermore evoke not Pushkin or Tolstoy but the enthusiastic extermination of an entire people. The deaths and atrocities that we have already seen in Bucha and elsewhere will become the ultimate expression of Russian identity. That is the choice – an identity bound up with a horrifying legacy – that today’s Russians are making for their descendants.