“Do you want Total War?” Goebbels demanded of the Nazi faithful as the Second World War went south for Germany in 1943. He depicted a Reich surrounded by evil Jewish cosmopolitan conspirators bent on its destruction and he advocated for total mobilisation and to embrace a glory-in-death ideology.
Vladimir Putin delivered his own (partial) version last week. As the Ukraine war goes south for Russia, he claimed the defeats are the result of cosmopolitan conspiracies bent on destroying Russia and he had to announce (partial) total mobilisation. He called on Russians’ sense of historical mission and implied Russia was ready to use nuclear weapons. “This isn’t a bluff,” he insisted.
Putin likes to imitate the worst of 20th-century totalitarian propaganda, but does his message work, at home and abroad? Or is Putin starting to make the same propaganda blunders he made on the battlefield? Russian state propaganda drips with the pathos of martyrdom. Russians are meant to love the pain of proving how tough they are, surviving everything from the Gulag to the extreme weather, as compared with the effete west. The propaganda taps incessantly into the myth of the Second World War, in which Russians are described as unique among nations in their readiness to sacrifice themselves for a greater cause. On the anniversary of that war, the state organises marches where people carry placards of dead veterans, “the immortal regiment”: death in war brings immortality in the heaven of state propaganda. There’s a suicidal bravura, a “let’s destroy the whole world” implication in the popular catchphrase “What’s the point of the world if there’s no place for Russia in it?”. Putin’s nuclear threats are snarled with relish, as if sadistically summoning the Gods of Total Destruction.
As with the Nazis, rational self-interest is meant to be swallowed up in the community of the state. But look closer and the picture gets more complicated – and vulnerable. [Continue reading…]