Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ukraine Is Europe’s Chance for Renewal

Russia’s war in Ukraine has to be met not just with resistance but with inspiration.

By , a professor of history at Yale University.
Amid a crowd a demonstrator holds a sign that reads "UKRAINE = EUROPE" with the Ukrainian and EU flags side by side.
Amid a crowd a demonstrator holds a sign that reads "UKRAINE = EUROPE" with the Ukrainian and EU flags side by side.
Demonstrators protest in front of the European Parliament after a special plenary session on the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the European Union’s headquarters in Brussels on March 1. JONAS ROOSENS/BELGA/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

The European Union was an answer to war, a promise that the Second World War would not be followed by a third. That’s what everyone will tell you, from schoolchildren to prime ministers. Yet the meaning of that last world war has not been finally decided. Was it the beginning of a long period of European peace? Or a precedent for further wars of aggression in Europe?

The situation today is disconcertingly similar to that at the outset of World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin now speaks of Ukraine as an artificial state and nation. In 1938 and 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke in just the same way about Germany’s neighbors. Putin prepared the way for his invasion with a litany of imaginary atrocities supposedly suffered by compatriots across the border. Hitler was the pioneer of atrocity talk as a pretext to aggression. He used such lies to absorb Austria, destroy Czechoslovakia, and invade Poland.

In Russia today, it is now a crime to speak about what came next. Joseph Stalin joined Hitler in the division of Eastern Europe in 1939 and helped him to begin World War II. These basic facts are rendered taboo by a Russian memory law that was sharpened just days before the invasion of Ukraine last month. The Soviet Union, a de facto German ally after August 1939, made its case for aggressive war in a similar way. Stalin claimed that ethnic brethren in eastern Poland required assistance in the form of invasion. Like Hitler, he portrayed Poland as an artificial state. Starting from different ideological positions, the Soviet and Nazi systems both demanded the destruction of the Polish nation. In practice, this meant the deportation and murder of the educated classes.

The European Union was an answer to war, a promise that the Second World War would not be followed by a third. That’s what everyone will tell you, from schoolchildren to prime ministers. Yet the meaning of that last world war has not been finally decided. Was it the beginning of a long period of European peace? Or a precedent for further wars of aggression in Europe?

The situation today is disconcertingly similar to that at the outset of World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin now speaks of Ukraine as an artificial state and nation. In 1938 and 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke in just the same way about Germany’s neighbors. Putin prepared the way for his invasion with a litany of imaginary atrocities supposedly suffered by compatriots across the border. Hitler was the pioneer of atrocity talk as a pretext to aggression. He used such lies to absorb Austria, destroy Czechoslovakia, and invade Poland.

In Russia today, it is now a crime to speak about what came next. Joseph Stalin joined Hitler in the division of Eastern Europe in 1939 and helped him to begin World War II. These basic facts are rendered taboo by a Russian memory law that was sharpened just days before the invasion of Ukraine last month. The Soviet Union, a de facto German ally after August 1939, made its case for aggressive war in a similar way. Stalin claimed that ethnic brethren in eastern Poland required assistance in the form of invasion. Like Hitler, he portrayed Poland as an artificial state. Starting from different ideological positions, the Soviet and Nazi systems both demanded the destruction of the Polish nation. In practice, this meant the deportation and murder of the educated classes.

One way to treat this legacy is to rehabilitate it, as Putin is now doing. Even as memory laws and extraordinary censorship prevent any comparison from reaching the mainstream, Putin is plagiarizing the worst speeches of the period. It is not only that he claims that Ukraine is an artificial state and nation and has launched a war on that basis. He also draws the same conclusion as German and Soviet leaders: Any sign that the supposedly nonexistent nation exists must be eliminated. This means not just murdering the leadership but hunting down anyone deemed to represent the nation. Ukrainians today are fighting because they believe that this is what Russian occupation means.

Putin has given them every reason to believe that. By speaking of the need to “protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide,” by defining the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine as a war aim, and by expressing his intention to put Ukrainian elites on trial, he is threatening the existence of Ukraine while claiming the conceptual and juridical legacy of World War II as his own. Russian memory laws emphasize the centrality of the Nuremberg tribunals, because at these trials the Soviets (along with the Allies) judged German crimes. The point in Kremlin propaganda today is that only others commit crimes and that Russians always have the right to judge them. Russians are forever innocent, regardless of what they actually do. They have the right to judge others, even when others have done nothing. When Putin invokes World War II, he is promising a sham Nuremberg.

It is easy to dismiss Putin’s claim of the World War II legacy as senseless. Even as he imitates the men who began that war, he claims to be engaged in “de-Nazification.” Ukraine is a democracy whose voters elected a Jewish president by more than 70 percent of the vote in 2019. But Putin’s program of “de-Nazification” is not a misunderstanding of the world but a deliberate perversion meant to alter it. It is based on totalitarian assumptions about how language works. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book Origins of Totalitarianism, a big lie is a kind of challenge to reality, which is to be bent by violence. Killing a Jewish president and destroying Ukrainian democracy in the name of “de-Nazification” would show that words mean whatever the leader says they mean. The moral language of World War II is being claimed for a revival of totalitarianism.

The Russian war in Ukraine is thus a violation of European peace in two senses. A horrible, unprovoked invasion is underway. That is awful enough. Meanwhile, an assault begins on the concepts that Europeans and others have used to find their way back from war toward peace. Putin is showing how the memory of World War II can be used to motivate another war, one meant to obliterate a neighboring nation and to drown in confusion everything that we have learned.

The challenge must be met at both levels. The EU has shown impressive decisiveness in its reaction to the Russian invasion. But as an organization that stands or falls on the legacy of war, it must meet the challenge of ideas as well. The EU must provide its own vivid alternative to Putin’s interpretation: one that accounts for the war being fought right now, and one that Europeans now and in future generations will understand. Simply honoring the memory of World War II and claiming to have learned its lessons will no longer suffice. Putin’s claim on the war’s legacy, perverse though it might seem, is too powerful to ignore.

Russia’s war of destruction in Ukraine has to be met not only with resistance but also with inspiration. In order to stop this war, the EU must continue the route it has chosen of economic sanctions on Russia—which, by the way, are far more costly to Europeans than the U.S. sanctions are for Americans. But the EU must go beyond that. It must assert that it is capable of moral, political, and intellectual renewal. Its leaders must show that they have a vision of the future that draws from the history of war and helps bring this one to an end.

EU heads of state and government will meet Thursday in Versailles, France. There, they have a chance to do something historic: to honor Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request and offer Ukraine EU membership negotiations. This would renew the essential tradition of integration as the answer to war in a way that speaks to present circumstances. Such a promise would offer Ukrainians a brighter future, a sense of meaning to their sacrifice and suffering now. When the circumstances allow for peace negotiations, it will make it easier for them to stop fighting, because they will have already won something important.

Two roads part here; there is no middle ground. Each interpretation of the past promises a future. Putin’s reading of the past foretells a future in which law does not matter, integration has failed, and hydrocarbon oligarchs such as himself make endless war, threaten others with nuclear calamity, hasten climate change, and undermine democracies. A European Union that renews itself as a peace project points somewhere different: a league of democracies, capable of defending itself, addressing the threats that endanger us all.

Ukrainians deserve a future in Europe. Of that there can be no doubt. But Europeans also need a future with Ukraine. Leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz seem to understand not only the gravity of the moment but also the promise of a European renewal. They and others have a chance to be remembered, decades hence, as the leaders who, along with Zelensky, renewed Europe. Such a chance only comes once in a political lifetime. Here’s hoping that they take it.

Timothy Snyder is the Levin professor of history and public affairs at Yale University and the author of several books, including Bloodlands and Road to Unfreedom. His most recent book is the updated graphic edition of his On Tyranny. Further writing appears in his newsletter, “Thinking about…” Twitter: @TimothyDSnyder

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.
Soldiers of the P18 Gotland Regiment of the Swedish Army camouflage an armoured vehicle during a field exercise near Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland on May 17.

What Are Sweden and Finland Thinking?

European leaders have reassessed Russia’s intentions and are balancing against the threat that Putin poses to the territorial status quo. 

Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.
Ukrainian infantry take part in a training exercise with tanks near Dnipropetrovsk oblast, Ukraine, less than 50 miles from the front lines, on May 9.

The Window To Expel Russia From Ukraine Is Now

Russia is digging in across the southeast.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries at the White House in Washington on March 12.

Why China Is Paranoid About the Quad

Beijing has long lived with U.S. alliances in Asia, but a realigned India would change the game.

Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.
Members of the National Defence Training Association of Finland attend a training.

Finns Show Up for Conscription. Russians Dodge It.

Two seemingly similar systems produce very different militaries.