If the Concept of ‘Genocide’ had Existed in the 1930s, Hitler Would Have Used It to Justify the Quest for Lebensraum

Seeing how Vladimir Putin has cynically exploited the concept of “genocide” to justify his invasion of Ukraine made me wonder whether earlier tyrants like Hitler might have done the same.  

In his notorious February 24, 2022 speech, Putin declared his commitment to protecting the Russian population of the Donbas, noting: “The purpose of this operation is to protect people who, for eight years now, have been facing humiliation and genocide perpetrated by the Kiev regime. To this end, we will seek to demilitarise and denazify Ukraine, as well as bring to trial those who perpetrated numerous bloody crimes against civilians, including against citizens of the Russian Federation. 

Other Russian officials have made such claims, for instance, State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, who on February 18th alluded to crimes allegedly perpetrated by Ukrainians against Russians during the 2014 Maidan revolution in Kiev, noting "Kiev's crimes are swept under the rug by Washington and Brussels. We see no condemnations or investigations of [these] crimes against humanity. We are talking about the deaths of people during the 2014 coup d'etat, when the Trade Union House in Odessa was set ablaze and during the punitive operations in Donbass," he wrote on his Telegram channel. "If this is not genocide, then what is?"  

One wonders whether Hitler would have fabricated claims about genocide being perpetrated against ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland or Poland in 1938-39, had the term existed.    

Consider the following paragraph from historian Doris Bergen’s 2008 article, Instrumentalization of "Volksdeutschen" in German Propaganda in 1939: Replacing/Erasing Poles, Jews, and Other Victims,” which describes Nazi claims that atrocities were being perpetrated against ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) in Poland in 1939.  

“Even before Wehrmacht units began the assault on Poland, the German Foreign Office had started to prepare its propaganda offensive. It was ready with its White Book in September 1939…Its 549 pages included 482 documents, of which at least 300 dealt directly with the German minority in the days, months, and years preceding the invasion of Poland. Typical subject headings were "Maltreatment of minority Germans"; "Anti-German excesses in Pomerellen"; and "Serious anti-German excesses in Tomaschow."   

The latter document, dated 15 May 1939, was a report from the German consul in Lodz to the Foreign Office. "Very grave excesses which may be designated as a German pogrom occurred last Saturday, May 13, and Sunday, May 14," he intoned. According to his description, a Polish mob, "in a wild fury," "destroyed nearly all German private property. The Germans, who were hunted like beasts, fled to the open country." The police, he added, "joined in the demonstrators' procession and did nothing to protect the life and property of the Germans." As a result, the consul continued, the Germans "are deciding in ever increasing numbers to leave the country and to sell their real estate, as they consider their livelihood in Poland endangered." Sixth months after Kristallnacht, the parallel implied to the situation of Jews in Germany -- wild mobs plundering homes and businesses while police stood by, forcing those targeted to flee the country, leaving their property behind -- must have been obvious enough to most readers to make the label "pogrom" superfluous.”  With Nazi officials invoking the concept of “pogroms” against Germans, there’s little doubt in my mind, they would have invoked the concept of “genocide” as well.  

This counterfactual reveals how Putin, like Hitler before him, engages in the familiar pattern of guilt inversion, whereby perpetrators recast themselves as victims by branding their victims as perpetrators.  

This is not exclusively a “fascist” mode of behavior, as is shown by the fact that Southern Confederate slave owners often asserted that Northern Unionists were trying to “enslave” them in the lead-up to the Civil War.    

But guilt inversion is certainly a technique used by people seeking to justify their plans for aggressive behavior.