Why Donbass Matters More than Navalny

By: Willem Nesbitt

The recent events within Russia concerning Alexei Navalny have captured the world’s attention, and for good reason. From surviving a James Bond-esque assassination attempt to a heartbreaking goodbye to his wife as he was arrested on his return to Russia, Navalny has inspired some of the largest protests in the Putin era. However, these events, while important, ultimately only concern Russia, and the world’s attention being captured by Navalny has allowed a far more important, world-affecting event to fall by the wayside.

Nearly two-hundred years after the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimean peninsula and the eastern region of Ukraine are once again notable on the world stage thanks to warfare – only this time instead of cannons and cavalry charges, it is tanks, drones, and modern military tactics deciding the fate of the region. With the Ukrainian separatists rather translucently supported by Russia and debate surrounding the actual presence of Russian regulars, the ongoing events of the War in Donbass harkens back to the history of grey-area conflict utilized by an authoritarian state to further its influence and goals, the world turning a blind eye to it and instead focusing on the recent hubbub surrounding Putin critic Alexei Navalny.

Following the Second World War, a clear dynamic emerged between the capitalist west and communist east, giving birth to the Cold War, a term which reflects the realities of the modern state of warfare. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons in numerous states, the threat of the Cold War “going hot” was a very real threat, but historically led to tensions between competing nuclear-capable nations being fought through proxy wars.

Whether having direct involvement of the global superpowers of America (see: the Vietnam War) or the Soviet Union (see: the Soviet-Afghan War), or more subversive involvement via arms and training support (see: the ongoing Syrian Civil War), the consequences of nuclear weapons have led to a state in which powerful nations no longer wish to directly engage in war with one another. Opting instead for indirect proxy wars as seen with ongoing War in Donbas, modern authoritarian states such as Russia draw on the influence of past tactics by previous authoritarian states in order to expand their influence and control.

The Spanish Civil War was the prologue to the Second World War and saw the struggle of left-leaning Republicans fighting against a revolt of the right-wing Spanish Nationalists. What is important about this war in relation to the conflict in Ukraine was the involvement of fascist Italy and Nazi Germany in supporting the Nationalist side, assisting them in their eventual victory and the establishment of Francoist Spain. With the triumph of Franco in Spain, 1930s Europe now held three relatively powerful fascist nations, Germany and Italy expanding their influence within Europe through direct involvement in an ongoing conflict.

Similarly, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s also saw a comparable attempt by an authoritarian nation to sway a conflict in its favour. With the Soviet Union dissolving in 1991, the state of Russia found itself too weak to directly support Yugoslavia, and later Serbia, during the war, but stood up for them at the assembly of the United Nations in 1999.

With the war in Donbass soon to reach its seventh year, Russia’s direct and indirect involvement draws much influence from proxy wars and destabilizations of the past. With the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014 igniting the conflict, the instability within the region gave Russia a prime opportunity to intervene and expand its own influence. While simply destabilizing a NATO and UN-friendly country would have been one thing, Russia also made the bold move to annex the Crimean Peninsula, returning the warm-water port of Sevastopol to Russian control and strengthening Russia’s physical footing within Europe.

Under Putin, Russia is no doubt an authoritarian state. The persecution of opposition and activists, open murder of dissenters, and corruption within the government all are obvious signs internally, but the external undertakings of Russia in Ukraine should be given more weight on the world stage than Putin trying to kill off yet another political opponent in Alexei Navalny.

In its attempt to expand its influence and territorial control within eastern Europe as of the last decade, Russia is attempting to undermine the authority of nations and global organizations it perceives as hostile to its own motives and views. Whether it is the direct support of separatists in Ukraine, the supporting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the alleged interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum, or the many other attempts at destabilizing opponents, Russia is not only drawing from the playbook of past authoritarian nations, but also its own authoritarian past.

The Changing of Memory

By: Willem Nesbitt

Over the course of thirty years, Hugo Spiegel fought for his hometown of Warendorf to erect a monument to commemorate the Holocaust. Having survived the horrors of Dachau and Auschwitz, the last of which took his young daughter’s life, Hugo exemplified the gradual shift in Germany memory of the Holocaust during the latter half of the twentieth century. With surviving Jews emigrating to Israel and America en masse, author Helmut Walser Smith describes how the act of commemoration and remembrance of the Holocaust gradually came into form over the years, with, as outlined by Michael Rothberg, eventually culminating in the “Historikerstreit” in the 1980s. While both authors do attempt to address why it took so long for Germany to reconcile its past, Smith placing emphasis on the idea of German-Jewish co-operation and Rothberg highlighting larger, public commemorations such as Schindler’s List and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, both articles gloss over German society itself. While I understand it may be difficult to accurately look into the feelings and actions of an entire population, the articles leave me wondering why it was that the Holocaust fell by the wayside for so long in public consciousness. Was it shame, or perhaps embarrassment? Was it because those who lived through the war themselves did not want to speak of it, and it was only the younger generations who finally picked up the torch?

Women in Far-Right Movements

 By: Willem Nesbitt

The inclusion of women in far-right movements is nothing new. As seen in Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies, women played a prominent role within the Nazi regime, slotting into the role of “adoring wives and robust mothers” (Lower, p. 39), but also participating in Nazi mass murders in concentration camps. What is new to the modern far-right movements, however, is the level of prominence in which women are able to attain. Angelique Chrisafis, Kate Connoly, and Angela Giuffrida detail the numerous women who work at the forefront of their nation’s far-right political parties, ranging from Marine Le Pen in France, to Alice Weidel in Germany.

                Opening with an anecdote of AfD MP Corinna Miazga being told “she would be better suited to being a pole dancer than an MP” by a male colleague, the authors of the Guardian article exhibit one of the many ironies surrounding women within far-right movements, detailing how members of the AfD were upset she dared reveal this transgression, more worried about the bad light being cast upon the party than the fact that she was insulted in the first place. This single anecdote exhibits that although modern far-right movements now allow women into their upper echelons, very little has changed in the way of attitude towards them, and the AfD’s gender ratio sitting at only 87% male and 13% female demonstrates how the inclusion of women is still only a very small minority.

From the SA to the Proud Boys – A Common Tradition of Far-Right Violence

By: Willem Nesbitt

On January 6th, Donald Trump and the Republican Party had their very own Beer Hall Putsch moment, the circumstances that led up to the storming of the Capitol drawing parallels to the tactics employed by a rising NSDAP over eighty years ago, specifically with the actions of the Proud Boys and other white nationalist groups drawing parallels from the Nazi Party’s Sturmabteilung (SA).

            “Stand back and stand by” were the words of former President Donald J. Trump during a presidential debate when asked about denouncing white supremacist and militia groups, words which demonstrate the Republican courting of these very groups. This question was asked following a summer in which America was witness to the largest protests the nation has seen since the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, and in these modern protests, opposing sides of the American political spectrum clashed. Self-proclaimed “anti-fascists” made appearances in small groups, meeting stiff opposition from the likes of the Proud Boys and state militia groups.

            When these groups clashed in the cities of Portland, Washington, and Kenosha, an interesting parallel of this important moment in American history emerged with the history of Germany from events in the 1920s and 30s. The rise of the NSDAP during this time saw the employment of similar tactics and actions, ranging from violent clashes between political street gangs, to the storming of an important political building.

            Infiltrating a gathering of the Proud Boys in Portland, Oregon, independent reporter Andrew Callaghan (better known as “All Gas No Brakes”) engaged with the members of this gathering, creating an uncensored, rather humorous glimpse into the workings of this white nationalist group. Breaking out into chants of “F*ck Antifa!” following a prayer, the interviewees of this video made claims of how Antifa are a communist/Marxist group, and, most puzzlingly, “Antifa is the real fascists.”

            Over the course of the summer of 2020, groups of these very Proud Boys and militia groups clashed with Black Lives Matter protestors and pockets of Antifa, some of these protests and counter-protests turning violent. This type of clash between left and right groups is nothing new. In the wake for the First World War, Germany was left in a state of political and economic turmoil, with political groups and parties, ranging from monarchists to communists, taking to the streets to spread their message and build their support.

            With these range of parties all taking to the streets to hold demonstrations and political rallies, it is no surprise that these opposing groups violently clashed. The NSDAPs primary street gang, the “Sturmabteilung” or “SA”, was the party’s paramilitary wing during their initial rise to power and came into form following the events of November 4th, 1921. At the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl beerhall in Munich, NSDAP leader Adolf Hitler gave a lengthy speech that was interrupted by a brawl between the Nazi’s “protection detachment” and socialist and communist individuals who had infiltrated the meeting.

            From here, the SA would go on to act as the NSDAPs muscle into the 1930s, engaging in street fights against the NSDAPs left-wing opponents, and eventually being the ones behind the infamous Kristallnacht.

            While the Proud Boys are most certainly not an official detachment of the American right-wing in the same way the SA was for the NSDAP, former President Trump’s comments in the presidential debate are certainly damming, even more so in the wake of their participation in the events of January 6th. The actions of the Proud Boys and militia groups in cities across America can be seen as a continuation of a tradition from the early days of fascism in Europe. Intimidation, the use of violence against opponents, and eventual attempted insurrection are tactics common to both the Proud Boys and the SA.

            With the recent designation of the Proud Boys and other white nationalist groups as terrorist organizations in Canada, along with the inauguration of President Joe Biden, one may think that these events and issues are behind us. That is not so. As with the floundering of the NSDAP following the arrest of its leaders after the failed Beer Hall Putsch, the Republican party, too, seems to be staggered following the loss of the White House and Senate and the threatening of the founding of a splinter Patriot’s Party. But as history shows, even following its failures, the NSDAP resurged and eventually democratically took hold of power in Germany. American Democrats and leftists may be content with the results of the last few months, but a failure to further pursue actions against white nationalist and extremist right-wing groups may result in a further mirroring of Germany’s past.

Homosexuality in Authoritarian States

  By: Willem Nesbitt

The contrasts, comparisons, and evaluations of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia are seemingly endless, though of course done for obvious reasons. While most of these comparisons occur in the realms of warfare and political policy, the readings by Thomas Kühne and Dan Healey offer a unique, overlooked axis of analysis – that of homosexuality and the concept of “manliness” within these authoritative states.

            Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, unsurprisingly, outlawed homosexual practices, Heinrich Himmler’s “homophobic family policy,” which stemmed from his “obsessive fear of homosexuality,” (Kühne, p. 393) not too dissimilar from the Soviet politburo’s “enthusiastic” embrace of criminalizing male homosexuality in the 1930s (Healey, p. 32). The banning of sexual practices and sexualities opposed to the traditional heterosexual status-quo is simply par for the course for authoritative governments, but the readings also reveal that there was also a certain amount of ambivalence, or at least opaqueness, within both Germany and Russia at the time. The banning of homosexuality in Russia turned a blind eye to lesbianism, instead centering the crime around the act of “sodomy” (Healey p. 32), and likewise, Thomas Kühne’s writing reveals that the practices and guidelines of the SS advocated for husbands and fathers to take on roles that were more traditionally “feminine”, such as child rearing and close friendship with other males. While Healey focuses in-depth on the concepts of homosexuality and queerness within Russia’s gulag system, Kühne centers his paper more-so around the role of the male within German society and the Nazi regime, leaving me to wonder more on the views of homosexuality in Germany. Of course the Holocaust saw the inclusion of homosexuals within its terrible events, but the case of Hitler (at least temporarily) turning a blind eye to Ernst Röhm’s homosexuality leaves me curious.

The Shortcomings of Kraft durch Freude and of Baranowski

By: WIllem Nesbitt

With the return of Germany to the world stage in the 1930s, this time under the leadership of the Nazi regime, the Nazi’s sought to establish the German people as superior, strong, and Ayran, both internally and externally. Whether through the flexing of athletic might at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, or, as seen in Shelley Baranowski’s Strength Through Joy, through establishing nationalist, Ayran ideals via vacations for workers to other countries, the Nazi regime wished to validate their alternative to American “Fordism” and Soviet leftism.

            For all of the seemingly self-proclaimed bravado of the Nazi organization Kraft durch Freude established within Baranowski’s introduction, Chapter 5 paints KdF in a different light, one that I feel the author failed to conclude into a potentially interesting point on the organization and thereby the regime, despite spending most of the chapter discussing it. Baranowski relays stories of KdF tourists displeased with their accommodations and experiences, ranging from being upset over being poured a lesser quality coffee, to Westphalian and Silesian KdF tourists nearly coming to blows over some name-calling, and at one point, states that KdF customers were served “a one-course dish to keep [the restauranteur’s] costs in line with KdF’s reimbursement for the meal” (page 166). This single line, of which Baranowski quickly moves on from to discuss class and racial issues within KdF tours, alludes to the potential fact that KdF and the Nazi regime were falling short. If the intention for this program was to both show foreigners the successes of the German people and to teach the workers who went on these trips that their work was resulting in a successful and prosperous nation, then most surely their meals should have been at the very least equivalent to those of the “private” tourists Baranowski contrasts the KdF tourists with. Although the author makes this point, they fail to further extract an argument from it, one such as that the KdF organization was potentially underfunded, or that, like many other endeavours by the Nazi regime, KdF was simply mismanaged and too brash in its intentions, unable to hold up its promises. For all the interesting anecdotes and insights of Baranowski’s writing, they seem to fail to coalesce these points into a tangible argument, leaving the reader wanting for a more satisfying conclusion.

International Nationalism – Then and Now

By: Willem Nesbitt

Both of David Motadel’s articles explore the idea of how nationalist and fascist movements, while espousing assertions of homogeneity and a focus on the nation-state, employ the use of international relations to bolster and strengthen their causes. An interesting thread that links both articles is the continuity of this internationalism from the rise of fascism in the mid-twentieth century into the modern day. With parties advocating for a wide range of fascist and nationalist ideas as tepid as opposing the EU and policies (in the case of Nazi Germany) as extreme as genocide, these nationalist movements separated by over seventy years employ similar tactics regarding international cooperation.

                Over the course of the Second World War, Germany increasingly took favour towards associating with nationalist and anti-imperialist movements in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The influence of Nazi Germany was appealing to these nationalist movements and leaders thanks to what they saw as “a global order based on nation-states, not multiethnic empires” (Motadel, p. 845) spearheaded by Germany, and this attraction sees parallels in modern-day nationalist movements. With the European Union grappling with the effects of an isolationist Britain and the rise of right-wing nationalism in members such as Poland and Czechia, Europe again is seeing a re-emergence of nationalist parties and leaders associating with one another – like with the German and Italian alliance in the 1930s, we can see similar patterns emerging in Le Pen’s and Salvini’s Franco-Italian cooperation. In an increasingly connected world, one which has come to see the increased use of the anti-Semitic dog whistle “globalist,” the international connections of nationalist movements have reappeared once again, an ironic statement, to say the least.

Trumpism and Fascism, Analogies and Comparisons

By: Willem Nesbitt

Each of this week’s readings all touch on the common themes of fascism and populism in our contemporary society, but a clear opposing duo emerges from Peter Gordon’s and Samuel Moyn’s articles. The two articles clearly stand opposed in view even at the phrasing of their titles, but what I found most interesting were the common opinions that the authors held. Despite their various disagreements on the topic of comparisons between Trumpism and fascism, Gordon and Moyn’s discussions do align occasionally, most prominently when discussing the idea that the use of certain terms or comparisons can result in their diminishment and meaning. Gordon, on the topic of the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s stance on the equation between Nazi concentration camps and American detention centers, believes that the museum officials “harbor the fear that the Holocaust will become little more than a polemical weapon in ideological contests between left and right,” and Moyn similarly believes that “Comparison is always a risky tool; it leads to blindness, not just insight.” For all the disagreement between the articles, the instances where the authors do agree on certain elements reveals that there is a thin line that must be tread when using a historical event as an analogy or comparison for a moment in the modern day.

            These two readings reveal themselves to be an interconnected and intrinsically linked duo that tread common ground, at times in disagreement, and other times in a most interesting harmony. Given that Moyn’s article seems to be an almost direct reply to Gordon’s (especially through Moyn’s mimicking of Gordon’s Apples and Oranges theme), I am left wondering if Gordon has since read Moyn’s opposing stance, and how exactly he would feel towards it. There is certainly more of a conversation to be had between these two opposing camps one year on from the publishing of these articles, particularly with the ongoing death throes of Trump’s presidency.

Works Cited:

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review of Books, January 7, 2020.

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review of Books, May 19, 2020.

Willem Nesbitt – Introduction

Hello everyone,

My name is Willem, and I am a fourth-year history undergraduate at Carleton. My studies so far have primarily focused on ancient history and Indigenous Canadian history, the latter of which I have had the pleasure of pursuing further through the various co-op positions I have held during my time at university, but I also have a personal interest in 20th century European history.

Growing up, I always had an interest in the topic due to the presence of events such as the World Wars or the Cold War in our media. From movies, to video games, to books, these experiences fostered my initial interest in the topic, and from there, I discovered a more personal attachment I have to the topic. Both of my grandfathers served in the Royal Canadian Airforce during the Second World War, and my paternal grandfather’s cousin, Walter Clifford Nesbitt, was killed in action during the Battle of Ortona. I also had the good fortune to visit Europe a few years ago, and while there, I visited places such as Terezin concentration camp in Czechia and Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. These personal connections of mine to the events of the time period has inspired me to study more of the era, leading to me taking this course.

I am very much looking forward to this class and what I will learn from it. I feel that the topics we will cover are both of great interest in the historical sense, but also may shed a lot of light on the current events in our world and help deepen my understanding of how we got here, and where 2021 may take us next.

As for a little bit about myself, apart from my interest in history, I also have a variety of hobbies. First and foremost is music, in which I have been teaching myself over the last number of years how to play regular and bass guitar. I also spend my time reading (recently Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series), and playing video games (Dark Souls, lately). I am looking forward to getting to know all of you, and I wish you all the best of luck with all of your classes this semester.