Hitler's Russian Protege

Assassinating Zhirinovsky may be the right thing to do

Among intellectuals, there is an ongoing debate over whether individuals shape history. Those who argue affirmatively are often in the minority. Not so when it comes to Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.

In that case, most scholars agree with historian Friedrich Glum, who wrote in 1962 that "without Hitler the development of Germany would have taken a different course." Hence, the question history buffs frequently pose to one another: "Knowing what you know, would you have killed Hitler if you had a chance to do so before he came to power?"

Almost invariably, the answer is yes. When it comes to Hitler, most people don't worry about the ethics of political assassinations. They think pragmatically: eliminating the Fuhrer would have saved millions of lives. It would obviously have been the right things to do.

Of course, those who say they would have pulled the trigger do so far removed from 1930s Germany. The issue is moot.

Or is it? Today, in Russia, another ultranationalist, anti-Semitic megalomaniac is fast growing in popularity even as he models himself on the Fuhrer's image.

Casual observers are quick to dismiss Vladimir Zhirinovsky as a fanatic whose visions of becoming Russia's dictator are pipe dreams. Sixty years ago, the same was said of Hitler. Historian Robert Waite writes. "The story of Hitler's rise to power is the story of his underestimation." Like those who once dismissed Hitler as a fringe lunatic, those who now scoff at Zhirnovsky are taking a dangerous gamble.

Indeed, the similarities between the two men and the circumstances of their rise to power are uncanny. Consider:

Germany, in 1933--the year Hitler became chancellor--was demoralized and economically devastated after World War I. Hitler's message of nationalism and anti-Semitism was embraced as the way the restore the Reich to international respectability.

Similarly, Russia in 1994 is demoralized and economically devastated in the aftermath of the Cold War. The nationalist, anti-Semitic themes Zhirinovsky emphasizes are little different from those played up by the Fuhrer. As Hitler promised to recreate a "greater Germany" be annexing parts of France and Czechoslovakia, so does Zhirinovsky pledge to retake to Baltics and Alaska for Russia. As Hitler spoke of the "Jewish world danger," so does Zhirinovsky attack alleged international "pro-Zionist" conspiracies.

Hitler called the democratically elected Weimar government weak, referring to its again patriarch. Paul von Hindenburg, as "the old gentleman." Last week, Zhirinovsky said the Russian government is "in its final agony," suggesting that President Boris Yeltsin is sick and due for retirement.

In his articulation of the "Fuhrerprinzip," Hitler said, "I am the German people." He argued that, "It is madness to think... that a majority can suddenly replace the accomplishments of a man of genius." Last week, Zhirinovsky paraphrased Hitler, declaring that "The leader and the party are one and the same... When a sick man is lying on the operating table, you need a single doctor, not a team of consultants."

The list could go on. Quite clearly, Zhirinovsky believes that history repeats itself. This time around, he wants to play the role of the Fuhrer.

Whether he can be successful is not altogether clear. On this Holocaust Remembrance Day, the question is will we let him try? Or, knowing what we know, would it be more prudent to nip hi aspirations in the bud?

Stephen E. Frank's column appears on alternate Thursdays.