The Rhetoric of the Aggressor

The historian Françoise Thom examines the speeches of Hitler, Molotov and Putin in order to show how similar their themes and reasoning. A dive into the totalitarian universe.

The justifications given for wars of aggression are usually quite similar. Some of the themes that we have noted in the speeches of the three men quoted here are familiar to the historian. The words of tyrants and warlords recur across the centuries: the offenses suffered, the patience of the aggressor, the need to protect oneself. On the other hand, certain motives are specifically contemporary: the aggressor presented as a victim, the denunciation of the international order and democracies, the narrative of the army “liberating” oppressed minorities, the altruism put forward as a motivation for the intervention. And above all, characteristic of ideological dictatorships, the enormous lie.

The speeches of Hitler, Molotov and Putin that we compare are the following:

  • Hitler’s speech on September 1, 1939: Hitler justifies his decision to attack Poland. This speech is intended for a large audience. It is interesting to compare it to the remarks made by the Führer to his generals who were summoned to the Obersaltzberg on August 22, 1939, which are known to us through the notes taken by those who were present. In these blunt remarks the similarity with the arguments of Putin and his propagandists is even more striking. And, finally, the speech of December 11, 1941, when Hitler declared war on the United States, develops certain themes outlined out earlier, which, thanks to the open war with the democracies, he could now talk about openly, — themes that again crop up in Putin’s rhetoric.
  • Vyacheslav Molotov’s speech to the Supreme Soviet on October 31, 1939: Molotov justifies the German-Soviet pact, the invasion of Eastern Poland at the moment when the Polish army succumbs to the blows of the Wehrmacht and the Soviet abandonment of the slogan of “anti-fascism”
  • Putin’s speech on February 24, 2022: Putin justifies his “special operation” against Ukraine.

The main themes

An innocent country victim of malevolent powers

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “For months we have been tormented by a problem [the Danzig Corridor], same one that was the result of the Treaty of Versailles — or rather the diktat of Versailles — a problem which, by its degeneration and denaturation, had become unbearable for us.”

Putin: “As for our country, after the disintegration of the USSR, given the entire unprecedented openness of the new, modern Russia, its readiness to work honestly with the United States and other Western partners, and its practically unilateral disarmament, they immediately tried to put the final squeeze on us, finish us off, and utterly destroy us.”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “It is a fact that the two conflicts between Germany and the U.S.A. were inspired by the same force and caused by two men in the U.S.A., Wilson and Roosevelt. History has already rendered its verdict on Wilson, his name stands for one of the basest breaches of the promise, which sowed disruption not only among the so-called defeated but also among the victors. This breach of Wilson’s word alone made possible the Dicktat of Versailles. We know today that a group of interested financiers pulled Wilson’s strings and made use of this paralyzed professor because they hoped to improve their business. For having believed this man, the German people have had to pay for the collapse of their political and economic existence.”

The denunciation of the arrogance, cynicism and hypocrisy of the democracies, hatred of the West, desire to destroy the international order

Molotov : “The ruling circles of England and France try to give themselves as champions of the democratic rights of the people against Hitlerism; thus, the English government has proclaimed that, for it, the war against Germany would have its goal, no more no less, ‘the annihilation of Hitlerism’. It follows that in England, as in France, the supporters of the war have declared something like an ‘ideological war’ against Germany, reminiscent of the old wars of religion. […] But such a war cannot be justified in any way. The ideology of Hitlerism, like any other ideological system, can be recognized or rejected — that is a matter of political opinion. But anyone will understand that an ideology cannot be destroyed by force, that it cannot be ended by war. That is why it is senseless, even criminal, to wage such a war, supposedly for the “annihilation of Hitlerism”, covering it with the false flag of the struggle for ‘democracy’. […] The governing circles of England and France have, as is only natural, other, more real motives for the war against Germany. These motives are not in the realm of any ideology, but in the sphere of their essentially material interests as great colonial powers… The fear of losing world hegemony dictates a warmongering policy towards Germany by the governments of England and France.”

Putin: “Overall, it appears that nearly everywhere, in many regions of the world where the United States brought its law and order, this has created bloody, non-healing wounds and the curse of international terrorism and extremism.”

Hitler (August 22, 1939): “Poland is now in the situation in which I wanted it to be… I only fear that at the last moment some ‘Schweinehund’ [bastard] will make proposals for mediation… We have begun to destroy the English hegemony.”

Putin: “Entreaties and requests do not help. Anything that does not suit the dominant state, the powers that be, is denounced as archaic, obsolete, and useless. At the same time, everything it regards as useful is presented as the ultimate truth and forced on others regardless of the cost, abusively, and by any means available. Those who refuse to comply are subjected to strong-arm tactics. […] This type of con artist behaviour is contrary not only to the principles of international relations but also and above all to the generally accepted norms of morality and ethics. Where is justice and truth here? Just lies and hypocrisy all around. […] One can say with good reason and confidence that the whole so-called Western bloc formed by the United States in its own image and likeness is, in its entirety, the very same ’empire of lies’.”

The list of grievances

Putin: “This array includes promises not to expand NATO eastwards even by an inch. Once again, they have deceived us, or, to put it simply, they have played us”.

Putin: “This is how it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s, when the so-called collective West actively supported separatism and gangs of mercenaries in southern Russia. What victims, what losses we had to sustain and what trials we had to go through at that time before we broke the back of international terrorism in the Caucasus! We remember this and will never forget.”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “Systematically, he [Roosevelt] began to incite American public opinion against Germany. He threatened to establish a kind of quarantine against the so-called Authoritarian States. […] From November 1938 onwards, his systematic efforts were directed towards sabotaging any possibility of an appeasement policy in Europe. In public, he hypocritically pretended to be for peace; but at the same time he was threatening any country ready to pursue a policy of peaceful entente by freezing assets, with economic reprisals, with demands for the repayment of loans, etc. […] From March 1939 onwards, he began to meddle in European affairs which were no concern at all of the President of the U.S.A., since he does not understand those problems, and even if he did understand them and their historic context, he would have little right to worry about central Europe just as the German Reich does not have the right to judge conditions in an American country and to adopt a posture towards them. But Mr. Roosevelt went even farther. In contradiction to all the tenets of international law, he declared that he would not recognize certain Governments which did not suit him.”

Putin: “Focused on their own goals, the leading NATO countries are supporting the far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine, those who will never forgive the people of Crimea and Sevastopol for freely making a choice to reunite with Russia.”

A too long patience: the pointless efforts for peace

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I have tried to resolve this unbearable situation with peaceful revised proposals. […] For each point, without exception, I have taken the initiative to make proposals to revise this intolerable situation, and not once but on many occasions. All these proposals, as you know, have been rejected.”

Putin: “It is a fact that over the past 30 years we have been patiently trying to come to an equal and indivisible security in Europe. In response to our proposals, we have invariably faced either cynical deception and lies or attempts at pressure and blackmail. […] We can see that the forces that staged the coup in Ukraine in 2014 have seized power, are maintaining it with the help of essentially decorative election procedures and have refused to resolve the conflict peacefully. For eight years, for eight endless years we have been doing everything possible to settle the situation by peaceful political means. Everything was in vain.”

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “For the past four months I have watched this development calmly, but endlessly issuing warnings. Lately I have strengthened these warnings. More than three weeks ago I informed the Polish ambassador that if Poland sent new ultimatums to Danzig, if new oppressive measures were taken against everything German, if Poland tried to destroy Danzig economically by means of customs measures, Germany would not remain inactive for much longer! […] I finally formulated the German proposals. […] These proposals were rejected. And that’s not all: the reactions they provoked were first mobilization, and then reinforced terror, with increased pressure on Germans in these regions and a slow suffocation of the free city of Danzig with economic and customs plans, and finally in the last weeks, also military and transport plans.”

Putin: “Despite all that, in December 2021, we made yet another attempt to reach agreement with the United States and its allies on the principles of European security and NATO’s non-expansion. Our efforts were in vain. The United States has not changed its position.”

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I have tried one last time (although, I confess, I was intimately convinced, that in the face of the Polish government and since it depends on a savage and rampaging mob of soldiers, a real agreement was not serious), I have tried one last time to accept a conciliatory proposal from the British government. I must insist on one thing: I accepted that proposal. I have laid the groundwork for these discussions, and you know it. […] I waited for two whole days to see whether or not the Polish government would deign to send us a delegate. Last night they did not send us a delegate… If one could behave in this way towards the German Reich and its head of state; if the German Reich and its head of state accepted it, the German nation would deserve nothing more than to withdraw from the political scene. Once again I was fundamentally mistaken! My love of peace and my infinite patience must not be mistaken for weakness or even cowardice!”

The martyrdom of minorities

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “Danzig was separated from us, the corridor was annexed by Poland, as were other German territories in the East. And above all, the German minorities living there were treated in a despicable manner. More than a million people of German blood have had to leave their homeland already in the years 1919-1920.”

Molotov: “The effect of Poland’s military debacle and the disintegration of the Polish state should be noted. Poland’s ruling circles did not shy about boasting about the so-called strength of their state and the alleged power of their army. However, it was enough for Poland to receive a light blow first from the German army and then from the Red Army for there to be nothing left of this miscarriage resulting from the Treaty of Versailles and that survived only because of the oppression of non-Polish nationalities. […] There is no need to demonstrate that at a time when the Polish state was in complete disintegration, our Government had the duty to extend a helping hand to our Ukrainian and White-Russian brothers living in Western Ukraine and Western White Russia. This is what it did. The Red Army entered these regions, surrounded by the general sympathy of the Ukrainian and White-Russian population, who welcomed our troops as their liberators from the yoke of the Polish lords, noblemen, and capitalists. […] The recent elections to the National Assemblies of Ukraine and Western White Russia, which for the first time were held in these regions on the basis of direct and equal universal suffrage and by secret ballot, showed that at least 9/10 of the inhabitants of these regions have been ready for a long time to be united with the U. S. S. R. The decisions of the National Assemblies of Ukraine and Western White Russia were taken on the basis of the principle of universal suffrage. The decisions of the National Assemblies in Lvow and Bialystok, which we already know today, demonstrate the complete unanimity of the people’s elected representatives in all political issues.”

Putin: “You cannot look without compassion at what is happening there. It became impossible to tolerate it. We had to stop that atrocity, that genocide of the millions of people who live there and who pinned their hopes on Russia, on all of us. It is their aspirations, the feelings and pain of these people that were the main motivating force behind our decision to recognise the independence of the Donbass people’s republics.”

The need to rectify a long injustice: the dictator is forced to act in spite of himself

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “They tried to excuse the attitude towards the Germans by the fact that the Germans there were guilty of provocation. I do not know what the provocations of children or women who are mistreated or deported are supposed to consist of; I also do not know what the provocations of those who have been mistreated or killed in a bestial and sadistic manner are supposed to consist of. I do not know. But there is one thing I do know: that no great power with any sense of honor would remain passive for long in the face of such facts!”

Molotov: “Certainly, we could not remain neutral in the presence of these facts [the collapse of Poland under the assault of the Wehrmacht], since these events posed before us with acuteness the problem of the security of our state. In addition, the Soviet government could not ignore the exceptional situation that was created for the fraternal population of Western Ukraine and Western White Russia, which was left to fate in shattered Poland.”

Putin: “They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today. In these circumstances, we have to take bold and immediate action. action. The People’s Republics of Donbass have asked Russia for help. […] I made a decision to carry out a special military operation. 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.”

Hitler (Dec. 11, 1941): “The sincere efforts of Germany and Italy to prevent an extension of the war and to maintain relations with the U.S.A. in spite of the unbearable provocations that have been carried on for years by President Roosevelt, have been frustrated. Germany and Italy have been finally compelled… to carry on the struggle against the U.S.A. and England jointly and side by side with Japan for defense and thus for maintaining the liberty and independence of their nations and empires.”

It is the fault of the democracies

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “As a consequence of the further extension of President Roosevelt’s policy, which is aimed at unlimited world domination and dictatorship, the U.S.A. together with England have not hesitated from using any means to dispute the rights of the German, Italian, and Japanese nations to the basis of their natural existence. The Governments of the U.S.A. and of England have therefore resisted, not just for now but also for all times, every legitimate agreement intended to establish a better New Order in the world.”

Molotov: “Germany’s relations with the other bourgeois states of Western Europe during the last twenty years have been determined above all by Germany’s desire to break the chains of the Treaty of Versailles, the authors of which were England and France, actively assisted by the United States. This is what ultimately led to the current war in Europe.”

Putin: “In fact, until recently, attempts to use us in their own interests have never ceased: they have sought to destroy our traditional values and to force their false values on us, those that would erode us, our people from within.”

The war is only preventive, the aggression of the enemy was imminent

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “That night, Poland fired with regular soldiers for the first time on our territory. Since 5:45 a.m. return fire has taken place! And from now on, we answer every bomb with another bomb. Those who fight with poison are fought in the same way. Whoever distances himself from the rules of a humane war can expect that we on our side will take the same step. I will continue to fight this battle against them, until the security of the Reich is ensured and its rights guaranteed.”

Putin: “The North Atlantic Alliance, despite all our protests and concerns, continues to expand. The war machine is on the march and, I repeat, is approaching as close as possible to our borders.”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “Today, we have overwhelming and authentic proof that Russia intended to attack; we are also quite clear about the date on which the attack was to take place. In view of the great danger, the proportions of which we realise perhaps only today to the fullest extent, I can only thank God that He enlightened me at the proper time and that He gave me the strength to do what had to be done! To this, not only millions of German soldiers owe their lives, but Europe its very existence. […] Had the German Reich not faced the enemy with her soldiers and arms, a flood would have swept over Europe, which once and for all would have finished the ridiculous British idea of maintaining the European balance of power in all its senselessness and stupid tradition.”

Putin: “If history is any guide, we know that in 1940 and early 1941 the Soviet Union went to great lengths to prevent war or at least delay its outbreak. To this end, the USSR sought not to provoke the potential aggressor until the very end by refraining or postponing the most urgent and obvious preparations it had to make to defend itself from an imminent attack. When it finally acted, it was too late. […] The attempt to appease the aggressor ahead of the Great Patriotic War proved to be a mistake which came at a high cost for our people. […] We will not make this mistake the second time. We have no right to do so. […] Even now, with NATO’s eastward expansion the situation for Russia has been becoming worse and more dangerous by the year. […] They have been toughening their position. We cannot stay idle and passively observe these developments. This would be an absolutely irresponsible thing to do for us.”

Putin: “The problem is that in territories adjacent to Russia, which I have to note is our historical land, a hostile ‘anti-Russia’ is taking shape. Fully controlled from the outside, it is doing everything to attract NATO armed forces and obtain cutting-edge weapons.”

Putin: “If we look at the sequence of events and the incoming reports, the showdown between Russia and these forces cannot be avoided. It is only a matter of time. They are getting ready and waiting for the right moment. Moreover, they went as far as to aspire to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not let this happen.”

The army was rebuilt

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I have worked for more than six years to build up the German army. During this period, more than 90 billion dollars were spent on the construction of this army. Today, it is the best equipped army in the world and far superior to that of 1914. My confidence in it is unshakeable.”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy.”

Putin: “As for military affairs, even after the dissolution of the USSR and the loss of a considerable part of its capabilities, today’s Russia remains one of the most powerful nuclear states. Moreover, it has certain advantages in several cutting-edge weapons.”

The solidarity of the dictatorships

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I am happy to announce to you here a particular event. You know that Russia and Germany are governed according to two different doctrines. And one aspect of things should be made clear: Germany has no intention of exporting its doctrine. Given that the Soviet Union has no intention of exporting its doctrine for the time being, I see no reason for us to confront each other again. And we have made this very clear to each other: any fight between us would be of no interest, except to third parties. We have therefore resolved to make a pact… Every attempt in the West to change this will fail. I wish to proclaim here that this political decision represents an important turning point for the future and is lasting.”

Molotov: “Since the conclusion of the Soviet-German non-aggression pact of August 23, the abnormal situation that has existed for years between the Soviet Union and Germany has been ended. In place of the hostility, which had been heated up in all sorts of ways by certain European states, there has been a rapprochement and the establishment of friendly relations between the USSR and Germany. […]In connection with these important changes in the international situation, certain old formulas which we used until recently — and to which many had become so accustomed — are clearly outdated and no longer practicable. This must be realized in order to avoid enormous errors in assessing the new political situation in Europe. We know, for example, that in the last few months concepts such as ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressor’ have been given new concrete content, have acquired a new meaning. It is easy to understand that we can no longer use these concepts in the same sense as we did, for example, three or four months ago. If we speak today of the great European powers, Germany finds itself in the situation of a State that aspires to see the earliest possible cessation of war and to see peace, while England and France, that only yesterday opposed aggression, are for continuing the war and against concluding the peace. The roles are changing, as you can see. […] Today, our relations with the German state are based on friendly relations, our desire to support Germany’s aspirations for peace, and at the same time our desire to contribute in every way to the development of Soviet-German economic relations to the mutual advantage of both countries. […]”

It is all a question of will

Putin: “In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union grew weaker and subsequently broke apart. That experience should serve as a good lesson for us, because it has shown us that the paralysis of power and will is the first step towards complete deterioration and oblivion. We lost confidence for only one moment, but it was enough to disrupt the balance of forces in the world.”

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “As a National Socialist and a German soldier, I enter this battle with a strong heart. My whole life has been nothing but a single struggle for my people, for their resurrection, for Germany. And this fight has always been dominated by a declaration of faith in this people. There is one word that I have never learned, and that is the word surrender… And I wish to conclude by repeating the words that I spoke when I began the struggle for power in the Reich. I said at that time: if your will is so strong that no necessity can influence it, then our will and our German power will overcome necessity!”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “You know my unalterable determination to carry a fight once begun to its successful conclusion. You know my determination in such a struggle to be deterred by nothing, to break every resistance which must be broken.”

The answer to an existential threat

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “We all follow this old principle: It is not important for us to live, as long as our people live, as long as Germany lives.”

Hitler (August 22, 1939): “Everyone will have to understand that we are, from the very beginning, determined to fight the powers of the West. It is a fight for life or death… In the foreground is the destruction of Poland. Our goal is to suppress living forces, not to reach a certain point. Even if war broke out in the West, our main goal should be the destruction of Poland… I will give a propaganda reason to explain the outbreak of war, whether it is plausible or not. We will not be asked later, when we have won, whether we told the truth or not. When you start or continue a war, what matters is not the right, but the victory…”

Putin: “For our country, it is a matter of life and death, a matter of our historical future as a nation. This is not an exaggeration; this is a fact. It is not only a very real threat to our interests but also for the very existence of our state and to its sovereignty.”

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I want to remove the element of insecurity and the atmosphere of an eternal civil war situation from the German borders. I wish to make sure that the peace in the East is no different from the one that we have on our other borders.”

Hitler (December 11, 1941): “In the 2,000 years of German history known to us, our people have never been more united than today.”

And finally: the brazen lie

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I have solemnly proclaimed, and I repeat: we do not and will not demand anything from these Western countries. I have guaranteed that the border between France and Germany is final. I have repeatedly proposed friendship to England and, if necessary, the closest cooperation. […] Germany has no interests in the West. Our Westwall is forever the Reich’s border to the west. We have no ambitions on this point for the future. The situation of the Reich will no longer change.”

Putin: “It is not our plan to occupy the Ukrainian territory. We do not intend to impose anything on anyone by force. […] Freedom guides our policy, the freedom to choose independently our future and the future of our children. We believe that all the peoples living in today’s Ukraine, anyone who want to do this, must be able to enjoy this right to make a free choice.”

Hitler (September 1, 1939): “I do not want to lead the fight against women and children. I have ordered my Luftwaffe to limit itself to military targets in its attacks. But if the adversary thinks he can deduce from this that he can fight with opposite methods on his side, then he will receive an answer that he will not soon forget.”

Putin: “The current events have nothing to do with a desire to infringe on the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. They are connected with defending Russia from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and our people.”

She has a degree in classical literature and spent 4 years in the USSR from 1973 to 1978. She is an agrégée in Russian and teaches Soviet history and international relations at Paris Sorbonne.

See also

The Bakhmut Apocalypse

Essayist and journalist Jean-François Bouthors examines the symbolic significance of this Pyrrhic victory, based on the capture of...

Russia: the Impossible “Union Sacrée”

Union sacrée: united patriotic front of all parties formed at the beginning of the first World War. The historian...

Most read

Russian Expansionism: Enduring Goals and Recurring Methods

Russia's messianic, expansionist and militarist propensity is inseparable from the autocratic matrix of Russian power.

The Great Russian Pretence

The Russian propaganda discourse resonates with certain conservatives. Our author looks at the way in which, far from defending a European “civilization”, the Putin regime has transformed into an “eschatological sect”.