The Kremlin has struggled to explain why it was necessary to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, a country whose president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish. The latest effort to do so, a comparison of Zelensky to Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, may have been the most disastrous of all.
If nothing else, it signals how desperate Russia has been to explain its invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation it has partly occupied since 2014.
Though justifications for the invasion have shifted, Russian President Vladimir Putin initially invoked the threat of Ukrainian ultranationalists. Since then, he and other top Kremlin officials have traded one line of argument for another, most recently settling on a narrative that charges the West with using Ukraine as a proxy to weaken Russia.
Lavrov’s remarks to Italian television network Zona Bianca seemed to revive the original rationale, only in a way that is unlikely to help the Kremlin’s cause.
“I could be wrong, but Hitler also had Jewish blood,” the Russian foreign minister said, reviving one of the more notorious myths about Hitler, who killed himself in his bunker as the Red Army approached in late April 1945. Victory over the Nazis remains central to Russian identity.
Initially, some Ukrainians did support the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, largely because of animosity stemming from the Holodomor, the famine Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin foisted on Ukraine in the 1930s. Millions of Ukrainians died during the famine. Then, millions more died fighting Hitler.
Zelensky had family members perish in the Holocaust, one of whose most infamous sites — the Babi Yar mass grave — is in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv. His grandfather fought for the Red Army. Zelensky enjoys broad support in Ukraine, where the majority of citizens, as do their Russian neighbors, belong to the Eastern Orthodox denomination of Christianity.
Zelensky’s own Jewish background “means absolutely nothing,” said Lavrov, who is himself of Armenian heritage. Hitler looked to the genocide of Armenians by nationalist Turks as a model for his campaign against European Jews.
“Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews,” Lavrov went on to say.
His remarks were swiftly denounced by Israel, which last week marked Yom HaShoah, the day on which the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust are remembered. “Using the Holocaust of the Jewish people as a political tool must cease immediately,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
The notion that Hitler had Jewish roots has persisted for decades despite having been dispelled by top German historians.
Hitler’s background is in a rural region of northwestern Austria called the Waldviertel. His ancestors, who may have also had roots in the neighboring Czech Republic, were Schicklgrubers and Hiedlers. His father was born Alois Schicklgruber in 1837. His name was changed to Hitler in 1876 because of a family dispute.
By the time Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, he had spent a decade fashioning his own mythology as pure Aryan, a fictional designation rooted in the Nazi obsession with race. Because so little was known about his background, and because he elicited such strong negative reactions from many Germans, speculation about his origins, and lifestyle, were not uncommon as he came to increasing prominence in the late 1920s.
Murky origins, however, hardly provide any merit for Lavrov’s assertion.
“Rumors that there were Jews in Hitler’s family have no proven foundation,” writes historian Volker Ullrich, whose magisterial two-volume biography of the genocidal tyrant has been widely praised. The idea came from Hans Frank, a top Nazi official who wrote in 1946 that Hitler was fathered by a Jewish merchant whose Graz household once employed Hitler’s grandmother.
Frank likely invented the story to save his own life after World War II. It didn’t work: The notoriously cruel overseer of occupied Poland was executed after the Nuremberg military tribunal in 1946.
Nor was it true. As Ullrich notes, there were no Jews with the name that Frank provided Allied authorities — Frankenberger — in either Graz or the surrounding region.
“There is no evidence that Hitler ever took speculation about his supposed Jewish grandfather seriously — to say nothing of feeling threatened by them,” Ullrich writes.
Joachim Fest, another renowned Hitler biographer, calls the Jewish origins story “exceedingly dubious” and unable “to withstand serious investigation.”
Thomas Childers, author of a one-volume history of the Third Reich, similarly finds “no credible evidence” that Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish.
In “Mein Kampf,” his memoir and political manifesto, Hitler described an idyllic German childhood. It is not considered a reliable autobiography and is read mostly as evidence of the derangement that gripped Hitler and came to disastrously infect the entire German nation.
Hitler did not become a committed antisemite until moving to Vienna in 1908, about two months after his mother died at the age of 47. It was the Hitler family’s longtime Jewish doctor, Eduard Bloch, who diagnosed the breast cancer that would kill her.