Hitler Vs Putin - Their Biggest Similarities And Differences

Nazi German Führer Adolf Hitler isn't the only warmongering totalitarian madman in history, but the extent of his genocidal crimes and cruelty, the globe-spanning impact of the ruinous Second World War that he started, and his relative proximity to the modern era have turned him into the yardstick against which all world-be and actual conquerors, tyrants and bigots are doomed to be measured. The terrifying story of Hitler, the Holocaust, and World War II provides a useful blueprint for examining how genocides start, how democracies fall, and, to a lesser extent, predicting the foreign policy of contemporary dictators.

That all being said, Nazi comparisons are thrown around so liberally that they're starting to lose all meaning and edge. Everyone and everything that someone somewhere hates has been unfavorably compared to the Nazi dictator at some point. Look no further than Godwin's Law, which states that the longer an internet argument about literally anything drags on, the more certain it becomes that someone or something will get compared to Hitler.

Recently, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has launched an all-out, 1940s style, peace-shattering war by invading Ukraine, his sovereign neighbor to the southwest. His dissent-silencing tyranny at home and imperialist conquests abroad seem to invite Hitler comparisons. But how similar is he to the infamous Nazi leader? Let's examine the similarities – and differences – between the two.

Similarity: They're both conquering European dictators

Let's get the obvious one out of the way. No tyrant who invades their neighbors, especially European ones, should express surprise when people compare them to Nazi Fürher Adolf Hitler. Hitler, of course, conquered Germany first, per Britannica, then sent his Wehrmacht storming all over Europe, triggering the Second World War. He believed Germany had a right to rule the continent how it saw fit.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin hasn't taken as much territory, but he also believes Russia has a right to dominate its neighbors and is certainly doing a lot more invading than anyone else these days. In 2008 he seized Georgia, in the Caucasus. Then he went after Ukraine, swallowing up Crimea in the Black Sea and financing Russian separatists in Donbas, following Ukraine's pro-Western demonstrations in 2014, according to Foreign Policy. On February 24, 2022, his Russian army began a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, seeking to topple its government. It's unlikely this conflict will result in WWII-scale genocides. But Putin's land grabs still constitute the first major interstate military conflict in Europe since the '40s.

Both dictators also use propaganda and psychological warfare to disrupt their foes, consolidate power at home, and soften up foreign populations for invasion. In this arena, Putin clearly outclasses Hitler, simply because he has access to far more advanced technology. Just imagine what Adolf would've done to get his hands on Russia's infamous troll farms, Deepfake technology, and social media bots (per NBC).

Difference: Hitler wanted more land than Putin does

Adolf Hitler envisioned a Europe – and a world – ruthlessly ruled by ethnically pure Germans. And beginning in 1938, he began to realize these wicked ambitions. First, he annexed his native Austria in the Anschluss. Then he seized the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia before rolling into the rest of the country in defiance of agreements struck with the West, who sought to avoid another world war. Then he triggered exactly such a conflict by invading Poland, before turning his guns on the rest of Europe. At its territorial zenith in Autumn 1942, Britannica says the Third Reich stretched from the Arctic Circle (via Hitler's conquest of Norway and partnership with Finland) to the Equator (due to Axis campaigns in North Africa), and from the Atlantic Ocean in the west (Nazi U-boats sank ships off the American east coast) to the eastern boundary of Europe (via the invasion of the USSR).

Putin is thankfully far less ambitious in his imperial goals. He simply wants to reestablish old Soviet-era buffer states surrounding Russia, to thwart a hypothetical Western invasion of his country (according to the BBC) and secure control of the Eastern European oil and natural gas resources that provide much of his wealth (via NPR). Don't expect Russian tanks to charge into Germany and France any time soon.

Similarity: They both abused democracy to seize power

In pre-modern eras, kings arose through violence. This isn't unheard of today, but in modern times, aspiring dictators often seize power by using the machinery of democracy against it, turning vibrant republics into illiberal one-party states.

The Nazis provide what's arguably the most famous and oft-cited blueprint for this maneuver. According to the U.S. Holocaust History Museum, the Nazis resigned themselves to getting democratically elected after Hitler's infamously stupid Beer Hall putsch in the early '20s got him imprisoned. A decade later, though, a combination of perceived decadence and weakness on the part of the incumbent Weimar Republic, fear of a violent takeover by German Communists, and economic woes brought about by the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression, helped sweep Nazis into power in the German Reichstag. Chancellor Hitler's first order of business? Criminalizing political opposition and amassing complete dictatorial power.

Putin's rise was a bit less spectacular, but there are chilling parallels. Business Insider has the receipts on his infamous career in the Soviet KGB (essentially their CIA), and his budding political aspirations in 1991. Like Hitler, who was actually appointed to the Chancellorship by President Hindenburg, who sought a bulwark against the surging Communist Party, Putin was appointed President of the Russian Federation by Boris Yeltsin, who feared criminal prosecution. Also like Hitler, Putin abused his newfound power to keep it illegally, and has been stuffing ballot boxes and silencing dissent ever since.

Difference: Hitler had time on his side, Putin doesn't

You can't conquer the world overnight, so it's best to get the tanks rolling while you're young. Adolf Hitler was born in 1889, according to Britannica, making him a cool, middle-aged 50 when his armies invaded Poland and triggered World War II in Europe. That means he had plenty of time to meticulously plan and execute the conquest of the continent and had a reasonable expectation of seeing it through.

Part of what appears to be Vladimir Putin's desperate, reckless urgency in Ukraine might come from his being 67 as of this writing (per the same site): hardly a spring chicken. But of course, anyone who's been paying attention to geopolitical affairs in recent years knows that ol' Vlad hasn't just been dawdling since coming to power in Russia at the tail-end of the 20th century.

Knowing post-Cold War Russia wasn't the fearsome juggernaut the USSR had been, he couldn't simply storm into the West with tank divisions. Instead, while he rebuilt Russia's armies, the Center for Strategic and International Studies says he engaged in psyops, social media shenanigans, cyber warfare, and election interference in the West for years, seeking to disrupt his foes. In 2016, the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K. seemed like progress. But neither event dealt the Western alliance the killing blow Putin sought to inflict, leading him to scramble to reestablish Russia's might in other, more violent ways, while he still had time.

Similarity: They both used the same excuses to annex foreign territory

Medieval kings might've been able to just devour whatever land they wanted and had the power to take, but modern conquerors better have some good justifications handy if they want to avoid getting dog piled on by the international community for what certainly looks a lot like unprovoked, imperialist aggression. Unfortunately, if you're Hitler or Putin, you're going to have a hard time convincing anyone other than those you have at literal gunpoint to buy your version of events. Putin's reasoning regarding Ukraine is even more laughable when you realize that it's the exact same nonsense the Nazis tried to spin prior to their earliest invasions, which weren't even convincing at the time.

According to the BBC, Putin claims Ukraine has been mistreating ethnic Russians in the Donbas, even going so far as to call it a genocide (a claim frustratingly undermined by a pesky lack of any evidence whatsoever). Similarly, Hitler baselessly alleged supposed discrimination against ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland as a pretext for seizing that territory (via The Holocaust Explained).

Putin also fabricated stories of Ukrainian saboteurs sneaking across the border to attack Russia (via Times of Israel), which is strikingly similar to German claims that Polish nationals had attacked a radio broadcast station just before Germany invaded their country, according to History Hit. How convenient for warmongering dictators who were quite obviously seeking reasons to invade, and who'd already coincidentally assembled massive armies along the border!

Difference: Putin faces far more formidable barriers

Hitler lost World War II, so it's hard to make the argument that his enemies were weak. But as evidenced by Axis troops running roughshod across Europe for the first few years of the conflict, the international coalition he initially faced wasn't up to the task of containing him. But if he'd been facing today's NATO – a defense pact consisting of some of the world's mightiest and wealthiest nuclear-armed powers (per the organization's website) – it's unlikely German Panzers would've made it out the door.

Putin is facing exactly such a wall of potential foes, but his problems hardly start and end there. First, Russia's economy is smaller than that of the U.S. state of Texas, which has a fraction of the population and far less land (via Forbes). Putin's invasions and confoundingly hostile disposition towards everyone only invite sanctions, which have crippled Russia's economy further (per Fortune).

Add to all that the weakness of the collapsing Rouble and Russia's problems with organized crime and corruption, and you're looking at a country rotting from the inside out, according to Britannica. Oh, and we don't mean that Russia is merely struggling to contain those issues, by the way: the Foreign Policy Research Institute claims Putin has made all of it a feature, not a bug, of his regime. There are also serious ethnic conflicts bubbling under the surface, according to Reuters (and Putin himself). Clearly, Putin's Russia is held together with matchsticks and glue.

Similarity: Both men rebuilt their nations

Germany surrendered before it was invaded in the First World War, and the Entente hadn't bombed it like they would in World War II. But that doesn't mean there wasn't plenty of devastation to be found in post-war Germany, according to History. From the harsh, humiliating terms of the Treaty of Versailles, to hyperinflation resulting from war reparations payments and, eventually, the Great Depression, the country was ripe to be taken over by violent extremists. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis won – and quickly became totalitarian rulers. But for a few years, at least, many in Hitler's Germany were willing to overlook the monstrous treatment of Jews in favor of Germany's rapidly improving economic situation (per Alpha History) and Hitler's rearmament program (via Facing History), which restored national pride and improved living conditions.

Putin, too, came to power in a tumultuous time for Russia. Russia was now all by itself after the USSR's collapse, and trying to navigate a Western-style market economy and this whole "democracy" thing for the first time, after spending decades being told both concepts were evil. It didn't last – rampant poverty, corruption, and an immature and unstable democracy, not to mention decades of propaganda under the Soviets, made people especially vulnerable to a strongman like Putin, who promised to restore the nation's dignity with strength. When he did take power, the Wall Street Journal says he rebuilt Russia's army into a powerful force and made the nation feared again.

Difference: Hitler was ambitious, Putin is desperate

Hitler had big dreams for Germany (which thankfully didn't pan out). He imagined a Europe – and eventually a world – dominated by his Third Reich. To make it happen, the U.S. Holocaust History Museum says that he believed war and genocide to be a necessity. All opposing foreign governments in his path, as well as racially undesirable groups, needed to be swept aside, both so Hitler could seize their natural resources, and to make room for Aryan Superman to agriculturally resettle these ethnically cleansed lands. Luckily for all of us, he bit off more than he could chew. The world resisted, took the fight to Germany, and triumphed at enormous cost.

If World War III breaks out as a result of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, though, it won't be because the Russian dictator is ambitious like Hitler, but because he's desperate. The Atlantic Council discusses how Russia has been retreating ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, all while the West continues to grow encroach on former Soviet states. And Politico describes Russia as a ticking time-bomb, sagging under the weight of separatist impulses, poverty and corruption, and the inherent political instability that comes from a dictator seizing power and holding it long enough for the entire government apparatus to callous around him. Putin is running out of time to reverse Russia's misfortunes, and the Guardian describes him as increasingly isolated and desperate.

Unfortunately, desperation only makes madmen more dangerous.

Similarity: Both men were opposed by a powerful international coalition

If you invade anyone and everyone around you with genocidal intent, you're going to make a lot of enemies very quickly. Hitler found that out the hard way when his armies failed to bring Britain, the USSR, and the United States to heel like they'd done to Poland and France. Soon, Britannica says these Allied Powers amassed overwhelming advantages in numbers, money, firepower, materiel, and other resources, and overwhelmed Germany by 1945. It's impossible to count the number of hours and words that've been spent analyzing Hitler's failure and what the murderous Nazi dictator might have done differently, but it's entirely possible that victory against such a mighty array of foes was never possible to begin with.

After the war, tensions between former allies the USSR and the West spiked, as both were now competing to rule the postwar world. The threat of a Russian tank rush into Western Europe led to the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (The Week), or NATO for short – now a robust defense pact consisting of the U.S., the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, and dozens of other liberal, rich (and in many cases, nuclear-armed) nations dedicated to defending each other if any one of them is attacked. NATO was the USSR-led Warsaw Pact's primary opponent during the Cold War, and remains Putin's biggest obstacle to conquest by far. The difference: Russia has weakened since the Cold War ended, and NATO has grown.

Difference: Dictators conquered in the '30s. Not so today

Hitler's aggressive, might-makes-right foreign policy was more or less in line with what dictators did at the time: Italy's Mussolini and Japan's Hirohito all invaded their neighbors, seeking glorious conquest. Even Hitler's enemies like France and Britain maintained vast colonial empires, and Stalin invaded plenty of territory around Russia to expand his Soviet empire (History has the details on one such conflict, the Winter War against Finland).

But today, as a result of that very war, such expansionism has fallen out of favor. Japan, Italy, and Germany all lost their empires during the conflict, and the world's dwindling appetite for Imperialism led to a period of rapid decolonization where the UN says Britain abandoned her colonies across the globe, leading to independence throughout Africa, the Middle East, and India (and a lot of problematic borders).

Today, most dictators simply don't send tanks into neighboring countries for several reasons. One, most countries ruled by such strongmen are small and weak. Two, and most importantly, the world is far more economically and culturally entangled now, making hypothetical wars between trading partners ruinous even if ably conducted. Plus, the existence of globe-spanning diplomatic networks and the threat of nuclear annihilation have disincentivized war as a means of getting what you want. Oxford has more details on this post-WWII "Long Peace," where major powers simply no longer fight. For all these reasons, Putin's Invasion of Ukraine looks very old-fashioned and out of touch indeed.

Similarity: Both men are willing to let their own people suffer

By 1945, Hitler's situation had gone from desperate to hopeless. As the final invasions of Germany began, the National WW2 Museum says a desperate, unhinged Hitler issued the so-called "Nero Decree," in which Armaments Minister Albert Speer was told to lay waste to Germany's remaining infrastructure. This had two goals: one, like any scorched earth policy, deny the use of such resources to the enemy. Two, to Speer's horror: punish the German people for losing the war. Speer was used to Hitler ranting about the decadent West and subhumans in the East. But now that both were within weeks of crushing what remained of the Reich, Hitler finally acknowledged that history belonged to his enemies.

Putin isn't so fanatical, but he's still reckless and blinded by his own schemes. Sanctions have been slapped on Russia for years, as a result of wars and interference in, and cyberwars against, Western democracies. But his full-fledged invasion of Ukraine brought down the international hammer like never before. Fortune has the details on how familiar sanctions suddenly became devastating for a Russia that's increasingly, ruinously isolated from the global community and international financial systems. As is always the case, the rich are at fault, but it's the common folk who suffer. But while the extent of the punishment might've surprised Putin, he knew Russia would face consequences that would be felt by the poor at home. He went ahead with his plans anyway.

Difference: Putin has nukes

By Autumn 1942, the Nazi Reich stretched from the Arctic to Africa, and from France to the edge of Europe in Russia. But by early 1943, History Net says the Nazis were retreating everywhere. For the rest of the war, Hitler could only lash out at the pour souls still within his shrinking empire, but he could no longer stop his inevitable defeat. Two and a half years later, Germany was an occupied pile of rubble, and Hitler was dead.

Putin, of course, is a different story. World War II famously ended with the dawn of the nuclear age. After the war, the major powers, including the Soviet Union, got their own nukes. When the USSR collapsed and the Cold War ended, Russia still had thousands of unused warheads – which means Putin has something Hitler would have loved: a big, red, world-ending button. He can't win, of course – the West would lob its own bombs at Russia until there was nothing left – but he can take his foes down with him in a sea of apocalyptic nuclear fire.

Are his recent threats to do so (in response to western sanctions, per AP News) what Political Dictionary describes as "Madman Theory," where a heavily armed head of state pretends to be crazy to spook their foes and get concessions (even if they're just bluffing)? Or is he really that desperate? Nobody knows. But the threat of nuclear war is one we must all take seriously.