Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spends most of his time these days obfuscating the reality of his country’s assault on Ukraine. But this past week, he took a momentary break from this work to distort the history of a different war: World War II and the Jewish genocide that accompanied it. Asked on Italian television how Russia could claim to be “denazifying” Ukraine when the country is led by a Jewish president, Lavrov retorted, “I believe that Hitler also had Jewish blood.” He later added, “Some of the worst anti-Semites are Jews.”

Lavrov has one job: to sell Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine in the public square. Unsurprisingly, his Holocaust revisionism—rooted in a long-standing conspiracy theory—hasn’t helped. The Israeli government publicly rebuked Russia over the comments, summoning its ambassador and demanding an apology. As Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid pointedly put it: “Jews did not murder themselves in the Holocaust.” (Lapid’s grandfather was murdered by the Nazis, while his grandmother and father ultimately made their way to Israel.)

In a rare joint statement, Jewish members of the U.S. House of Representatives similarly condemned Lavrov’s claims, saying: “Defaulting to antisemitic tropes, including blaming the Jews for the Holocaust and using the Holocaust to cover their own war crimes, reflects the gutless depravity of the Russian regime.” In response to this outcry, the Russian foreign ministry doubled down, accusing Lapid and Israel of supporting a “neo-Nazi regime” in Ukraine. As this goes to press, Israeli sources are reporting that Putin has apologized for his foreign minister’s remarks, but this has not been confirmed by Russia.

For those familiar with the history of the Holocaust, Lavrov’s stance might seem utterly unhinged. But equating Jews with Nazis has long been a staple of Soviet and Russian rhetoric. And beliefs like Lavrov’s are far more common than most realize. Over the decades, many people from the Soviet Union to America to the Middle East have blamed the Jews for their own genocide, often for political and ideological purposes. It’s important to understand why they do this, because these efforts are not merely intended to obscure depraved acts of the past, but to enable them in the future.

One of the more chilling polls in U.S. history was taken by Gallup in 1938, on the eve of the Holocaust. As Hitler rose to power and enacted a host of anti-Semitic laws, the survey firm asked Americans for their opinions on the Jewish victims of European anti-Semitism. The results? 54 percent said that “the persecution of Jews in Europe has been partly their own fault.” 11 percent said it was “entirely” their fault. In other words, 65 percent of Americans adhered to the soft-core version of Lavrov’s position, blaming Europe’s Jews for their own abuse. (Even today, many continue to insist that Jews cause anti-Semitism.)

The hard-core version of this worldview, on the other hand, contends that Jews actively collaborated with the Nazis to perpetrate the Holocaust. This is Lavrov’s position, but he’s not alone. Take David Icke, one of the world’s most prominent conspiracy theorists, who claims that wealthy Jews funded the Holocaust, writing, “The Warburgs, part of the Rothschild empire, helped finance Adolf Hitler.” (Icke has also claimed elsewhere that “Hitler was a Rothschild.”) Like Lavrov’s remarks, Icke’s claims may seem fringe. But the deeply anti-Semitic book that these words appeared in was fulsomely recommended by author Alice Walker in the pages of the New York Times.

Back in 1984, Mahmoud Abbas—now the president of the Palestinian Authority—published a book based on his doctoral dissertation. The name? The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and Zionism. The tract, which is still featured today on Abbas’s official government website, alleges that the Zionists were the Third Reich’s “basic partner in crime.” “The Zionist movement,” it falsely claims, “led a broad campaign of incitement against the Jews living under Nazi rule, in order to arouse the government’s hatred of them, to fuel vengeance against them, and to expand the mass extermination.” The purpose of this conspiracy, Abbas contends, was to spur more Jewish immigration to Palestine. Among other assertions, Abbas also writes that no Jews were murdered in the Nazi gas chambers, citing noted Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson, and argues that the figure of 6 million Jewish dead is exaggerated many times over.

One might reasonably wonder: Where did Abbas manage to successfully submit this Ph.D. in Holocaust denial? The answer: Lumumba University, in Moscow.

The Attractions of Inverting the Holocaust

Why are people so drawn to explanations that pin the Holocaust on its Jewish victims? To understand the allure of accusing the Jews of genocide—whether their own or of others—one has to understand what the claim accomplishes for those who level it. As I’ve written previously:

False charges of Jewish genocide continue to proliferate because they offer tantalizing rewards that make them irresistible to a certain brand of bigot.

First, they weaponize the greatest Jewish trauma against Jewish people. As the Marxist political theorist Norm Geras put it, “To say to Jews that what they are doing is just like what the Nazis did to them is to appeal to the comparison that is most hateful.” There is no better way to hurt someone than to fashion their most painful experience into a club with which to beat them. It’s not hard to imagine how turning the Holocaust on Jewish people, like turning slavery on Black people, provides a delicious transgressive thrill.

This helps explain the immediate appeal for Lavrov in invoking the Holocaust against both Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and Israel’s Lapid, both of whom lost family in it.

Second, casting Jews as the perpetrators of a new, fictitious Holocaust [or, in this case, as the fictitious perpetrators of the Holocaust] frees non-Jews from the obligation to learn the lessons of the actual Holocaust …

In a masterful maneuver of moral jujitsu, pinning genocide on the Jews allows the bigot to swipe the “Holocaust card” and play it against them. The victims are transformed into perpetrators, and their judgment is called into question.

For Lavrov, a man tasked with defending a regime that stands accused of crimes against humanity, inverting the Holocaust is simply another iteration of what he has already been doing for his own government: recasting its victims as aggressors and using this to justify further victimization. In other words, Lavrov’s comments don’t simply distort the past, but attempt to justify similar acts in the future. Seen in this light, it’s less surprising that the Russian foreign minister resorted to inverted Holocaust arguments—and more surprising that it took him this long.

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