Putin, Netanyahu, and the Ghosts of Worlds War II

03/04/2015 07:32 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015

During his campaign swing through Washington, DC this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave two speeches. He delivered the second before a joint session of Congress and, predictably, denounced the negotiations currently going on between the United States and Iran. A "bad deal" he intoned as Republican congressmen applauded. If things don't work out for Netanyahu in his own election two weeks from now, look for him to be floated as a possible running-mate for Scott Walker.

But it was in his first speech, the one before the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) the day before, that Netanyahu let loose."For 2000 years," Netanyahu told the cheering AIPAC crowd, "my people, the Jewish people, were stateless, defenseless, voiceless. We were utterly powerless against our enemies who swore to destroy us. We suffered relentless persecution and horrific attacks. We could never speak on our own behalf, and we could not defend ourselves." No more, no more, Netanyahu assured the gathering, "The days when the Jewish people are passive in the face of threats to annihilate us, those days are over."

At first glance, this seems overwrought. After all, the State of Israel has been anything but passive in the face of military threats since 1948. So strictly speaking "those days" have been over for nearly 70 years. But the line was less historical analysis and more dog-whistle, and those in the room heard it loud and clear.

The passivity in the face of annihilation to which Netanyahu alluded was, of course, the Holocaust and the Second World War out of which it grew. Even as many Israelis resist the idea that the Holocaust should still be the touchstone of Israeli identity, Netanyahu continues to use it to rally the troops and to cast any opposition to his political positions as Munich-level moral betrayal.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been revisiting World War II, or rather The Great Patriotic War, as a rhetorical strategy to justify his invasion of Ukraine, his annexation of the Crimean peninsula and his continuing support of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Russians have been told over and over that Ukraine has been over-run by "fascists" -- a term which sounds almost antiquated to American ears nowadays but which for Russians is an instantly recognizable code for Nazis. Putin's rhetorical sleight of hand makes fighting the fascists in Ukraine just like defending the Fatherland from Hitler. The fact that there is no fascist menace in Ukraine hardly matters.

Israel and Russia may not share much in common (indeed, since its founding Israel has welcomed waves of Soviet/Russian Jews desperate to leave that country), and trying to isolate Iran is not the same thing as invading another nation, but both draw a certain kind of moral legitimacy from the memory of World War II. The leaders of those two countries may not share much else in common, but Netanyahu and Putin both flog that memory of the was to bolster their political legitimacy at home and to assert themselves more forcefully on the world stage.

By speaking to Congress without informing the President, Netanyahu committed a diplomatic mistake of a high order and may well have done serious damage to the relationship between Israel and the United States. To justify that risk -- to his audience and probably to himself -- Netanyahu made the implicit equation between Germany and Iran, between the Holocaust of the past and a potential holocaust in the future. The stakes are so high that Netanyahu was obligated to snub the president of the United States.

Likewise, almost a year ago, at a press conference in The Hague, President Obama described Russia as a "regional power" and not one of primary concern for the United States. He wasn't wrong, but with a telescope he could have seen the smoke pouring out of Putin's ears in Moscow. With the endless reference to "fascists" in Kiev, Putin is reminding people of the time when Russians saved the western world from Nazism, and when they were a nation to be reckoned with. For Netanyahu, one wonders if the only thing worse than a "bad deal" with Iran is a good one. He would thus find himself politically diminished.

There is no question that the legacies of World War II are long, complicated, and continue to shape events around the world today. Six million is the number the world will never forget. For Russians the number they will never forget is four times as large. Still, there is something remarkable about the way the cold, dead hand of that war continues to exert a pull on us. The youngest of those who can still remember the war are in their '80s. But the vocabulary and tropes live on in the rhetorical excesses of Putin and Netanyahu.

Steven Conn will be the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio in the fall. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.