Try Putin? What Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal would advise the world

Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via Associated Press
Russian President Vladimir Putin in a March 9, 2022, photo.

In his book, “Churchill: Walking With Destiny,” Andrew Roberts quotes Winston Churchill in 1945, after the war had ended, as saying, “From what I’ve seen of our Russian friends, there is nothing I saw that they admire as much as strength and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.” Churchill urged the U.S. and Britain “to join in a fraternal association to defend freedom, not only for us and not only for our time, but for a century to come.”

Throughout his amazing life, Churchill made some terrible errors in judgment. But he was right about Germany’s Adolf Hitler and he was right about the Soviet Union’s communist dictator and mass murderer, Joseph Stalin.

Today’s Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, is a product of the KGB. The Soviet Union’s security agency began a year after Stalin’s death in 1953, a successor of the dreaded Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKGB and NKVD, who dispatched millions of innocent Soviet citizens to their deaths or banished them to inhumane existence in Siberian gulags.

Since Russia began its war in Ukraine on Feb. 24, more than 10 million Ukrainians reportedly have fled their homes, including more than 4 million who are refugees. Among them, more than 2 million of those displaced are children. The United Nations estimates at least 1,000 civilians have been killed and more than 1,700 wounded as the Russian military pulverizes towns.  

As gruesome images from Ukrainian cities make their way around the world — such as those of bodies in Bucha or that of a pregnant woman being carried out on a stretcher from a maternity hospital (she and her unborn child reportedly did not survive) — President Biden and others have called for holding Putin accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Could it happen? We would have wanted to ask our namesake, Simon Wiesenthal, a man who barely survived the Nazi Holocaust, who, together with his wife, Celia, lost 89 members of their family in the Shoah.

Wiesenthal and a few other survivors of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” sought to arrest and try Nazi war criminals who fulfilled Hitler’s vision of a Europe “Judenrein” — that is, free of Jews. He sought to restore the basic foundations of justice that Nazism all but obliterated. Wiesenthal wanted accountable, convicted criminals, not martyrs for extremist causes.

Wiesenthal watched in horror as the post-World War II Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal turned out to be not the beginning of Nazi war crimes trials, but the end. Yet he never left the battlefield and helped to bring another 1,100 Nazis to justice. 

Wiesenthal died in 2005. Were he alive today, we believe he would make four points regarding Russia’s brutalities in Ukraine:

  1. Wiesenthal often said: “The only difference between communism and Nazism is in theory.” He was born in Buchach, a city that today is a part of Western Ukraine. In 1920, the Soviet Union invaded Buchach and Lvov and the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) arrested Wiesenthal’s stepfather, who eventually died in prison. His stepbrother was shot and Wiesenthal himself was forced to close his business. All this was before Germany would invade and occupy Lvov and nearby Buchach in 1941.

Buchach’s current inhabitants know what befell their fellow citizens at the hands of Putin’s forces around 510 kilometers to the east in Bucha. They know that if Ukraine ultimately falls, if the international community fails to act, such a calamity could befall them.

  1. In 1988, Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein unleashed poison gas on Kurdish citizens, causing about 5,000 deaths. The international community’s response was muted and ineffective. Wiesenthal told us then, “Tyrants will interpret the silence of the world as a sign that there is no price to pay for crimes against humanity.” 

With other tyrants watching how the international community responds to Putin’s atrocities — chief among them, China’s President Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un — the price we would all pay if we allow Putin to get away with his crimes would be devastating.

  1. To pursue justice, you need facts, not rhetoric. The U.S., NATO, the European Union and the United Nations should be working with Ukraine to build a case against Putin and those who carry out his orders. What they compile must stand up in not only the court of public opinion, but a court of law.
  1. With a head of state on trial potentially for his life, the judicial venue must be free of political bias. A trial of Putin should be convened by a special United Nations tribunal.

As the unelected ambassador for 6 million Jewish ghosts, Wiesenthal declared that trials of those who are accused of crimes against humanity must serve as a warning to anyone who contemplates similar acts that they, too, will be held accountable. 

Will Putin stand trial? We don’t know, but the echoes of history are warning the world: The price of inaction will be catastrophic and global in scope.

Rabbi Marvin Hier is founder and CEO of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the Center’s associate dean and global social action director.

Tags Adolf Hitler Biden Crimes against humanity Joe Biden Joseph Stalin Nazi Germany Russian invasion of Ukraine Simon Wiesenthal Vladimir Putin War crimes

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