The Butcher of Bucha
Why is this happening? Just when we thought we had seen the worst of the war in Ukraine, we saw last week the pictures of a horrific massacre of innocent Ukrainian civilians by Russian soldiers in the town of Bucha. Civilian bodies shot in the head by sniper fire littered the streets. At least one victim had their hands bound behind their back, proving they presented no threat-to-life to the retreating troops. Satellite images confirmed these bodies had been there during the Russian occupation of Bucha days earlier.
It is hard to understand such atrocities, or what could possess any human to commit them. To prevent this from happening again, we need to understand it, and there are many lessons from history.
On June 10, 1944, the small French village of Oradour-sur-Glane became the target of an attack by a German Waffen-SS company that was heading north to help counter the D-Day landings. The SS commander in charge of the troops, Major Adolf Diekmann, led 120–200 German soldiers into the town and rounded up the residents in the center of the village. He separated the men from the women and children and led the men away to six barns in the town where he executed them all. His men locked the women and children in the local church, set fire to it, and shot anyone who attempted to escape the blaze. In total, the German soldiers massacred 642 men, women, and children before burning the village to the ground. Only five people survived.
The crimes at Oradour were so heinous that in 1946 French President Charles de Gaulle announced the site and ruins would become a national memorial. Today, the site receives over 300,000 visitors per year, and it stands as a testament to the war crimes committed by the Nazis in France. The Ukrainian government should consider making Bucha into a national memorial so it can bear witness like a frozen snapshot in time, of the villainy wrought by the Russian Army in Ukraine.
The Role of Defamation
It takes an abundance of hate to torture people and commit cold blooded murder on the scale seen in Bucha. Barack Obama once observed, no child is born with hate in their heart, it is something that is learned. So who taught these soldiers to hate? Who is responsible for all this? There are multiple culprits, but defamation and hatemongering played a crucial role.
At Oradour, the group responsible for the massacre was the Der Fuhrer regiment, a branch of the 2nd Panzer Division Das Reich, which was under the command of SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Major General Heinz Bernard Lammerding. He claimed, using the flimsiest of evidence, that villagers from Oradour were supporting the French resistance. He made further allegations that the villagers were responsible for the kidnapping and assassination of a German war hero, Major Helmut Kampfe. Diekmann used this inflammatory narrative to fuel the fires of hate and vengeance in his men leading to them to slaughter hundreds of innocents.
A similar false narrative is at play in Bucha. Putin’s reason for entering Ukraine was to free the citizens from the evil grip of neo-Nazis who had taken over the country. Putin’s propaganda machine fed this absurd, false, and highly defamatory narrative to Russian soldiers in Ukraine. They will associate the tens of millions of deaths of Russians at the hands of Hitler during the second world war with the rise of Nazism, so Russian soldiers consider it their patriotic duty to fight Nazism whenever it appears.
In the west, we have become blasé to blatantly false claims and inflammatory accusations by political leaders. We should care more. It is precisely this toxic rhetoric which sows the seeds of hate and can lead to murder and even genocides. Rwanda 1994. Bosnia and Herzegovina 1995. Darfur, Sudan 2003. Rohingya, Myanmar 2016. All these horrific mass-killings were committed by normally peaceful people who had become outraged, angry, and hateful towards an “out group” — fueled by hate speech and defamation.
Behind all defamation is a conniving mind — one that uses knowingly false accusations to motivate people to act in ways that are despicable, but supportive of their own agenda. In Ukraine, the conniving mind is that of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, the true Butcher of Bucha.