On Monday, May 9, in Moscow’s Red Square, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered the annual Victory Day speech. It commemorates the defeat and subsequent surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies – including the Soviet Union (now the Russian Federation) – in 1945.

Putin longs for the re-creation of the old Soviet Union, created by the communist dictators Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the years after the November 1917 Bolshevik revolution. The Soviet Union, which existed between December 1922 and December 1991, comprised Russia and entities such as Georgia and Ukraine along with the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Putin told “the people of Russia” about the “immortals who gave up their lives for our country in the fight against Nazism”. He added: “That fight is one which is rearing its head again today.” In other words, Russia’s President regards one-time German dictator Adolf Hitler as the equivalent of contemporary Western democratically elected leaders such as US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

In his address, Putin referred to the “people who fell between 1941 and 1945”. He failed to mention the Nazi-Soviet pact that prevailed between August 23, 1939, and June 22, 1941 – under which Hitler and Stalin divided eastern Europe between themselves. It was at this time that the Baltic States were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

The gap in Putin’s memory of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War had an impact outside the Soviet Union. In Australia, the Communist Party supported – and was partly funded by – Stalin’s totalitarian regime in Moscow. During the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, members of the Communist Party of Australia and its fellow travellers did what they could to undermine the Allied war effort.

That’s why Robert Menzies in June 1940, when prime minister for the first time, had the CPA banned. This ban prevailed until sometime after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, thus ending the Nazi-Soviet pact. On September 3, 1939, Australia declared war on Germany following the decision of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain to do so.

Moreover, without the support of Labor in opposition at the time, Menzies sent Australian military forces to the war against Germany and its allies in the northern hemisphere. Despite this, the left in Australia (including some who had gone along with the Nazi-Soviet pact) delighted in calling Menzies a fascist. It was an example of words being used as weapons to score political points.

In time, in Western nations, the accurate definition of a fascist was to become someone whom the left did not like. Menzies stepped down as prime minister in January 1966. However, as late as 1995, academic Andrew Moore wrote this in his book The Right Road? A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia (Oxford University Press): “It might sound melodramatic to suggest that in 1951 Australian fascism headquarters were in The Lodge Canberra, but that is not very far from the truth.”

This comment was not even close to the truth. It was absolute tosh. How could it be that a democratically elected political leader, who committed Australian forces to war in 1939 against Hitler’s Nazis and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascists, legitimately be described as running fascism’s headquarters in Australia a decade later? Needless to say, Moore cited no evidence of any link between Menzies and fascism.

A quarter of a century after Moore’s book, the left in Australia and elsewhere is still into calling their opponents fascists and the like. The problem is that such word usage also has been used by right-of-centre political players – those who describe themselves as conservatives and progressives alike.

For example, in the Sky News Outsiders program on April 30, co-presenter Rowan Dean commented: “Fascism grew out of this merger of hardcore left-wing governments getting into bed with big governments, pushing aside the small business people, pushing aside the young entrepreneur, resulting in the sweet deals between big corporations, big governments.”

Not so. As Robert O. Paxton pointed out in his 2004 book The Anatomy of Fascism (Penguin), the term fascism (the English translation for the Italian word fascio) was coined by Mussolini – who acquired power following the march on Rome in 1922. His regime lasted until mid-1943. Fascism had an official ideology and the Mussolini dictatorship survived by what Paul Corner describes in Mussolini: In Myth and Memory (OUP, 2022) as “violence, hardship, privilege, nepotism and corruption on a grand scale”. Fascism has nothing to do with corporatism – a term used to describe excessive participation between big business and big government in representative democracies.

Then there is the contemporary use of words as coup and terrorism. In his memoir A Bigger Picture, former Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Turnbull refers to his replacement by Scott Morrison as a coup. However, he does not refer to the incumbent prime minister Tony Abbott’s replacement by himself with such terminology. All that happened is that both men lost the support of a majority of members of their party in a democratic ballot. That’s no coup.

And now the word terrorism – which once meant murder, assault or kidnapping for ideological reasons – is being weaponised for use in political debate in Western society. The Victorian branch of the Liberal Party is in disagreement about Moira Deeming, the Liberal MP in the Victorian Legislative Council. Deeming spoke at a rally for women’s rights that was gatecrashed by several men presenting as neo-Nazis.

This has led to an ongoing dispute within the party between those who regard Deeming as a right-wing extremist and those who see her as a conservative speaking up for biologically-born women. However, Liberal frontbencher James Newbury is reported as having described Deeming as a terrorist intent on blowing up the Liberal Party – a staggering exaggeration.

It’s expected that authoritarians such as Putin will use words as weapons against opponents. But there is no excuse for those of us who live in democracies describing those who take positions with which we disagree as fascists, coup leaders, terrorists and the like.