Politics & Policy

Naming the Crime

Two new books by American historians shed light on the Soviet past and those who still avoid its implications.

Winter is bleak enough as it is. This year the gloom was deepened by the publication of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm, one of Britain’s most feted historians, and, oh yes, a man who stuck with the Communist party until 1991 despite a global killing spree that took perhaps one hundred million lives. Naturally Hobsbawm’s new book has triggered the usual hosannas from the usual congregation for, to quote the Guardian, this “grand old man.”

There had, of course, been that minor unpleasantness back in the 1990s when Hobsbawm had appeared to imply that the deaths of 15 or 20 million people might have been justified had the Communist utopia actually been achieved. This ancient ogre (he is 93) is now more discreet. Reviewing How to Change the World in the Financial Times, Francis Wheen, no rightist and the author of an erudite and entertaining biography of Karl Marx, noted how Hobsbawm could not “bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to ‘temporary episodes such as 1939–41.’ The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring were [also] skipped over.”

But who are we to quibble, when, as his admirers like to remind us, Hobsbawm’s life has been “shaped by the struggle against fascism,” an excuse understandable in the 1930s (Hobsbawm, who is Jewish, quit Germany as a teenager in 1933), but grotesque more than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich.

Just how grotesque was highlighted by two books that came out last year. In the first, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder describes the darkness that engulfed a stretch of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century. He leaves only one convincing response to the question that dominates the second, Stalin’s Genocides, by Stanford’s Norman Naimark: For all the unique evils of the Holocaust, was Stalin, no less than Hitler, guilty of genocide?

The first half of Professor Snyder’s grim saga revolves around the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33, a manufactured catastrophe in which zeal, malice and indifference conspired to create a horror in which, Snyder calculates, well over three million perished (there are other, much higher, estimates). It was, Snyder writes, “not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.”

The Ukrainian countryside had already been devastated by collectivization and the killing, imprisonment, or exile of millions of its most enterprising inhabitants. Now it was to be stripped of what little it had left. The peasants were given targets for the amount of grain and other foodstuffs they were expected to hand over to the state, targets that would leave them with barely anything to live on, and often not even that. Refusal was not an option. Starvation was not an excuse. Nothing was left behind. Nobody was allowed to leave. The peasants were trapped. And they were condemned. In the spring of 1933 they died at the rate of more than ten thousand a day. “The only meat was human.”

That fall the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union.

Communism has brought mass starvation in its wake on a number of occasions (2010 also saw the appearance of Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter, a harrowing account of the death of millions during the Chairman’s Great Leap Forward), but what distinguishes the Ukrainian Holodomor (a coinage that means murder by hunger) is that, as Snyder demonstrates, this particular famine was not just incidental to the business of fashioning utopia. It was deliberate, a weapon designed to break a class enemy, Ukraine’s embattled peasantry, and the battered nation of which it was the backbone.

It is this national element that some historians would like to deny. It unsettles the conventional narrative under which the ethnically based mass murders of mid-20th-century Europe are associated almost exclusively with Nazis, and, in so doing, it raises some awkward questions about those in the democratic world who looked so longingly to Moscow in the 1930s. The details of the Holodomor might have been obscure or obscured, but there was a fairly widespread awareness in the West that something had occurred. How else to explain all that talk of omelet and eggs? Those who claimed to have turned to Communism only because of the growing Nazi threat must have believed that those millions of dead Ukrainians counted for very little.

And it wasn’t just Ukrainians. As the Thirties curdled on, the list of peoples brutalized by Stalin grew ever longer. The “national operations” that were a murderous subset of the Great Terror of 1937–38 accounted for some 250,000 deaths, including those of at least 85,000 Soviet Poles. The hideous ethnic persecution developing in the Third Reich throughout the 1930s may have been more overt than its Soviet counterpart, but it was in the USSR that the cattle trucks were already rolling. At that stage Hitler’s haul of victims lagged far behind.

That was to change. The second part of Snyder’s book details how the Nazis brought their own flavor of hell to the territories he dubs the Bloodlands. With his feel for neglected history, Snyder restores focus to the terrible fate of the Soviet POWs who had fallen into German hands: “The Germans shot, on a conservative estimate, half a million Soviet prisoners of war. By way of starvation or mistreatment during transit, they killed about 2.6 million more.”

He correctly sees this not just as a matter of callousness and cruelty but as an adjunct to Hitler’s wider plans for a region that was to be emptied of most of its original inhabitants and re-peopled by the master race.

And then, of course, there were the Jews. In page after grueling page, Snyder depicts the pogrom that erupted across the Bloodlands. After all these years, after all the histories, there are still details that appall: “By spring 1943, fires burned at Treblinka day and night. . . . Women, with more fatty tissue, burned better than men; so the laborers learned to put them on the bottom of the pile.”

In an interesting twist, Snyder reveals how the usual Western understanding of the Holocaust, centered on the almost clinical danse macabre of deportation and eventual extermination in a camp far from Paris, Amsterdam, or Rome, fails to reflect the more typical experience to the east. The frenzied killings that swept the Bloodlands in the wake of the German invasion — within six months one million Soviet Jews had been butchered — are the clearest possible evidence of a primeval savagery unleashed.

To suggest, as some have, that, by twinning his chronicle of Nazi atrocity with a history of the Soviet slaughters of the previous decade, Snyder has in some way diminished the Holocaust is absurd. The Holocaust was underpinned by a dream of annihilation that was all its own, but it was also a product of its era. Like Communism, Nazism was a creed with a strong religious resonance (it’s no coincidence that this was a time when more conventional religions were losing their traditional hold over the human imagination), yet it aimed at creating a utopia for its elect here on earth, a dangerous enough delusion under the best of circumstances, let alone those developing in the early 20th century. For these utopias were, quite explicitly, to be built by bloodshed and sustained by force, a prospect made all the more menacing by technological advance, the growth of the modern state, and, critically, the shattering of so much of European civilization by the First World War. That conflict opened the door to the Bolshevik Revolution, which in turn helped pave the way for the Third Reich, a state that was both reaction against and imitation of the Soviet Union.

The Führer who, contemplating the Holocaust, once asked “who now remembers” the Armenian genocide. would certainly have noticed how quickly the Holodomor was allowed to vanish down the memory hole.

In some ways it is still there. That the Stalinist regime was guilty of what any reasonable person would describe as genocide has been beyond dispute for decades. Yet somehow there has been a hesitation about branding the Soviet state with the worst of the marks of Cain, a hesitation that still resonates — in politics, in diplomacy, and in high culture and low. Would there have been quite such an uproar if fashion designer John Galliano had said that he “loved” Stalin rather than Hitler?

In Stalin’s Genocides, Professor Naimark recounts how the definition of genocide was diluted before being enshrined in the 1948 United Nations convention. At the insistence of the Soviets — and others — the destruction of specific social and political groups was excluded. It was a distinction rooted neither in logic nor in morality, but it worked its sinister magic. Sparing Stalin, and by extension the state that he spawned, from the taint of genocide allowed the USSR to maintain some sort of hold over the radiant future that — against all the evidence — it still claimed to be building, that radiant future that has proved such a handy alibi for all the Hobsbawms and, even, for their successors today. It helped ensure that Mao’s famine too was largely passed over in silence. It still enables Russia to avoid the hard truths of its own history, an evasion that poisons its politics both at home and abroad. Sadly, it’s no surprise that the new pro-Moscow government in Ukraine has been playing down the genocidal nature of the Holodomor.

Since the Balkan wars, the jurisprudence of genocide has, as Professor Naimark shows, evolved to the point at which there could be no serious legal doubt that the architects of Soviet mass murder would, if hauled before a court today, receive the judgment they deserve. Prosecutions for the Soviet genocides have, however, been pitifully few and confined to the liberated Baltic states. Thus, in May 2008, one Arnold Meri was tried for his role in the deportation of 251 Estonians almost sixty years before. He died before a verdict could be reached. Not long later Dmitri Medvedev awarded Meri a posthumous medal for his wartime service.

And if you want just one reason why these books by Professors Snyder and Naimark are so important, that’s not a bad place to start. Hobsbawm you can junk.

Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.


The Latest