I have posted several times on my interest in the Eastern Front of World War II. There was never anything like it in terms of sheer numbers of dead and prevalence of destruction in human history. But, Robert Gellately succeeds in placing this appalling war unto itself in a larger context with his work Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler.
Originally published in 2007, the book just now came around in my reading queue. Much of what it contains I already knew from other readings through the years. But, particularly where Lenin is concerned, the book taught me some new things and certainly it transforms the Eastern Front from a thing upon itself into something within wider social forces at work in Russia and Germany since the end of World War I, leaving the East Front tragedy as the horrific exclamation point at the end of a long, atrocious sentence in the twisted narrative of human history.
There is very little in my personal library about Vladimir Lenin. His political life is examined with a fair amount of detail throughout the first 150 or so pages of Gellately’s work. Lenin was living in exhile at the start of the Russian Revolution. But, through a turn of events I won’t get in to here, he became the leader of the Bolshevik movement which (I learned from the book) competed early on with the Mensheviks for control of the Communist Party.
When Lenin finally attained power toward the end of 1917 he authorized and established (as head of a committee) the Cheka (secret police) and concentration camps. Lenin and his lieutenants, including Joseph Stalin, advocated allowing the Cheka to run amok among supporters of the old tsarist regime. Thousands were killed or imprisoned as enemies of the state.
As Communism proceeded it ran to the heaviest resistance not from the tsarist regime, however, but from the vast numbers of peasant farmers in southern Russia, the Ukraine, and the Crimea. The average peasant did not want to give up his land to collective farming. He wanted to keep his land. Resistance occurred.
In September 1918, Lenin authorized the Red Terror and treatment of enemies of the regime was radicalized. Almost immediately, 15,000 were executed. By 1919, as many as half a million Cossacks were killed or imprisoned. In the Crimea “…at the end of 1920, somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 were shot or hanged. The witch-hunt continued afterward, stoked by Lenin, who talked about how up to 300,000 more ‘spies and secret agents’ in the Crimea be tracked down and ‘punished’.” (page 72)
In the 1920’s Lenin solidified power. It was during that decade that Stalin became his right-hand man and virtually unchallenged successor. Stalin began his rule with an expansion of public trials in Moscow that Lenin began years before. “Like Lenin he believed in the educative value of such rituals which, to be successful, had to reveal a credible threat by providing a story line plausible to ordinary people.” (page 161) Mass fake trials resulted in continued executions and deportation to concentration camps.
But the trouble with the peasants remained for Stalin. As late as 1930 there were 14,000 protests throughout the southern region involving 2.5 million peasants. (page 174) As more arrests were made and the Gulag system grew in numbers, Stalin began to shift prisoners into labor camps and he used forced labor for a number of massive construction projects such as the Belomor Canal. Unknown hundreds of thousands had died by the time Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933.
Adolf Hitler’s reign of terror is better known than is Stalin’s or Lenin’s. Gellately devotes fully half his book’s 600 pages to the rise of the Nazi’s, their fundamental racism against Jews and vehement opposition to Bolshevism. Suffice it to say that the Nazi’s were no more committed to imprisoning and killing people as they saw fit, but, were far more systematic in their murder methods.
Nevertheless, Hitler did not start out by imprisoning and killing the Jews. To begin with he wanted to make life miserable for them so they would simply leave Germany. Of course, many were beaten and killed. Yet, Hitler was far bloodier with his purge of the Nazi’s party’s own paramilitary branch, the SA, than he was on the population as a whole. Hitler’s first mass execution was of members of his own party.
Meanwhile, Stalin purged his own military and citizenry throughout the 1930’s, affecting some 3.5 million people. “In 1937 alone, 936,750 people were arrested, of whom 790,665 were ‘convicted.’ Astoundingly, 353,074 of these were shot, and 429,311 were sent to the Gulag or prison. In 1938, the numbers fell to 638,509, bet the executions, at 328,618, did not decrease significantly.” (page 281) Long before Hitler, first Lenin then Stalin racked up millions of deaths in the name of the Marxist dictum of economic evolution.
The Nazi’s started their more radicalized treatment of the Jews when they invaded Poland in September 1939. After that, the concentration camp population, which contained only a few hundred thousand people up to that time, swelled considerably. In Poland, the Nazi’s directly murdered tens of thousands of people. The German Army objected to the often undisciplined nature of the killings but did not raise a hand to the ruthlessness itself.
By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 the SS and the Wehrmacht worked out an arrangement that guaranteed there would be no chaotic operations conducted in its immediate logistical rear area. The book makes it clear, however, that often the army assisted in “anti-partisan and Jewish Bolshevik” efforts. The ordinary German soldier knew all about these mass murders.
German precision was almost unimaginable. “…in March 1942 75 to 80 percent of the victims of the Holocaust were still alive. The greatest killing was in the year from March 1942 to March 1943, by the end of which only 20 to 25 percent of those who were to be murdered in the Holocaust were still living.” (page 460) Lenin and Stalin may have collectively accounted for millions of murders, but it was over a period from 1917 to 1953, roughly 36 years. The bulk of Hitler’s genocide happened in just a couple of years.
Perhaps the best example is found in what happened late in the war with the Hungarian Jews. “This deportation of the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz was compressed within seven weeks and became the single greatest massacre of the Second World War. Auschwitz was revamped to receive and kill large contingents, and beginning in May the schedule was for three or four trains a day, each carrying 3,000 to 3,500. In total 438,000 were sent to Auschwitz between May 15 and July 9, 1944.” (page 468) All but a handful of tragic, starved, and disease-ridden survivors, were murdered in a matter of weeks.
Even during the war Stalin continued his ruthless treatment of his citizenry. About 175,000 naturalized Germans living in the Soviet Union were sent to the Gulag and died. Killings in the Caucasus and the Crimea numbered about 100,000. “In just five years, from 1941 to 1945, official records show that 621,637 died in Gulag camps.” (page 521)
After the war Stalin continued to imprison and murder his own citizenry up to his death in 1953. “More recent estimations of Soviet-on-Soviet killing have been more ‘modest’ and range between ten and twenty million. In the penal system alone, according to one scholar, 2,749,163 died between 1929 and 1953. Those numbers are still incomplete, not only because they do not cover every year since 1917 but also because they exclude labor colonies completely. The total makes no mention of the deaths in transit or the hundreds of thousands executed by quota during the Great Terror or done to death during wartime ethnic cleansings and in countless other ways.” (page 584)
Altogether it amounts to a killing of humanity by humanity surpassing our contemporary abilities for a full accounting. Long and seemingly forever is the list of dead bodies who no one knows, their names uncounted, beyond the scope of even the Holocaust itself. It would be unbelievable that any human ideology could hold such power upon mass human behavior if it were not an undeniable historic, physical fact.
I see similar atrocities around the world today. The murderous regime in Syria is the obvious current example. Libya is another recent one. You can go back a few years to Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milošević. Genocide is certainly still with us. But, fortunately, we know nothing on the massive scale of "The Age of Social Catastrophe."
For their crimes against humanity, Hitler and most of his lieutenants either committed suicide or were hanged or imprisoned. Meanwhile, Stalin, the victor of the Eastern Front, continued his reign of terror until his death in 1953. No criminal charges were ever brought against Stalin in his lifetime. In some ways, the horrific crimes of the Nazis legitimized the much larger (in terms of numbers) genocide during the Stalin regime. Either way, however, Lenin, Hitler and Stalin collectively make today’s mass murder look like child’s play.
While we are counting such things, however, it should be mentioned that the worst mass murderer in recent history was someone outside the scope of Gellately's book. That title goes to Mao Zedong, who was probably responsible for the deaths of more than 50,000,000 human beings. The true number may never be known as they don't really keep track of that in China.
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