Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
Take your choice:
Many Europeans, distressed by the nazification of Germany, looked hopefully to Moscow for an ally.
For some of the Germans and other Europeans who favored Hitler and his enterprise, the cruelty of Soviet policy seemed to be an argument for National Socialism.
This was the world facing those in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s. What a choice…as if anyone living there had much of a choice.
Hitler significantly consolidated power in 1933. The Reichstag fire, election victories (thanks to the support of the German communists, on orders from Stalin), the first concentration camps, an enabling act allowing Hitler to rule by decree. All big news throughout the western world, compared to the minor news item of the millions killed by the intentional famines and deportations occurring in the Soviet Union at the same time.
Internationally, Stalin was given a pass: “…with the help of many sympathizers abroad….” Hitler was confronted with “voices of criticism and outrage.” This at a time when the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies were infinitely greater than those attributable to Hitler’s.
Hitler’s terror, at this time, was one of intimidation – he locked up subversive (in his view) elements; he did not eliminate these, at least not in meaningful numbers. In the meantime, Germany signed a non-aggression declaration with Poland – at the same time that Stalin was killing and otherwise purging Poles within the Soviet Union by the thousands.
Stalin took further advantage of the rise of Nazi Germany; he shifted the focus of the communist struggle from one of class vs. class to one of all of the left against the fascists. This could explain Roosevelt’s attraction. Stalin helped birth National Socialism in Germany, and then attempted to consolidate the left (via The Popular Front) to fight it; Stalin saw war as the best means to advance the revolution.
Despite the overwhelming excesses of Stalin’s regime, propaganda and formed public opinion made Hitler out as the tyrant. Who didn’t want to be against Nazi’s, after all? Statements that in any way suggested that Stalin was a far worse criminal than Hitler were met with charges of Nazi sympathizer. Nothing much has changed in this regard.
While the international chess pieces were coming in place, Stalin could not afford to ignore the internal situation. Having few if any political enemies remaining within the Soviet Union only seemed to convince him that the opposition was only becoming skillful at political invisibility. On 7 November 1937, Stalin raised a toast (emphasis added):
“We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts – yes, his thoughts! – threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin.”
Stalin knew what today’s advocates of the war on terror know but will not state openly: when you want to destroy thoughts (ideological enemies), every family member and acquaintance of those you kill are newly created potential enemies. They must also be destroyed…mercilessly. Perhaps bombing wedding parties is, therefore, intentional?
Stalin had the state police – the NKVD – to affect such a policy, his terror. Using the political assassination of his close comrade, Sergei Kirov, to his advantage, Stalin blamed terrorists for the murder – not satisfied merely with the arrest and conviction of the assassin.
He forced through a special law allowing for the swift execution of “terrorists.” Emphasizing the threat of terrorism, he declared that his former politburo opponents on the left plotted the murder of the Soviet leadership and overthrow of Soviet power.
The “threat of terrorism.” I guess Stalin had his own war on terror.
Beginning in August 1936, show trials began; more than a dozen former political opponents (and Trotsky allies) were tried, sentenced to death, and executed. A narrative of a grand conspiracy, a “Center of Centers,” was developed by Stalin’s henchman Nikolai Yezhov – for whom opposition equaled terrorism.
Guantanamo, secret tribunals, kill lists, national security letters, a nebulous enemy allowing for complete leeway regarding who is targeted, a grand conspiracy of “they hate us for our freedom” – all modeled after a previously successful program.
Purges within the party and the NKVD followed. High commanders of the armed forces were tried; about half of the generals of the Red Army would be executed in the months to come. Of 139 members of the central committee who took part in the party congress of 1934, 98 were shot.
Altogether, the purification of the armed forces, party leadership and various state institutions resulted in about fifty thousand executions.
While Stalin was purging in the tens-of-thousands, Hitler was purging in the dozens. Hitler used Heinrich Himmler’s SS to murder Ernst Röhm, leader of the SA brownshirts and several dozen of his cohorts – greatly increasing his standing with the military. The charge was that Röhm was planning a coup. In addition, several political and other leaders were similarly dispatched, in what became known as the “Night of the Long Knives.” Somewhere between 85 and a few hundred were murdered in this purge.
Stalin, meanwhile, was just getting started:
The Soviet purges within the army, party, and NKVD were the prelude to Stalin’s Great Terror, which in 1937 and 1938 would take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for reasons of class and nation.
Again it was the kulaks that were targeted – at least initially. Millions of kulaks had survived the earlier deportations; now they were rejoining collective farms and returning to the Orthodox Church. Many remained in the eastern part of Russia – might they support a Japanese invasion? Might their experience lead them to rebellion? To ask such questions in Stalin’s regime was to answer these.
In July 1937, Stalin issued general instructions for mass repressions in every region. The NKVD was to register all kulaks residing in their regions and to recommend quotas for execution and deportation. Suspected or even possible counter-revolutionaries were to suffer “direct physical liquidation.” By the end of 1938, the NKVD executed almost 400,000 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of these orders.
The process was similar to that used during the time of the famine: troikas, quotas by region, rubber-stamped verdicts, ignoring legal procedures, no possibility of appeal.
The fulfillment of Order 00447 began with the emptying of the file cabinets.
By definition every kulak had a file, as kulak was a term created and defined by the state for the purpose of creating a file. Criminals – meaning anyone that had any type of encounter with the police – also had files. “Anti-Soviet elements” was a catch all – anyone else on whom the NKVD had a file.
Those targeted were arrested, forced to confess, and encouraged to implicate others. Confessions were elicited by torture.
The sentence was death or the Gulag (and the Gulag had its own death quotas to meet). Recommendations for sentencing were almost always accepted, with hundreds of cases processed at a time.
Hitler couldn’t keep up. Homosexuals, vagrants, alcoholics, those unwilling to work, Jehovah’s Witnesses – all confined, rarely executed. These went to the concentration camps – a total of about 20,000 compared to a million in Stalin’s purge. Per capita, Stalin confined 25 times the numbers as did Hitler, with an execution rate almost 700 times higher.
So much for terror based on class…more or less; next came terror based on nationality…more or less.
People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.” It was not an SS officer speaking but a communist party leader… In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds.
The most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s was not the four hundred thousand or so German Jews (the number declining because of emigration) but the six hundred thousand or so Soviet Poles (the number declining because of executions).
The justification for this murder of Soviet Poles was a fabrication:
The “Polish Military Organization,” conjured up during the famine in 1933, was sustained as pure bureaucratic fantasy in Soviet Ukraine, then adapted to justify a national terror of Poles throughout the Soviet Union.
In January 1937, Nikolai Yezhov presented to Stalin a plan – a theory of a Polish grand conspiracy. In March, Yezhov purged the NKVD of Polish officers. When a Pole offered another as a possible conspirator, both were condemned – one for being implicated and the other for not doing the implicating sooner.
In August 1937, Yezhov issued an order mandating that the NKVD totally liquidate the network of Polish spies from the no-longer existent Polish Military Organization. The meaning of the order was understood: “destroy the Poles entirely.”
Whereas the extermination of the kulaks could be explained in class / Marxist terms, this national terror offered no such pretense. There was no longer the idea of a basic socialist fraternity of working people across nationalities, a multi-nationalism.
This multi-nationalism was not hypocrisy:
When the show trials began in 1936, the heights of the NKVD were dominated by men whose own origins were within the Soviet national minorities, Jews above all. About forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents.
By the time the Great Terror was finished, only about four percent of the NKVD officers would be so identified. The rest were initially perpetrator and then victim.
Polish communists – members of the central committee of the Polish party – were not spared execution. As there was, in reality, no Polish plot, all leading Polish figures were subject to execution. Once again, hundreds and thousands were sentenced per day – death or the Gulag (which was little more than a delayed death for many).
In Leningrad in 1937 and 1938, “Poles were thirty-four times more likely to be arrested than their fellow Soviet citizens.” The terror was not limited to Russian land – most Soviet Poles lived in Belarus and Ukraine, lands that Poles had occupied for hundreds of years. Hundreds of leading writers and other community leaders were arrested and killed in Belarus; eventually the Polish population in Belarus fell by more than 60,000 during the time of the Great Terror.
Yet seventy percent of the Soviet Union’s six hundred thousand Poles lived in Ukraine, where Poles were twelve times more likely than the local population to be arrested. Numerous mass graves, executions by the thousands, quotas eagerly exceeded to demonstrate loyalty, little to no oversight.
Husbands executed; after relocation, also the wives. Thereafter, children could be placed in orphanages to ensure they would not be raised as Poles. Eventually over one hundred thousand were executed or transferred to the Gulag.
Further operations were conducted in Latvia, Finland, and Estonia – with more than 30,000 shot. Altogether, a member of a targeted minority was twenty times more likely to be killed in the Great Terror than was the average Soviet Citizen.
For fear of Japan, about 170,000 Soviet Koreans were transferred west to Kazakhstan; Mongolian authorities (Mongolia being a Soviet satellite) killed over 20,000. All killed and relocated for an attack from Japan that was not coming.
Altogether, something over six hundred thousand executions were carried out during the kulak and national terrors, along with another 50,000 political executions.
Yezhov was replaced by Lavrenty Beria, as Stalin was not pleased with the former’s supposed excesses. For this reason, he – along with many of the top officers of the NKVD – was subsequently executed. The Soviet Union, far from the people’s paradise, was little more than a demonstration of a tyrant’s mastery over his political court.
It was noted earlier the significant reduction of Jews in the NKVD ranks during the Great Terror, yet Jews were blamed for the action:
The Great Terror could be, and by many would be, blamed on the Jews. To reason this way was to fall into a Stalinist trap: Stalin certainly understood that Jewish NKVD officers would be a convenient scapegoat for national killing actions, especially after both the Jewish secret policemen and the national elites were dead. In any event, the institutional beneficiaries of the Terror were not Jews or members of other national minorities but Russians who moved up the ranks.
Hitler also focused on Jews during this time; however, while his efforts were more public than were Stalin’s to the outside world, the scale was much smaller. After Germany entered Austria, ten thousand Austrian Jews were relocated to Vienna and from there they left the country. The death toll from Kristallnacht was measured in the few hundreds.
It was only after Kristallnacht that Jews entered the concentration camp system in Germany in large numbers; even here, the purpose was to get them to leave Germany – not extermination. More than 100,000 Jews left Germany in 1938 / 1939.
By 1938, Stalin killed about one thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than did Hitler – including more Jews, although in Stalin’s case the Jews were caught up in the general terror, not specifically for nationality.
Despite this track record, it was Stalin who was viewed as the protector of Europe from Hitler’s barbarism.
In these years, Hitler was considering relocation as the solution to the Jewish question. However, after January 1939 Hitler’s rhetoric against Jews increased dramatically: “…international finance Jewry…” “…plunging the peoples of the world into a world war…” “…the result will be…the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”
Next came the rapprochement between Hitler and Stalin and the division of Poland. On September 1, Hitler invaded; two weeks later, Stalin joined him. This set the stage for the terror to come to Poland. No longer merely trapped between two madmen, they were now buried by the weight.
Thus far, virtually all of the evil unleashed in these bloodlands was due to Stalin, almost none of it to Hitler. This would change with the division and occupation of Poland: Stalin would continue his practices; Hitler would begin to greatly advance his.