Category Archives: USSR

‘The Good War’ Included Many Bad

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 6735-6779:

In his memoirs of the late 1940s and 50s, published after his death following the famous ‘umbrella assassination’ in London in 1978, the Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov told a story that is emblematic of the postwar period – not only in his own country, but in Europe as a whole. It involved a conversation between one of his friends, who had been arrested for challenging a Communist official who had jumped the bread queue, and an officer of the Bulgarian Communist militia:

‘And now tell me who your enemies are?’ the militia chief demanded.
K. thought for a while and replied: ‘I don’t really know, I don’t think I have any enemies.’
‘No enemies!’ The chief raised his voice. ‘Do you mean to say that you hate nobody and nobody hates you?’
‘As far as I know, nobody.’
‘You are lying,’ shouted the Lieutenant-Colonel suddenly, rising from his chair. ‘What kind of a man are you not to have any enemies? You clearly do not belong to our youth, you cannot be one of our citizens, if you have no enemies! … And if you really do not know how to hate, we shall teach you! We shall teach you very quickly!’

In a sense, the militia chief in this story is right – it was virtually impossible to emerge from the Second World War without enemies. There can hardly be a better demonstration than this of the moral and human legacy of the war. After the desolation of entire regions; after the butchery of over 35 million people; after countless massacres in the name of nationality, race, religion, class or personal prejudice, virtually every person on the continent had suffered some kind of loss or injustice. Even countries which had seen little direct fighting, such as Bulgaria, had been subject to political turmoil, violent squabbles with their neighbours, coercion from the Nazis and eventually invasion by one of the world’s new superpowers. Amidst all these events, to hate one’s rivals had become entirely natural. Indeed, the leaders and propagandists of all sides had spent six long years promoting hatred as an essential weapon in the quest for victory. By the time this Bulgarian militia chief was terrorizing young students at Sofia University, hatred was no longer a mere by-product of the war – in the Communist mindset it had been elevated to a duty.

There were many, many reasons not to love one’s neighbour in the aftermath of the war. He might be a German, in which case he would be reviled by almost everyone, or he might have collaborated with Germans, which was just as bad: most of the vengeance in the aftermath of the war was directed at these two groups. He might worship the wrong god – a Catholic god or an Orthodox one, a Muslim god, or a Jewish god, or no god at all. He might belong to the wrong race or nationality: Croats had massacred Serbs during the war, Ukrainians had killed Poles, Hungarians had suppressed Slovaks, and almost everyone had persecuted Jews. He might have the wrong political beliefs: both Fascists and Communists had been responsible for countless atrocities across the continent, and both Fascists and Communists had themselves been subjected to brutal repression – as indeed had those subscribing to virtually every shade of political ideology between these two extremes.

The sheer variety of grievances that existed in 1945 demonstrates not only how universal the war had been, but also how inadequate is our traditional way of understanding it. It is not enough to portray the war as a simple conflict between the Axis and the Allies over territory. Some of the worst atrocities in the war had nothing to do with territory, but with race or nationality. The Nazis did not attack the Soviet Union merely for the sake of Lebensraum: it was also an expression of their urge to assert the superiority of the German race over Jews, Gypsies and Slavs. The Soviets did not invade Poland and the Baltic States only for the sake of territory either: they wanted to propagate communism as far westwards as they were able. Some of the most vicious fighting was not between the Axis and the Allies at all, but between local people who took the opportunity of the wider war to give vent to much older frustrations. The Croat Ustashas fought for the sake of ethnic purity. The Slovaks, Ukrainians and Lithuanians fought for national liberation. Many Greeks and Yugoslavs fought for the abolition of the monarchy – or for its restoration. Many Italians fought to free themselves from the shackles of a medieval feudalism. The Second World War was therefore not only a traditional conflict for territory: it was simultaneously a war of race, and a war of ideology, and was interlaced with half a dozen civil wars fought for purely local reasons.

Given that the Germans were only one ingredient in this vast soup of different conflicts, it stands to reason that their defeat did not bring an end to the violence. In fact, the traditional view that the war came to an end when Germany finally surrendered in May 1945 is entirely misleading: in reality, their capitulation only brought an end to one aspect of the fighting. The related conflicts over race, nationality and politics continued for weeks, months and sometimes years afterwards. Gangs of Italians were still lynching Fascists late into the 1940s. Greek Communists and Nationalists, who first fought one another as opponents or collaborators with Germany, were still at each other’s throats in 1949. The Ukrainian and Lithuanian partisan movements, born at the height of the war, were still fighting well into the mid-1950s. The Second World War was like a vast supertanker ploughing through the waters of Europe: it had such huge momentum that, while the engines might have been reversed in May 1945, its turbulent course was not finally brought to a halt until several years later.

Leave a comment

Filed under Baltics, Bulgaria, democracy, Europe, Germany, Greece, Hungary, migration, nationalism, Poland, religion, Slovakia, Ukraine, USSR, war, Yugoslavia

Post-WWII Yugoslavia as Harbinger

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4976-5024:

It is true that the statistics associated with postwar Yugoslavia are worse than in any other country. Some 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians were killed by the Partisans in the aftermath of the war: when compared to the population as a whole, this is more than ten times as bad as in Italy and twenty times as bad as in France.33 At first sight, the anecdotes that emerge from the postwar period also appear to support the stereotype of Yugoslavian cruelty. Dusan Vukovic, who joined the Partisans at the tender age of eleven, claims that he saw a Ustasha skinned alive and then hung on a tree branch with his own skin. ‘With my own eyes I saw the Partisans cut off noses and ears and gouge out eyes. They cut symbols of various kinds into the flesh of the captives, too, especially when they thought they had Gestapo personnel in their hands.’ Other eyewitnesses speak of routine sadism, such as guards killing their victims slowly with knives, riding prisoners like horses, or binding men and women together and throwing them into rivers to watch them drown.

Numbers aside, however, the violence that occurred in Yugoslavia at the end of the war was no more cruel than that which occurred in other countries. On the contrary, the same themes that pervaded here were present throughout the continent. There is no difference between the anecdotes above and the stories of French miliciens who are supposed to have arrested Resistance fighters during the German occupation, ‘ripped out their eyes, put bugs in the holes and sewn up their sockets’. Czech mobs were just as likely to carve Nazi symbols into the flesh of SS men they caught hold of, and Belgian maquisards thought nothing of burning collaborators alive. Despite the stereotypes, therefore, the cruelty that took place in this unfortunate part of the Balkans should not be considered unique – rather it was symbolic of a dehumanization that had taken place across the continent.

Neither does the ethnic dimension to the violence set Yugoslavia apart. Such ethnic tension might have been missing in most of western Europe but, as I have shown, it was an integral part of the war and its aftermath in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine. There were also numerous smaller, more regional conflicts involving minorities across the continent, some of which were every bit as violent on a local scale.

In fact, the only unique thing about Yugoslavia is how well it simultaneously encapsulates all of the themes I have discussed so far in this book. As in the rest of Europe, much of the violence in Yugoslavia was motivated by a simple desire for vengeance. As in the rest of Europe, the rifts caused by the war were deliberately concealed beneath a layer of cosy mythology once the war was over. The postwar breakdown of law and order was no different there than in other badly damaged areas of the continent. Lack of trust in the new police force, whom the people feared ‘as they would a plunderous mob’, was no different from the fear that Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians and East Germans felt towards their own militias (or indeed towards Soviet soldiers). Lack of trust in the courts was the same as it was in France and Italy and, as in those countries, often led to people taking the law into their own hands. Clandestine, unofficial prisons were set up for collaborators, just as they were in France and Czechoslovakia; gulags were created for prisoners of war, just as they had been in the Soviet Union. Populations of Germans and Hungarians were expelled, just as they were from other countries across the continent.

It is only the involvement of the Yugoslav state that points the way to a new theme that I have not yet discussed in depth – the idea that much of the violence was politically motivated. Almost all of the events described up to now were brought about by individuals or groups acting outside state control, and who were eventually brought back into line by a combination of the Allied armies and traditional politicians. In Yugoslavia it was the state itself that conducted the violence, the Allies were absent, and traditional politicians had been replaced by revolutionaries. It is perhaps unsurprising that these fighting men took a distinctly unsubtle approach to returning the country to law and order.

Tito’s right-hand man, Milovan Djilas, put their methods succinctly in an interview published in a British magazine in 1979: ‘Yugoslavia was in a state of chaos and destruction. There was hardly any civil administration. There were no properly constituted courts. There was no way in which the cases of 20–30,000 people could have been reliably investigated. So the easy way out was to have them all shot, and have done with the problem.’ While the French and the Italians tried to rid themselves of collaborators through the courts, and bemoaned the inadequacy of their purge ever afterwards, Tito recognized the shortcomings of his legal system and dispensed with it altogether. ‘We put an end to it,’ he reminisced later, ‘once and for all.’

There is no doubt that the massacres that occurred in Yugoslavia after the war were, at least in part, politically motivated. Since the Communists were intent on forcing Croatia and Slovenia to rejoin a Yugoslavian federation, it made no sense to allow tens of thousands of staunch Croatian and Slovenian nationalists to put that reunion in jeopardy. Neither could Tito allow the continued existence of Mihailović’s royalist Chetniks to jeopardize his vision of a Communist Yugoslavia. Both groups therefore had to be dealt with one way or another. Those who were not shot were imprisoned for years or sometimes decades.

Politically motivated violence by the state was not unique to Yugoslavia. Other Communist groups across Europe were perhaps more subtle in their pursuit of power, but equally ruthless, and just as willing to resort to violence when they believed it necessary. For countless millions of people throughout the eastern half of the continent, therefore, the end of the war did not signal ‘liberation’ at all, it merely heralded a new era of state repression. The Nazi terror was over: the Communist terror was about to begin.

Leave a comment

Filed under Balkans, Germany, nationalism, USSR, war, Yugoslavia

Poles vs. Ukrainians during World War II

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4091-4123, 4147-4157:

The borderlands of eastern Poland were invaded not once, but three times during the war: first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and finally by the Soviets again. The different ethnic communities that lived in this richly diverse area reacted to each invasion in different ways. Most of the Polish population resisted the Nazis and the Soviets alike, in the hope that Poland might somehow be able to return to its prewar status quo. The Ukrainian population, by contrast, was more divided. Almost all of them feared and hated the Russians because of the brutal way that they had ruled the Soviet part of Ukraine during the 1930s; but many welcomed the Germans, at least at first, as liberators. The Jews, meanwhile, did not know where to place their faith. Many hoped that the Soviet invasion might deliver them from Polish and Ukrainian anti-Semitism; later, some seemed to hope that the German invasion would save them from Soviet persecution. By the time the region was invaded for a third time at the end of 1943, the handful of Jews who still survived had lost faith in all outsiders, whatever their nationality.

Both the Soviets and the Nazis played these different ethnic groups off against one other. The Nazis especially sought to harness the nationalist sentiments of the Ukrainians, in order to suppress the rest of the population. Even before the invasion they had made contacts with Ukrainian far-right political groups, particularly the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). This was an illegal ultra-nationalist movement, akin to the Ustashas in Croatia or the Iron Guard in Romania, which embraced the use of violence to achieve its aims. The Nazis dangled the promise of Ukrainian independence before them in return for their collaboration. While the most powerful factions of this shady organization never trusted German intentions, other factions enthusiastically allowed themselves to be exploited – partly because they thought the Nazis would give them what they wanted, but also because they shared some of the Nazis’ darker intentions.

The most shameful collaboration between the OUN and the Nazis was the way in which they worked together to eradicate the Jews. The OUN had for years been speaking of ethnic purity, of a ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians’, and of the benefits of revolutionary terror. The implementation of the Final Solution, particularly in the region of Volhynia, showed followers of the OUN that the slogans were not mere rhetoric. These massacres, which occurred in full view of the general population, would provide the template for all future ethnic cleansing in the region. What once would have been unthinkable now became eminently possible.

During the course of 1941 and 1942, about 12,000 Ukrainian policemen became intimately acquainted with the tactics the Nazis used to kill over 200,000 Volhynian Jews. As collaborators, they were involved in the planning of operations. They gave assurances to local populations in order to lull them into a false sense of security. They were employed in the sudden encirclement of Jewish villages and settlements, and even took part in some of the killing itself. The slaughter of the Jews was the perfect apprenticeship for what would come later.

At the end of 1942, when it first became obvious that German power was waning, these same Ukrainian policemen deserted their posts en masse. They took their weapons and went to join the OUN’s new, armed partisan group, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrains‘ka Povstans’ka Armiia, or UPA). They used the skills they had learned under the Nazis to continue their campaign against their ethnic enemies – not only the region’s few remaining Jews, but this time also its large Polish population.

The massacre of Poles began in the same areas where Ukrainian policemen had been most intimately connected to the massacre of Jews: Volhynia. There were many reasons why the ethnic cleansing began here – the area contained extensive forests and marshes, and so was particularly suited to partisan activity, and the isolated Polish communities were much less well defended than in other areas – but the previous actions against the Jews certainly played their part. The taboos had already been broken: young Ukrainian men here had become both trained to kill, and inured to mass killing. When they embarked on their cleansing of the region at the end of 1942 they were therefore relatively free of both external and personal constraints.

In reaction to such events, some local Poles began to set up their own militias for the purpose of self-defence. The Polish underground also diverted resources away from resisting the occupation in order to protect Polish communities from the UPA. Some Volhynian Poles turned to the Germans for jobs as policemen so that they might have opportunities for revenge. (The Germans certainly appeared happy to recruit them, and a new wave of collaboration was born – ironically in the name of controlling former collaborators who were now running amok.) When the Soviets arrived in 1944, many Poles joined the Red Army or the NKVD – again, with the purpose of exacting revenge for all they had suffered. Ukrainian villages were burned, and thousands of Ukrainian peasants killed, in both official and unofficial reprisals for the actions of UPA. These reprisals, naturally, were used by Ukrainian partisans as further justification for their targeting of Poles and Polish villages. And so the situation degenerated into a vicious cycle. During the final year of the war, and in its immediate aftermath, the entire region was engulfed in what was effectively a civil war. What began in Volhynia spread to Galicia and central Poland. Poles and Ukrainians slaughtered one another and burned each other’s villages with an enthusiasm that far exceeded any of their actions against the German or Soviet occupiers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Germany, nationalism, Poland, Ukraine, USSR, war

Antarctic Cuisine: Aerovodka and Gristle

From Hoosh: Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine, by Jason C. Anthony (U. Nebraska Press, 2012), pp. 146-148:

One of the exchange scientists who spent a year on a Soviet base [in Antarctica] was glaciologist Charles Swithinbank. At Novolazarevskaya with the 1963–65 Ninth Soviet Antarctic Expedition, he lived a very different life than he used to in England. As Swithinbank relates in Vodka on Ice, he learned while sailing south on a Soviet ship that his diet would be impoverished in both quality and variety. “Apart from feast days,” he wrote bluntly, “the food was not good.” Cabbage soup (borscht or shchi, depending on the type of cabbage), ragout, and compote (“an insipid rust-colored liquid with a faint taste of boiled apples”) became distressingly familiar. The quality of the beef was quite poor, all gristle and bone. Soviet cattle, he learned, fed on sparse grass.

Although the meat was poor, the butter was excellent. So was the black bread. And those feast days really were exceptional. Swithinbank sobered up after a New Year’s celebration full of black and red caviar, pickled herring, pickled mushrooms, sausage, crabmeat, and more. A May Day feast included roast chicken, crab salad, ham, salmon, smoked salmon and sturgeon caviar, apples, oranges, champagne, brandy, and orange juice stoked with airplane de-icing fluid.

Toasts drunk with de-icing fluid, called “aerovodka” by the Russians, were not restricted to holidays. At Molodezhnaya base, where Swithinbank visited en route to Novolazarevskaya, he noted that there was a more frequent aviator’s tradition: “On landing back at base after a long flight, it was the duty of the navigator to drain a litre of fluid from the aircraft’s de-icing system. Unlike some de-icing fluids, this was pure alcohol (ethanol). Once indoors, it was served to the aircrew and passengers.” One observer of a similar U.S. Antartic Program habit—drinking a rocket fuel known as JATO (jet-fuel assisted take-off)—equated the practice to that of a “warrior culture drinking blood.”

At Novolazarevskaya, the dining room was the community social center. One long table fit them all. Here he spent his year of good company, good science, and terrible food. The cook, Ivan Miximovish Sharikov, had spent over thirteen years in the polar regions as a weather observer. “The oldest, tallest, baldest, and humblest man” on staff, Ivan took on the cook’s role at Novolazerevskaya when no weather job was available. For him, as for all Soviet Antarctic staff, the pay was irresistible, since he earned five times what he might make in Russia. Ivan was not much of a cook, though to be fair he had little to work with—much of the better meat left by the previous year’s crew had gone to rot. Ivan was stuck making borcht, shchi, fish soup with bones, boiled potatoes, and lots of ragout, to Swithinbank’s dismay. Ivan’s ragout, he wrote, consisted “of stewed gristle with chips of bone, generally served with macaroni. Aside from the gristle, far, and bone, the amount of lean meat remaining could be held on a teaspoon.”

Ivan at least made a reliable porridge to swallow with the bread and butter each morning. Occasional treats included caviar, sauerkraut, and cheese. Cucumbers and tomatoes grew in window boxes, and ice cream was made from milk powder and freshly drifted snow. Each Russian expedition member also received a monthly five-hundred-gram chocolate ration but married men saved it for their wives, whom they had left behind for a very long time.

After an end-of-year inventory revealed more than one hundred missing bottles of vodka, champagne, and eau de cologne from Novolazarevskaya’s liquor stock, Ivan the cook confessed. He had a habit of taking walks alone after dinner, but Swithinbank “had assumed that it was to get a breath of fresh air as an antidote to the heat of the kitchen.” The eau de cologne was, for some Russians, an “esteemed substitute” when they ran out of vodka.

When Swithinbank returned to England, he had trouble adjusting back to his old diet. Meat, fish, and cheese made him ill. He eventually found a doctor with a good memory of World War II who diagnosed him with prisoner-of-war syndrome. After a year of high-carb meals garnished with stringy meat, Swithinbank’s body could no longer absorb high-protein English food. “The solution,” he wrote, “was simply to wean me slowly from the Russian diet.”

Leave a comment

Filed under England, food, Russia, science, travel, U.K., USSR

Lankov on the Soviet-run Popular Revolution in NK

The Sino-NK blog (“Northeast Asia with a China-North Korea Focus”) has an interesting column with the provocative title, A False Dichotomy: Professor Andrei Lankov on a Popular Revolution Imposed from Without. Here’s Prof. Lankov’s conclusion.

The Soviet involvement with the new regime in Pyongyang was considerable. Soviet control far exceeded America’s rather moderate influence in the South. However, the vast majority of Koreans did not know this. One cannot help but wonder, then: had the extent of Soviet control been fully known in the late 1940s, would such a revelation have had a decisive impact on popular attitudes towards Pyongyang’s regime? It is, after all, difficult to imagine that in 1946 North Korean farmers would have rejected free land had they known that this land had been bestowed upon them by the secretive Soviet viceroy and not by this young, plump guerrilla field commander named Kim Il-sung.

It seems that Korean historians are caught in a false dichotomy when they argue about whether the 1945-50 period was a time of foreign occupation or popular revolution. In fact, it was both. Irrespective of the Soviet advisors, who discreetly but firmly controlled developments, the major ideas resonated well with the majority of North Korean people and provided the language of the revolution. The Kim Il-sung regime of the late 1940s might have been a dependent or even a puppet one, but this does not necessarily mean that it was unpopular. Of course, its popularity was to a large extent based on naive expectations and illusions, but it was quite real nonetheless.

via The Marmot’s Hole

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, Japan, Korea, military, nationalism, scholarship, U.S., USSR

Purging Prussia at War’s End, 1945-

From: Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007), Kindle Loc. 12643-12695:

Among the Allies, only the Soviets remained aware of the tension between Prussian tradition and the National Socialist regime. While the July plot of 1944 evoked little positive comment among western politicians, the Soviet official media found words of praise for the conspirators. Soviet propaganda, by contrast with that of the western powers, consistently exploited Prussian themes – the National Committee for a Free Germany, established as a propaganda vehicle in 1943 and composed of captured German officers, appealed explicitly to the memory of the Prussian reformers, above all Gneisenau, Stein and Clausewitz, all of whom had resigned their Prussian commissions during the French occupation and joined the army of the Tsar. Yorck, the man who ignored the command of his sovereign to walk across the ice to the Russians in 1812, naturally held pride of place.

This was all eyewash, of course, yet it also reflected a specifically Russian perspective on Prussia’s history. The history of relations between the two states was no chronicle of unremitting mutual hatred. Stalin’s hero Peter the Great had been a warm admirer of the Prussia of the Great Elector, whose administrative innovations served as models for his own reforms. Russia and Prussia had cooperated closely in the partitioning of Poland and the Russian alliance was crucial to Prussia’s recovery against Napoleon after 1812. Relations remained warm after the Napoleonic Wars, when the diplomatic bond of the Holy Alliance was reinforced by the marriage of Frederick William III’s daughter Charlotte to Tsar Nicholas I. The Russians backed Austria in the dualist struggles of 1848–50, but favoured Prussia with a policy of benevolent neutrality during the war of 1866. The assistance rendered to the beleaguered Bolsheviks in 1917–18 and the close military collaboration between Reichswehr and Red Army during the Weimar years were more recent reminders of this long history of interaction and cooperation.

Yet none of this could preserve Prussia from dissolution at the hands of the victorious Allies. By the autumn of 1945, there was a consensus among the various British organs involved in the administration of occupied Germany that (in a tellingly redundant formulation) ‘this moribund corpse of Prussia’ must be ‘finally killed’. Its continued existence would constitute a ‘dangerous anachronism’. By the summer of 1946, this was a matter of firm policy for the British administration in Germany. A memorandum of 8 August 1946 by the British member of the Allied Control Authority in Berlin put the case against Prussia succinctly: I need not point out that Prussia has been a menace to European security for the last two hundred years. The survival of the Prussian State, even if only in name, would provide a basis for any irredentist claims which the German people may later seek to put forward, would strengthen German militarist ambitions, and would encourage the revival of an authoritarian, centralised Germany which in the interests of all it is vital to prevent.

The American and French delegations broadly supported this view; only the Soviets dragged their feet, mainly because Stalin still hoped to use Prussia as the hub of a unified Germany over which the Soviet Union might eventually be able to secure control. But by early February 1947, they too had fallen into step and the way was open for the legal termination of the Prussian state.

In the meanwhile, the extirpation of Prussia as a social milieu was already well advanced. The Central Committee of the German Communist Party in the Soviet zone of occupation announced in August 1945 that the ‘feudal estate-owners and the Junker caste’ had always been ‘the bearers of militarism and chauvinism’ (a formulation that would find its way into the text of Law No. 46 of the Allied Control Council). The removal of their ‘socio-economic power’ was thus the first and fundamental precondition for the ‘extirpation of Prussian militarism’. There followed a wave of expropriations. No account was taken of the political orientation of the owners, or of their role in resistance activity. Among those whose estates were confiscated was Ulrich-Wilhelm Count Schwerin von Schwanenfeld, who had been executed on 21 August 1944 for his role in the July conspiracy.

These transformations took place against the background of the greatest wave of migrations in the history of German settlement in Europe. During the last months of the war, millions of Prussians fled westwards from the eastern provinces to escape the advancing Red Army. Of those who remained, some committed suicide, others were killed or died of starvation, cold or illness. Germans were expelled from East Prussia, West Prussia, eastern Pomerania and Silesia, and hundreds of thousands perished in the process. The emigrations and resettlements continued into the 1950s and 1960s. The looting or burning of the great East-Elbian houses signalled the end not only of a socio-economic elite but also of a distinctive culture and way of life. Finckenstein, with its Napoleonic memorabilia, Beynuhnen with its collection of antiques, Waldburg with its rococo library, Blumberg and Gross Wohnsdorff with their memories of the liberal ministers von Schön and von Schroetter were among the many country seats to be plundered and gutted by an enemy bent on erasing every last trace of German settlement. So it was that the Prussians, or at least their mid-twentieth-century descendants, came to pay a heavy price for the war of extermination that Hitler’s Germany unleashed on Eastern Europe.

The scouring of Prussia from the collective awareness of the German population began before the end of the war with a massive aerial attack on the city of Potsdam. As a heritage site with little strategic or industrial significance, Potsdam was very low on the list of Allied targets and had been spared significant bombardment during the war. Late in the evening of Saturday 14 April 1945, however, 491 planes of British Bomber Command dropped their payloads over the city, transforming it into a sea of fire. Almost half the historical buildings of the old centre were obliterated in a bombing that lasted for only half an hour. When the fires had been extinguished and the smoke had cleared, the scorched 57-metre tower of the Garrison Church stood as the dominant landmark in a cityscape of ruins. Of the fabled carillon, famous for its automated renditions of the ‘Leuthen Chorale’, there remained only a lump of metal. The scouring continued after 1945, as entire districts of the old city were cleared to make way for socialist reconstruction. The imperatives of post-war city planning were reinforced by the anti-Prussian iconoclasm of the Communist authorities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, France, Germany, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

Initial Soviet Attitudes toward Israel

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 6369-6392 (pp. 345-346):

After the Second World War, it was much harder for the Soviet leadership to control the mental world of Soviet citizens. Although the apparatus of censorship remained in force, too many people had experienced life beyond the Soviet Union for Soviet norms to seem like the only norms, or Soviet lives necessarily the best sort of lives. The war itself could not be contained within a Fatherland, be it Russian or Soviet; it had touched too many other peoples and its aftermath shaped not just a country but a world. In particular, the establishment of the State of Israel made Soviet political amnesia about the fate of the Jews impossible. Even after the Holocaust, more Jews lived in the Soviet Union than in Palestine, but the latter was to become the national homeland of the Jews. If Jews were to have a national state, would this be a blow to British imperialism in the Middle East, to be supported, or a challenge to the loyalty of Soviet Jews, to be feared?

At first, the Soviet leadership seemed to expect that Israel would be a socialist state friendly to the Soviet Union, and the communist bloc supported Israel in ways that no one else could. In the second half of 1947, about seventy thousand Jews were permitted to leave Poland for Israel; many of them had just been expelled from the Soviet Union to Poland. After the United Nations recognized the State of Israel in May 1948 (with the Soviets voting in favor), the new state was invaded by its neighbors. Its nascent armies defended itself and, in dozens of cases, cleared territories of Arabs. The Poles trained Jewish soldiers on their own territory, then dispatched them to Palestine. The Czechoslovaks sent arms. As Arthur Koestler noted, the weapons shipments “aroused a feeling of gratitude among the Jews towards the Soviet Union.”

Yet by the end of 1948 Stalin had decided that Jews were influencing the Soviet state more than the Soviets were influencing the Jewish state. Spontaneous signs of affection for Israel were apparent in Moscow, and in Stalin’s own court. Muscovites seemed to adore the new Israeli ambassador, Golda Meir (born in Kiev and raised in the United States). The high holidays were observed with enormous fanfare. Rosh Hashanah saw the largest public gathering in Moscow in twenty years. Some ten thousand Jews crowded in and around the Choral Synagogue. When the shofar blew and people promised each other to meet “next year in Jerusalem,” the mood was euphoric. The anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, 7 November 1948, fell during the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Polina Zhemchuzhina, the wife of the commissar for foreign affairs Viacheslav Molotov, saw Golda Meir that day, and encouraged her to continue to go to synagogue. What was worse, Zhemchuzhina said this in Yiddish, the language of her parents and of Meir’s—in that paranoid setting, a suggestion of national unity among Jews across borders. Ekaterina Gorbman, the wife of another poliburo member, Kliment Voroshilov, was heard to exclaim: “Now we too have our own homeland.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Israel, Judaism, migration, nationalism, Poland, U.N., U.S., USSR

Competitive Victimology in the Bloodlands

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 7393-7441 (pp. 402-403):

Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom. Memory is mine and I have the right to do with it as I please; numbers are objective and you must accept my counts whether you like them or not. Such reasoning allows a nationalist to hug himself with one arm and strike his neighbor with the other. After the end of the Second World War, and then again after the end of communism, nationalists throughout the bloodlands (and beyond) have indulged in the quantitative exaggeration of victimhood, thereby claiming for themselves the mantle of innocence.

In the twenty-first century, Russian leaders associate their country with the more or less official numbers of Soviet victims of the Second World War: nine million military deaths, and fourteen to seventeen million civilian deaths. These figures are highly contested. Unlike most of the numbers presented in this book, they are demographic projections, rather than counts. But whether they are right or wrong, they are Soviet numbers, not Russian ones. Whatever the correct Soviet figures, Russian figures must be much, much lower. The high Soviet numbers include Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics. Particularly important are the lands that the Soviet Union occupied in 1939: eastern Poland, the Baltic States, northeastern Romania. People died there in horribly high proportions—and many of the victims were killed not by the German but by the Soviet invader. Most important of all for the high numbers are the Jews: not the Jews of Russia, of whom only about sixty thousand died, but the Jews of Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus (nearly a million) and those whose homeland was occupied by the Soviet Union before they were killed by the Germans (a further 1.6 million).

The Germans deliberately killed perhaps 3.2 million civilians and prisoners of war who were native to Soviet Russia: fewer in absolute terms than in Soviet Ukraine or in Poland, much smaller countries, each with about a fifth of Russia’s population. Higher figures for Russian civilian losses, sometimes offered, would (if accurate) permit two plausible interpretations. First, more Soviet soldiers died than Soviet statistics indicate, and these people (presented as civilians in the higher numbers) were in fact soldiers. Alternatively, these people (presented as war losses in the higher numbers) were not killed directly by the Germans but died from famine, deprivation, and Soviet repression during the war. The second alternative suggests the possibility that more Russians died prematurely during the war in the lands controlled by Stalin than in the lands controlled by Hitler. This is very possibly true, although the blame for many of the deaths is shared.

Consider the Gulag. Most of the Soviet concentration camps were located in Soviet Russia, far beyond the zone occupied by the Germans. Some four million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Soviet authorities sentenced more than 2.5 million of their citizens to the Gulag during the war. The NKVD was at work everywhere that the Germans did not reach, including besieged and starving Leningrad. Between 1941 and 1943, the deaths of some 516,841 Gulag inmates were registered, and the figure might have been higher. These hundreds of thousands of additional deaths would presumably not have happened had the Germans not invaded the Soviet Union: but those people would not have been so vulnerable had they not been in the Gulag. People who died in Soviet concentration camps cannot simply be counted as victims of Germany, even if Hitler’s war hastened their deaths.

Other people, such as the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, suffered more under both Stalin and Hitler than did inhabitants of Soviet Russia. In the prewar Soviet Union, Russians were far less likely to be touched by Stalin’s Great Terror (though many of them were) than the small national minorities, and far less likely to be threatened by famine (though many were) than Ukrainians or Kazakhs. In Soviet Ukraine, the whole population was under German occupation for much of the war, and death rates were far higher than in Soviet Russia. The lands of today’s Ukraine were at the center of both Stalinist and Nazi killing policies throughout the era of mass killing. Some 3.5 million people fell victim to Stalinist killing policies between 1933 and 1938, and then another 3.5 million to German killing policies between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat or as an indirect consequence of the war.

Even so, the independent Ukrainian state has sometimes displayed the politics of exaggeration. In Ukraine, which was a major site of both Stalin’s famine of 1932-1933 and the Holocaust in 1941-1944, the number of Ukrainians killed in the former has been exaggerated to exceed the total number of Jews killed in the latter. Between 2005 and 2009, Ukrainian historians connected to state institutions repeated the figure of ten million deaths in the famine, without any attempt at demonstration. In early 2010, the official estimation of starvation deaths fell discretely, to 3.94 million deaths. This laudable (and unusual) downward adjustment brought the official position close to the truth. (In a divided country, the succeeding president denied the specificity of the Ukrainian famine.)17 Belarus was the center of the Soviet-Nazi confrontation, and no country endured more hardship under German occupation. Proportionate wartime losses were greater than in Ukraine.

Belarus, even more than Poland, suffered social decapitation: first the Soviet NKVD killed the intelligentsia as spies in 1937-1938, then Soviet partisans killed the schoolteachers as German collaborators in 1942-1943. The capital Minsk was all but depopulated by German bombing, the flight of refugees and the hungry, and the Holocaust; and then rebuilt after the war as an eminently Soviet metropolis. Yet even Belarus follows the general trend. Twenty percent of the prewar population of Belarusian territories was killed during the Second World War. Yet young people are taught, and seem to believe, that the figure was not one in five but one in three. A government that celebrates the Soviet legacy denies the lethality of Stalinism, placing all of the blame on Germans or more generally on the West.

1 Comment

Filed under Belarus, Germany, nationalism, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, USSR, war

Soviet Contributions to the Holocaust

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 6313-6365 (pp. 343-345):

During the war, the Soviets and their allies had been in general agreement that the war was not to be understood as a war of the liberation of Jews. From different perspectives, the Soviet, Polish, American, and British leaderships all believed that Jewish suffering was best understood as one aspect of a generally wicked German occupation. Though Allied leaders were quite aware of the course of the Holocaust, none treated it as a reason to make war on Nazi Germany, or to turn much special attention to the suffering of Jews. The Jewish issue was generally avoided in propaganda. When Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt issued a “Declaration Concerning Atrocities” in Moscow in October 1943, they mentioned, among other Nazi crimes, “the wholesale shooting of Polish officers,” which was a reference to Katyn, actually a Soviet crime; and “the execution of French, Dutch, Belgian or Norwegian hostages” and “Cretan peasants”—but not Jews. The “peoples” of Poland and the Soviet Union were mentioned, but the Jewish minority in each country was not named. By the time that summary of atrocities was published, over five million Jews had been shot or gassed because they were Jews.

In its more enlightened form, this reticence about racial murder reflected a principled hesitation to endorse Hitler’s racist understanding of the world. The Jews were not citizens of any one country, went the reasoning, and thus to group them together, went the fear, was to acknowledge their unity as a race, and to accept Hitler’s racial view of the world. In its less enlightened form, this view was a concession to popular anti-Semitism—very much present in the Soviet Union, Poland, Britain, and the United States. For London and Washington, this tension was resolved with victory in the war in 1945. The Americans and the British liberated no part of Europe that had a very significant Jewish population before the war, and saw none of the German death facilities. The politics of postwar economic, political, and military cooperation in western Europe had relatively little to do with the Jewish question.

The territory of Stalin’s enlarged state included most of the German killing fields, and that of his postwar empire (including communist Poland) the sites of all of the German death factories. Stalin and his politburo had to confront, after the war, continued resistance to the reimposition of Soviet power, in ways that made the wartime fate of the Jews unavoidable as a matter of ideology and politics. Postwar resistance in the western Soviet Union was a continuation of the war in two senses: these were the lands that the Soviets had won by conquest in the first place, and the lands where people had taken up arms in large numbers to fight them. In the Baltics and Ukraine and Poland, some partisans were openly anti-Semitic, and continued to use the Nazi tactic of associating Soviet power with Jewry.

In this situation, the Soviets had every political incentive to continue to distance themselves and their state from Jewish suffering, and indeed to make special efforts to ensure that anti-Semites did not associate the return of Soviet power with the return of Jews. In Lithuania, once again incorporated into the Soviet Union, the general secretary of the local branch of the Soviet communist party counted the Jews killed in the Holocaust as “sons of the nation,” Lithuanians who died as martyrs for communism. Nikita Khrushchev, politburo member and general secretary of the party in Ukraine, went even further. He was in charge of the struggle to defeat Ukrainian nationalists in what had been southeastern Poland, a place that before the war had been densely settled with Jews and Poles. The Germans had killed the Jews, and the Soviets had deported the Poles. Khrushchev wanted Ukrainians to thank the Soviet Union for the “unification” of their country at the expense of Poland and for the “cleansing” of Polish landlords. Knowing that the nationalists wanted ethnic purity, he did not want Soviet power to stand for anything else.

Sensitive as he was to the mood of the population, Stalin sought a way to present the war that would flatter the Russians while marginalizing the Jews (and, for that matter, every other people of the Soviet Union). The whole Soviet idea of the Great Patriotic War was premised on the view that the war began in 1941, when Germany invaded the USSR, not in 1939, when Germany and the Soviet Union together invaded Poland. In other words, in the official story, the territories absorbed as a result of Soviet aggression in 1939 had to be considered as somehow always having been Soviet, rather than as the booty of a war that Stalin had helped Hitler to begin. Otherwise the Soviet Union would figure as one of the two powers that started the war, as one of the aggressors, which was obviously unacceptable.

No Soviet account of the war could note one of its central facts: German and Soviet occupation together was worse than German occupation alone. The populations east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, subject to one German and two Soviet occupations, suffered more than those of any other region of Europe. From a Soviet perspective, all of the deaths in that zone could simply be lumped together with Soviet losses, even though the people in question had been Soviet citizens for only a matter of months when they died, and even though many of them were killed by the NKVD rather than the SS. In this way, Polish, Romanian, Lithuanian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian deaths, sometimes caused by the Soviet rather than the German forces, served to make the tragedy of the Soviet Union (or even, to the inattentive, of Russia) seem all the greater.

The vast losses suffered by Soviet Jews were mostly the deaths of Jews in lands just invaded by the Soviet Union. These Jews were citizens of Poland, Romania, and the Baltic States, brought under Soviet control by force only twenty-one months before the German invasion in the case of Poland, and only twelve months before in the case of northeastern Romania and the Baltics. The Soviet citizens who suffered most in the war had been brought by force under Soviet rule right before the Germans came—as a result of a Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany. This was awkward. The history of the war had to begin in 1941, and these people had to be “peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Jews in the lands east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, so recently conquered by the Soviet Union, were the first to be reached by the Einsatzgruppen when Hitler betrayed Stalin and Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. They had been shielded by the Soviet press from knowledge of German policies toward Jews of 1939 and 1940. They had virtually no time to evacuate since Stalin had refused to believe in a German invasion. They had been subject to terror and deportation in the enlarged Soviet Union in 1939-1941 during the period when Stalin and Hitler were allied, and then terribly exposed to German forces by the breaking of that alliance. These Jews in this small zone made up more than a quarter of the total victims of the Holocaust.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, Germany, migration, nationalism, Poland, U.S., USSR, war

Half the People of Belarus Killed or Deported in WW2

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4671-4686 (p. 250):

Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). These three general campaigns constituted the three greatest German atrocities in eastern Europe, and together they struck Belarus with the greatest force and malice. Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army.

The Soviet partisans also contributed to the total number of fatalities. They reported killing 17,431 people as traitors on the terrain of Soviet Belarus by 1 January 1944; this figure does not include civilians whom they killed for other reasons, or civilians whom they killed in the following months. In all, tens of thousands of people in Belarus were killed by the partisans in their own retribution actions (or, in the western regions taken from Poland, as class enemies). A few more tens of thousands of people native to the region certainly died after arrests during the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941 and especially during the Soviet deportations of 1940 and 1941, during the journey or in Kazakhstan.

A rough estimate of two million total mortal losses on the territory of present-day Belarus during the Second World War seems reasonable and conservative. More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported a quarter million more people to Poland and tens of thousands more to the Gulag. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.

4 Comments

Filed under Belarus, Germany, migration, USSR, war