Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) features specialist essays comparing Nazi and Stalinist mass murder in the 1930s and 1940s
The comparative study of Nazi and Stalinist mass murder requires a strong conceptual framework. Otherwise, you are spinning your wheels and wasting time.
That is a key take-away from my reading of a chapter in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared (2009).
I refer to chapter four, entitled: “State Violence – Violent Societies.”
I’ve also recently finished reading The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (2017) by Masha Gessen. The latter book argues – the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 notwithstanding – that the government of Russia remains totalitarian, albeit in a form that differs, slightly, from the Stalinist regime of the 1930s and 1940s.
Assuming that the latter book’s definition of totalitarianism is accepted by readers, Gessen’s argument is compelling. I have turned to Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) because I want to get up to speed, as best I can, on current historiography as it relates to totalitarianism – as a concept, and, in particular, as an analytical concept.
That is, what do we mean when we speak about totalitarianism? And how useful is it as a term that seeks to explain what has happened in the past, and what is happening now?
Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) is aimed at more of a specialist audience, a smaller audience – whereas The Future is History (2017) is more for general readers, a larger audience. Books for larger audiences tend to present arguments in slightly simpler, less nuanced forms thereby reaching more readers. The general reader takes a stroll through the park. The specialist reader, on the other hand, may not find the slog, through a dense and intricate package of words, quite as easy going.
Of the two books about totalitarianism that I refer to at this post, I can say that each is a compelling read. From reading them, I have a better understanding of how things work in the world. For any book related to history, I want storytelling that connects at an emotional level, with its audience; I want reliable evidence that drives the story forward; and I want a conceptual framework that enables me to understand the meaning of the story. Depending on the intended audience and the quality of the editing, a given book may be more accomplished in some of these areas, and less in others.
Structure of Beyond Totalitarianism (2009)
Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) comprises a series of essays. Each chapter has two authors who are specialists, respectively, on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In chapter four of the book, Christian Gerlach (specializing in history of Nazism) and Nicolas Werth (specializing in history of Stalinism) have responded to a series of questions from the editors, Michael Geyer and Shelia Fitzpatrick.
Gerlach and Werth outline the questions (p. 138; I have added a paragraph break):
Our main questions for each participatory group are, Which interests and attitudes led to violence? Which institutional structures were involved? Which methods of violence were employed and to what extent? What role did public participation, consent, or dissent play? How important was “initiative from below” or impetus from the regions? And, finally, considering the above questions, how can the role of the state best be characterized?
In attempting to answer these questions, we compare mass violence against the following groups: so-called “asocials,” victims of ethnic resettlement, and prisoners of war during and after the Second World War.
As the authors note, the chapter focuses on the mass murder of “so-called ‘asocials,’ victims of ethnic resettlement, and prisoners of war during and after the Second World War.”
According to chapter four, past attempts to compare Nazi and Stalinist mass violence have had “controversial outcomes” (p. 133). Consequently, the authors note, “some specific methodological reflections” are now required: “On this basis, we try to contribute a new and perhaps more conciliatory approach to the comparative study of violence.”
Existing studies of Stalinist and Nazi mass violence, the authors note, “focus on the Soviet and German camp systems, usually reducing the great variety of camps to a select ‘representative’ few on each side – namely, the concentration camps and the Gulag” (p. 133).
With reference to German perpetuators and functionaries involved with such violence, they add, “our concrete knowledge about perpetrator groups and individuals is sketchy, fragmentary, unbalanced, and still without a solid, agreed-upon theoretical framework. Furthermore, certain subject areas have been woefully neglected: little research has been conducted on German mass exterminations outside the Jewish Holocaust and the reasonably well-explored ‘euthanasia’ program, and an overall analysis of the different German policies of extermination within one framework remains to be undertaken” (p. 134).
We can say that, without a suitable analytical framework, valid comparisons are beyond the reach of historians, or anybody else.
The authors note that the new research, on behalf of which they advocate, “is not about discerning the one ‘true’ explanation; it is about elements of explanation. Rather than intellectual confusion, it reflects a new sense of complexity in our understanding of these events” (pp. 134-5).
As well, (p. 135; as elsewhere at this post, I have added paragraph breaks to the following quote) an
earlier assumed contradiction between ideologues and pragmatists in Nazi Germany appears out of date; instead, differences appear to have been only gradual, and cooperation between authorities more decisive than conflict. An increasing number of scholars further accept that ideology and economy were often mutually reinforcing, rather than opposing, forces.
As a result, German extermination policies can only be regarded as multicausal. Recognizing that a complex of alternatively reinforcing and competing factors and arguments resulted in the dynamics of destruction, the long-pursued search for the prioritarian factor appears unnecessary, even counterproductive. The interplay among political, economic, military, and other ‘pragmatic’ motives further questions the distinction often made between ‘ideological’ and ‘utilitarian’ mass extermination in genocide studies.
Having begun with an investigation into the Nazi system, historians of Nazi Germany are on their way to understanding an extremely violent society.
As I understand, the reference to “the prioritarian factor” refers to previous, failed attempts to find a single, overriding determinant of dynamics of Nazi mass murder.
Extremely violent societies
When I first came across the concept of “extremely violent societies,” a term that Christian Gerlach introduces in Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010), I pondered the concept:
It was of interest to encounter the term once again, this time in Beyond Totalitarianism (2009). I was interested to follow the build-up (pp. 136-7) in chapter four which leads the authors to reject totalitarianism as a conceptual framework for engaging in comparative history:
Comparative analyses allow us to locate parallel and/or contradictory developments in analogous situations, to explain similarities, and to establish broader historical patterns or identify alternatives. In so doing, historians attempt to avoid overspecialization; they seek to widen their horizons in order to facilitate generalization.
Yet, despite the many calls for historical comparison, there remains a gap between the great ambitions driving such scholarship and the resultant work product, a gap often exacerbated by a lack of conceptual reflection.
In general, comparative studies tend to focus on a select few variables and factors, to strive toward “macrocausal” explanations, to ask “why” instead of “how,” to establish limited contexts, and to seek the effective paradox.
It is precisely complexity, multicausal thinking, and broad contextualization which are for structural reasons not the strong points of historical comparisons. In other words, in a comparison, the very achievements of research in our respective fields are in danger of being lost. The problem of working with limited space, of potentially losing empirical ground, or overabstraction and oversimplification suggests that we refrain from an overall comparison of Nazi and Soviet violence and concentrate on case studies instead, however condensed they have to be. Given the described complexities, the model of totalitarianism provides no useful framework to us.
What the “structural reasons” may be, that make historical comparisons less than robust, with regard to “complexity, maulticausal thinking, and broad generalizations,” are not clear to this reader. Possibly, through further reading, I may gain an understanding of what the reasons are.
Nor is it clear to me what the reference to “the problem of working with limited space, of potentially losing empirical ground, or over abstraction and oversimplification” means.
By way of guessing, I am assuming that perhaps the point is that overall comparisons of Nazi and Soviet mass murder are not the way to go, and that case studies – conducted, as the authors note, without reference to either totalitarianism or genocide as a conceptual framework – are the preferred option.
Nazi and Stalinist violence positioned as more than “state violence”
The authors note (p. 137) that
Given the extent of popular participation in the persecution of various victim groups – whether related to plunder, denunciation, professional advancement, or the use of forced labor – it does not seem useful to limit our analysis here to that of “state violence.”
The reference to popular participation in mass murder sets the scene for an elaboration (p. 137; again, I’ve added paragraph breaks and omitted footnote enumerations) of the chapter’s preferred conceptual framework:
Rather, we seek to understand Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as extremely violent societies. They stand as the extreme cases within a group that includes not a few modern and colonial societies:
the late Ottoman Empire (1908-23),
a number of Eastern European countries within the Nazi-German sphere of influence,
Cambodia in the 1970s,
Indonesia since 1965,
Colombia throughout much of the twentieth century, and
the United States of America during the nineteenth century.
While the overall levels of violence may have been high in each case, they are in many respects dissimilar. Yet, in each case we can discern that rather than a solitary, uniform system of persecution and violence, a variety of policies and forms of mass violence were utilized against victim groups. Class-related civil war and, often, external conflict were intimately entwined with ethnic strife and selective social policies.
All of this prompts us to ask the question of social participation. Our focus here is on identifying policies enacted against common victim groups within both the German and Soviet systems and the often substantial differences in the type and intensity of the violence inflicted upon the groups in question. It is hoped that such an analysis will help us understand how both political systems and societies generated violence.
Distinction between mass violence and genocide
The term “genocide,” the authors note (p. 138) is without an “agreed-upon scholarly definition”:
As our analysis focuses upon groups that were subjected to varying types and levels of violence, “comparative genocide research” does not provide a useful conceptual framework. Nor, for that matter, would the creation of a typology or the application of a singular sociological, psychological, or political model appear promising as a starting point.
In most of the cases discussed here, the term “genocide” has rarely, if ever, been applied – whether this relates to the mass death of POWs, forced ethnic resettlement, or the persecution of “asocials.” Broadly speaking, a common, agreed-upon scholarly definition of “genocide” does not exist – and this arbitrariness is unsurprising, considering that “genocide ” is an inherently instrumental term, created and utilized for political purposes and oriented toward the unanimous moral condemnation, prevention if possible, military intervention, and juridical prosecution after a transition of power.
Moreover, the concept of “genocide” (for which intentions are central) implies that on a state level long-intended, carefully prepared master plans for destruction exist – a concept that appears too simple, though not entirely wrong, in light of recent research into the dynamics of state-organized mass violence.
Often, a comparison of “genocides” leads to endless debates about definitions, about the inclusion and exclusion of cases, and to a race for the more intentional, more original, or more total case. The understanding of “mass violence” applied here is more open and includes forced resettlement, deliberately inadequate supplies, sterilization, forced labor, and excessive imprisonment.
Mass murder of “so-called ‘asocials'”
A passage (p. 144) regarding this topic reads:
In 1948, 1949, and 1951, an array of secret [Soviet] governmental resolutions ordered the further intensification of police measures against beggars and vagrants, many of whom were war invalids.
A passage (p. 144) reads:
In Germany, too, a rather vaguely defined set of social subgroups was accused of deviant behavior and persecuted as “asocials.”
Some of the policies in this area date back to earlier times in Germany (p. 145):
Interestingly, pressure for more rigorous policies against the above-mentioned groups, including policies of internment sterilization, long preceded the Nazi assumption of power in 1933. The historical record amply demonstrates that welfare officials, medical doctors, and political parties had been discussing precisely such repressive policies and regulations well back into the nineteenth century; and, after the First World War, the German state actively began to extend its influence over labor markets by trading welfare provisions for increased control.
Mass murder of victims of ethnic resettlement
The chapter’s comparative study of ethnic resettlement includes a passage (p. 157) concerning the development of Nazi extermination policies:
The ultimate realization that it would be impossible to deport certain population groups fully played a critical role in the development of Nazi extermination policies. For without deportation as a viable long-term option, the political pressure to make room for ethnic Germans in annexed western Poland soon led to ever more radical alternatives, including mass murder. When hospitals were needed for incoming ethnic Germans and for the German army between 1939 and 1941, for example, some 20,000 residents in homes for the disabled in the annexed Polish territories were simply killed. Also note that the first German extermination camp was located in Chelmno, Wartheland, and became operational on December 8, 1941; Auschwitz, located in incorporated eastern Upper Silesia, became an extermination camp in early 1942.
With regard to the Soviet-era ethnic cleansing of Chechens, the authors observe (pp. 159-60):
Note that several key features of this operation – “a hierarchy in the structure of command, a confined theater of operations, and a culture of impunity” – are common to other twentieth-century ethnic cleansings, as well.
Finally, over the course of six days in 1944 (February 23-8), 119,000 soldiers and officers of the NKVD arrested over 500,000 men, women, and children and forcibly removed them from their ancestral homelands. Deportees had an hour or so to gather their belongings (1oo kilograms per family) before being herded onto trucks and sealed in unheated freight cars. Because of poor weather conditions in the mountainous and isolated regions of Chechnya, a number of NKVD squads were temporarily stranded with their victims; thousands were outright massacred.
After a three- to four-week journey, during the course of which many died from hunger and exhaustion, the deportees arrived in Kazakhstan or Central Asia and were dispatched to kolkhozes and factories. Uprooted from their homes, they not only suffered from appalling living conditions, but faced enormous difficulties in adapting to a totally new, and generally very hard, social and working environment.
Following this deportation, the Chechen-Ingush ASSR was suppressed from the collective memory, as well: its place-names were changed, its buildings destroyed, its cemeteries bulldozed, and Chechen national figures were removed from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. In October 1948, a report of the Administration for Special Resettlements calculated that of the people deported from the Caucasus and Crimea in 1943 and 1944, nearly one in four, or 200,000, had died by mid-1948.
Mass murder of prisoners of war during and after Second World War
Gerlach and Werth note (p. 171) that
The main difference in the two cases, vis-a-vis the treatment of POWs, lies in the role played by political and military leaders. Only in the German case were there a high-level intention to kill large numbers of Soviet POWs and a program to realize it.
At the level of policy, Soviet authorities more often sought to improve the camp system and to ameliorate prisoners’ living conditions through organizational change and the punishment of Soviet soldiers who had violated their duties. Orders prohibiting abuse, which existed on the German side as well, seem to have been more frequent on the Soviet side.
Let us also not forget that hunger for Soviet and German POWs had a different significance than hunger in Germany. The starvation of prisoners in German hands served to maintain comfortable levels of food consumption for Germans, whereas in the Soviet Union, as a result of the German invasion and occupation of large swaths of territory, food was scarce for both civilians and the military, a situation that shifted to famine in 1942 and 1946.
Concluding remarks, regarding comparative study of mass murder
The chapter notes (p. 171) in an introduction to concluding remarks, that
Given the complexity of each individual case, it is difficult to draw overall conclusions or make generalizations about a subset of mass crimes, let alone about all of them together. We shall, therefore, confine ourselves to making a few key observations, rather than attempting to provide a general comparative explanatory framework for German and Soviet violence.
As well (p. 172):
Mass violence is not simply a matter of police or other repressive state organs. From the victim group case studies presented here (“asocials,” victims of ethnic resettlement projects, and prisoners of war), it would seem that “initiative from below” and public participation or support were important factors in the genesis of such violence.
However, other factors were involved, as well, such as what could be called a given polity’s “overall acclimation to violence,” a factor related to that polity’s recent experiences of war, revolution, and counterrevolution. In both cases, we selected relatively understudied and underrecognized victim groups, groups that have been shown little remorse by German or Soviet society, let alone by their erstwhile perpetrators.
We selected groups that have not stood in the limelight of intense historical interest. This subject choice is also reflected in the relatively deficient state of research about them. These groups remain marginal to, if they are at all reflected in, the collective memory of the war, and they receive little empathy from the public or professional historians. More such groups could have been discussed, such as the more than 5 million civilians forced to work in Nazi Germany and the several hundred thousand foreign workers brought into the Soviet Union.
A major conclusion (p. 172) is that mass violence, in the categories chosen for study, did not occur in secrecy:
To begin with, this analysis questions the assertion that secrecy hid mass violence from the broader public – a finding corroborated by recent research on the Holocaust and on political oppression in both countries.
Additional conclusions (p. 172) can be summarized:
“participation in violence and mass murder was much broader than previously thought”
“victim groups often remained in close contact with the native population”
“there was an internal debate regarding such [violence and mass murder] policies”
“there were many who profited from repression and violence”
“there were many different arguments used to demand violence against the above-mentioned groups … every argument … was couched in language that aroused genuine public fears and concerns”
Additional highlights from the chapter’s conclusion
In both systems, there was at least a partial attempt to shield the broader population from knowledge about mass killings. (p. 173)
In the strategic use of the most intense forms of persecution and violence, however, the two regimes greatly differed. In Nazi Germany, for example, “asocials” were heavily persecuted domestically, but the number of camp arrests and related deaths never approached the magnitude attained in the Soviet Union. The same is true for the regime’s political opponents. Despite the brutal discipline of and the very real violence inflicted by the Nazi regime, their domestic approach was less confrontational and more integrative than the Soviet one. If one includes “asocials,” criminals, political opponents, Jews, Gypsies, the “terminally ill,” and, toward the end of the war, deserters, then the Nazi regime killed some 500,00 to 600,000 of its own citizens (0.6 to 0.8 percent of the total population). Yet, in areas occupied by the German army, exclusion rather than inclusion applied. Especially in Eastern Europe, German violence was extreme. Roughly speaking, some 12 to 14 million noncombatants were killed in occupied Europe during the war (5 to 6 percent of those under German occupation). The largest groups to suffer were European Jews, Soviet POWs, peasants caught up in antipartisan operations in Eastern and Southern Europe, and forced laborers deported to Germany. The nature of these categories underscores the fact that 96 percent of all victims of Nazi violence were non-German. (p. 175)
German and Soviet violence differed in another fundamental way, as well: in all of the cases referenced above, as well as in many others, plans existed in Germany – plans that were often widely distributed and shared – for a scale of violence that far exceeded anything that actually transpired. While some 50,000 “asocials” may have been killed in Nazi Germany, experts estimated that 1.0 to 1.6 million “asocials” would ultimately need to be eliminated. Similarly, while more than 1 million people were resettled in the early stages of germanizing Eastern Europe and other German-annexed territories, plans required that at least 30 million more be resettled. Again: 3 million Soviet POWs died in German captivity, but there were plans to allow tens of millions of Soviet citizens, including POWs, to starve to death within a year following the German attack on the USSR. And, these are not the only cases: 11 million Jews were targeted for death in the Holocaust (6 million were killed); millions of additional foreign workers would have been deported to Germany, if conditions allowed; and, utopian military plans would only have spread the violence further. The planned magnitude of absolute violence – beyond the dimension of violence and death actually inflicted upon Europe – made Nazi Germany a unique threat. (p. 176)
The term “genocide” is not about to be dropped from usage
The current post underlines that the comparative study of Nazi and Stalinist mass murder requires a strong conceptual framework. Otherwise, you are spinning your wheels and wasting time.
An earlier post (originally posted on July 8, 2015) is concerned with a study entitled Extremely Violent Societies: Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century (2010) by Christian Gerlach. In chapter four of Beyond Totalitarianism (2009), Gerlach and co-author Nicolas Werth argue that the term “extremely violent societies” serves as a useful conceptual framework whereas the term “genocide” does not.
The term “genocide” is firmly established and is not about to be dropped from usage. For my own study of history – I refer to my reading of history, and of ongoing news reports – nonetheless, the alternative concept of “extremely violent societies” serves as a valuable conceptual framework, which enables me to make sense of things, about how the world works, which otherwise would be beyond my grasp.