Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who Was Worse, Hitler or Stalin?

At New York Review, "Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?":
In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people, tens of millions it was often claimed, in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.

Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans—about 11 million—is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.
Ultimately, folks'll have to assess this essay themselves, given the nature of the discussion. The author, Timothy Snyder, isn't as clear as he should be, given that he's claiming the Nazis killed more than the Soviets. But the basic gist is that the Soviet numbers have been revised downward. And does it matter at this point, despite the discussion of the marginal enormity of one more single death out of the 100s of thousands or even millions? Only God knows the suffering of each of the families that lost loved ones. It becomes a metaphysical thing, at some point. And despite the author's numerical exegesis, I'm not convinced that Stalin's modernization planning and ruthless political liquidation programs are of the same kind of totalitarianism that resulted in the Holocaust. It's all depressing, and if folks recall Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism, the permissive causes (especially anti-Semitism) were found all across Europe following the turn of the 20th century. Beyond this, I'm leaving it to the experts. At least in reflecting on these things, the last thing that comes to mind is the GOP's budget balancing programs today. Progressive Democrats are hoisting signs emblazoned with STALIN, HITLER, WALKER. And the effect --- beyond sheer stupidity --- is simply to illustrate how fleeting is the left's legitimacy and its grip on the social welfare state in early-21st century America.

3 comments:

hank_F_M said...

A key point of the communist mass murder is that, as us computer people would say, a feature not a bug of a communist system. That's how you do it.

Remember these were systems that dragged in many people who were not actually killed, either imprisoned, tortured, physically or psycologicaly maimed. All were forced to cooperate some way, greatly currupting normal realtionships and society. The evil goes much further than the number killed of which just one would have been to many.

Which is worse requires a larger analysis than he provided.

Dana said...

One of the highly sophisticate arguments on the playground of the elementary school I attended was, "If you were standing up to your neck in urine, and someone threw a bucket of feces at your head, would you duck?" (There is a possibility that we used slang words for urine and feces, and that the order of the excrements were reversed).

To me, this is the same type of question: sometimes evil simply cannot be quantified.

Nor does it seem to me that the regimes were really comparable: life in Nazi Germany, for non-Jewish Germans, was different from life in the USSR for citizens who didn't get in trouble, but both Germans and Soviet citizens knew that getting in trouble was a capricious thing: it could happen at any time, any place, and needn't be justified by any law.

Further, the Third Reich lasted only twelve years, while the USSR was around for over seventy.

John Ruberry said...

Mao killed more than both, if you include his disastrous economic schemes. His "Great Leap Forward" was anything but--millions starved.