Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hitler vs. Stalin

Timothy Snyder explores the perennial question, who was the worst dictator?
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.
Snyder settles on 6 million for the total number of non-combatants murdered or intentionally starved by Stalin's regime.


G. Verloren said...

And how about deaths due to things other than murder or intentional stavation? How about deaths from the elements of the Siberian wastes, or from the toil of labor in the gulag? How about surviving in prison for decades only to die there of old age, or accident, or ordinary illness? What about those eventually released, but who died afterward from complications of their brutal treatment? What about escapees shot while fleeing, or never found but who had little chance of survival in the wild?

Are these overall numbers comparing only the deaths that occured during the lifetimes of the two individuals of Hitler and Stalin? Or are they comparing the deaths that were the products of the overarching regimes they belonged to, with the USSR lasting well beyond the death of Stalin - and by the same token, lasting much longer than the Third Reich did. One dictator might have been worse than the other, but the opposite might be true of their larger governments.

John said...

Every death in the Gulag is counted, but not, I think, people who were released alive but then died early. One of the revelations on which the new numbers are based in that most people survived the Gulag.

G. Verloren said...

Interesting. Although I wonder how much of a difference it really makes.

To be sure, survival is obviously better than the alternative, but countless lives was still utterly destroyed by being sent to the camps. Even if the number of actual dead is lower than we expected, the total number of lives absolutely ruined by the gulag is staggering.

At what point does the balance tip? What is the effective exchange rate of "survivors" to "corpses"? Is it worse to outright kill six million people, or to instead brutalize eighteen million? Is the tally adjusted either way when comparing victimizing your own people versus others? Or is all of this simply too much, too monstrous to ever truly quantify nor even qualify?