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Stalin & Hitler: Mass Murder by Starvation

Wielki Terror: operacja polska 1937–1938 [The Great Terror: The Polish Operation, 1937–1938]

edited by Jerzy Bednarek and others
Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 1,984 pp., zł 97.84

Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 [German Occupation Policies in Lithuania, 1941–1944]

by Christoph Dieckmann
Göttingen: Wallstein, Volume 1, 2,439 pp., $79.00

The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays

by Vasily Grossman, edited by Robert Chandler, translated from the Russian by Elizabeth Chandler, Robert Chandler, and Olga Mukovnikova
New York Review Books, 373 pp., $15.95 (paper)
ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy
A bomb-damaged house on Ligovka Street, Leningrad, 1942

In 1932 and 1933 a few starving Ukrainians made their way to Leningrad, where they had family connections. They narrowly escaped joining the seven million Soviet citizens who perished from malnutrition in the early 1930s, as the Soviet leaders brought peasant farms under collective control. Josef Stalin punished Soviet Ukraine particularly harshly for the shortfalls in production that resulted from collective agriculture, allowing about 3.3 million people to starve to death in that republic alone. In 1941, Leningrad went hungry, after Germany invaded the USSR and laid siege to its second-largest city. The deliberate starvation of Leningrad was the most notorious example of the Nazis’ policy of killing by hunger, which in the early 1940s caused the death of four million Soviet citizens in the western parts of the Soviet Union they occupied.

In the decade between 1932 and 1942 some eleven million people in the Soviet Union starved to death, first as a result of Soviet policy, then as a result of German policy. In the western Soviet Union, in places like Leningrad and Ukraine where Soviet power was temporarily supplanted by German power, starvation was the result of two official policies. In those lands, under both the German and Soviet regimes, seven million people were deliberately starved to death.

Between about 1932 and 1942, the lands between the Baltic and Black seas, between Leningrad and Ukraine, were subject to two very different, but territorially overlapping, kinds of ideological transformation. Both the Nazis and the Soviets thought globally but acted regionally. The men and women who made the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 had dreamed of a world revolution, but they had to concentrate instead on making a Eurasian state. After the workers of the world failed to unite, Russia’s revolutionaries built a regime around their own revolution, the Soviet Union, whose task was to embody “socialism in one country.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, thought Stalin, the British fleet presided over an imperialist world of global free trade; all that remained for him was the selfcolonization of the USSR.1 This meant above all the control and exploitation of fertile lands in Ukraine and southern Russia, where a surplus could be extracted and used to finance industrialization and defense. Stalin was particularly concerned about Soviet Ukraine, since it had to be simultaneously mastered by violence and protected from the influence of the capitalist states on its western border, such as Poland. He feared that Ukraine might be lost to the imperialists of the capitalist world, but he only slowly grasped the specific German threat.

Adolf Hitler’s quite different vision of ideological transformation was also global in principle but regional in practice. In his view the Jews were Germany’s misfortune, not only at home, but abroad. They had, he believed, created the heartless British and American finance capitalism that dominated the world. In the long run, Germany must rescue the world from pernicious Jewry. In the meantime, destroying the Soviet Union, which Hitler also alleged was dominated by Jews, would make Germany a continental power capable of fulfilling its global destiny. German modern industrial accomplishment would be balanced by establishing a new agrarian colony in Eastern Europe, above all Ukraine.

Whereas Stalin wanted to make an agrarian country modern by exploiting the agriculture of Ukraine, Hitler wanted to give industrial Germany an agrarian colony by conquering Ukraine among other eastern lands. Hitler saw the western Soviet Union as Germany’s natural colony. Soviet cities would be starved and, in special cases such as Leningrad, leveled. For Hitler, as for Stalin, Ukraine was the center of a magical economy: there the rules of traditional economics could be broken and the way opened to a new world.

The military premise of Hitler’s colonization plan was anti-Semitic, in that he saw the allegedly Jewish character of Soviet leadership as the system’s great weakness. If enough Jews were eliminated, it followed, the system would collapse, and the subhuman Slavs would be at the mercy of the Germans. The geographical premise of the colonization plan, at the same time, was the conquest of the world homeland of Jews. The conquest of the western Soviet Union meant control of most of the European lands where Jews lived in large numbers: Poland and Lithuania, which lay between Germany and the USSR, and Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and western Soviet Russia.

These Nazi and Stalinist visions were ideologically contradictory but territorially overlapping. Stalin’s Five-Year Plan of 1928–1933 called for the transformation of the Soviet Union from an agrarian to an industrial country; the architects of Hermann Goering’s Four-Year Plan of 1936 imagined the reverse, the future dismantling of Soviet industry and the expulsion of the Soviet population from the cities. For years, Stalin saw the Nazi threat to his project only as part of a general imperialist encirclement. Thus when Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression declaration with Poland in 1934, this, he reasoned, must be the cover for an offensive alliance against the USSR, one that would include a Japanese invasion from the east.

The horrors of Stalinist collectivization—the starvation and the feverish migrations that it brought about—created a sense of insecurity in Moscow. Starving Ukrainians fled not only to Soviet cities but to Poland and Romania; starving Kazakhs and Russians fled to China, which Japan had invaded. The Soviet Great Terror of 1937–1938 was thus directed in large part at Soviet ethnic groups who might have connections across Soviet borders, east or west. Korea was occupied by Japan, so Soviet Koreans might be Japanese spies; every single Korean in the USSR was deported. Poland was seen as a tool of an imperialist encirclement, so Soviet Poles might be Polish agents. In 1937 and 1938 Poles disappeared from Leningrad in the early morning hours, taken away by NKVD officers in the automobiles people called Black Ravens or Black Marias, never to be seen again. Some 85,000 ethnic Poles were executed, one by one, in a campaign of national terror. Following on the earlier work of Russian historians, a team of Poles and Ukrainians has now published Wielki Terror (The Great Terror), a major collection of documents regarding this crime.

One irony of this Soviet campaign of ethnic murder was that none of these people killed have been shown to be spies. Another was that Poland’s government was in fact resisting, at precisely this time, Berlin’s entreaties to join in an offensive alliance against the Soviet Union. In the late 1930s, Polish leaders grasped that the “totalism” of the two dictatorships, as Poles put it, was a threat to national independence. Poland had no aggressive aims in the western Soviet Union and made no alliance with Nazi Germany. Its policy was not to provoke either side and thus to preserve its independence. Polish leaders could not imagine the possibility that Nazi Germany and the USSR, given their real and much-vaunted ideological differences, could make an alliance.

Once Moscow and Berlin understood that Poland would help neither against the other, both had a common interest in removing the Polish state. Stalin drew this conclusion in early 1934, Hitler in early 1939. For reasons of simple geography, Germany had to control Poland in order to prepare for the grander conquest of the Soviet Union. Germany tried to draw Poland into an uneven alliance for five years; once it was clear that this effort had failed, Hitler decided that he had to destroy Poland if he wanted to reach the USSR. Stalin’s armed appeasement of Nazi Germany allowed Hitler to launch the war that the West kept denying him by its pacifist appeasement. Germany had annexed Austria in March 1938 and then took over the Sudetenland (the part of Czechoslovakia mostly inhabited by ethnic Germans) in September of the same year. Finally the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact in August 1939 temporarily removed for Hitler the risk of a two-front war, and made possible the German attack on Poland and the war against the Western European nations.

The German-Soviet alliance of 1939 was an armed appeasement by Stalin because it made the USSR an aggressor in World War II. Once the Germans and the Soviets had decided upon their spheres of influence, Leningrad became the staging ground for Stalin’s offensive campaigns in Eastern Europe of 1939 and 1940. After Germany attacked Poland from the west on September 1, 1939, the Red Army invaded eastern Poland on September 17. The following month Stalin gave Polish territory to Lithuania in exchange for rights to base the Red Army there.

Lithuania, still formally independent, had also been courted by Germany. Like Polish leaders before them, the government in Vilnius was offered and declined the chance to be a junior Nazi partner in an anti-Communist crusade. The Red Army invaded Finland in November 1939, and needed four months to defeat its much smaller neighbor. After Germany’s rapid and successful invasion of France in May 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Lithuania and the other Baltic States. Leningrad had now become, for the time being at least, the metropole of a new Soviet Baltic domain.

As of the summer of 1940, Hitler had won every military campaign on land, but had not really begun his war. His global vision remained unattainable so long as Great Britain kept fighting. The naval blockade ordered by Churchill in the summer of 1940 was one sign of Britain’s global power. Another was the practical fiasco of the first phase of the Final Solution. Rather than creating a zone of racial purity, Hitler had enlarged Germany into a multinational state. The German invasion of Poland in 1939 brought millions of Slavs and Jews under German rule, and the Nazi leadership had no coherent program to deal with them. Some Jews were deported to a corner of occupied Poland, which made little difference, except to the suffering deportees. Earlier in 1940 the Germans, without success, had asked their Soviet allies to take two million Polish Jews. After the fall of France in June 1940, discussion among German leaders turned toward the transformation of Madagascar, then a French possession, into a resettlement point for Europe’s Jews. Yet as long as Britain remained in the war and the Royal Navy controlled the sea lanes, this idea could not be pursued.

With the global balance of power unchanged, Hitler decided to accomplish his major regional goal: the destruction of the Soviet Union. Following the alliance of 1939, Stalin was loyally supplying Germany with fuel and oil, but Hitler wanted direct control of these resources himself. If the USSR no longer existed, Germany would be all-powerful in Europe, and Jews could be pushed eastward across the Ural Mountains. Germany would take over Stalin’s collective farms and use them to starve and feed whomever it pleased, and Germans would displace or enslave local peoples as they remade the western Soviet Union into a German colony. Hitler repeatedly said that Leningrad would be conquered and razed, and the rubble handed over to the Finns. All of these designs depended upon the premise that the invasion of the Soviet Union would bring total victory within two months, three months at most.

  1. 1

    Alexander Etkind extends this idea of to the history of the Russian Empire: Internal Colonization: Russia’s Imperial Experience (Polity, 2011). 

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