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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)
snyder_1-062112.jpg
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.

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AP Images
Lithuanian women in Vilnius wearing compulsory badges identifying them as Jewish, July 1941

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941 (with Romanian, Hungarian, Croatian, Slovak, Finnish, and Spanish forces joining in), its armies first entered lands such as Lithuania that had just been incorporated into the Soviet Union. The German invasion force was divided into three Army Groups; Army Group North was to proceed through Lithuania and the Baltics to Leningrad. Here as elsewhere German propagandists sought to exploit and channel the national anger and shame that arose from the experience of Soviet occupation. The fundamental Nazi message was that Bolshevism was Jewish and that Jews were Bolsheviks, and thus the Soviet occupation of Lithuania was the fault of the Jews.

As Christoph Dieckmann describes German strategy in the first volume of his deeply researched new book, Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 (German Occupation Policies in Lithuania, 1941–1944), this message was transmitted with help from Lithuanian political refugees in Berlin, far-right politicians who had been selected by the Nazis for their usefulness, and who hoped themselves to use the Nazis to gain the independence of their country. Though these men had some support at home, they had not governed Lithuania between the wars. Lithuania had been a far-right dictatorship, but it had not tolerated anti-Semitism. Its president, Antanas Smetona, gave a number of speeches opposing Nazi-style racism, and one of his chief advisers warned of extermination by gas as its logical consequence.2 This was the Lithuanian government that had been destroyed by Soviet occupation.

By equating Soviet rule with alleged domination by Lithuania’s two hundred thousand Jews, the Nazis exploited the emotions engendered by the loss of independence and Soviet repression. If the Jews were to blame, the Lithuanians could forget both that they had not resisted the Soviets and that some had indeed served in the new Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. The Germans offered Lithuanians superficial privileges—uniforms, weapons, ranks—in a political undertaking that was disguised as liberation.

From the perspective of Berlin’s propaganda, as Dieckmann shows, the timing of the second occupation of Lithuania could hardly have been better. The major Soviet deportation of Lithuanian citizens was underway just as German forces arrived. The retreating Soviet NKVD killed hundreds of political prisoners and left their corpses behind. The German security police organized their own pogroms against Jews, although, as Dieckmann demonstrates, this did not work as efficiently as they had hoped. What did work was the recruitment of local people (most of them Lithuanians, but also some Poles and Russians) into police detachments assigned to shoot Lithuanian Jews.

This was not yet a Holocaust. By the end of July 1941, when the Germans dismissed the Lithuanian provisional government, the German Einsatzgruppen—death squads—and other forces had, with much local help, shot some 20,000 Jews. This was the result of a program of terror conceived to secure Nazi power; it was not the result of an order for total extermination. Jews who were shot were generally men of fighting age, who were seen, following Nazi anti-Semitic reasoning, as likely Communist activists or future partisans.

By August 1941 it was clear that the initial invasion plan had not worked. Although the German advance was rapid, the Soviet Union had not collapsed. Leningrad had not fallen to Army Group North. In late September, Army Group North undertook a siege of the city by means of starvation. This deadly enterprise, the subject of Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941–1944, Anna Reid’s remarkably detailed history, reflected not the success but the failure of the German attack.3 A siege meant a long war and rising concerns over food supplies. Germany was never self-sufficient in food, and German civilians were not to suffer from a war that was supposed to bring them plenty. The Wehrmacht had to live off the land; Army Group North was to be fed from the Lithuanian countryside. But a long war also meant that Germans had to coexist with at least some of the local peoples. So long as Lithuania was feeding German soldiers at the front, Lithuanian farmers could not be deported, killed, or starved. The solution was to starve the Soviet enemy at the front and the Jewish enemy in the rear. Leningrad was besieged and Jews were given food insufficient to support life.4

Nazi leaders could not of course admit that they were losing. Yet their basic plans had changed. Rather than a quick war to be followed by a removal of Jews over the years, they now faced a long war during which they organized the rapid mass murder of Jews. Confronted by the reality of Soviet resistance, Hitler had decided in September 1941 to place his hopes on a renewed drive to Moscow. In a secondary offensive, code-named Operation Typhoon, Army Group Center raced through Soviet Belarus and into Soviet Russia in October 1941. As Reid observes, giving priority to the conquest of Moscow meant that the siege of Leningrad would continue. Jews were killed in Belarus in the rear of Army Group Center as the offensive was prepared, and then more were killed as the offensive failed. Army Group Center was turned back west of Moscow in December 1941, just as the United States entered the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. By the end of 1941 the Germans, with local help, had murdered most of the Jews of Lithuania. Mass murder by mass shooting had become the version of the Final Solution that could be implemented—a Holocaust.

Hitler’s war had not destroyed “Jewish” finance capitalism but brought the US and the UK together. It had not destroyed the “Jewish” USSR; it had instead roused Soviet resistance and created an improbable but unstoppable alliance between Communists and capitalists. It had not destroyed Europe’s Jews; but it had brought most of them under German power. As of the end of 1941, the Eastern European homeland of Jews was largely under the rule of a single state for the first time since the destruction of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the eighteenth century, and that state was Nazi Germany. Hitler made it clear that Jews would have to pay the price for a defeat that could not be named. The local stereotypes of the Jew as parasite and partisan, already linked with the regional stereotype of Jews as supporters of the Soviet system, now merged with the global stereotype of the Jew as the source of all of Germany’s woes. The threat of extermination implicit in global Nazi anti-Semitism could be realized to a great extent in Eastern Europe, since this was where most of the Jews lived, and this was where Germany ruled.

In autumn 1941 the Final Solution was accelerated, but Nazi ideas of colonization were delayed. Hitler had no realistic plan for the creation of his empire of race; Stalin had no realistic plan for the defense of his empire of class. Reid finds in the USSR a “lethal mixture of denial, disorganization and carelessness of human life.” Stalin had believed that the Germans would eventually invade, but he ignored overwhelming evidence that the invasion was coming in June 1941. Soviet authorities failed to stockpile food in cities and failed to arrange timely evacuations. When evacuation did begin, the columns were often sent straight into the German lines. Soviet terror itself went on unhindered as the German siege of Leningrad began; the NKVD continued to fulfill quotas and make arrests. One Leningrader remembered the victims awaiting deportation as “old women in old-fashioned capes and worn-out velvet coats.”

Over the long siege of Leningrad, from 1941 through 1944, some 750,000 people (according to Reid) would die. Of these, most—about half a million—died in the winter of 1941. The diaries that they have left behind have made it possible for Reid to create a remarkable portrait of mass death by a German policy of deliberate starvation. She is respectful of the contemporary writings that made her book possible, and graceful in her translations. We come to understand the daily predicaments of people in Leningrad. Leaving a shop after obtaining rationed food, they feared muggings but they were also desperate for company, for stories. Hiding as much as possible in their apartments, Leningraders only came to understand the general scale of the horror when a family member died and they tried to make funeral arrangements, which involved finding wrapping for bodies and obtaining sleds. Those who survived usually had help, friends, and self-discipline.

With the possible exception of the Warsaw ghetto at exactly this same time, there has probably been no comparable combination of malnutrition and eloquence. As in Warsaw, where Jews still lived and worked in a ghetto in 1941, even while most Lithuanian Jews were shot, the people in Leningrad who were most vulnerable were those who came from the countryside. In Warsaw these were Jews deported from small towns to the ghetto; in Leningrad, as Reid shows, they were male boarding school students, some of whom resorted to murder and cannibalism.

Unlike the Jews of Warsaw, however, Leningraders as Soviet citizens could draw on their own extensive past experience of the terror of hunger. They recalled the peasants of 1933, who, as one of them put it, had been “exterminated like cockroaches.” They could not fail to notice the similarity between a besieged Soviet city and the hungry Soviet Gulag. The first Leningraders to die were those who had just returned, still emaciated, from the Soviet concentration camps. The local rationing system imitated that of the Gulag: the strong were fed enough to work; the weak were given less and less.

The one fate that Leningraders were spared was that of collaboration with Nazi Germany. Dieckmann’s book describes the collaboration of Lithuanian citizens first with Soviet and then with German occupiers. He writes with extraordinary understanding and enviable expertise, and his account should become a guide for all those who are honestly concerned with the historical truth of the vexed question of collaboration. There were enough Lithuanians (and other inhabitants of Lithuania, including Russians and Poles) willing to carry out the shooting of Jews; horrible enough in and of itself, this pattern of killing became a model for the Holocaust. About half of the victims of the Holocaust were shot.

But direct collaboration in the German policy of murdering Jews was not limited to states such as Lithuania that had been destroyed by the USSR. It prevailed wherever the power of the state had been removed. Pre-war Soviet citizens, Russians and many others, also collaborated wherever German power extended. The death rates of Jews were about the same on both sides of the pre-war Soviet border. Local Russians collaborated in the Holocaust on the outskirts of Leningrad, turning in Jews, as Reid shows, for the same reasons they had denounced members of other ethnic minorities during the Great Terror a few years before: to take over their apartments for themselves.

Many Leningraders, Reid tells us, believed for a while that a German victory would bring liberation; some Russians in the city served the Germans by radio as spies and informers. But because the Germans never entered Leningrad, the history of the city is one of hunger and triumph rather than hunger and disgrace. This was not, however, typical. In starving areas that were under complete German control, where Germans could enter and recruit, collaboration could mean food and therefore life. Most of the Soviet citizens who were starved by the Germans were captured Red Army soldiers, held in camps where the Germans could recruit. In occupied Lithuania alone, according to Dieckmann, 170,000 prisoners of war were killed in these camps, a figure slightly lower than the number of Lithuanian Jewish victims of the Holocaust. All in all the Germans killed about 3.1 million Soviet citizens held in camps, four times as many as the dead in Leningrad. Some 363,000 German soldiers perished in Soviet captivity.5

For the starving prisoners of war, as for the besieged of Leningrad, early 1942 was a turning point. Lake Ladoga, east of Leningrad, froze to sufficient thickness to allow the Soviets to deliver food and supplies. The Germans, desperate for labor in a long war, recruited in earnest from the POW camps. They made their own selections among captured Soviet citizens by ethnicity: ethnic Germans first, then Ukrainians because Ukrainians were known to have suffered from Soviet starvation policies. In practice the Germans had difficulty making these distinctions, and they recruited people from most major Soviet nationalities, including of course Russians. (The Germans did their best not to recruit Jews, although a few slipped by; the policy for captured Soviet Jewish soldiers was that they be shot after a “medical examination.”) As these Soviet citizens entered the service of the Germans in early 1942, some were put to work at the sites of the new technology of the Final Solution, the gas chambers of Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka.

Early 1942 was a turning point for Jews as well, a turn for the worse. The Holocaust spread from the occupied Baltic states and the occupied Soviet Union to occupied Poland. Hungry Warsaw Jews were sent to Treblinka to die in its gas chambers in the summer of 1942. About half of the victims of the Holocaust were gassed.

When it became clear that the Red Army would liberate Treblinka, the Germans ordered that it be transformed into a farm, with the Jews’ ashes and bones as the fertilizer. When the Red Army liberated Treblinka, the Soviet writer Vasily Grossman was there to record what he saw. His report “The Hell of Treblinka,” written in 1944, is extraordinarily moving and accurate (and, where necessary, annotated in The Road). But there were things he knew but could not say because of Soviet censorship: local Poles had dug the fields of Treblinka looking for Jewish wealth; guards at Treblinka had been Soviet citizens. Grossman wrote of the theoretical possibility that gas chambers could extinguish every human being on earth. But he also must have known that, in the contest between Berlin and Moscow for the lands between them, from Leningrad to Ukraine, more people were killed by starvation than by any other method.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    See Antony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia, Vol. 3: 1914–2008 (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2012), pp. 211–237. 

  3. 3

    For sociological detail on the experience of the siege, see John Barber and Andrei Dzeniskevich, Life and Death in Besieged Leningrad, 1941–1944 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). The one book that unifies German and Soviet perspectives is Jörg Ganzenmüller, Das belagerte Leningrad (Paderborn: Schöningh, 2005). 

  4. 4

    The connections between demand for food and war aims and crimes is a major subject of Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War: World War II and the Battle for Food (Penguin, 2012). 

  5. 5

    Rüdiger Overmans, Deutsche militärische Verluste im Zweiten Weltkrieg (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1999), p. 286. 

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