In response to:

The Worst of the Madness from the November 11, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of books by Timothy Snyder and Norman M. Naimark [“The Worst of the Madness,” NYR, November 11], Anne Applebaum is right to eschew the question of whether German or Soviet atrocities in World War II were more extensive. But there is one aspect of German atrocities that distinguishes them from the Soviet and that is the extent to which they were a deliberate, focused, and organized project.

In the opening years of the war, neither side made any provision for masses of prisoners of war. On the Soviet side, German prisoners were often shot at the point of capture but if the prisoners could survive the privations and the diseases of the first few months of captivity, their prospects of survival improved immensely. The Germans, by contrast, had a deliberate policy, the Hunger Plan, of starving prisoners to death and the mass shootings were in centers removed from the front line and well after the time of capture.

The Soviet murder of its own civilians is horrific. Yet there was never any Soviet equivalent of the death factories where Jews and, on a smaller and more selective scale, the Romani peoples were brought from all over Europe to be exterminated. This systematic murder of selected ethnic groups in an artificially engineered program puts some German atrocities in a different category from the Soviet, just as we (in an analogy, not a comparison) distinguish the heinousness of murder from that of manslaughter. Both sides killed people because they were in the way, politically suspect (this very loosely defined), or an inconvenience. Some of the vast numbers the Germans killed were systematically murdered because of who they were.

David Bennett
Ottawa, Canada

Anne Applebaum replies:

Timothy Snyder has sent the following comment on this letter:

My purpose in Bloodlands was to describe and explain the deliberate murder of fourteen million people by German and Soviet policy in the lands between Berlin and Moscow between 1933 and 1945. This figure does not include casualties of war, nor people who died as laborers in camps. The subjects of the book, whether victims of Hitler or Stalin, were all noncombatants who were killed on purpose, whether by starvation, by shooting, or by gas.

Though we cannot know just what Hitler thought, we do know that plans for the Final Solution before 1941 involved deportation. As the course of the war made prior plans obsolete, the Germans escalated the Final Solution (four different plans for deportation) so that it became the Holocaust (mass murder by bullets and gas). This speaks to a core racism absent from the Soviet system. The Hunger Plan, which David Bennett mentions, reveals a degree of murderous intent also absent in the Soviet case. But like the Final Solution, it was not fulfilled as originally designed. In general, the course of events does not support the customary contrast drawn between Nazi planning and Soviet carelessness.

The Germans planned to kill, and in fact killed, more people than the Soviets. But Soviet killing was often deliberate, and Soviet actions tended to follow Soviet plans more closely. In late 1932, having brought famine with his policy of collectivization, Stalin chose to punish “Ukrainian destabilizers” with a series of specific and lethal measures, now very well documented, that he knew would starve millions.

The largest single action of the Great Terror of 1937–1938 was implemented according to explicit death and deportation quotas, striking evidence of planning. In the Terror the NKVD also killed some 250,000 people in ethnic shooting campaigns; one officer spoke of the need to shoot national minorities like “mad dogs.” The Polish operation alone killed more than 100,000 people; Stalin spoke at the time of “Polish filth.” Such victims of Stalinism, and many others, were killed because of who they were.

This Issue

December 23, 2010