Monday, April 9, 2012

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“LENIN, STALIN AND HITLER – THE AGE OF SOCIAL CATASTROPHE” by Robert Gellately (first published 2007)

For good and legitimate reasons, history is always being re-written [look up the post “You’re Trying to Re-write History!” on the index to the right]. Sometimes it is re-written when new facts come to light, or when new documentation becomes available, as in Paul Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust. But sometimes it is re-written because an historian realizes that an accepted and widespread interpretation is defective.

This latter is most definitely the case with Robert Gellately’s Lenin, Stalin and Hitler - The Age of Social Catastrophe.

An American professor of history – and sometime visiting professor at Oxford – Gellately got heartily sick of one common piece of mythology perpetrated by the Left. This was the fiction that, until the death of Lenin in 1924, the young Soviet Union was bubbling along healthily as an experiment in creating a workers’ state, and that Lenin was a benign and humane figure. But, said this fction, Communism suddenly became “corrupted” when Stalin took over and proceeded to perpetrate terror on a massive scale. This fiction helped later Communists (and their sympathizers) to pretend that “Stalinism” and its horrors were an aberration, and that the original Bolshevism was ideal and practicable. (A similar fiction, perpetrated by another group of Communists, said Trotsky would have been more humane than Stalin. Hollow laughter.)

One key, and oft-quoted, piece of “evidence” for the fiction was Lenin’s “will”, in which he said that Stalin was too “rough” and untrustworthy. This was supposed to clinch the matter by showing that a perceptive Lenin didn’t like Stalin, would never have countenanced Stalin as his successor, and perhaps foresaw what sort of state Stalin would forge.

With ample real evidence to support him, Gellately disagrees.

This general survey of Russian Communist and German Nazi history, from 1917 to 1945,  has been written with a thesis in mind. By placing Lenin together with Stalin and Hitler in his title, Gellately wishes to emphasise that Lenin was as responsible for terror as the other two dictators. He was in no way the “good” idealistic figure who preceded them and who has to be judged well for his good intentions. Indeed, he was the template for much that Stalin and Hitler did.

Part One, called “Lenin’s Communist Dictatorship”, argues that terror, repression, the one-party state, systematic loss of freedoms, institutional violence, a far larger and more ruthless secret police than existed under the tsars and the deliberate elimination of all independent thought, were put in place, endorsed and encouraged by Lenin. His was not a system that was corrupted or perverted by Stalin. His was a system that Stalin simply continued and developed on an even larger scale, once the real aberration of the New Economic Policy was set aside.

The myth of the ‘good Lenin’ – the saviour –“, says Gellately, “was built into the political culture of the Soviet Union from the start, and Stalin shrewdly played it to his own political advantage. Lenin was actually merciless and cruel. Even the inner circle of the Bolsheviks shuddered at his ferocity and the executions he ordered without any compunction. We should understand the figure of the ‘good Lenin’ was a political instrument, meant to inspire followers at home and abroad.

Furthermore, “by the time Lenin died at the age of fifty-three on 21 January 1924, the Communist regime was established and its key features in place. The one-party and one-ideology state had a marked tendency to use terror, and power was in the hands of a half dozen men in the Politburo, an executive committee of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Lenin’s highly centralised system of rule was in the name of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, but behind all the institutions, the fanfare of the congresses, meetings, and the constitution, the Soviet leader was more powerful and autocratic than the mightiest of the tsars. Lenin annihilated enemies and ignored the will of the people as he saw fit.

The vehicle Lenin created was just waiting for Stalin to drive.

Gellately also shows how Lenin very much approved of, and encouraged, Stalin, who was virtually Lenin’s chosen successor. Lenin objecting to Stalin, because he was too “rough”, was merely Lenin’s momentary reaction to a minor issue in a context in which Lenin criticised nearly all the members of the Politburo. If we were to take his remarks as a sign of special perception, then we would have to conclude that Lenin perceived no leading Bolshevik as a worthy successor – Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, the lot.

Gellately’s further purpose in Lenin, Stalin and Hitler - The Age of Social Catastrophe is to show how much, once Hitler was in power in Germany,  the Communist regime and the Nazi regime fed off each other in both ideology and tactics. The Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 was not the first meeting of Nazi and Communist minds. Stalin’s first major party purges were very much based on Hitler’s “Night of the Long Knives”, the ruthlessness of which Stalin greatly admired.

As a third thesis in this book, Gellately emphasises the extent to which most Germans gave tacit consent to the Nazi regime, and how much Hitler was wary of offending public opinion, at least until the later stages of the Second World War when, for the first time, large numbers of otherwise passive or consenting Germans were executed by the Nazis for their “defeatist” attitudes. The argument here is not that most Germans were “Hitler’s willing executioners”, as in Daniel Goldhagen’s simplistic formulation, but that they were willing to tolerate the elimination of specific groups (Jews, Communists, other political dissidents, the chronically ill etc.) so long as it did not affect them. It is an argument about human self-interest.

These appear to be three original theses that led Gellately to write this book, though inevitably, as it covers all the horrors between 1917 and 1945, much of Lenin, Stalin and Hitler - The Age of Social Catastrophe becomes simply a chronicle of those horrors – collectivisation, the Great Terror, the Holocaust, the Holodomir, Operation Barbarossa, Stalin’s ethnic cleansing during the war and so on.
Gellately judges both Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes to be equally abhorrent and says that the only unique thing about Nazism was that it industrialised death in the death camps.

This is broad-sweep history, but in its 570 pages of text it justifies its publication by its clear, original and well-argued theses. It is one of the best surveys of these great twentieth-century catastrophes.

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