Monthly Archives: January 2015

The siege of Leningrad: Genocide by starvation

The Great Patriotic War. Blokade of Leningrad.

The Nazi siege of Leningrad—the historic capital of tsarist Russia, Saint Petersburg–lasted for several years: It begun on September 8, 1941 and was lifted on January 27, 1944. For Lenigraders, this encirclement constituted 872 days of sheer torture; of hovering on the brink between life and death. Hundreds of thousands didn’t make it. The blockade might as well have been called genocide through starvation because it caused the deaths of an estimated one million Russians. Marshal Zhukov, sent by Stalin to save the city, followed the dictator’s orders not to retreat. But, to the Russian’s surprise, the Germans didn’t advance much either. Hitler decided to kill the inhabitants of Leningrad in a slow, tortuous way by strangling all of their supply routes and starving a population of 2.5 million. He planned to wipe out the inhabitants, then raze Leningrad to the ground and hand over the area to his Finnish allies.

This genocide by starvation was therefore a premeditated decision–a crime against humanity–not an indirect or incidental result of a siege during war. According to historian Max Hastings, Hitler consulted Professor Ernst Zigelemeyer, in charge of the Munich Institute of Nutrition—to find out how much food (and calories) the average person requires to live. Zigelemeyer informed him that the Soviet government would not be able to provide Lenigraders with more than 8.8 grams of bread daily, which wouldn’t be sufficient for the majority to survive the siege. Hitler thus concluded: “It’s not worth risking the lives of our troops. The Leningraders will die anyway. It is essential not to let a single person through our front line. The more of them that stay there, the sooner they will die, and then we will enter the city without trouble, without losing a single German soldier” (Inferno, Vintage Books, 2012). His demonic plan almost worked.

Within months, tens of thousands of people perished from hunger and cold. Within a few weeks of the siege, the city was left without its coal and oil supplies, and thus without heat. Within a few months, the water supplies froze, resulting in much quicker deaths from thirst. The desperate population began hunting and eating birds and rats. Household pets weren’t safe either as many ate cats and dogs. Some even resorted to eating wallpaper paste, sawdust, grass cakes and even the dead. Corpses accumulated in the streets as the ground was frozen solid and people had little energy left to bury the bodies. Hastings cites Elena Skryabina, who captures with eloquence the pangs of hunger of Lenigraders in her diary: “We are approaching the greatest horror… Everyone is preoccupied with only one thought: where to get something edible so as not to starve to death. We have returned to prehistoric times. Life has been reduced to one thing—the hunt for food” (Inferno, 167).

The Soviets made some attempts at saving women and children and workers, but millions were left behind. Only the privileged few could count on escaping the horror. Once he realized that Hitler wasn’t planning a full-scale attack of the city, Stalin recalled Zhukov to Moscow. The composer Dimitri Shostakovich, who created a symphony about the plight of his native city–the Seventh Leningrad Symphony–finished the piece elsewhere.

If the Soviet army and bands of partisans hadn’t been resourceful enough to open up a small corridor to the city in mid-January 1943—which subsequently enabled them to send barges of goods during the summer and sleds on improvised ice paths during the winter—and channel some life-saving supplies to Leningrad, Hitler would no doubt have achieved his objective of starving to death the city’s entire population.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory


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The Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward: Reviews of Red Scarf Girl and Mao’s Great Famine

Mao’s Communist experiments, the “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62) and the so-called “Cultural Revolution” (1966-1972) created a disaster of unprecedented proportions in China. In Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962, Frank Dikotter documents that between 30-32 million people starved to death as a result of the Great Leap Forward. (New York: Walker and Company, 2011)

In an ill-hatched attempt to catch up quickly with the economy of the Soviet Union and the West in industrial production (particularly in the manufacture of steel), Mao Zedong launched China into a series of agricultural experiments with no basis in science that devastated the country. He mandated forced collectivization of private farms. At the same time, he encouraged the peasants to plant significantly less, allowing about a third of the farms to remain uncultivated. Despite the imposition of internal passports branding Chinese citizens as “farmers” or “city dwellers,” millions of peasants migrated to the cities, hoping to escape working for the Communist farm collectives and their often abusive and corrupt officials.

These disastrous measures, Dikotter elaborates, were compounded by the fact the grains were poorly stored and often diluted with water, to increase their weight and give the appearance of meeting the quotas. Out of a severely diminished agricultural supply, tons of grains rotted, were infested by vermin or caught on fire as a result of poor storage. To give the impression of prosperity, Mao earmarked for export most of China’s meager agricultural production. Domestically, the only stores that were well-stocked–the so-called “Friendship Stores”–were reserved for government officials and foreign visitors. Tens of millions of Chinese people suffered as a result of being deprived of adequate food, clothes and consumer goods.

The situation became so dire, Dikotter documents, that some desperate individuals sold their children to have fewer mouths to feed. Others went so far as to eat corpses or even kill the living to survive a few more weeks, or days. Some became so unscrupulous that they disinterred the corpses of family members or neighbors and used them as fertilizer: “Inside the house were four large cauldrons in which corpses were being simmered into fertilizer, the extract to be evenly distributed over the fields” (173).

Obsessed with silencing any opposition, however feeble and adulatory, Mao penalized any individual who reported even glimmers of the truth about the massive disaster consuming his country. Dikotter makes it clear that Mao became aware of the truth, but couldn’t accept any critique, much less the massive failure of his grand designs for setting China on an industrial fast track:

“Mao received numerous reports about hunger, disease and abuse from every corner of the country, whether personal letters mailed by courageous individuals, unsolicited complaints from local cadres or investigations undertaken on his behalf by security personnel or private secretaries” (69).

When the extent of destruction could no longer be hidden from view even by the heaviest oppression and propaganda, Mao, much like Stalin had before him, deflected any responsibility for the program’s failure on his underlings and colleagues. (84) At the same time, he purged from the government precisely the officials who had been critical of the Great Leap Forward and warned him about its disastrous effects. Only once the famine had already claimed tens of millions of victims, in November 1960, did Mao finally begin to reverse the fatal course of forced collectivization by restoring some local markets and allowing the starving peasants to cultivate some private plots. It took two more years for the country to emerge from the crisis.

While Dikotter’s book paints the big picture of the Maoist disaster, Ji-li Jiang’s memoir, Red Scarf Girl, (New York, HarperCollins, 2004), gives readers a glimpse of the same period through a personalized optic. A good student living in a normal, loving family, Ji-li Jiang’s life turns upside down with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Most of the values she had been previously taught become subverted by the new Communist indoctrination sessions: the value of education; respect for parents, grandparents and teachers; even feelings of loyalty and friendship. Private ownership, academic achievement, family love become discarded values: “Four Olds,” a highly pejorative term indicating something outdated, anti-Communist and old-fashioned, according to the Orwellian “Newspeak”.

Not surprisingly, the most mendacious and power-hungry students thrive in the new system, victimizing and bullying the rest. Jiang’s father, whose Communist dossier is suspect because he’s the son of a landlord, is sent to slave labor in the fields. Her mother falls victim to harrowing interrogation sessions, where she’s asked to turn against husband. With tremendous courage, she refuses. Her grandmother is humiliated by being forced to sweep the streets. Setting children against parents and grandparents, the Communist officials pressure the young girl to denounce her family.

Wavering between feelings of compassion for her downtrodden family members and a sense of shame for being associated with them, at one point Jiang decides to change her name. But she’s not ready to abandon her loved ones, as the Communist official suggests. For her, loyalty and empathy prove stronger than the ideological indoctrination. Long before her family immigrates to the United States, this important choice signifies Ji-li Jiang’s first step towards freedom.


Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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On Kamikaze Warfare: Inferno, the World at War 1939-1945 by Max Hastings


Japan’s kamikaze pilots during WWII bring to mind the operations of contemporary suicide bombers and terrorists. Heavily indoctrinated during their rigorous training in Japan’s imperial army, their suicidal missions did serious damage to Allied naval vessels in the Pacific, particularly towards the end of the war, in 1944-45, when Japan’s situation became more precarious, if not desperate.

Captain Motoharu Okamura, leading the Tateyama Base in Tokyo and the 341’s Air Group Base, was one of the first to propose kamikaze warfare in June 1944 and to explore its feasibility. In October 1944, Commander Asaiki Tamai led an actual mission composed of 24 student pilots he had personally trained.

Named after the fatal typhoons of the late Middle Ages (“kami”, meaning “god” or “spirit” and kaze”, meaning “wind”), these suicidal pilots would direct their whirling airplanes filled with explosives and fuel into enemy vessels, doing more damage than conventional bombs. Launching themselves with fatal accuracy, according to historian Max Hastings, “about 20 percent of kamikaze assaults scored hits—ten times the success rate for conventional attacks. Only the overwhelming strength of the U.S. Navy enabled it to withstand such punishment” (Inferno, the World at War 1939-1945, New York: Random House, 2012). During the length of the war, nearly 4,000 kamikaze pilots died. The damage they inflicted upon the Allies was extensive: the U.S. Air Force webpage indicates that about 3000 kamikaze attackers sunk 34 ships and killed about 5000 sailors: all in all, nearly 10 percent of ships hit by kamikaze pilots sank.

What drove these suicide bombers to sacrifice their lives for the Japanese Empire? And was their self-sacrifice coerced or voluntary? According to Hastings, most kamikaze pilots went to their final battles willingly, but some were coerced or peer-pressured into acquiescing. Psychological indoctrination, however, was part of the Japanese military system, where training was meant to induce blind patriotism, self-sacrifice for the Japanese Empire and a code of honor that dictated suicide over being captured by the enemy. Hastings emphasizes that the training of kamikaze pilots “was as harsh as that of all Japanese warriors, and attended by the same emphasis on corporal punishment” that would make them ruthless, and often very cruel, warriors (620). Even so, as it became more and more clear that Japan would lose the war, not all kamikaze pilots went willingly to their deaths. According to Hastings,

“The image of Japan’s kamikazes taking off to face death with exuberant enthusiasm is largely fallacious. Among the first wave of suicidalists in the autumn of 1944, there were many genuine volunteers. Thereafter, however, the supply of young fanatics dwindled: many subsequent recruits were driven to accept the role by moral pressure, and sometimes conscription” (620).

As with contemporary suicide bombers, heavy ideological indoctrination and a Manichean view of the world—a good versus evil, us versus them mentality—drove kamikaze bombers to their dark and desperate heroism.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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The Gypsy Holocaust: Review of The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies by Guenter Lewy


The Gypsies also experienced a Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi regime. Initially, Nazi racial ideology expressed some ambivalence towards the Gypsies, by way of contrast to the Jews, whom they perceived as “vermin”. On the one hand, the Nazis regarded the Gypsies as “work-shy”, nomadic beggars and thieves, racially inferior to the Aryan race. On the other hand, some Nazi racial theories traced “racially pure” Gypsies to “Aryan” Indian tribes. In the end, this dual perspective on the Gypsies didn’t alter their mistreatment. Although the Nazis didn’t have a comparable “Final Solution”, or systematic plan to exterminate the Gypsies the way the did the Jews, the Gypsies suffered a similar fate. Like the Jews, they were rounded up for slave labor, interred in ghettoized areas (Gypsy Camps), and subsequently sent to killing centers.

Guenter Lewy’s closely researched book, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), traces the oppression of the Gypsies in Germany and Nazi controlled territories, starting with the racial laws of the early 1930’s, to their deportation to concentration camps beginning in 1940, to their eventual extermination in Auschwitz in May 1944.

When the Nazis consolidated power in 1936, Heinrich Himmler, who became the SS Chief and the Chief of German police, instituted the Reich Central Office for the Suppression of the Gypsies Nuisance. This organization took progressive steps to contain and persecute the Gypsies. As early as 1938, Lewy recounts, the Gypsies were rounded up and confined to Gypsy camps (Zigeunerlager). Many men were also forced into slave labor, under the program “Operation Work-Shy”. Himmler took charge of this step-by-step process of isolation and discrimination, in a characteristically systematic—and insidious–fashion. In a decree entitled “Combatting the Gypsy Plague,” he set out to determine the “inner characteristics of that race” (36). Dr. Robert Ritter, a Nazi child psychologist, became the head of The Research Institute for Racial Hygiene and Population Biology. He classified the Gypsies according to their racial profile, as pure-bred or mixed. (43) Ironically, Gypsies of “pure blood” received some special consideration and were deemed to be more integrated into German society. By way of contrast, “mixed blood” Gypsies were declared “racially inferior” and subjected to far worse treatment: in a kind of inversion of the racial laws applied to the Jews.

Only a small number of Gypsies benefitted from the racial exemptions applicable to “pure Gypsies”: somewhere between 5,000 to 15,000 individuals. The rest—about 90 percent of the Gypsies—were considered by Ritter’s pseudoscientific classification as being of “mixed” or “degenerate” blood. The vast majority of them were rounded up and deported from all the Reich and Nazi-occupied territories. In 1938, Gypsy men from Marzahn were sent to Sachsanhausen. However, large-scale, mass deportations of the Gypsies to the East began in 1940. By 1942, Himmler ordered that all the Gypsies (Roma people) in the Reich be deported to concentration and extermination camps. (75)

At Auschwitz, Gypsies were some of the few inmates, along with a group of Czech inmates from the Theresienstadt concentration camp (known as “the Family Camp”), who were allowed to keep their clothes, not shave their hair off, and stay together in clans that comprised men, women and children. Despite this somewhat better treatment, their conditions were miserable. They lacked sufficient food, lived in squalor and were plagued by lice and disease. The children often suffered from noma, a disease stemming from malnutrition that caused a form of gangrene on their faces, which often looked like holes in their cheeks. The notorious Josef Mengele also enjoyed experimenting on Gypsy children, particularly on twins, his specialty.

Lewy doesn’t call the Nazi persecution of the Gypsies a “Holocaust” because it was, in some respects, less systematic than the genocide of the Jews. Gypsies were not explicitly selected for total extermination, as were the Jewish people. This distinction makes sense. However, in the end, the result was the same, since approximately 250,000 Gypsies were killed by the Nazi regime.


Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon

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From Terror to Terrorism

Tribute to Charlie Hebdo victims at Place de la RÈpublique - Paris

The recent terrorist attack on the French satirical journal Charlie Hebdo brought to the foreground the threat of terrorism. On January 7, 2015, two Islamist gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles, a shotgun and a M80 Zolia forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot into the staff of the journal, wounding eleven people and killing twelve others, including Stéphane Charbobbier (“Charb”), one of its chief editors. This wasn’t the first time Charlie Hebdo, known for its left wing bent and daring satires of social and political issues, became the target of protests and attacks for its irreverent cartoons featuring the prophet Muhammad. The first reaction, on February 11 2006, was a peaceful Muslim march in Paris to protest the publication on February 9, 2006 caricature of Muhammad. The cartoon featured the prophet weeping along with the caption “C’est dur d’être aimé par des cons” (“It’s tough being loved by idiots”). The Grand Mosque of Paris sued the magazine (the lawsuit reached French courts in 2007), claiming that it included racist cartoons. In 2008 the executive editor of Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val, was acquitted of the charge by the French court, which reasoned that the cartoon did not attack Islam per se, but rather Islamist fundamentalism. This wasn’t the end of the controversy, however.

In 2011 Charlie Hebdo published an issue renamed “Charia Hebdo”, alluding to Sharia law, citing Muhammad as stating “100 lashes of the whip if you don’t die laughing”. This time the Muslim reaction was more menacing. On November 2011 the journal’s office was firebombed. Mohammed Moussaoui, the head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, issued a statement condemning “the very mocking tone of the paper towards Islam and its prophet but [reaffirming] with force its total opposition to all acts and all forms of violence.” In 2012 the journal published satirical cartoons of Muhammad again, some of which featured the prophet naked. This too caused a lot of controversy, prompting the government to preemptively increase security at French embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The journal defended its series of Muhammad cartoons in the name of the freedom of speech, stating that they caricaturize many different religions–including Catholicism and Judaism—rather than targeting Islam in particular.

The deadly terrorist attack on January 7th generated widespread international support for Charlie Hebdo and for the freedom of speech in general. Millions gathered in Paris and other major cities around the world holding up the banner “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”). The day following the attack the journal announced that it would continue its publication. On January 14, it featured the prophet Mohammed on its cover once again, holding up a banner “Je suis Charlie” with the title “Tout est pardonné” (“All is forgiven”). This controversy raises important questions not only about protecting the freedom of speech in democratic societies, but also about the nature of terrorism itself. Many believe that the biggest threat to contemporary democracies comes not so much from totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, as from terrorism.

What is terrorism? The concept isn’t easy to define. In his groundbreaking book, Inside Terrorism (originally published in 1999, revised edition, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)– a classic on the subject—Bruce Hoffman starts off by exploring the Oxford English Dictionary definitions of the term, which, he argues, prove unsatisfactory. The first set of definitions offered, “ a system of terror,” “a policy intended to strike with terror those against whom it is adopted; methods of intimidation” are too broad and anachronistic. These descriptions apply equally to the terror instigated by Robespierre during the French revolution, to Stalin’s “Great Terror” and to contemporary terrorist attacks.

One of the main reasons terrorism is so difficult to define, Hoffman explains, it’s because it’s an inherently historical concept, which has changed meaning drastically over the centuries. During the French Revolution of 1789, the term “regime de la terreur” had a positive connotation, associated with revolutionary government overthrowing the monarchy. The revolutionary leader—and tyrant—Maximilien Robespierre viewed terror as the only way to uproot the old social order and institute a new revolutionary regime. Once the revolution got out of hand, however, and practically everyone could be seen as its enemy and sentenced to death by guillotine, la terreur (terror) acquired the negative connotation we retain today. Edmund Burke’s description of the revolutionaries—“Thousands of those Hell hounds called Terrorists…let loose on the people”—strikes us as surprisingly modern.

By the 1930’s, “Terror” became associated with the rise of totalitarian regimes—Nazism and Communism—which acquired almost total control over entire countries by instilling fear in the population. The democratic concepts of freedom of speech, human rights, and justice became meaningless. Hoffman cites the Nazi Minister of Interior Hermann Goering addressing the German people to announce measures against the communists and Jews: “My measures will not be crippled by any judicial thinking. My measures will not be crippled by any bureaucracy. Here I don’t have to worry about Justice; my mission is only to destroy and exterminate, nothing more.” Hoffman then continues to discuss how Stalin launched his fear-instilling purges in a deliberately arbitrary fashion, to instill fear not only in those who opposed to regime, but also those who could or might oppose it: in other words, in everyone.

Following WWII, however, the term “terrorism” became, once again, associated with revolutionaries—fighting for national liberation or self-determination—usually working against the system and fighting against entrenched regimes. Many terrorist organizations, including the PLO, see themselves not as terrorists but as “freedom fighters” (as PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat called the PLO in 1974).

Today, although “terrorism” is even more dissipated and difficult to define, it is not hard to identify. It pervades the news, from the 9/11 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Centers and Pentagon to the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo. An inherently negative term, “terrorism” refers to acts of violence and/or the threat of violence, particularly against civilians. Their target is not only their specific victims, but also all those who see their punishment, which potentially includes the entire world that reads the news: particularly citizens of the nations they declare “enemies”.

Most importantly, Hoffman explains that terrorists do not observe the ethical codes laid out by the Geneva and Hague Conventions (from the 1860’s to right after WWII in 1949), which prohibit taking civilians as hostages; govern the humane treatment of surrendered prisoners of war; outlaw reprisals against civilians and POW’s; uphold the inviolability of diplomats and other government officials. Terrorists express a fundamental disregard for such rules and for the very concept of human rights. Usually terrorists defend their actions, stating that the means justify their ends. The concept of “terrorism” becomes much more murky when democratic societies also engage in acts of terror against civilian populations to further their political ends. Such actions risk diluting the concept of “terrorism” and taking away from the moral righteousness with which they condemn terrorist activities. But that is a whole other can of worms…


Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon



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North Korea’s State of Terror: Review of Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick



For those informed about the dire situation of the vast majority of people living in North Korea, it’s tough to laugh along with The Interview (2014), a newly released and controversial American comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. This mediocre film, in which two journalists travel to Pyongyang and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un, has perhaps only one virtue: the publicity it generated brought some much-needed international attention to the plight of the North Korean people.

In reality, however, the situation in North Korea is far from amusing. Most of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live the kinds of lives imagined by George Orwell in his worst fictionalized nightmare, 1984. Divided by castes determined by their “patriotic” ranking; forced into jobs chosen by the government then burdened by indoctrination sessions after work for hours each day; fearing being turned in by friends, colleagues and family members for the slightest negative political remark and being sent to prison or labor camps, North Koreans live in a state of terror reminiscent of Orwell’s communist dystopia.

In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2009), journalist Barbara Demick offers a penetrating look into this nearly impermeable country. Even from hundreds of miles away, she begins her account, North Korea resembles a black hole: “If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity” (3). Demick follows the lives of six defectors from North Korea over the course of 15 years, offering an overview of the country’s history and a glimpse of its all-pervasive political repression through the optic of beautifully narrated personal interest stories.

Generations of North Koreans have never truly known freedom. In 1910, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea. During WWII, Koreans were subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their Japanese oppressors. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in the infamous Japanese “comfort houses,” where they were repeatedly gang raped. Countless Koreans were incarcerated in prison camps, tortured and murdered. When the war ended, Korea was divided into two parts: the North became Communist, falling under the influence of China and the Soviet Union, while the South was controlled by the United States. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25 1950, it launched the superpowers into the Korean War, a “proxy” military struggle for influence on Korean territory. When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the country reverted to boundaries very close to the original division between North and South Korea. The 2.5 mile buffer area between the two sides, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is, despite its name, the most militarized zone in the world.

Under the totalitarian leader Kim Il Sung, while still accepting Soviet aid, North Korea distanced itself politically from China and the Soviet Union by pursuing “Juche”, an ideology of self-reliance. Most of the country’s resources become channeled into its military, as North Korea observes a “Songun” or militaristic policy. The military absorbs over a third of the population, including nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s sealed North Korea’s economic fate. Deprived of Soviet aid, the country sank into poverty, unemployment and widespread famine. As Demick documents, once Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over control of the country after his father’s death in 1994, North Korea’s isolation became absolute and the political repression intensified. Nowadays starvation is a commonplace phenomenon. The North Koreans even have a name for the tens of thousands of starving children who resort to begging in the street to survive: “little swallows”.

While the vast majority of the population of North Korea lives in darkness and squalor, their leader enjoys extreme luxury and wealth. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Pyongyang’s Hunger Games”, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee state that Kim Jung-Un is said to have squandered $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012, “including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year Mr. Kim also spent 1.3 billion dollars on his ballistic missile program” (March 7, 2014).

Demick’s account personalizes the politics of North Korea by showing how it affects ordinary citizens. She tells the story of Mi-Ran, a young woman who was a teacher by profession. Mi-Ran fell in love like anyone living in a free country. Well, not like exactly like anyone else since, as Demick explains,
“the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses” (80). Mi-Ran may have felt the same emotions for the young man she cared about as do people living in free societies, but she couldn’t be with him because her political dossier was tainted by the fact that her father was a South Korean POW. The young woman may have experienced empathy like most human beings do in normal circumstances, but her situation was far from ordinary. In a country ravaged by hunger, she watched as her students wasted away from starvation, eventually disappearing without a trace from the classroom, one by one. Barely having enough food to survive herself, Mi-Ran couldn’t help them. Her empathy eventually gave way to indifference, a common survival tactic: “What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring” (130). Mi-Ran regained her humanity and put the political situation of her country in proper perspective only once she immigrated to South Korea.

Even Mrs. Song, a model patriotic citizen, eventually overcome the fear and the brainwashing instilled by her government. Each of the defectors interviewed by Demick eventually saw North Korea for what it is: a totalitarian country ruled by a voracious despot, whose personality cult may be so over-the-top as to become an object of satire for those living in freedom, but who transforms the lives of the people of North Korea into a tragic nightmare.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Lebensraum: Genocide, Slavery and Ethnic Cleansing in the Nazi expansion campaign


Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum–or, literally, creating more “living space” for Germany and the Germanic people by expanding to other areas of Europe and the Soviet Union through ethnic cleansing, deportation and genocide—was not original. This essentially colonialist concept had been around since the Middle Ages, while the term itself was coined in the early 1900’s by the German ethnographer Friedrich Ratzel. However, in his implementation of Lebensraum, Hitler transformed colonialism into a process of pillaging and mass murder of unprecedented proportions, with tragic consequences for humanity. Claiming that the Germanic people didn’t have enough room and natural resources to sustain their growing population, Hitler wanted to build an Aryan empire by conquering large parts of Europe and the Soviet Union, including Poland, the Ukraine and Russia. In order to achieve this goal, Hitler intended to kill hundreds of millions of their inhabitants and enslave the rest, annihilating and subjugating entire populations whom he considered “subhuman” or, at any rate, far inferior to the Aryan master race.

To prove the so-called inferiority of the conquered nations, Hitler inverted, in a characteristic move, cause and effect. He began a ruthless policy of terror, starving the captured people, humiliating them, killing them, and imprisoning them in labor and concentration camps. This mistreatment dehumanized the victims, often reducing them to animal-like behavior in their hopeless struggle to survive. Hitler then launched a propaganda campaign that “demonstrated” the behavior of the conquered people was abject and animalistic, to prove that they were inferior to the “civilized” German race.

The WWII historian Antony Beevor documents in his magnificent book, The Second World War (New York, Little, Brown & Company, 2012) that, following Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, “By February 1942, 60 percent of the 3.5 million Red Army prisoners had died of starvation, exposure or disease” (418). A quarter of the population of Belarus perished due to the Germans’ savage oppression. In addition, millions of Jews were rounded up in conquered cities and villages and shot by the Einsatzgruppen, or incarcerated in ghettos, concentration and death camps. Hitler aimed to achieve his top two, interrelated, goals simultaneously: to create more living space for the Germans by clearing vast areas of their native, “undesirable” people.

Although they agreed on the basic principle of Lebensraum, top Nazi officials disagreed about how to best achieve it. Vying for influence, they offered competing proposals. According to Beevor, Alfred Rosenberg, the minister of the Eastern territories, wanted to secure the cooperation of former Soviet nationalities, such as the Ukraine, in a joint struggle against the Soviet Union. Initially, many Ukrainians welcomed the German invasion and collaborated with the Nazis. The tide began to turn, however, when they realized that they were mistreated by the Germans as much, if not more so, than they had been by the Soviets. In Germany, the most “radical” views about how to achieve Lebensraum prevailed.

Herman Göring, appointed President of the Reichstag (1932-1945) as well as Minister (Reichminister) of Economics and of Aviation, preferred the method of starving out the native populations and bringing in German and Germanic people on those lands. Heinrich Himmler, the Reichführer or Chief of German Police and Commissioner for Strengthening the German Nationhood, opted for the most brutal method: ethnic cleansing through mass murder, either by shooting or gassing. In the end, Germany adopted all three strategies, focusing in particular upon the ruthless solutions proposed by Göring and Himmler, which were most closely aligned with Hitler’s racist ideology and sociopathic tendencies.

Both Hitler and Himmler envisaged an idyllic German empire stretching to the Urals, built upon the blood and sacrifice of those they considered to be “subhuman races” (Untermenschen): including the Jews, Slavs and Gypsies. The notion—and practice—of creating more Lebensraum for the German people inseparably combined utopia and dystopia by turning a mad fantasy into an all-too-real nightmare. As Beevor elaborates, “Nazi ideas for the future constituted little more than a grotesque fantasy… Himmler dreamed of gemütlich German colonies, with gardens and orchards built across the former killing grounds of his SS Einsatzgruppen. And to provide a holiday center the Crimea, renamed Gotenhau, would become the German Riviera” (418). The result of this so-called utopic vision of an Aryan master race dominating most of Europe and the Soviet Union was the horrific abuse and death of tens of millions of innocent people, the devastation of entire cities and villages, and the destruction of natural resources that would take years to replenish.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

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Filed under Anthony Beevor The Second World War, Claudia Moscovici, Hitler, Holocaust Memory, Lebensraum, Nazi Germany, Slavery and Ethnic Cleansing in the Nazi expansion campaign, the Holocaust, WWII