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Hazy Hints of Memory: After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Early childhood development specialists emphasize the importance of having a nurturing and stable environment for infants and toddlers. That’s when the foundations of a child’s personality are formed and influence the rest of their life. Studies have shown that many of the children who grew up in the Communist Romanian orphanages during the 1980’s, living in deplorable conditions and deprived of love, attention, adequate sanitary facilities and healthy food, developed personality deficiencies that marred their lives. Many felt emotionally detached from others and could barely communicate, even as adults.

What about the youngest children of the Holocaust, growing up in the most hellish circumstances imaginable? Most of them perished in the fires of the crematoria, being the first to be selected for immediate death. The few so-called “lucky” child survivors recall bits and pieces of might have been an even worse fate. Rabbi Joseph Polak’s recent memoir, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring (New York, Urim Publications, 2015), winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award, depicts surviving as a toddler in environments whose only certainties were suffering, squalor, misery and death.

Joseph Polak was born on October 16, 1942, in a Jewish family in German-occupied Netherlands. The Dutch Nazis were ready to snatch him from normal life and send his entire family to the transit camp Westerbork even before he was born. His mother recalled the loud pounding on the door in the middle of the night by “the Police” when she was nine months pregnant with Joseph. She courageously warded off the Dutch Nazis by pointing out the advanced state of her pregnancy, but they didn’t stay away for long. A year later, on September 29, 1943, the Nazis returned. The Polak family was sent to Westerbork for about four months, joining 100,000 other Jews who would be deported to “the East”.

Being so young, Joseph retained only hazy traces of memory of the transit camp, enhanced by his mother’s subsequent descriptions: its crowded, sweaty, uncomfortable conditions; the state of anxiety of so many uprooted, displaced people deprived of their roots, assets, professions, families and identities while awaiting to be sent to what they rightly suspected would be a miserable place. The Dutch government set up Camp Westerbork in the fall of 1939 for Jewish refugees who were not Dutch citizens and entered the country illegally. Following the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, the camp grew and became, between 1942 to 1944, a transit camp for all Dutch Jews on their way to Nazi concentration camps. While the camp organizers, who were also Jewish, attempted to create some semblance of normalcy through various routines and activities—which included entertaining diversions such as plays and musical shows—inmates were obsessed with the weekly lists of candidates for deportation to the East. Staying versus leaving Westerbork could mean the difference between life and death. Eventually almost everyone had to leave.

Joseph and his parents were sent to Bergen-Belsen on February 1, 1944, during a period of time known for relatively good conditions. Those didn’t last, however. In December 1944 the camp began receiving a large intake of prisoners from Eastern camps evacuated by the Germans faced with the Soviet army’s advance. Grossly overcrowded and without sufficient food and medical supplies or sanitation facilities for its growing population, in its last year Bergen-Belsen became a breeding ground for typhus, dysentery, typhoid fever, tuberculosis and death. Starving and deprived of adequate care, with a mother who had become a shadow of her former self and weighed only 50 pounds, little Joseph wandered around hungry and in rags, playing among the miles of corpses lined up at Bergen-Belsen. The narrator depicts, vividly, the overpowering stench of feces and decomposing bodies. Ultimately, his family was “lucky” again. On April 9, 1945 they were sent along with 2500 other Jews to Theresienstadt. On the way, they were liberated by the Soviet Army in Tröbitz, a little village of 700 people in East Germany. Despite being “freed,” his parents no longer had the strength to survive. His father passed away in May, while his mother fell gravely ill. Joseph was taken  by the Dutch authorities and placed in the care of another Dutch-Jewish family.

Joseph doesn’t have many memories of this brief period. He only recalls a fleeting impression of security offered by his adoptive father. The young boy held on tightly to his jacket as they rode together on a scooter, enjoying the sights and the breeze. Their destination, however, would be a new shock for little Joseph: a white hospital bed where he’s reunited with a mother that he can no longer bond with or even recognize. It takes time for mother and child to begin to heal, to grow together again, in the more livable conditions offered by a center for Jewish survivors in The Hague, where they spend the next three years, from 1945 to 1948. Later, his mother tells Joseph how she managed to put the atrocious conditions of the concentration camp momentarily out of her mind by imagining that she was at her favorite department store, far removed from the squalor of Bergen-Belsen. Then she takes him to that store again. Flashes of memory spark in the child’s mind as he perceives, with a sense of wonder and incomprehensible nostalgia for the sordid yet familiar past, the contrast between the luxurious goods in front of his eyes and the misery of his first years of life. In December 1948, mother and child sail to New York together. They end up living with her family in Montreal.

It took Rabbi Joseph Polak decades to return to his early childhood past, which he only vaguely recalls in bits and pieces, and which, for a long time, he wanted to forget. When he was fifty years old, ten years after his mother had passed away, he returned to Bergen-Belsen after a trip to Paris, where he lectured on Jewish law. He was ready, by then, not only to remember his family’s experiences of the Holocaust, but also to preserve and share them with others. It occurred to him that as even the child survivors of the Holocaust age and pass away, there is a risk that their memories will disappear along with them. Reading After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring will do more than remind readers of the Holocaust; it will help us empathize with the victims by putting us in those circumstances through different narrative means.

First of all, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring is a beautifully written, evocative memoir. In parts, it’s also a theosophical dialogue, staging discussions between the narrator and the Angel of Death on the timeless question of theodicy: how can an omnipotent and omniscient God allow such horrific suffering of children, of innocents? I’m not sure that this question is answered in any definitive way by the text, but readers can find some solace in the evolution of the author’s life. Rabbi Joseph Polak used his good fortune of being one of the few very young child Holocaust survivors to fill the void of nihilism left by the trauma of his past and make something worthwhile and redeeming of his life. Instead of turning his back upon humanity for what so many did to their fellow human beings, he reached out to help and heal others, both as a Rabbi and as a writer.

This narrative is also an educational text. It makes pedagogical bridges with new generations of readers. Where relevant, Rabbi Polak offers helpful historical background and places the Dutch Holocaust in proper perspective. Middle school and high school students, exposed to Anne Frank’s diary and little else about the Holocaust in the Netherlands, may perceive Dutch citizens of the era as heroes who risked their lives to hide Jews from the Nazis. While many certainly did, as Polak points out, the Netherlands was at the same time a country that rounded up Jews with remarkable zeal and efficiency. Between the summer of 1942 and the fall of 1944, the Dutch collaborators sent over 100,000 Jews, or 75 percent of the country’s Jewish citizens, to concentration camps. Only 5,200 among them survived. The odds were better for those who went into hiding with the aid of the Dutch underground or helpful non-Jewish friends. Of the 30,000 Jews who hid from the Nazis, two thirds survived.

Last but not least, After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring has a beautiful, authentic and often lyrical style. At times, it reminded me of Marguerite Duras’ writing: vivid yet also vaguely suggestive; drawing out the philosophical implications of sensory descriptions; versatile in the way it reaches out to its readers. Memoir, philosophical and religious treatise, oratory, history lesson and literary text: you will find all this and more in Joseph Polak’s After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring.

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Advance Praise for Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

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Advance Praise for Claudia Moscovici’s

Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

 

The screen that portrays the horrors of the twentieth Century is fading more rapidly than its audience can bear. Claudia Moscovici’s book will go far to help keep it lit longer.

 

Rabbi Joseph Polak, Author of After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring, Winner of the 2015 National Jewish Book Award

 

This book fills a present and mounting need for all readers interested in the Holocaust, including scholars and teachers.  With the literature about that unprecedented crime becoming steadily more extensive, Claudia Moscovici’s work offers a valuable and well-written guide to key works on various aspects of the Holocaust or on its entire history.

 

Guy Stern, ​Distinguished Professor Emeritus Wayne State University Director, International Institute of the Righteous Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Center, Farmington Hills, MI

 

Holocaust Memories is a morally urgent book, an encyclopedia of mourning, remembrance, and compassion, an invitation and a behest to keep memory alive and to resist unwaveringly any form of authoritarian temptation. It is particularly recommended to high school and college students, but also to a general audience. I learned a lot from it and I am convinced that many others will share my superlative endorsement.

 

Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Politics, University of Maryland (College Park), author of The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

 

A well-written series of book reviews that can be used as a solid tool for those who want to study the Holocaust.

 

Radu Ioanid, Author of The Holocaust in Romania and The Ransom of the Jews

 

Intended for a wide public and a new generation of readers, this bold and ambitious book forms an overview of the Holocaust from a myriad of sources – historical, philosophical, or literary works and films. More than sixty lucid and concise essays (usually two or three pages long) introduce various circumstances of human cruelty in Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Soviet Russia, but also in Cambodia and Rwanda. These focused readings comprise an invaluable source book for anyone seeking to understand the horrors of totalitarian regimes, constantly reminding us that moral courage must prevail over politics.

 

Edward K. Kaplan, Kaiserman Professor in the Humanities Emeritus, Brandeis University, author a two-volume biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

 

Holocaust Memories provides a wealth of reviews and summaries of major memoirs, histories, biographies, novels and films related to the Holocaust. In the breadth of its coverage it provides an important and much-needed resource for teachers and students of all ages who are exploring the record of a tragedy so extensive and horrific it defies understanding. In bringing together testimonials and perspectives from many different voices and a range of genres, Moscovici provides a nuanced and multi-faceted approach that will allow readers to begin to register the unfathomable pain and loss brought about by the Nazis’ decimation of Jews, Gypsies, Poles and other groups. The clarity and vividness of the writing make the reviews intense, each capturing a sense of the impact of the source being described. And since the anthology also covers works about other genocides, such as those in China, Cambodia, and Rwanda, it underscores that genocide is not just a matter of history; it is sadly also a matter of the present.

 

Natalie McKnight, Dean and Professor of Humanities, The College of General Studies, Boston University

 

The Holocaust is much more than a historical event; it is a continuing story playing out in the lives of survivors, their descendants, their communities and entire societies. It is a seminal presence that provokes reflection and alerts us to the risks of falling into the abyss of inhuman depravity – of what could happen because it did happen. In Holocaust Memories, Moscovici has given us a panoramic view of the Shoah and framed it with other modern genocides. This book is at once much broader than virtually any other work I know, deeper than most in its gentle insistence that we persist in wrestling with the most fundamental moral questions. Those questions are as pertinent today as they were in 1945. Holocaust Memories will be an invaluable resource as I write my own memoirs as a survivor.

 

Martin Heisler, Professor Emeritus of Government and Politics, University of Maryland, College Park

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Eichmann’s Extraordinary Evil: Review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Random House 2014), Bettina Stangneth challenges Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis that Eichmann represents the banality of evil: an ordinary man turned mass murder by extraordinary circumstances (the war and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism). The image of Eichmann that emerges from Stangneth’s book is one of a charming chameleon that deceives others about his intentions and his credentials. Without knowing more than a few words of Yiddish and having no knowledge of Hebrew, Eichmann relied upon the smattering of Jewish culture he got by spying on Jewish leaders to climb the political ladder and obtain an official function as Head of Department of Jewish Affairs in the SD (Security Service of the Nazi Party). Although most of the time he gave the impression of being calm and reserved, he would fly off into an ideological rage—similar to Hitler’s–whenever his objectives were frustrated or when it served his purposes (such as to intimidate Jewish leaders into complying with his orders). As if with the flip of a switch, however, Eichmann could instantly revert to being courteous and collected (for instance, when a German woman would step into one of the ideological meeting). His emotions, like his attachments, were shallow. Although he remained “loyal” to his wife, Veronika Liebl, he cheated on her and dominated her. At one point he boasted that he tore up the Bible of his highly religious wife, though eventually he allowed her to practice Christianity. Their dominance bond was quite strong, however, since Vera patiently–and faithfully–waited for years while her husband lived in hiding after the war and eventually joined him in Argentina, where he managed to escape justice for eleven years.

The picture that emerges from Stangneth’s book is not that of an ordinary man corrupted by power in a totalitarian regime—as Arendt famously indicates in Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil–but that of a psychopath: a highly narcissistic man without remorse, without conscience and without the capacity for forming deeper human attachments. Hungry for power, Eichmann unscrupulously adapts himself to the norms of the Nazi regime, even anticipating Hitler’s wishes to implement a program of exterminating the Jews after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. War enabled the Nazis to carry out what couldn’t be achieved during peacetime: a systematic genocide of unprecedented proportions carried out, at least in the Eastern campaign, openly and often with the collaboration of the local populations.

Eichmann became responsible for the mass deportations of nearly 6 million Jews to concentration camps, where most victims were sent to the gas chambers. Far from merely following orders—as he later stated during his defense in the trial in Jerusalem—Eichmann showed great enthusiasm and initiative for mass murder. In 1944, when even Himmler had begun to reverse course and issued an order to stop the Jewish deportations, Eichmann went to Hungary to personally oversee the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. With astonishing efficiency, in a few months, Eichmann managed to send 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were killed on the spot and most of the rest died afterwards from hunger, abuse or disease. Only the heroic actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg prevented him from sending all of the Jews of Budapest to their deaths. Interestingly, like most psychopaths, Eichmann was a bully only with those in a position of weakness. When Wallenberg confronted him face to face and stopped the deportation of hundreds of Jews, Eichmann didn’t do anything to stop him. Only afterwards, behind his back, he railed against the Wallenberg, calling him “a Jewish dog” and “an interventionist”. Turning moral norms upside down, Eichmann felt that all those who expedited genocide were courageous heroes and those who fought against it were cowards and weaklings.

Although highly manipulative and versatile, Eichmann remained, to the very end, a man without conscience. After the war he even expressed great pride in his genocidal actions, stating that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He may have boasted about his actions, but like most psychopaths, Eichmann didn’t want to have to pay their consequences. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, he fled to Austria and later, in 1950, to Argentina. There he joined a community of Nazi expatriates. Far from leading a quiet, anonymous life, this mass murderer longed for his former glory and power.

In fact, Eichmann even planned to write a book, based on a series of interviews with Willem Sassen–a Dutch collaborator and Nazi journalist also hiding in Argentina–that would not only leave his Nazi legacy for posterity but also, he hoped, instigate a second coming of the Third Reich during his lifetime. Perhaps it was this psychopath’s extraordinary hubris that finally did him in. Eventually the Mossad, Israel’s Intelligence Service, caught up with him in 1960 and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial. He was charged, among other things, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. The jury found Eichmann guilty on all counts. He was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962. Perhaps no book on the subject can compete in its influence with Eichmann in Jerusalem, but in one significant respect I found Bettina Stangneth’s account far more accurate than Arendt’s: Eichmann’s evil was anything but banal.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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Genocide Indifference

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Children starving in the Warsaw ghetto, Wikipedia Commons

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Practically everyone knows that the Holocaust is the biggest genocide in human history.  But not everyone cares about this anymore. I’m not referring only to pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic groups. I fear that, as the last surviving Holocaust victims pass away, genocide indifference is becoming a mainstream phenomenon.  Part of the reason for this detachment may be that the Holocaust reminds us of an almost unimaginable horror and cruelty. The facts themselves are very difficult to absorb. The Holocaust involved the mass murder of approximately six million Jews: about two-thirds of European Jewry. Between the years 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were established by Adolf Hitler, until 1945, when the Allies liberated Europe, the Jews were systematically deprived of their civil rights, source of income, jobs, savings and property. They were segregated and isolated from non-Jewish friends, neighbors and colleagues in ghettos, where they fell prey to starvation and disease. They were subjected to slave labor. They were rounded up by the SS and by paramilitary units to be shot in front of long ditches (which usually they, themselves, were forced to dig). They were packed up a hundred people into sealed cattle trains with no windows to concentration camps, traveling for days usually without food, water or the chance to relieve themselves. In the camps, they endured conditions of filth, forced labor, brutality, disease and hunger. Those selected for hard labor usually died within a few months from these grueling conditions. Those immediately selected for death were herded into facilities that resembled showers to die an excruciating death by inhaling a toxic gas that took fifteen to twenty minutes to work. Struggling to reach the last pocket of air, the strong trampled on the frail and small. Yes, almost everyone knows this. But does everyone care about it? Or are we becoming indifferent to this genocide of the past? I’d like to explore here some of the possible reasons for Holocaust indifference:

1. Knowledge doesn’t imply caring. In Israel one day is dedicated to remembering the Holocaust and its many victims at school and in the media. In the U. S., The Diary of Anne Frank is taught in most middle schools in a unit on the Holocaust. New generations are exposed to the subject, yet the depth of its tragedy may not register.  This brings me to my second reason: historical distance or presentism.

2. Historical distance. We are decades away from the genocide that the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Slavs during WWII. Why focus on this unpleasant past? Some say, let’s live in the present. There are so many horrible things happening in the world today. Why not work on fixing them instead? My answer is that without knowledge of history it’s difficult to confront the problems of the present. Without learning from history, we may not easily recognize the dangers of autocracy; the vulnerability of democracies; the toxic charisma of sociopathic leaders; the lies or partial truths we are told to justify inhumane actions. Only by learning about the dangers—and horrors—of the past can we recognize them in the present and avoid them in the future.

3. Desensitization. It’s well known that people can become desensitized to gruesome events by familiarity and repetition. The fact we hear often about the Holocaust in history classes or the media doesn’t mean that the horror touches us on an emotional level. In fact, as Raul Hilberg explains in Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (HarperCollins Publishers, 1992), gradual desensitization to cruelty against Jews was one of the main reasons why so many ordinary people could participate in the killing machinery of the Holocaust.  Initially, the German soldiers hesitated to kill civilians. After a few months in the death squads, however, they felt comfortable enough to kill even children without a second thought: “Again and again, witnesses recall that small children were thrown out of windows, or tossed like sacks into trucks, or dashed against walls, or hurled live into pyres of burning corpses” (p. 54).

4. Ethnic or religious blindspots. Many people have a sense of ethnic belonging and care most about their social group. After all, nobody can care about every bad thing that happens in this world. But caring only about your social group not only diminishes the capacity for empathy, but also gives you a potentially dangerous blindspot. Those who care only about their ethnic or religious group are more likely to support harm done to other groups. They are also more likely to miss the obvious: the bad things that happened to others can happen to your group too. Ethnic and religious discrimination sets a dangerous precedent. Conversely, when you care about the rights of others you defend your human rights too.

5. Nationalist pride. I think nationalism and patriotism can be very positive phenomena. They give those living in a country a sense of cohesion and pride. But there is such a thing as misplaced patriotism. There are some things that your country has done that nobody should be proud of. Denying that they happened or shifting blame is not a constructive way to keep the glory and unity of one’s country intact. Now that so many formerly communist countries have become democratic, it’s time that they face the truth about their role in the Holocaust. Today’s generations are not to blame for what their ancestors did. But they are to blame for the truth that they deny. In short, there are no good reasons for genocide indifference.

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory

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Evil Leaders: Book Review of Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (Vintage Books, NY, 1993) offers a monumental social and psychological biography of two of the most evil dictators in human history as well as an epic sketch of an era. Although the author specializes in Hitler, his grasp of Stalin is equally impressive. It rivals, in fact, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007) in its thoroughness and depth.

As the title suggests, Bullock alternates chapters on Hitler with those on Stalin.  He reveals how each dictator relied on his powers of manipulation, deception and opportunism to rise to power. They spread totalitarian regimes meant to wipe out the human spirit and large parts of humanity itself across the world.  The book also explains how Hitler and Stalin initially operated within the systems which they later (mis)used for their own selfish and nefarious goals. Whatever their rhetoric and ideology, both psychopathic tyrants ultimately craved power for its own sake, at the expense of everyone else, even the causes (and allies) they initially claimed to support.

Primo Levi famously advances the same thesis as Hannah Arendt expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, 2006): “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” There is no doubt that the Holocaust throughout Europe or the terror in the Soviet Union weren’t brought about by Hitler and Stalin alone. Without coopting tens of thousands of soldiers, functionaries and “regular people” throughout the world, these two evil leaders wouldn’t have succeeded in their genocidal goals, nor could they have implemented totalitarian regimes. Yet the obverse clause is equally true. Without the leadership of psychopathic, power-driven and malicious individuals like Hitler and Stalin the genocides wouldn’t have happened either. The Holocaust wouldn’t have existed without someone like Hitler: namely a highly influential and charismatic psychopathic leader rising to power at a ripe moment in history.

Although Stalin claimed to have an allegiance to the communist party and Hitler to the Aryan race, history proved that their true allegiance was to their own empowerment. As Bullock demonstrates, Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would reveal.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969)

What makes such human suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the leaders in charge. The collusion and indifference of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without evil leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives gives us a detailed, compelling and extremely informative historical and psychological portrait of two of the most powerful faces of evil in human history. He describes in great detail their rise to power and deadly influence. Hitler and Stalin is an indispensable book for all those who want to understand how totalitarian regimes function and the role psychopathic dictators play in changing the course of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

http://www.amazon.com/Velvet-Totalitarianism-Post-Stalinist-Claudia-Moscovici/dp/076184693X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1323439558&sr=1-1

 

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