Tag Archives: Stalin

The Turning Point of the War: Review of 1941 by Andrew Nagorski

The Turning Point of the War: Review of 1941 by Andrew Nagorski

by Claudia Moscovici

 

We tend to think of D-Day as the turning point of WWII: the day the Allies landed in Normandy to liberate France, and the entire Europe, from the Nazi invaders. But Andrew Nagorski’s new book, 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War (New York, Simon & Schuster, 2019), persuasively argues that this crucial year was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s regime and the beginning of hope for the Allies. In fact, had Hitler not chosen to follow in Napoleon’s footsteps and replicate his mistake—that of invading Russia at the wrong time–it’s likely that the descendants of the Nazi victors would be writing a very different history today.

Nagorski points out that before he launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Hitler had Europe in the palm of his hands. He had swept through most of the Continent, while Britain found itself fighting the war almost alone. The United States, and especially President Roosevelt, was on its side. However, America hadn’t yet joined the Allied forces and the President was still struggling with isolationist tendencies in Congress. Furthermore, Germany was relatively safe from the danger of Soviet invasion thanks to the Nazi-Soviet (or Molotov-Ribbentrop) neutrality pact of 1939. Judging by Stalin’s shock and hesitation to retaliate when he first found out that Germany attacked his country, the Axis powers could have continued to trounce the Allied forces. But Hitler’s racial theories—which considered the Slavs to be an inferior people—coupled with his ideology of Lebensraum, or the conviction that the Aryan race would thrive if they vastly expanded their territory and resources by conquering the Soviet Union, led Hitler to make the same mistake in 1941 that caused Napoleon’s fall over a century earlier.

Catching the Soviet Union unprepared for war and with its army leadership decimated by Stalin’s Great Terror purges of 1936-1938, Hitler expected to conquer quickly the Soviet Union. He was especially interested in getting his hands on the natural resources of the Ukraine which is why, contrary to the wise advice of General Heinz Guderian, who counseled him to invade Moscow first, Hitler decided to make Kiev his immediate target in the early fall of 1941. This postponed the attack on Moscow to the late fall and winter (October 1941 to January 1942), with the Nazi soldiers unprepared for the extremely cold temperatures of the region and running out of supplies and energy. As Nagorski points out, both totalitarian rulers made big miscalculations during the war. But in 1941 they began to follow different paths. As Stalin started trusting and taking the advice of his key generals, particularly his ruthless and courageous Chief of Staff, Georgy Zhukov, Hitler, fueled by his previous easy victories and obsessed with directing soldiers and resources to the mass murder of the European Jews, began making big mistakes. “It was their calculations—and, more significantly, gross miscalculations—that were determining the trajectory of the war” (1941,143).

The prolonged battle of Moscow was not the only turning point in the war, however. The continuing rapprochement between Roosevelt and Churchill, the decrease in power of the main proponents of the “America First” isolationist movement (Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy, not accidentally, both Nazi sympathizers), and especially Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, all changed the fate of Europe and the direction of the war. “History is written by the victors,” Winston Churchill is often cited as saying. In the case of the Jews, and perhaps also the Slavs, it would have been not only their history, but also their very existence that would have been effaced had the Nazis won the war. Nagorski’s exceptionally well researched and magnificently written book reminds us of the pivotal importance of the year 1941. This book, along with Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (1968) and Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991), should be an essential reader for anyone interested in Hitler, Stalin and WWII history.

 

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Plans for a second Holocaust? Stalin’s “Doctors’ Plot”

Stalin'slastcrime

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

Most people know about Hitler’s virulent attack on the Jewish people, culminating in the atrocities of the Holocaust. Fewer know, however, that Stalin himself was planning a widespread attack on the Jews between the years 1948-1953. Compared to Hitler, up until the end of his life, Stalin was an “equal opportunity” killer. He masterminded the imprisonment, torture, show trials and death of his (real or potential) political adversaries and critics, as well as of countless individuals whom he suspected of independence of thought. Prominent officials and unknown functionaries; wealthier farmers (kulaks) and the poor and the hungry in the Ukraine and other areas of the Soviet Union; Christian religious leaders and Communist atheists: everyone suffered under Stalin’s reign of terror. Even the leaders of the secret police forces (NKVD), including Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Yezhov, were eventually purged. However, unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime, up until the end of his life, Stalin didn’t target the Jews for being Jewish.

In fact, Jews featured prominently—though they were by no means a majority, as Hitler would claim–in the communist leadership. Granted, when he planned to forge a Soviet-Nazi alliance, Stalin dismissed Maxim Litvinov, the Jewish Foreign Minister. He replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov, the principal signatory of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939. Later, in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Stalin manifested an uncharacteristic optimism and trust in the strength of his alliance with Hitler. The Soviet leader didn’t react promptly to the news of war. For a few days he isolated himself in shock and even forbade his generals from making preemptive strikes against the German forces gathered at the Soviet borders. Having been deprived of information about the Nazi campaigns against the Jewish people all over Europe, about 4 million Soviet Jews were left vulnerable, on the path of the Nazi attack. Although many of them were able to escape before the Germans invaded their region, a large number of those living in the Western parts of the Soviet Union were trapped by the rapid German advance.

Raul Hilberg documents that Stalin’s decision not to evacuate promptly civilians from the areas invaded by Germany were prompted by two main considerations: “One was the prevention of a hasty flight of people. Their production was needed until the very last moment… The second guideline was applied in cities whose fall was imminent. In these situations, priority for evacuation was usually given to skilled workers, managers, party functionaries, civil servants, students, intellectuals, and various professionals… But there is little evidence of any Soviet attempts to evacuate Jews as such” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 250-251). The refusal to evacuate civilians as quickly and efficiently as possible affected Jews more than other groups, since they were in the greatest danger of extermination by the Nazis. But at this point Stalin’s strategy was not directly aimed at the Jews. They fell victim to his general policy, which affected everyone in Soviet areas occupied by the Germans.

All this changed between the years 1948-1953, when Stalin began mounting a specifically anti-Semitic campaign in the Soviet Union that, some claim, could have led to a second Holocaust. While it’s not clear how far the Soviet leader would have gone with his plans, what is clear is that like Hitler, Stalin began targeting Jews as Jews for discrimination and abuse. There’s also strong evidence that he was planning another massive purge.

As usual, Stalin offered a pretext: the death in 1948 of a prominent Soviet official, Andrei Zhdanov, much as Sergey Kirov’s assassination in 1934 offered Stalin the pretext to launch the “Great Terror” purges of 1937-38. From 1946-7, Zhdanov was Chairman of the Soviet Union. He organized the Cominform, which set the official policy for Communist parties throughout Europe. In his role as Chairman, Zhdanov also set the tone for cultural production in the Soviet Union. He is infamous for his censorship of writers and artists, including the famous poet Anna Akhmatova.

Years later, between 1952 and 1953, Stalin used Zhdanov’s death as a pretext to accuse several prominent doctors, six out of nine of which were Jewish, of conspiring to assassinate Soviet leaders. He cast doubt upon Zhdanov’s cause of death, suggesting a Jewish conspiracy. Aside from turning on the doctors themselves, including his personal physician, A. N. Vinogradov, Stalin also targeted Jewish intellectuals, whom, according to Alan Bullock, the Soviet press labeled “Zionist agents of American imperialism.” (See Hitler and Stalin, 951-952) Lydia Timashuk, a sycophant and political instigator, “discovered” the Doctors’ plot. She even received the Order of Lenin for her false denunciations. Stalin took over the case, ordering that Vinogradov be imprisoned and the other doctors tortured. The media called Jews the “enemies within” and the anti-Semitic campaign and initial arrests were followed by more “spontaneous” pogroms in the Ukraine.

The question remains why Stalin chose to target the Jews in his plans for new purges. Aside from his all-pervasive sense of paranoia, which led him to suspect treachery and sabotage even from his closest friends and allies, there are several reasons for Stalin’s anti-Semitic turn. Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov, authors of Stalin’s Last Crime: The Plot against the Jewish Doctors, 1948-1953 (New York: HarperCollins eBooks, 2010), argue that in the early 1950’s Stalin was planning an even greater purge the one he launched during the Great Terror (1937-38). They maintain that Stalin was motivated by three principal considerations: 1. The need to reestablish the reigns of power through terror and purge the Ministry of Security; 2. The threat he saw in the establishment of the state of Israel and the spread of Jewish Zionism in the Soviet, and 3) the growing tension with the United States after the end of their alliance in WWII. Although the Soviet Union had recognized the state of Israel early on, Stalin perceived the U.S.-Israeli alliance as a threat to the Soviet Union.

Six million Jews were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Soviet Union had the largest remaining Jewish population: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, about two million Jews. During the war, Hitler and Stalin became archenemies. Ironically, had Stalin lived to carry out the planned purges, he might have accomplished Hitler’s dream.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon 

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Between Fanaticism and Terror

HitlerStalinWikipediaCommons

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

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw  Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).

The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well.  Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family.  Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919.  He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day:  “Zachto—Why?

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory 

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Filed under Claudia Moscovici, history, Hitler, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, Holocaust, Holocaust Memory, why the Jews

Review of The Archivist’s Story by Travis Holland

archivists_story

 

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

If you’re intrigued by the history of totalitarianism, particularly as played out during the Stalinist period in the U.S.S.R., then you have probably read Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind. Suffering on such a massive scale is difficult to imagine, much less describe for readers who have not lived through these horrific events. If anything, the graphic representation of violence in our daily lives-on T.V., the internet, video games, etc-have desensitized us to human suffering. While novels and memoirs written by those who experienced the Stalinist purges reveal the horrors they and their loved ones endured, more recent representations of life during communism seem to shy away from depicting overt violence. I’m thinking of the popular German movie The Lives of Others, which chose to focus on the periphery, in an incredibly effective representation of character transformation and political voyeurism.

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“I have only one request: that I be allowed to complete my last work…” – Isaac Babel

Written in this tradition, Travis Holland’s impressive debut novel, The Archivist’s Story, attunes readers to the nuances of living under communist regimes: the constant fear; the ever-present threat of violence; the relentless surveillance; the pressure to succumb to the totalitarian machine. Instead of focusing on the key players (Stalin and his cronies) or on the violent horrors of the Gulags and prisons, Holland reveals the drama of the center stage by depicting the periphery. The story is told by Pavel Dubrov, a Lubyanka prison archivist whose job is to destroy “deviationist” literature. In a file, he discovers a story that he believes is written by Isaac Babel, who is himself imprisoned. Because he admires Babel and his work, the archivist performs an act that speaks to his courage: he saves one of Babel’s documents. It’s true that Pavel doesn’t have much to lose at this point: his wife was killed in a train accident; his mother is dying of brain cancer. The archivist’s life revolves around his sordid duties at the Lubyanka. Refusing to burn a document may not seem like much. But one must remember that, during the Stalinist period, even looking at someone the wrong way or not applauding loudly enough after a communist speech could mean a death sentence. Saving a document that not only went against the party line, but also countered the very spirit of dogma reigning over the U.S.S.R., constituted a heroic gesture. Through the elegance of his prose, the strength of his characterizations and the engaging pace of his narration, Holland allows readers to step into the nightmarish reality of Stalinist Russia and appreciate its impact upon ordinary lives.

Claudia Moscovici, Notablewriters.com

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