Mass Violence in the Soviet Union and Germany

In “State Violence- Violent Societies,” authors Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth discuss mass violence in both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. They preface their discussion with an analysis of this field of study leading up to the modern day. According to the authors, most existing studies on mass violence focus on the Soviet and German camp systems (the concentration camps and the Gulag) and the methods of violence used as their sources of evidence. However, the authors believe that in order to gain a holistic understanding of mass violence in both states, one must look to the actual perpetrators and functionaries, since scholarly knowledge regarding this aspect of the subject is fairly fragmentary.

Through research done specifically on the aforementioned topics, scholars have revealed that contrary to popular belief, initiatives from mid to lower level functionaries and institutions other than the police played significant roles in the implementation of mass violence. Furthermore, rather than there being a single driving force influencing the uniform implementation of violent practices, a variety of policies and forms of mass violence were utilized against victim groups.

The case study titled “Socially Harmful Elements’ in the Soviet Union; ‘Asocials’ in Nazi Germany,” reveals the wide array of targets, as well as methods of violence used in both states. In both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, many of the groups persecuted were identical: the homeless, criminals, prostitutes, etc. However a significant difference between the regimes regarding mass violence was the scope of violence. The authors discuss the implementation of passportization in the Soviet Union, which was designed to limit the movement of those labelled “socially dangerous”. This initiative resulted in broader and more repressive movements (deportation, labor camp sentences etc.) against an ever-growing range of social deviants. In both examples, violence against asocials and socially harmful elements was designed to restore social order as well as create a new social order.

In the beginning of this chapter, the authors note their lack of the use of the term “genocide” in their scholarly research. They note that the lack of a common scholarly definition is indicative of the wide range of uses for the word, especially politically. Furthermore, they note that the concept of “genocide” implies that on a state level long-intended, carefully prepared master plans for destruction exist. Do you agree with this definition of genocide? Do you agree with the author’s use of the term “mass violence” instead? Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “Mass Violence in the Soviet Union and Germany

  1. Another big difference between the two countries was their overall aims. The Nazis used mass violence in Nazi Germany in order to create what they saw as ‘pure’ aryan race. In the Soviet Union, it was entirely different. Based off of the 2011 book, “Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Reshaping of Soviet Society”, written by Steven Barnes, the Soviet Union used violence and repression on certain groups of people as a way of maintaining control over the thoughts of individual minds. They were not necessarily aiming to kill anyone who was an enemy of the state. ((Barnes, A. Steven, “Death and Redemption: The Gulag and the Shaping of Soviet Society.” Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011)) They wanted to destroy groups that posed a threat and give individuals an opportunity to be reeducated, contrary to the German case where you would not have this opportunity.

    I do not think Genocide has to be long lived or carefully planned out. I believe that if someone hates a certain group of individuals and has desires to wipe out a certain group of people, then that simply put is genocide. In the case of your question, I think Mass violence and repression is more fitting for the Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany’s case, I believe it evolved from mass violence to genocide as time progressed from the 1930s into the 1940s. As stated above, the Soviet Union was not necessarily interested in killing massive amounts of people for ethnic or biological reasons. They were interested in an individuals mind and whether or not they can be reeducated. In Nazi Germany, they wanted to create a ‘pure aryan’ race, however, they did not start mass slaughtering of people until World War II. Originally, the Nazis wanted to send people away. But, by the end of World War II, the Nazis started putting people in concentration camps where they would likely end up dead.

  2. I agree with Henry that a Genocide does not necessarily have to be a long-standing idea or planned solely at the state level. I think that genocide constitutes as any methodical calculation with the intent to terminate or destroy a group of people. This idea of whether or not the concept of “genocide” implies long-standing intent was a topic that was the basis for the arguments in the monographs and articles I read for the series of historiography papers I wrote earlier in the semester. These authors examined the extent to which Hitler was involved in the origins of the Holocaust. One author argued in essence, that Hitler’s long-standing ideas always included the destruction of the Jews which is consistent with the definition proposed on page 138. On the other hand, another author argued that the holocaust was not a result of long-standing ideas but rather a culmination of the Nazi’s increasingly radical policies and refuted the importance of Hitler. These differing analyses highlights the debate between short-term and long-term intent in the definition of Genocide.

    For the argument that Gerlach and Werth made in their article, it was appropriate that the term “mass violence” was used in place of “genocide”. The reason they choose “mass violence” over the other term was because it allows for a more open definition of the types of violence and cohesion these regimes used such as “forced resettlement, deliberately inadequate supplies, sterilization, forced labor and excessive imprisonment” in their analysis ((Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence-Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 138)). The term “mass violence” is better suited for this argument because it allows for a more all-inclusive examination of the topic.

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