“Imperialist” Violence vs. “Developmental” Violence: The Violent Societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union

One of the primary characteristics and areas of study on European dictators of the interwar period is the use and degree of violence in these regimes. In Christian Gerlach’s and Nicolas Werth’s chapter in Beyond Totalitarianism on “State Violence – Violent Societies,” the role that violence played in Nazi Germany in Stalinist Soviet Union respectively, as well as past historical interpretations of state violence within these regimes are assessed with a focus on the methods of violence, the degree of the violence, the role of the state, and the incorporation of ideologies ( (Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, ed. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 133) ). Gerlach and Werth argued that state violence is much more complex than the systematic killings that were seen in concentration camps and gulags. Throughout the chapter, Gerlach and Werth investigated state violence at a smaller degree and concluded that in both regimes, “initiative from below” and public participation/ support were important key components of such violence for the sake of creating a perfect society that would benefit the state through a mass consensus within the collective population. (Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, 172).

According to Gerlach and Werth, mass violence in Nazi Germany is characterized as a form of “imperialist” violence, while mass violence in Stalinist Soviet Union was characterized as “developmental violence”(Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, 179). The difference in mass violence between both regimes reflects on different case studies discussed by Gerlach and Werth. The discussion on “socially harmful elements” in the Soviet Union and “asocials” in Nazi Germany supports the idea that mass violence was “developmental” or “imperialist” in the respective dictatorships. In Nazi Germany, different social subgroups were persecuted as “asocials,” people who were accused of deviant behavior. By 1939, “asocials” were categorized as Gemeinschaftsfremde and Gemeinschaftunfahige, “alien to the community” and “socially unfit” (Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, 144). It is important to note the use of diction in describing those who were targets of exclusion and eventually mass violence. By stating that “asocials” were “alien” to  the “people’s community,” it antagonizes them and creates a divide between native Germans and those who are not considered to be part of a “greater Germany.” For this reason, Gerlach and Werth argue that mass violence in Nazi Germany is characterized as a form of “imperialist” violence since it was externally driven considering that most victims were people residing on Nazi-occupied territories.

In the Soviet Union, those who were perceived as “socially dangerous” and “socially harmful” were deprived of rights that were granted to “good” Soviets, those who were involved with the collective good of the nation and the party. Mass violence in the Soviet Union eventually targeted those who were “socially harmful” to the state in an effort to create a harmonious and conflict-free society. Amir Weiner added in his article, “Nature, Nurture, and Memory in a Socialist Utopia: Delineating the Soviet Socio-Ethnic Body in the Age of Socialism,” that state violence in the Soviet Union was internally driven and sought to rid Soviet society of “divisive and obstructing elements.” Weiner stated that, “the Soviet state emerged and operated within an ethos aptly named by Zygmunt Bauman as the ‘gardening state,’ which appeared ever more universal in the wake of the Great War. This cataclysmic event brought to fruition the desires for a comprehensive plan for the transformation and management of society, one that would create a better, purer, and more beautiful community through the removal of unfit human weeds” ( (Weiner, Amir. “Nature, Nurture, and Memory in a Socialist Utopia: Delineating the Soviet Socio-Ethnic Body in the Age of Socialism.” The American Historical Review 104, no. 4, 1999,  pp. 1116.) ) Considering that most societies of the interwar period aimed towards perfecting their populations and creating an organized and controlled society, can’t “developmental violence” also apply to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany? Do you agree with Gerlach and Werth or do you think that both “imperialist violence” and “developmental violence” could be applied to all three regimes? Is the aim of mass violence, as discussed in both readings, to create utopian societies?

2 thoughts on ““Imperialist” Violence vs. “Developmental” Violence: The Violent Societies of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union

  1. To answer your second question, I would tend to agree with Gerlach and Werth to a certain point. I believe at one point, the Soviet Union would have fit under ‘imperialistic violence’ because of their initial desires to establish an international classless society. However, they changed to ‘developmental violence’ after the Soviet Union dropped their desires of international classless society in favor of more focus on the Soviet Union itself.

    If we define what a Utopian society is, we can verify our answers. A Utopian society is a belief in that a country or the world can become a socially, politically, and morally perfect place to live. To apply this to our discussion, I believe that Nazi Germany and Soviet Union both wanted Utopian Societies in different ways. In Nazi Germany, it was for the creation of a pure aryan race which was rid of Gypsies, Jews, and other non aryan people. Part of this Utopian idea for the Germans was the belief in eugenics, or the promotion of the perfect individual, where individuals who were deemed ‘unfit’ were removed from society. In the Soviet Unions case, they wanted a Utopian society based on ideologies. Their Utopian world consisted of the removal of capitalist exploitation, class divisions, and other divisions among the people. Their Utopian idea goes back to Karl Marx, who believed that once a country completed its trek to Communism, they would have achieved a perfect world, a Utopian World.

    In Fascist Italy’s case, I am not so sure. Mussolini was more focused on making Italy strong again. He wanted to create an Italian state that was strong as before. On the other hand, if we look at the photo of the ‘Anti City’ on page 147 of WolfGang Schivelbuschs book, and we look at what it was, one could certainly argue that they were experimenting with Utopian like ideas. The ‘Anti City’ that we discussed from Schivelbusch’s book was supposed to be the alternative to Italian cities, where the chaos of cities were removed and focus on ‘order’ was emphasized. You could argue that the Italians were experimenting with the idea of a Utopian world, but I would not say that they were as into a Utopian Society as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union were.

  2. To answer your last of your proposed questions, I agree with Henry that the aim of mass violence was used to create a utopian societies. However, I also believe that violence was used to promote a sense fear and compliance among individuals. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union believed that they were the governments leading their people towards a state of utopia. However, these envisioned utopias were based on different ideologies.

    The Nazi’s utopia was based on eugenics and ethnic cleansing, the idea of a single Aryan race. As a result of such racial ideology all people were categorized and monitored. The “asocials” was a nondescript term used to define someone who was seen as “socially unfit” or “alien to the community” ((Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence-Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 144)). As a result of the vague terminology countless types of people fit into this category. Examples include: beggars, homeless, those who were “work-shy”, gypsies, and those who lived off public welfare.

    On the other hand, the Soviet Union saw utopia as a classless society. They were not concerned with race unless they felt that a particular group’s cultural and historical identities hindered the progression of Soviet ideals ((Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence-Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 160)). The Soviet government was much more concerned about having a productive labor force. Just some of the categories of people who were categorized as “socially dangerous” in the Soviet Union were drug dealers, people guilty of state crimes, and bandits ((Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence-Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 140)).

    Both the “asocials” and the “socially dangerous” experienced mass violence such as forced resettlement, sterilization, forced labor and excessive imprisonment as Germany and the Soviet Union attempted to shape their societies ((Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence-Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 138)). The idea of utopia combined with these inferior social groupings seemed to provide a rational for the mass violence.

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