Thoughts on the Nazi-Soviet War as a System of Violence

In the chapter “States of Exception” from Beyond Totalitarianism, by Mark Edele and Michael Geyer, the question of the Eastern Front of World War II is tackled. The most particularly fascinating thing about this study is the unprecedented ruthlessness of the respective campaigns and how they escalated drastically in their unrestrained violence. The separation drawn between the projected measures to be used in accordance with the military planning of the German invasion into the Soviet Union and the actualities of the war (excessive violence with no regard for the humanity of the opposing side) is notable throughout the chapter as a major theme, as it reveals quite a bit about the methods of warfare each country resorted to in the conflict.

One major point of interest here is Hitler’s interest in wiping out the Jews and Bolsheviks as a primary influencing factor in the strategic planning of German forces. This contributed to what amounted to nothing short of “targeted murder” of a vast population of Soviet citizens. ((Edele, Mark and Geyer, Michael. “States of Exception” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 357. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.)) Such an assault inspired resolve within the Soviets to fight until the last, which sparked a brutal conflict that took an incredible number of lives. The Nazi policy of all-out warfare in pursuit of a swift and total victory was applied towards this end, and though it had proven effective in France the circumstances which surrounded the Eastern Front were not conducive to the success of such a strategy.

Furthermore, the atrocities committed by the Soviets in warfare were responded to by similar acts of cruelty from the German side. The chapter rationalizes the German response by posing such circumstances as Soviet scorched-earth tactics and the mutilation of prisoners of war. It seems from the reading that failing to recognize the humanity of the other side directly inflates the level and intensity of violence in warfare.

Conflict of Perceptions: Intentionalists vs. Structuralists

In Nicholas Stargardt’s “The Holocaust” and Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust”, many different interpretations as to the relationship between Hitler’s personal agenda and the “Final Solution” are presented. The two prevailing modes of thought in regards to Hitler’s influence in the mass extermination of the Jews within these texts are the “intentionalist” perspective and the “structuralist” perspective.

The “intentionalist” thinkers seek to place Hitler as the main fountain from which the anti-Semitic actions of the Nazi regime spilled forth. Intentionalism, also known as “Hitlerism”, assumes that Hitler had always desired and intended the annihilation of the Jews, and that the major policies of the Nazis in regards to the Jewish population was a result of his own aspirations. Structuralists, on the other hand, believe that there was a greater context than just Hitler’s own misgivings about the Jews that led to the eventual implementation of the Final Solution. They claim that it was the “improvised shaping” of Nazi policies towards Jews that led to the ultimate order for their extermination. ((Kershaw, Ian. “Hitler and the Holocaust” in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 239.))

There is evidence for both interpretations; Hitler clearly despised Jews, which intentionalists use as support for the idea that individual autonomy can influence the course of history dramatically. On the other hand, historian Hans Mommsen pointed out that Hitler also despised decision making (though in my opinion, this could be used to detach him from all policies of the German state he was not explicitly involved in) and that the Nazi policy towards Jews went through multiple stages and considered several options before arriving at their Final Solution.

There is also a compromise between these two interpretations of history: that the plan to kill the Jews came from Hitler, but only after a long deliberation and this was not his original intent. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 244-5)) This interpretation leans towards the intentionalist approach, however, as it directly involves Hitler whereas structuralists seek to incriminate a much large German participating audience.

A common falsity pointed out in “Hitler and the Holocaust” is that because Hitler made clear his desire for the eradication of the Jews, and because such an episode eventually occurred, many historians draw the conclusion that “Hitler’s expressed ‘intention’ must have caused the destruction”. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 246)) Besides being an egregious oversimplification of the contingency of the Final Solution in a wider historical context, it also ignores vast amounts of evidence that the Nazi government was primarily responding to public demands with their increasingly hostile policies towards the Jews; to say that Hitler was the sole cause of their destruction is to cast away notable events such as the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and the incorporation of Poland’s three million Jews at a time when the Nazis were attempting to rid the country of them. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 252))

There is also a great deal of research supporting the intentionalist approach. According to Stargardt, Hitler and the Nazis “created an atmosphere in which this was discussable”. ((Stargardt, Nicholas. “The Holocaust” in German History Since 1800London: Arnold, 1997, 349)) However, the evidence presented in this text supports only Hitler’s hatred of Jews and his intent to remove them- not the contingency of the Holocaust on Hitler’s plans.

A particularly striking delineation I found was the attribution of a “traditional notion” of totalitarianism to intentionalists; that society bends to the will of its dictator. This is contrasted with the structuralist concept of the state bowing to the people. This contrast illuminates some of the deeper differences between the two schools of thought. As for myself, the structuralist approach seems to make more sense, as it takes into account the broader implications of the day.


Terror and Surveillance

“Surveillance means that the population is watched; terror means that its members are subject on an unpredictable but large-scale basis to arrest, execution, and other forms of state violence.” ((Fitzpatrick, Sheila. “A Time of Troubles,” in Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. (Oxford University Press, 2000), 190.)) This is the theme of Chapter 8 of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Everyday Stalinism, in which the modes of Soviet public repression and purging are explored in detail.

The development of the Communist “Great Purges” in the 1930s was a self-propelling loop of suspicion, witch-hunts, and above all else, terror. Initially, excessive disfranchisement of Communist party members led to large amounts of ex-Communists, who were all assumed to be enemies of the state. At first, there was no method of integration by which these ex-members might become respectable citizens once more- the “black marks on the record could not be expunged”. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 193.)) Because of their inability to operate in a country under such intense surveillance and suspicion, many of these blacklisted individuals assumed new identities, oftentimes forging passports and moving and changing their names. This caused the Soviet regime to perceive an even greater threat of disguised corruption, resulting in more purges.

Soviet officials frequently attacked their “enemies” with hypocritical claims. Despite possessing these characteristics themselves, they accused party enemies of engaging in favoritism, the creation of cults, and luxurious lifestyles. The accusers were no different in this regard than the accused, but they painted the victims in such a light as to use them as scapegoats, providing an outlet for the regime. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 197.)) Newspapers even “carried a wealth of startling information about the sins of leading Communists”, creating even more unrest and suspicion among the masses. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 195.)) This particular notion seemed odd to me at first; wouldn’t this cause people to lose faith in the party? However, upon further reading, I came upon the surprising fact that there existed a great deal of resistance to Communist rule during the 1930s- a particular quote regarding taking revenge during World War II (apparently much anticipated) bridged that gap of continuity. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 205.))

“Show trials” were also characteristic of the Great Purges. However, because of the amount of Communist officials that were placed on trial outside of Moscow, these had a distinctively “populist” aspect, which furthers the idea of resistance to the regime. ((Fitzpatrick, “A Time of Troubles,” 203)). These shows of public resistance intrigue me. How did the Soviet regime deal with the deposition of their leaders in rural areas? Perhaps it makes sense that entire villages were emptied and their inhabitants sent off to the Gulags.

A Soviet official crushing the snake of deceit.

One final thought: the fact that most, if not all, of these Purges were state-instituted and not publicly supported, as Fitzpatrick seems to suggest, implies that much of the violence rampant in Stalinist Russia was primarily implemented by the state. Where was the public support that Beyond Totalitarianism tells us was necessary for such violence to exist?

Public Works

The chapter “Public Works” from Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals covers the transformation of undeveloped land through industrial means as a form of social mobilization. It is first explained that all major powers looked to the Soviet Union’s collectivism for inspiration. Prior to the Great Depression, Western countries perceived the Soviet agenda as “fantasy”- but as capitalism failed those countries leading up the the 1930s, they began to imitate Soviet policies. ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 140-141. New York: Picador, 2006.))

Fascism in Italy was the first to take the reigns on this matter through the project of the Agro Pontino. Mussolini’s regime attacked the problematic swampland, transforming it into a productive area through various policy initiatives. They also used it to public effect, presenting the problem as a matter of national participation. Three New Deals contrasts this to the Tennessee Valley Authority, claiming that the Agro Pontino focused more on settlement than development. Following this segue, the reader is presented with a detailed look at the operations of the TVA. Its works are described as “monuments to the New Deal”, a comparison with the symbolism of the public works of the Fascists. ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 160.)) The common vein here, as Schivelbusch argues, was that both regimes used these works as propaganda in themselves, to appeal to the national attitude and move the public to action. ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 167.))

Finally, the German Autobahn is addressed. Finding commonality with the New Deal but difference from Mussolini’s policies in its emphasis on technology, it served as a powerful form of public mobilization. However, emphasis was placed on making it stand out from the environment, unlike the works of the other two nations. What qualities of the Nazi regime, I wonder, led the Germans to try to make more of a distinction?

State of the Fascist State

In Leeds’s The Fascist State, the public acts and social requirements of Italian Fascism are explored in minor detail. Within the text we see various accounts of the principles held dear to the fascist government and the policies Mussolini implemented (often in bizarre and ludicrous ways) in the attempt to realize those principles.

Perhaps the most intriguing segment of the chapter is the bit about the “battle of natality”; that is, Mussolini’s attempts at increasing the population of Italy by providing incentives for his people to procreate. While this might seem initially like a valid method of bolstering a country’s power (by equating manpower with national capacity), to me it appears contradictory to Mussolini’s claimed intent with fascism. With Italy already “small and thickly populated”, in order for there to be space for the extra twenty million citizens Mussolini projected would exist within twenty years the nation would have to expand, whether it be by diplomatic annexation or conquering- though neither tactic was a priority in Mussolini’s Fascism. ((Leeds, The Fascist State, 40.))

This oversimplification of a national element and the resulting misdirection of procedure was typical of the Partito Nazionale Fascista, however, which never quite understood how to utilize the immense control it had over its subjects in a productive manner. The nonsense of Mussolini’s policies is indirectly referenced in The Fascist State as well; his triumphant claims of being “aristocratic and democratic, reactionary and revolutionary, legalistic and illegalistic” really convey nothing more than the frequent dichotomy between his government’s aims and its methods.

By What Modes? Politicism Under Stalin and Hitler

In traditional examinations of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, the singular point of focus is the complete domination that the two leaders exerted over their people. However, one particular that is often left out of the comparison is how the regimes functioned in conjunction with the respective parties of the two states. Similar arguments are found in Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals – a comparison of Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini’s state-building practices – and Yoran Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen’s article “The Political (Dis)Orders of Stalinism and National Socialism”, an in-depth look at the striking differences between the Nazis and the Soviets. In both pieces is made the argument that Hitler used his image and position as Führer to propel his policies forward, though Gorlizki and Mommson go even further, arguing that while Nazi control was exerted legally through the state, Soviet power built itself from the bottom up by means of a party bent on “wholesale restructuring of domestic state and society”. ((Gorlizki, Yoram and Hans Mommsen. “The Political (Dis)Orders of Stalinism and National Socialism.” In Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick, 41-86. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. p. 44))

In Stalinist Russia, the Soviet party dominated policies of the state. Through bureaucratic reformation and extremely tailored individual appointments, Stalin was able to unify the purposes of his party with the ideology it was founded on in order to create a totalitarian state. By 1930, he was confident enough to publicly imply that certain governmental positions existed only to perpetuate the aims of the party. ((Ibid., 51.)) Gorlizki and Mommsen explain that this dynamic developed in such a manner due to the revolutionary climate at the time of the Soviet rise to power; as such, the party ideology came first, and by Stalin’s skillfull administrative practices, the government was reformatted around it. ((Ibid., 64.))

The Nazis, however, came into power under very different circumstances. There existed already a well-established and firmly authoritative government in 1933 when the party took over; it was simply a means of maneuvering legally in order to secure the power to facilitate party operations. This process reached a peak with the death of President von Hindenburg; Hitler assumed the position of Head of State, thus “constitutionally [reinforcing]” his power and policies. ((Ibid., 55.)) However, Hitler had not the bureaucratic finesse of Stalin, and as such most of his power came directly from his own image. Presenting himself as the “incarnated soul of the people”, Hitler moved his people to action not through the subjugation of politics to ideology but by imposing his persona on every man, woman, and child in Germany. ((Shivelbusch, Wolfgang. Three New Deals. New York: Picador, 2006, p. 52.)) For the Nazis, there was no reconstruction of social order, because a social order already existed; there was simply a mass movement spurred by a charismatic figure and a politically secure ruling party.

Through-Lining Historical Perspectives: The Approach of an Historiographer

Wilson Bell’s article on the machinations of the Gulag draws from and interprets a great many viewpoints, with the primary argument being that though the term “Gulag” has been used to encompass a wide berth of topics, its primary use is to describe the Stalin-era concentration camps. Bell touches on various points of contention between different historiographers while attempting to find common threads of agreement that can stand on their own as fact in relation to the topic of the Gulag. He begins by discussing how the settlements of relocated peasants have only recently been inducted into the broader scope of the Gulag in a historical sense, moving on to the various possible motivations for the Gulag as an economic tool to bring in cheap labor, a politically repressive bureaucracy, and a method of isolating the outliers of Stalinist-Utopian society. Bell brings up several differing perspectives, supporting points by other historiographers such as Ivanova, Khleuniuk, Alexopoulos, and Klimkova, while drawing their arguments under a common theme of the inefficiency and harshness of the Gulag. Some relatively unfounded claims are made- see Alexopoulos’s supposition that prisoner release implies a high level of Soviet/prisoner interaction with little supporting evidence other than base conjecture- but overall this piece serves as an excellent introduction into the model of historiography. In particular, I took away that historiography focuses primarily on bringing bits and pieces of previous research together to support or contradict one another and develop a new historical perspective. Bell assertion towards the end of the piece that there is plenty of research to be done underlines this historiographical approach.

The Dormancy of “Aberration”

In the first chapter of Zygmunt Bauman’s “Modernity and the Holocaust”, multiple perspectives are provided regarding the relationship between modernity and the Holocaust. Bauman begins by refuting the concept of the Holocaust- or any major sociological development, for that matter- as a singular “event” that can be scrutinized in terms of the multitude of historical elements that contributed to its development. Rather, he projects the idea that unless we revise our sociological perspective on the past, we will never see it as anything but “a unique but fully determined product of a particular concatenation of social and psychological factors” (4). Though such phrasing might be a bit gratuitous, Bauman raises an interesting point here: pointing to the research of Nechama Tec, he imprints upon the reader that rather than examining the Holocaust as an “aberration” of human behavior, it must be viewed as a sort of “sleeping menace”- that the kind of moral extremism exhibited on both sides does not arise as a result of human development, but rather exists alongside the norm, and only surfaces when conditions permit (7). Bauman argues that we mustn’t examine the Holocaust through a sociological perspective, but rather see the Holocaust as a revelation of what society is capable of given the culmination of “efficiency…technology…[and] subordinate thought and action to the pragmatics of economy” (13). This inductive approach forces us to reevaluate sociological perspectives on a sweeping scale, which is Bauman’s major point, but his conclusion- that the Holocaust occurred as a result of modernity, advancement, and the conditions that they brought on- is flawed. While this assertion holds a basis in valid reasoning, Bauman merely takes steps in the right direction. The point he seems to miss, however, is ironically his own- that the correlation between the development of industrial and unethical means and the occurrence of genocide are not directly related. It becomes clear, however, when applying Tec’s disputation of the “social determinants” of morality that the Holocaust was not a result of the times, but more accurately a simultaneous development that fostered in an era of efficiency and modernity (5).