German and Soviet Mass Violence

Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth’s essay, “”State Violence-Violet Societies” discusses the use of mass violence in camp systems. Gerlach and Werth analyzed the methods of violence, the intensity of the violence, the role of the State in the violence, and the ideology behind the violence.1 Gerlach and Werth argued that in Germany the eradication policies were multicausal and that the archival revolution in Russia allowed historians to grasp the foundation of Soviet violence.2

The part of this article that caught my attention was the section on prisoners of war. In this section, the authors discussed “unfit” Soviet workers left to die from starvation.3 Upon hearing the phrase mass violence, my thoughts involve images of large scale killings such as gas chambers and weapons. However, this was hardly the case for Soviet POWs. Although many Soviet citizens lost their lives each day, a minority were killed together all at once. Malnutrition was the leading cause of death.4  However, regardless of whether killed by weapons or lack of food, the Soviet officials did the doing.

Naked Soviet POWs

Naked Soviet POWs

This section on Soviet POWs changed my prospective of mass violence. Gerlach and Werth shed light on the key aspect of isolation in Soviet Union concentration camps in harsh conditions, leading to malnutrition. Nazi concentration camps are so commonly portrayed in media that this had shaped my perception of violence within dictatorships. As I read about Soviet concentration camps, I learned a new perspective to mold into my view of mass violence. Did this essay change your view of mass violence? Besides “unfit workers”, what were some other groups the Soviet Union targeted as POWs? How does the Soviet Union differ from Nazi Germany with their management of POWs?


1. 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.

2. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 135. 

3. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 162. 

4. Gerlach and Werth, “State Violence- Violent Societies” in Beyond Totalitarianism, 163.