Staunton, May 9 – The viciousness of the Nazis against both Jews and Russians explains why the Soviet population shifted from indifference or even hostility to the Stalinist regime at the start of the war to the kind of passionate commitment its defense that led to the defeat of Hitler’s Germany and the salvation of the Soviet Union, according to a St. Petersburg scholar.
Many Western historians and some Russians ones have made this argument before,but its appearance now is worth noting because it challenges the image of the Soviet regime and especially its Stalinist variant now being presented by Vladimir Putin and many Russian nationalist writers.
In an article in the current issue of “Znamya,” Sergey Tsirel, a professor of the St. Petersburg branch of the Higher School of Economics, argues that Russians today need to more clearly understand what their ancestors were thinking when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and why they changed their minds a year later (magazines.russ.ru/znamia/2011/5/ci8.html).
Tsirel outlines the “strong sides” of the pre-war Soviet Union before discussing what he sees as the potentially fatal weaknesses of that regime. Among the former were industrialization, a “logical ideology,” well-organized propaganda, the lack of alternative leaders, fanatic devotion to Stalin by the Communist Party and urban youth, and “a powerful repressive apparatus.”
But despite these strengths, he points out, the Soviet Union had an extraordinarily difficult time in defeating Finland, a much smaller and less well-armed opponent. And it almost completely failed to defend itself during the first year of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941.
“Military theoreticians and defenders of the Stalinist regime have been able to explain the causes of this shameful defeat,” Tsirel points out, by talking about the importance of the blitzkrieg. But their explanations fail to explain why after these losses, “the army nevertheless not only stood up to the onslaught of the occupiers but achieved significant victories.
The real reason first for the defeats and then for the victories, however, is seldom mentioned: “If soldiers do not want to fight and commanders cannot or are afraid to command, then automatic weapons and machineguns will not save” an army or a people from defeat from a much less well-armed opponent.
There are many examples of this, Tsirel continues. “Pacifist, internally divided France [for example,] could not show a worthy resistance to Hitler [in 1940] when the forces of the two sides were approximately equal.” And the Soviet Union in an even better position in terms of arms could not do so either in the first months of the war.
Again, apologists for Stalin provide numerous explanations for this, but Tsirel argues that these miss the fundamental point: “the widespread hunger in the collective farms just five to seven years after the terrible famine of 1933” caused by the pursuit of military strength “made a significant farm of the population indifferent to the defense of the country.
To be sure, Tsirel continues, “there was not real mass hunger, but the short period of easing in 1936-38 in that regard, which was used by Stalin for reprisals against the elite had ended, and mass hunger in the countryside began again,” as did broader repression “against simple people … which thus touched broad strata of the population.”
He cites statistics to show that “by the winter of 1939 the majority of Soviet people were encountering difficulties with getting enough food.” There was hunger in some areas, rationing in most, and “tens of thousands of peasants who were trying to save themselves from hunder fled into the cities.”
All this led to increased disease and morality, “especially among the young,” and a reduction in the birthrate. Indeed, “the general social-economic crisis” brought on by Stalin’s armament programs and industrialization had led to the near collapse of “the demographic subsystem of Soviet society.”
Such problems, which defenders of the system are accustomed to dismissing as “temporary difficulties,” nonetheless left the population indifferent at best to the fate of the regime and in many cases hostile to its survival, and those attitudes rather than the supremacy of the German war machine explain the near collapse of Soviet power in 1941.
But instead of exploiting these attitudes, Tsirel continues, the Germans transformed them into the attitudes of an enemy they could not defeat. At first, the German forces attacked primarily Jews and Roma, but soon by their attacks on Russians and other Slavs, they made it obvious that they had come not as liberators but as new and even worse masters.
Indeed, Tsirel argues, “the fear of people concerning what would happen to them ‘under the Germans’” not only became a theme of Soviet propaganda but also played a fundamental role in changing people from indifferent defenders of the USSR into passionate opponents of the German invaders.
As a result, “the rotting colossus began to develop real legs.” Consequently, one must conclude that it was not the cruelty of Stalin which won out but rather – “thank God!” – the racist policies of Hitler which turned those who could have become his allies into his most committed opponents and ultimately the people who defeated him and his system.
Moreover, the enormous losses that the Soviet people suffered in their fight helped most but not all of the world forget the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Finnish war and the Katyn executions. But what really saved Stalin’s regime was Hitler’s decision not to allow the USSR to join the Nazi-led Tripartite Alliance.
Had Hitler acted differently at that time, had he not been struck by the weakness the Soviet Union displayed in the Finnish war, “only a change of regime, for example, the killing of Stalin and Molotov like the killing of Mussolini could have allowed the USSR to count itself among the anti-fascist block of victors.”
In short, Tsirel says, “the surprising ability of Russia to lose small and unjust wars and to win in great and just ones in combination with the bloody anti-Semitism of Hitler and his hatred fo rhte Slavs saved Russia from dishonor and destruction, and converted the terrible dictatorship of Stalin and the tyrant himself into ‘saviors of humanity.’”