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Americans call the Second World War “The Good War.” But before it even began, America’s wartime ally Josef Stalin had killed millions of his own citizens—and kept killing them during and after the war. Before Hitler was finally defeated, he had murdered six million Jews and nearly as many other Europeans. At war’s end, both the German and the Soviet killing sites fell behind the iron curtain, leaving the history of mass killing in darkness.
Bloodlands is a new kind of European history, presenting the mass murders committed by the Nazi and Stalinist regimes as two aspects of a single history, in the time and place where they occurred: between Germany and Russia, when Hitler and Stalin both held power. Assiduously researched, deeply humane, and utterly definitive, Bloodlands will be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the central tragedy of modern history.
Timothy Snyder BLOODLANDS Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
your golden hair Margarete
A stranger drowned on the Black Sea alone
Whole cities disappear. In nature’s stead
“Now we will live!” This is what the hungry little boy liked to say, as he toddled along the quiet roadside, or through the empty fields. But the food that he saw was only in his imagination. The wheat had all been taken away, in a heartless campaign of requisitions that began Europe’s era of mass killing. It was 1933, and Joseph Stalin was deliberately starving Soviet Ukraine. The little boy died, as did more than three million other people. “I will meet her,” said a young Soviet man of his wife, “under the ground.” He was right; he was shot after she was, and they were buried among the seven hundred thousand victims of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938. “They asked for my wedding ring, which I….” The Polish officer broke off his diary just before he was executed by the Soviet secret police in 1940. He was one of about two hundred thousand Polish citizens shot by the Soviets or the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union jointly occupied his country. Late in 1941, an eleven-year-old Russian girl in Leningrad finished her own humble diary: “Only Tania is left.” Adolf Hitler had betrayed Stalin, her city was under siege by the Germans, and her family were among the four million Soviet citizens the Germans starved to death. The following summer, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote a last letter to her father: “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive.” She was among the more than five million Jews gassed or shot by the Germans.
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In the middle of Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some fourteen million people. The place where all of the victims died, the bloodlands, extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. During the consolidation of National Socialism and Stalinism (1933–1938), the joint German-Soviet occupation of Poland (1939–1941), and then the German-Soviet war (1941–1945), mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region. The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts, the peoples native to these lands. The fourteen million were murdered over the course of only twelve years, between 1933 and 1945, while both Hitler and Stalin were in power. Though their homelands became battlefields midway through this period, these people were all victims of murderous policy rather than casualties of war. The Second World War was the most lethal conflict in history, and about half of the soldiers who perished on all of its battlefields all the world over died here, in this same region, in the bloodlands. Yet not a single one of the fourteen million murdered was a soldier on active duty. Most were women, children, and the aged; none were bearing weapons; many had been stripped of their possessions, including their clothes.
Auschwitz is the most familiar killing site of the bloodlands. Today Auschwitz stands for the Holocaust, and the Holocaust for the evil of a century. Yet the people registered as laborers at Auschwitz had a chance of surviving: thanks to the memoirs and novels written by survivors, its name is known. Far more Jews, most of them Polish Jews, were gassed in other German death factories where almost everyone died, and whose names are less often recalled: Treblinka, Chełmno, Sobibór, Bełżec. Still more Jews, Polish or Soviet or Baltic Jews, were shot over ditches and pits. Most of these Jews died near where they had lived, in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belarus. The Germans brought Jews from elsewhere to the bloodlands to be killed. Jews arrived by train to Auschwitz from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Norway. German Jews were deported to the cities of the bloodlands, to Łódź or Kaunas or Minsk or Warsaw, before being shot or gassed. The people who lived on the block where I am writing now, in the ninth district of Vienna, were deported to Auschwitz, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Riga: all in the bloodlands.
The German mass murder of Jews took place in occupied Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union, not in Germany itself. Hitler was an anti-Semitic politician in a country with a small Jewish community. Jews were fewer than one percent of the German population when Hitler became chancellor in 1933, about one quarter of one percent by the beginning of the Second World War. During the first six years of Hitler’s rule, German Jews were allowed (in humiliating and impoverishing circumstances) to emigrate. Most of the German Jews who saw Hitler win elections in 1933 died of natural causes. The murder of 165,000 German Jews was a ghastly crime in and of itself, but only a very small part of the tragedy of European Jews: fewer than three percent of the deaths of the Holocaust. Only when Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and the Soviet Union in 1941 did Hitler’s visions of the elimination of Jews from Europe intersect with the two most significant populations of European Jews. His ambition to eliminate the Jews of Europe could be realized only in the parts of Europe where Jews lived.
The Holocaust overshadows German plans that envisioned even more killing. Hitler wanted not only to eradicate the Jews; he wanted also to destroy Poland and the Soviet Union as states, exterminate their ruling classes, and kill tens of millions of Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles). If the German war against the USSR had gone as planned, thirty million civilians would have been starved in its first winter, and tens of millions more expelled, killed, assimilated, or enslaved thereafter. Though these plans were never realized, they supplied the moral premises of German occupation policy in the East. The Germans murdered about as many non-Jews as Jews during the war, chiefly by starving Soviet prisoners of war (more than three million) and residents of besieged cities (more than a million) or by shooting civilians in “reprisals” (the better part of a million, chiefly Belarusians and Poles).
The Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany on the eastern front in the Second World War, thereby earning Stalin the gratitude of millions and a crucial part in the establishment of the postwar order in Europe. Yet Stalin’s own record of mass murder was almost as imposing as Hitler’s. Indeed, in times of peace it was far worse. In the name of defending and modernizing the Soviet Union, Stalin oversaw the starvation of millions and the shooting of three quarters of a million people in the 1930s. Stalin killed his own citizens no less efficiently than Hitler killed the citizens of other countries. Of the fourteen million people deliberately murdered in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, a third belong in the Soviet account.
This is a history of political mass murder. The fourteen million were all victims of a Soviet or Nazi killing policy, often of an interaction between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, but never casualties of the war between them. A quarter of them were killed before the Second World War even began. A further two hundred thousand died between 1939 and 1941, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were remaking Europe as allies. The deaths of the fourteen million were sometimes projected in economic plans, or hastened by economic considerations, but were not caused by economic necessity in any strict sense. Stalin knew what would happen when he seized food from the starving peasants of Ukraine in 1933, just as Hitler knew what could be expected when he deprived Soviet prisoners of war of food eight years later. In both cases, more than three million people died. The hundreds of thousands of Soviet peasants and workers shot during the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938 were victims of express directives of Stalin, just as the millions of Jews shot and gassed between 1941 and 1945 were victims of an explicit policy of Hitler.
War did alter the balance of killing. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union was the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing. Before the Second World War, in the first six and a half years after Hitler came to power, the Nazi regime killed no more than about ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million. German policies of mass killing came to rival Soviet ones between 1939 and 1941, after Stalin allowed Hitler to begin a war. The Wehrmacht and the Red Army both attacked Poland in September 1939, German and Soviet diplomats signed a Treaty on Borders and Friendship, and German and Soviet forces occupied the country together for nearly two years. After the Germans expanded their empire to the west in 1940 by invading Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France, the Soviets occupied and annexed Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and northeastern Romania. Both regimes shot educated Polish citizens in the tens of thousands and deported them in the hundreds of thousands. For Stalin, such mass repression was the continuation of old policies on new lands; for Hitler, it was a breakthrough.
The very worst of the killing began when Hitler betrayed Stalin and German forces crossed into the recently enlarged Soviet Union in June 1941. Although the Second World War began in September 1939 with the joint German-Soviet invasion of Poland, the tremendous majority of its killing followed that second eastern invasion. In Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Belarus, and the Leningrad district, lands where the Stalinist regime had starved and shot some four million people in the previous eight years, German forces managed to starve and shoot even more in half the time. Right after the invasion began, the Wehrmacht began to starve its Soviet prisoners, and special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews. Along with the German Order Police, the Waffen-SS, and the Wehrmacht, and with the participation of local auxiliary police and militias, the Einsatzgruppen began that summer to eliminate Jewish communities as such.
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The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century.
Germany was the site of concentration camps liberated by the Americans and the British in 1945; Russian Siberia was of course the site of much of the Gulag, made known in the West by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The images of these camps, in photographs or in prose, only suggest the history of German and Soviet violence. About a million people died because they were sentenced to labor in German concentration camps—as distinct from the German gas chambers and the German killing fields and the German starvation zones, where ten million people died. Over a million lives were shortened by exhaustion and disease in the Soviet Gulag between 1933 and 1945—as distinct from the Soviet killing fields and the Soviet hunger regions, where some six million people died, about four million of them in the bloodlands. Ninety percent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive. Most of the people who entered German concentration camps (as opposed to the German gas chambers, death pits, and prisoner-of-war camps) also survived. The fate of concentration camp inmates, horrible though it was, is distinct from that of those many millions who were gassed, shot, or starved.
The distinction between concentration camps and killing sites cannot be made perfectly: people were executed and people were starved in camps. Yet there is a difference between a camp sentence and a death sentence, between labor and gas, between slavery and bullets. The tremendous majority of the mortal victims of both the German and the Soviet regimes never saw a concentration camp. Auschwitz was two things at once, a labor camp and a death facility, and the fate of non-Jews seized for labor and Jews selected for labor was very different from the fate of Jews selected for the gas chambers. Auschwitz thus belongs to two histories, related but distinct. Auschwitz-as-labor-camp is more representative of the experience of the large number of people who endured German (or Soviet) policies of concentration, whereas Auschwitz-as-death-facility is more typical of the fates of those who were deliberately killed. Most of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz were simply gassed; they, like almost all of the fourteen million killed in the bloodlands, never spent time in a concentration camp.
The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west, blurring the black with their shades of grey. At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western Allies liberated none none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long. The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing. Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction.
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Mass killing in Europe is usually associated with the Holocaust, and the Holocaust with rapid industrial killing. The image is too simple and clean. At the German and Soviet killing sites, the methods of murder were rather primitive. Of the fourteen million civilians and prisoners of war killed in the bloodlands between 1933 and 1945, more than half died because they were denied food. Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the twentieth century. The two largest mass killing actions after the Holocaust—Stalin’s directed famines of the early 1930s and Hitler’s starvation of Soviet prisoners of war in the early 1940s—involved this method of killing. Starvation was foremost not only in reality but in imagination. In a Hunger Plan, the Nazi regime projected the death by starvation of tens of millions of Slavs and Jews in the winter of 1941–1942.
After starvation came shooting, and then gassing. In Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–1938, nearly seven hundred thousand Soviet citizens were shot. The two hundred thousand or so Poles killed by the Germans and the Soviets during their joint occupation of Poland were shot. The more than three hundred thousand Belarusians and the comparable number of Poles executed in German “reprisals” were shot. The Jews killed in the Holocaust were about as likely to be shot as to be gassed.
For that matter, there was little especially modern about the gassing. The million or so Jews asphyxiated at Auschwitz were killed by hydrogen cyanide, a compound isolated in the eighteenth century. The 1.6 million or so Jews killed at Treblinka, Chełmno, Bełżec, and Sobibór were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide, which even the ancient Greeks knew was lethal. In the 1940s hydrogen cyanide was used as a pesticide; carbon monoxide was produced by internal combustion engines. The Soviets and the Germans relied upon technologies that were hardly novel even in the 1930s and 1940s: internal combustion, railways, firearms, pesticides, barbed wire.
No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal. People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers. They lost their possessions and then their clothes and then, if they were women, their hair. Each one of them died a different death, since each one of them had lived a different life.
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The sheer numbers of the victims can blunt our sense of the individuality of each one. “I’d like to call you all by name,” wrote the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in her Requiem, “but the list has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.” Thanks to the hard work of historians, we have some of the lists; thanks to the opening of the archives in eastern Europe, we have places to look. We have a surprising number of the voices of the victims: the recollections (for example) of one young Jewish woman who dug herself from the Nazi death pit at Babi Yar, in Kiev; or of another who managed the same at Ponary, near Vilnius. We have the memoirs of some of the few dozen survivors of Treblinka. We have an archive of the Warsaw ghetto, painstakingly assembled, buried and then (for the most part) found. We have the diaries kept by the Polish officers shot by the Soviet NKVD in 1940 at Katyn, unearthed along with their bodies. We have notes thrown from the buses taking Poles to death pits during the German killing actions of that same year. We have the words scratched on the wall of the synagogue in Kovel; and those left on the wall of the Gestapo prison in Warsaw. We have the recollections of Ukrainians who survived the Soviet famine of 1933, those of Soviet prisoners of war who survived the German starvation campaign of 1941, and those of Leningraders who survived the starvation siege of 1941–1944.
We have some of the records of the perpetrators, taken from the Germans because they lost the war, or found in Russian or Ukrainian or Belarusian or Polish or Baltic archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We have reports and letters from German policemen and soldiers who shot Jews, and of the German anti-partisan units who shot Belarusian and Polish civilians. We have the petitions sent by the communist party activists before they enforced famine in Ukraine in 1932–1933. We have the death quotas for peasants and national minorities sent down from Moscow to regional NKVD offices in 1937 and 1938, and the replies asking that these quotas be increased. We have the interrogation protocols of the Soviet citizens who were then sentenced and killed. We have German death counts of Jews shot over pits and gassed at death facilities. We have Soviet death counts for the shooting actions of the Great Terror and at Katyn. We have good overall estimates of the numbers of killings of Jews at the major killing sites, based upon tabulations of German records and communications, survivor testimonies, and Soviet documents. We can make reasonable estimates of the number of famine deaths in the Soviet Union, not all of which were recorded. We have Stalin’s letters to his closest comrades, Hitler’s table talk, Himmler’s datebook, and much else. Insofar as a book like this one is possible at all, it is thanks to the achievements of other historians, to their use of such sources and countless others. Although certain discussions in this book draw from my own archival work, the tremendous debt to colleagues and earlier generations of historians will be evident in its pages and the notes.
Throughout, the work will recall the voices of the victims themselves, and those of their friends and families. It will cite the perpetrators as well, those who killed and those who ordered the killing. It will also call as witnesses a small group of European writers: Anna Akhmatova, Hannah Arendt, Józef Czapski, Günter Grass, Vasily Grossman, Gareth Jones, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell, and Alexander Weissberg. (It will also follow the career of two diplomats: the American Russia specialist George Kennan, who found himself in Moscow at crucial moments; and the Japanese spy Chiune Sugihara, who took part in the policies that Stalin saw as justifying mass terror, and then saved Jews from Hitler’s Holocaust.) Some of these writers recorded one policy of mass killing; others, two or even more. Some of them provided lucid analyses, others jarring comparisons, others unforgettable images. What they have in common is a sustained attempt to view Europe between Hitler and Stalin, often in disregard of the taboos of their day.
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In a comparison of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, the political theorist Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951 that factuality itself “depends for its continued existence upon the existence of the nontotalitarian world.” The American diplomat George Kennan made the same point in simpler words in Moscow in 1944: “here men determine what is true and what is false.”
Is truth nothing more than a convention of power, or can truthful historical accounts resist the gravity of politics? Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union sought to master history itself. The Soviet Union was a Marxist state, whose leaders proclaimed themselves to be scientists of history. National Socialism was an apocalyptic vision of total transformation, to be realized by men who believed that will and race could slough off the burden of the past. The twelve years of Nazi and the seventy-four years of Soviet power certainly weigh heavily on our ability to evaluate the world. Many people believe that the crimes of the Nazi regime were so great as to stand outside history. This is a troubling echo of Hitler’s own belief that will triumphs over facts. Others maintain that the crimes of Stalin, though horrible, were justified by the need to create or defend a modern state. This recalls Stalin’s view that history has only one course, which he understood, and which legitimates his policies in retrospect.
Without a history built and defended upon an entirely different foundation, we will find that Hitler and Stalin continue to define their own works for us. What might that basis be? Although this study involves military, political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual history, its three fundamental methods are simple: insistence that no past event is beyond historical understanding or beyond the reach of historical inquiry; reflection upon the possibility of alternative choices and acceptance of the irreducible reality of choice in human affairs; and orderly chronological attention to all of the Stalinist and Nazi policies that killed large numbers of civilians and prisoners of war. Its form arises not from the political geography of empires but from the human geography of victims. The bloodlands were no political territory, real or imagined; they are simply where Europe’s most murderous regimes did their most murderous work.
For decades, national history—Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, Russian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian—has resisted the Nazi and Soviet conceptualizations of the atrocities. The history of the bloodlands has been preserved, often intelligently and courageously, by dividing the European past into national parts, and then by keeping these parts from touching one another. Yet attention to any single persecuted group, no matter how well executed as history, will fail as an account of what happened in Europe between 1933 and 1945. Perfect knowledge of the Ukrainian past will not produce the causes of the famine. Following the history of Poland is not the best way to understand why so many Poles were killed in the Great Terror. No amount of knowledge of Belarusian history can make sense of the prisoner-of-war camps and the anti-partisan campaigns that killed so many Belarusians. A description of Jewish life can include the Holocaust, but not explain it. Often what happened to one group is intelligible only in light of what had happened to another. But that is just the beginning of the connections. The Nazi and Soviet regimes, too, have to be understood in light of how their leaders strove to master these lands, and saw these groups and their relationships to one another.
Today there is widespread agreement that the mass killing of the twentieth century is of the greatest moral significance for the twenty-first. How striking, then, that there is no history of the bloodlands. Mass killing separated Jewish history from European history, and east European history from west European history. Murder did not make the nations, but it still conditions their intellectual separation, decades after the end of National Socialism and Stalinism. This study brings the Nazi and Soviet regimes together, and Jewish and European history together, and the national histories together. It describes the victims, and the perpetrators. It discusses the ideologies and the plans, and the systems and the societies. This is a history of the people killed by the policies of distant leaders. The victims’ homelands lay between Berlin and Moscow; they became the bloodlands after the rise of Hitler and Stalin.
The origins of the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, and of their encounter in the bloodlands, lie in the First World War of 1914–1918. The war broke the old land empires of Europe, while inspiring dreams of new ones. It replaced the dynastic principle of rule by emperors with the fragile idea of popular sovereignty. It showed that millions of men would obey orders to fight and die, for causes abstract and distant, in the name of homelands that were already ceasing to be or only coming into being. New states were created from virtually nothing, and large groups of civilians were moved or eliminated by the application of simple techniques. More than a million Armenians were killed by Ottoman authorities. Germans and Jews were deported by the Russian Empire. Bulgarians, Greeks, and Turks were exchanged among national states after the war. Just as important, the war shattered an integrated global economy. No adult European alive in 1914 would ever see the restoration of comparable free trade; most European adults alive in 1914 would not enjoy comparable levels of prosperity during the rest of their lives.
The essence of the First World War was the armed conflict between, on the one side, the German Empire, the Habsburg monarchy, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria (“the Central Powers”) and, on the other side, France, the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Italy, Serbia, and the United States (“the Entente Powers”). The victory of the Entente Powers in 1918 brought an end to three European land empires: the Habsburg, German, and Ottoman. By the terms of the postwar settlements of Versailles, St. Germain, Sèvres, and Trianon, multinational domains were replaced by national states, and monarchies by democratic republics. The European great powers that were not destroyed by the war, Britain and especially France, were substantially weakened. Among the victors, the illusion after 1918 was that life might somehow return to its course before the war. Among the revolutionaries who hoped to lead the defeated, the dream was that the bloodshed could legitimate further radical transformations, which could impart meaning to the war and undo its damage.
The most important political vision was that of communist utopia. At war’s end, it had been seventy years since Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had penned their most famous lines: “Workers of the World Unite!” Marxism had inspired generations of revolutionaries with a summons to political and moral transformation: an end of capitalism and the conflict that private property was thought to bring, and its replacement by a socialism that would liberate the working masses and restore to all of humanity an unspoiled soul. For Marxists, historical progress followed from a struggle between rising and falling classes, groups made and remade by changes in the modes of economic production. Each dominant political order was challenged by new social groups formed by new economic techniques. The modern class struggle was between those who owned factories and those who worked in them. Accordingly, Marx and Engels anticipated that revolutions would begin in the more advanced industrial countries with large working classes, such as Germany and Great Britain.
By disrupting the capitalist order and weakening the great empires, the First World War brought an obvious opportunity to revolutionaries. Most Marxists, however, had by then grown accustomed to working within national political systems, and chose to support their governments in time of war. Not so Vladimir Lenin, a subject of the Russian Empire and the leader of the Bolsheviks. His voluntarist understanding of Marxism, the belief that history could be pushed onto the proper track, led him to see the war as his great chance. For a voluntarist such as Lenin, assenting to the verdict of history gave Marxists a license to issue it themselves. Marx did not see history as fixed in advance but as the work of individuals aware of its principles. Lenin hailed from largely peasant country, which lacked, from a Marxist perspective, the economic conditions for revolution. Once again, he had a revolutionary theory to justify his revolutionary impulse. He believed that colonial empires had granted the capitalist system an extended lease on life, but that a war among empires would bring a general revolution. The Russian Empire crumbled first, and Lenin made his move.
The suffering soldiers and impoverished peasants of the Russian Empire were in revolt in early 1917. After a popular uprising had brought down the Russian monarchy that February, a new liberal regime sought to win the war by one more military offensive against its enemies, the German Empire and the Habsburg monarchy. At this point Lenin became the secret weapon of Germany. The Germans dispatched Lenin from Swiss exile to the Russian capital Petrograd that April, to make a revolution that would take Russia from the war. With the help of his charismatic ally Leon Trotsky and his disciplined Bolsheviks, Lenin achieved a coup d’état with some popular support in November. In early 1918, Lenin’s new government signed a peace treaty with Germany that left Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltics, and Poland under German control. Thanks in part to Lenin, Germany won the war on the eastern front, and had a brief taste of eastern empire.
Lenin’s peace came at the price of German colonial rule of what had been the west of the Russian Empire. But surely, reasoned the Bolsheviks, the German Empire would soon collapse along with the rest of the oppressive capitalist system, and Russian and other revolutionaries could spread their new order westward, to these terrains and beyond. The war, Lenin and Trotsky argued, would bring inevitable German defeat on the western front and then a workers’ revolution within Germany itself. Lenin and Trotsky justified their own Russian revolution to themselves and other Marxists by their expectation of imminent proletarian revolt in the more industrial lands of central and western Europe. In late 1918 and in 1919, it seemed as if Lenin just might be right. The Germans were indeed defeated by the French, British, and Americans on the western front in autumn 1918, and so had to withdraw—undefeated—from their new eastern empire. German revolutionaries began scattered attempts to take power. The Bolsheviks picked up the spoils in Ukraine and Belarus.
The collapse of the old Russian Empire and the defeat of the old German Empire created a power vacuum in eastern Europe, which the Bolsheviks, try as they might, could not fill. While Lenin and Trotsky deployed their new Red Army in civil wars in Russia and Ukraine, five lands around the Baltic Sea—Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—became independent republics. After these losses of territory, the Russia of the Bolsheviks was less westerly than the Russia of the tsars. Of these new independent states, Poland was more populous than the rest combined, and strategically by far the most important. More than any of the other new states that came into being at war’s end, Poland changed the balance of power in eastern Europe. It was not large enough to be a great power, but it was large enough to be a problem for any great power with plans of expansion. It separated Russia from Germany, for the first time in more than a century. Poland’s very existence created a buffer to both Russian and German power, and was much resented in Moscow and Berlin.
Poland’s ideology was its independence. There had been no Polish state since the late eighteenth century, when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been partitioned out of existence by its imperial neighbors. Polish politics had continued under imperial rule throughout the nineteenth century, and the idea of a Polish nation had, if anything, consolidated. The declaration of Polish independence in November 1918 was only possible because all three of the partitioning powers—the German, Habsburg, and Russian Empires—disappeared after war and revolution. This great historical conjuncture was exploited by a Polish revolutionary, Józef Piłsudski. A socialist in his youth, Piłsudski had become a pragmatist capable of cooperating with one empire against the others. When all of the empires collapsed, he and his followers, already organized into military legions during the war, were in the best position to declare and defend a Polish state. Piłsudski’s great political rival, the nationalist Roman Dmowski, made Poland’s case to the victorious powers in Paris. The new Poland was founded as a democratic republic. Endorsed by the victorious Entente Powers, Warsaw could count on a more or less favorable boundary with Germany, to the west. But the question of Poland’s eastern border was open. Because the Entente had won no war on the eastern front, it had no terms to impose in eastern Europe.
In 1919 and 1920, the Poles and the Bolsheviks fought a war for the borderlands between Poland and Russia that was decisive for the European order. The Red Army had moved into Ukraine and Belarus as the Germans had withdrawn, but these gains were not acknowledged by the Polish leadership. Piłsudski saw these lands between as independent political subjects whose history was linked to that of Poland, and whose leaders should wish to restore some version of the old Commonwealth in Belarus and Lithuania. He hoped that Polish armies, supported by Ukrainian allies, could help create an independent Ukrainian state. Once the Bolsheviks had brought Ukraine under control in 1919, and halted a Polish offensive there in spring 1920, Lenin and Trotsky thought that they would bring their own revolution to Poland, using the bayonet to inspire workers to fulfill their historical role. After Poland’s fall, German comrades, assisted by the new Red Army, would bring to bear Germany’s vast resources to save the Russian revolution. But the Soviet forces on their way to Berlin were halted by the Polish Army at Warsaw in August 1920.
Piłsudski led a counterattack that drove the Red Army back into Belarus and Ukraine. Stalin, a political officer with the Red Army in Ukraine, was among the defeated. His own misjudgments there prevented the proper coordination of Bolshevik forces, leaving the Red Army vulnerable to Piłsudski’s maneuver. The Polish military victory did not mean the destruction of Bolshevik power: Polish troops were too exhausted to march on Moscow, and Polish society too divided to support such an adventure. In the end, territories inhabited by Belarusians and Ukrainians were divided between Bolshevik Russia and Poland. Poland was thus established as a multinational state, its population perhaps two-thirds Polish reckoned by language, but including some five million Ukrainians, three million Jews, one million Belarusians, and somewhere between half a million and a million Germans. Poland was constitutionally a state “for the Polish nation,” but it held the largest population of Jews in Europe and the second-largest (after Bolshevik Russia) population of Ukrainians and Belarusians. It shared all three of its large national minorities—the Jews, the Ukrainians, and the Belarusians—with its eastern neighbor.
As east European borders were being decided on the battlefields of Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland, the victors in the First World War were dictating terms in central and western Europe. While Poland and the Bolsheviks were fighting on what had been the eastern front of the First World War, defeated Germany sought to present a pacific face to the victors. Germany declared itself a republic, the better to negotiate terms with the French, British, and Americans. Its major Marxist party, the Social Democrats, rejected the Bolshevik example and made no revolution in Germany. Most German social democrats had been loyal to the German Empire during the war, and now saw the declaration of a German republic as progress. But these moderating choices helped Germany little. The postwar settlements were dictated rather than discussed; in violation of long European tradition, the defeated were denied a place at the table at the Paris peace talks. The German government had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Versailles of June 1919, but few German politicians felt bound to defend its terms.
Because the treaty was drafted by moralizing victors, it could easily be attacked as hypocritical. While fighting a war against continental empires, the Entente Powers had declared themselves to be supporters of the liberation of the nations of central Europe. The Americans in particular characterized their participation in the war as a crusade for national self-determination. But the French, who had suffered more than any power, wanted the Germans punished and France’s allies rewarded. The Treaty of Versailles indeed contradicted the very principle for which the Entente Powers had claimed to fight the war: national self-determination. At Versailles, as at Trianon (June 1920) and Sèvres (August 1920), the peoples considered allies by the Entente (Poles, Czechs, Romanians) got more territory and accordingly more numerous ethnic minorities within their frontiers. The nations considered enemies (Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians) got less territory and accordingly larger diasporas of their own people within the borders of other states.
The Polish-Bolshevik War was fought in the period between the opening of discussions at Versailles and the signing of the treaty at Sèvres. Because Europe was still at war in the east while these treaties were being negotiated and signed in the west, the new postwar order was a bit ethereal. It seemed vulnerable to revolution from the left, inspired or even brought by the Bolsheviks. So long as the Polish-Bolshevik war was underway, revolutionaries in Germany could imagine that help was coming from the Red Army. The new German republic also seemed vulnerable to revolution from the right. German soldiers returning from the eastern front, where they had been victorious, saw no reason to accede to what they regarded as the humiliation of their homeland by the new republic and the Treaty of Versailles that it had signed. Many veterans joined right-wing militias, which fought against left-wing revolutionaries. The German social democratic government, in the belief that it had no alternative, used some of the right-wing militias to suppress communist attempts at revolution.
The Polish victory over the Red Army at Warsaw in August 1920 brought an end to hopes for a European socialist revolution. The treaty between Poland and Bolshevik Russia signed in Riga in March 1921 was the true completion of the postwar settlement. It established Poland’s eastern border, ensured that divided Ukrainian and Belarusian lands would be a bone of contention for years to come, and made of Bolshevism a state ideology rather than an armed revolution. The Soviet Union, when established the following year, would be a state with borders—in that respect, at least, a political entity like others. The end of large-scale armed conflict was also the end of hopes on the Right that revolution could lead to counterrevolution. Those who wished to overturn the new German republic, whether from the Far Right or the Far Left, would have to count on their own forces. German social democrats would remain supporters of the republic, while German communists would praise the Soviet model and follow the Soviet line. They would take their instructions from the Communist International, established by Lenin in 1919. The German Far Right would have to reimagine the end of the postwar order as a goal of Germany alone, to be achieved after Germany itself was rebuilt and remade.
The rebuilding of Germany seemed more difficult than it really was. Germany, blamed for the war, lost not only territory and population but the right to normal armed forces. It suffered in the early 1920s from hyperinflation and political chaos. Even so, Germany remained, at least potentially, the most powerful country in Europe. Its population was second only to that of the Soviet Union, its industrial potential second to none, its territory unoccupied during the war, and its possibilities for expansion sketched implicitly in the logic of the peace settlements. Once the fighting in Europe had ceased, the German government quickly found common ground with the Soviet Union. After all, both Berlin and Moscow wanted to change the European order at the expense of Poland. Each wished to be less isolated in international politics. Thus it was a democratic German government that signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union in 1922, restoring diplomatic relations, easing trade, and inaugurating secret military cooperation.
For many Germans, self-determination was both persecution and promise. About ten million speakers of the German language, former subjects of the Habsburg monarchy, remained beyond Germany’s borders. Some three million such people inhabited the northwestern rim of Czechoslovakia, right at the border of Czechoslovakia and Germany. There were more Germans in Czechoslovakia than there were Slovaks. Almost the entire population of Austria, resting between Czechoslovakia and Germany, were German speakers. Austria was nevertheless required by the Treaty of St. Germain to exist as a separate state, although much of its population would have preferred accession to Germany. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party established in 1920, was an Austrian and an advocate of an Anschluss: a unification of Austria and Germany. Such goals of national unity, dramatic as they were, actually concealed the full measure of Hitler’s ambitions.
Later, Hitler would be the German chancellor who signed the treaty with the Soviet Union that divided Poland. In taking this step, he would be taking to an extreme an idea that many Germans held: that Poland’s borders were illegitimate and its people unworthy of statehood. Where Hitler stood apart from other German nationalists was in his view of what must come next, after the unification of Germans within Germany and the mastery of Poland: the elimination of the European Jews, and the destruction of the Soviet Union. Along the way Hitler would offer friendship to both Poland and the Soviet Union, and disguise his more radical intentions from Germans until it was too late. But the catastrophic visions were present in National Socialism from the beginning.
When the cataclysm of war finally ended in eastern Europe in 1921, Lenin and his revolutionaries had to regroup and think. Deprived by the Poles of their European triumph, the Bolsheviks had no choice but to douse the revolutionary conflagration and build some sort of socialist state. Lenin and his followers took for granted that they should hold power; indeed, the failure of the European revolution became their justification for extraordinary aspirations to political control. Power had to be centralized so that the revolution could be completed, and so that it could be defended from its capitalist enemies. They quickly banned other political parties and terrorized political rivals, dismissing them as reactionary. They lost the only competitive elections that they held, and so held no others. The Red Army, though defeated in Poland, was more than sufficient to defeat all armed rivals on the territory of the old empire. The Bolsheviks’ secret service, known as the Cheka, killed thousands of people in the service of the consolidation of the new Soviet state.
It was easier to triumph in violence that it was to make a new order. Marxism was of only limited help as a program for a multicultural country of peasants and nomads. Marx had assumed that revolution would come first to the industrial world, and had devoted only sporadic attention to the peasant question and the national question. Now the peasants of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus and the nomads of Central Asia would have to somehow be induced to build socialism for a working class that was concentrated in Russian-speaking cities. The Bolsheviks had to transform the preindustrial society that they had inherited in order to build the industrial society which history had not yet brought; only then could they alter that industrial society so that it favored workers.
The Bolsheviks had first to perform the constructive work of capitalism before they could really begin the transformative work of socialism. As the state created industry, they decided, it would draw members of the Soviet Union’s countless cultures into a larger political loyalty that would transcend any national difference. The mastery of both peasants and nations was a grand ambition indeed, and the Bolsheviks concealed its major implication: that they were the enemies of their own peoples, whether defined by class or by nation. They believed that the society that they governed was historically defunct, a bookmark to be removed before a page was turned.
To consolidate their power when the war was over, and to gain loyal cadres for the economic revolution to come, the Bolsheviks had to make some compromises. Nations under their control would not be allowed independent statehood, of course, but nor were they condemned to oblivion. Though Marxists generally thought that the appeal of nationalism would decline with modernization, the Bolsheviks decided to recruit the nations, or at least their elites, to their own campaign to industrialize the Soviet Union. Lenin endorsed the national identity of the non-Russian peoples. The Soviet Union was an apparent federation of Russia with neighboring nations. Policies of preferential education and hiring were to gain the loyalty and trust of non-Russians. Themselves subjects of one and then rulers of another multinational state, the Bolsheviks were capable of subtle reasoning and tact on the national question. The leading revolutionaries themselves were far from being Russians in any simple way. Lenin, regarded and remembered as Russian, was also of Swedish, German, Jewish, and Kalmyk background; Trotsky was Jewish, and Stalin was Georgian.
The nations were to be created in a new communist image; the peasants were to be consoled until they could be overcome. The Bolsheviks made a compromise with their rural population that they knew, and the peasants feared, was only temporary. The new Soviet regime allowed peasants to keep land that they had seized from their former landlords, and to sell their produce on the market. The disruptions of war and revolution had brought desperate food shortages; the Bolsheviks had requisitioned grain to the benefit of themselves and of those loyal to them. Several million people died of hunger and related diseases in 1921 and 1922. The Bolsheviks learned from this experience that food was a weapon. Yet once the conflict was over, and the Bolsheviks had won, they needed reliable food supplies. They had promised their people peace and bread, and would have to deliver a minimum of both, at least for a time.
Lenin’s state was a political holding action for an economic revolution still to come. His Soviet polity recognized nations, although Marxism promised a world without them; and his Soviet economy permitted a market, although communism promised collective ownership. When Lenin died in January 1924, debates were already underway about when and how these transitional compromises should yield to a second revolution. And it was precisely discussion, in the new Soviet order, that determined the fate of the Soviet population. From Lenin the Bolsheviks had inherited the principle of “democratic centralism,” a translation of Marxist historiosophy into bureaucratic reality. Workers represented the forward flow of history; the disciplined communist party represented the workers; the central committee represented the party; the politburo, a group of a few men, represented the central committee. Society was subordinate to the state which was controlled by party which in practice was ruled by a few people. Disputes among members of this small group were taken to represent not politics but rather history, and their outcomes were presented as its verdict.
Stalin’s interpretation of Lenin’s legacy was to be decisive. When Stalin spoke of “socialism in one country” in 1924, he meant that the Soviet Union would have to build its worker’s paradise without much help from the workers of the world, who had not united. Though communists disagreed about the priorities of agricultural policy, all took for granted that the Soviet countryside would soon have to finance its own destruction. But where to find the initial capital for the traumatic transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy? A way would have to be found to extract a “surplus” from the peasant, which could be sold for the foreign currency needed to import machinery—and used to fill the bellies of a growing working class. In 1927, as state investment shifted decisively in favor of industry, this discussion entered the critical phase.
The debate over modernization was, above all, a duel between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky was the most accomplished of Lenin’s comrades; Stalin, however, had been placed in charge of the party bureaucracy as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks). Stalin’s control of personnel and his practical genius in committee meetings brought him to the top. He did not dazzle in theoretical discussions, but he knew how to assemble a coalition. Within the politburo, he allied first with those who favored a slower course of economic transformation and eliminated those who seemed more radical; then he radicalized his own position and purged his previous allies. By the end of 1927, his former rivals from the Left—Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, and Lev Kamenev—had been expelled from the party. By the end of 1929, Stalin had associated himself with the policies of those purged rivals, and rid himself of his main ally on the Right, Nikolai Bukharin. Like Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin remained in the Soviet Union, stripped of his previous authority. Stalin found loyal supporters within the politburo, notably Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov. Trotsky left the country.
Dexterous though he was in defining Soviet policy, Stalin now had to ensure that it fulfilled its promise. By 1928, by the terms of his first Five-Year Plan, Stalin proposed to seize farmland, force the peasants to work it in shifts under state control, and treat the crops as state property—a policy of “collectivization.” Land, equipment, and people would all belong to the same collective farm, large entities that would (it was assumed) produce more efficiently. Collective farms would be organized around Machine Tractor Stations, which would distribute modern equipment and house the political agitators. Collectivization would allow the state to control agricultural output, and thus feed its workers and keep their support, and to export to foreign countries and win some hard currency for investment in industry.
To make collectivization seem inevitable, Stalin had to weaken the free market and replace it with state planning. His ally Kaganovich proclaimed in July 1928 that peasants were engaging in a “grain strike,” and that requisitioning their crops was the only solution. Once peasants saw that their produce could be taken, they hid it rather than selling it. Thus the market appeared even more unreliable—although the state was really to blame. Stalin could then argue, as he did, that market spontaneity was the fundamental problem, and that the state had to control food supplies.
The coming of the Great Depression seemed to prove Stalin right about the unreliability of the market. On Black Tuesday, 29 October 1929, the American stock market crashed. On 7 November 1929, the twelfth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin described the socialist alternative to the market that his policies would quickly bring to the Soviet Union. He promised that 1930 would be “the year of the great transformation,” when collectivization would bring security and prosperity. The old countryside would cease to exist. Then the revolution could be completed in the cities, where the proletariat would grow great on food produced by the pacified peasantry. These workers would create the first socialist society in history, and a powerful state that could defend itself from foreign enemies. As Stalin made his case for modernization, he was also staking his claim to power.
While Stalin worked, Hitler inspired. Whereas Stalin was institutionalizing a revolution and thereby assuring himself a place at the top of a one-party state, Hitler made his political career by rejecting the institutions around him. The Bolsheviks inherited a tradition of debate-then-discipline from years of illegal work in the Russian Empire. The National Socialists (Nazis) had no meaningful traditions of discipline or conspiracy. Like the Bolsheviks, the Nazis rejected democracy, but in the name of a Leader who could best express the will of the race, not in the name of a Party that understood the dictates of history. The world order was not made by capitalist imperialists, as the Bolsheviks believed, but rather by conspiratorial Jews. The problem with the modern society was not that the accumulation of property led to the domination of a class; the problem was that Jews controlled both finance capitalism and communism, and thus America, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. Communism was just a Jewish fairy tale of impossible equality, designed to bring naive Europeans under Jewish thrall. The answer to heartless Jewish capitalism and communism could only be national socialism, which meant justice for Germans at the expense of others.
Nazis tended to emphasize, in the democratic years of the 1920s, what they had in common with other Germans. Hitler’s National Socialists were like most other German parties of the 1920s in their revulsion at the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The Nazis had a certain obsession with their manifest destiny in the East: where German soldiers had been victorious in the field in the First World War, and where Germany had ruled a large occupation zone in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic region in 1918. Unlike European rivals such as France and Great Britain, Germany had no vast world empire; it had surrendered its modest overseas possessions after losing the war. Thus the east European frontier beckoned all the more. The Soviet Union, seen as an illegitimate and oppressive Jewish regime, would have to fall. Poland, which lay between Germany and its eastern destiny, would have to be overcome along the way. It could not be a buffer to German power: it would have to be either a weak ally or a defeated foe in the coming wars for the east.
Hitler tried and failed to begin a German national revolution in Munich in November 1923, which led to a brief spell in prison. Though the substance of his National Socialism was his own creation, his coup d’état was inspired by the success of the Italian fascists he admired. Benito Mussolini had taken power in Italy the previous year after the “March on Rome,” which Hitler imitated without success in Munich. Italian fascists, like Hitler and his Nazis, offered the glorification of the national will over the tedium of political compromise. Mussolini, and Hitler following him, used the existence of the Soviet Union within domestic politics. While admiring the discipline of Lenin and the model of the one-party state, both men used the threat of a communist revolution as an argument for their own rule. Though the two men differed in many respects, they both represented a new kind of European Right, one which took for granted that communism was the great enemy while imitating aspects of communist politics. Like Mussolini, Hitler was an outstanding orator and the one dominant personality in his movement. Hitler had little trouble regaining the leadership of the Nazi party after his release from prison in December 1924.
Stalin rose to power in the second half of the 1920s in large measure because of the cadres whom he appointed and could trust to support him. Hitler drew support by way of personal charisma, and expected his associates and supporters to devise policies and language that corresponded to his rhetoric and imagination. Stalin interpreted Marxist thought as necessary to hasten his rise and defend his policies, but at least until 1933 he was never free to interpret Marxism exactly as he liked. Hitler, on the other hand, inspired others to do his practical thinking for him. In prison Hitler had written the first volume of his biographical manifesto, Mein Kampf (My Struggle). This and his other writings (especially his so-called Second Book) expressed his plans clearly, but they were not part of a canon. Stalin was at first constrained by what his comrades might do, and later concerned by what they might say. Hitler never had to maintain even an appearance of dialogue or consistency.
Hitler made a certain compromise with the German republic after his release from prison. He practiced parliamentary politics as the leader of his National Socialist party, if only as a means of spreading propaganda, identifying enemies, and approaching the institutions of power. He tried to stay out of prison, even as Nazi paramilitaries engaged in brawls with left-wing enemies. In 1928, after the German economy had shown several consecutive years of growth, the Nazis took only twelve seats in parliament, with 2.6 percent of the votes cast. Then came the Great Depression, a greater boon to Hitler than even to Stalin. The collapse of the German economy summoned the specter of a communist revolution; both helped Hitler come to power. The international economic crisis seemed to justify radical change. The seeming possibility of a revolution led by the large Communist Party of Germany generated fears that Hitler could channel toward nationalism. In September 1930 the Nazis won 18 percent of the vote and 107 seats—and then won the elections of July 1932, with no less than 37 percent of the vote.
By 1932, German parliamentary elections were a demonstration of popular support rather than a direct route to power, since democracy in Germany existed only in form. For the previous two years, heads of government (chancellors) had induced the president to issue decrees that had the force of law. The parliament (Reichstag) convened only thirteen times in 1932. Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933 with the help of conservatives and nationalists who believed that they could use him to keep the large German Left from power. To their surprise, Hitler called snap elections, and used his new position to assert his party’s hegemony over German society. When the results were announced on 5 March 1933, the Nazis had defeated the social democrats and the communists in dramatic fashion: with 43.9 percent of the vote, and 288 of 647 seats in the Reichstag.
Hitler was remaking the German political system in spring 1933—at the same time that Stalin was asserting his own personal authority in the Soviet Union.
* * *
In 1933, the Soviet and Nazi governments shared the appearance of a capacity to respond to the world economic collapse. Both radiated dynamism at a time when liberal democracy seemed unable to rescue people from poverty. Most governments in Europe, including the German government before 1933, had believed that they had few means at their disposal to address the economic collapse. The predominant view was that budgets should be balanced and money supplies tightened. This, as we know today, only made matters worse. The Great Depression seemed to discredit the political response to the end of the First World War: free markets, parliaments, nation-states. The market had brought disaster, no parliament had an answer, and nation-states seemingly lacked the instruments to protect their citizens from immiseration.
The Nazis and Soviets both had a powerful story about who was to blame for the Great Depression (Jewish capitalists or just capitalists) and authentically radical approaches to political economy. The Nazis and Soviets not only rejected the legal and political form of the postwar order but also questioned its economic and social basis. They reached back to the economic and social roots of postwar Europe, and reconsidered the lives and roles of the men and women who worked the land. In the Europe of the 1930s, peasants were still the majority in most countries, and arable soil was a precious natural resource, bringing energy for economies still powered by animals and humans. Calories were counted, but for rather different reasons than they are counted now: economic planners had to make sure that populations could be kept fed, alive, and productive.
Most of the states of Europe had no prospect of social transformation, and thus little ability to rival or counter the Nazis and the Soviets. Poland and other new east European states had tried land reform in the 1920s, but their efforts had proven insufficient. Landlords lobbied to keep their property, and banks and states were miserly with credit to peasants. The end of democracy across the region (except in Czechoslovakia) at first brought little new thinking on economic matters. Authoritarian regimes in Poland, Hungary, and Romania had less hesitation about jailing opponents and better recourse to fine phrases about the nation. But none seemed to have much to offer in the way of a new economic policy during the Great Depression.
In 1933, the Soviet and Nazi alternatives to democracy depended on their rejection of simple land reform, now the discredited pabulum of the failed democracies. Hitler and Stalin, for all of their many differences, presumed that one root of the problem was the agricultural sector, and that the solution was drastic state intervention. If the state could enact a radical economic transformation, that would then undergird a new kind of political system. The Stalinist approach, public since the beginning of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan in 1928, was collectivization. Soviet leaders allowed peasants to prosper in the 1920s, but took the peasants’ land away from them in the early 1930s, in order to create collective farms where peasants would work for the state.
Hitler’s answer to the peasant question was just as imaginative, and just as well camouflaged. Before and even for a few years after he came to power in 1933, it appeared that Hitler was concerned above all with the German working class, and would address Germany’s lack of self-sufficiency in foodstuffs by means of imports. A policy of rapid (and illegal) rearmament removed German men from the unemployment rolls by placing them in barracks or in arms factories. Public works programs began a few months after Hitler came to power. It even appeared that the Nazis would do less for German farmers than they had indicated. Though the Nazi party program promised the redistribution of land from richer to poorer farmers, this traditional version of land reform was quietly tabled after Hitler became chancellor. Hitler pursued international agreements rather than redistributive agrarian policy. He sought special trade arrangements with east European neighbors, by which German industrial goods were in effect exchanged for foodstuffs. Hitler’s agricultural policy of the 1930s was a bit like Lenin’s of the 1920s: it was political preparation for a vision of almost unimaginably radical economic change. Both National Socialism and Soviet socialism baited peasants with the illusion of land reform, but involved far more radical plans for their future.
The true Nazi agricultural policy was the creation of an eastern frontier empire. The German agricultural question would be resolved not within Germany but abroad: by taking fertile land from Polish and Soviet peasants—who would be starved, assimilated, deported, or enslaved. Rather than importing grain from the east, Germany would export its farmers to the east. They would colonize the lands of Poland and the western Soviet Union. Although Hitler spoke generally about the need for greater “living space,” he never made quite clear to German farmers that he expected them to migrate in large numbers to the east—any more than the Bolsheviks had made clear to Soviet peasants that they expected them to concede their property to the state. During collectivization in the early 1930s, Stalin treated the campaign against his own peasants as a “war” for their grain; Hitler counted on victory in a future war to feed Germany. The Soviet program was made in the name of universal principles; the Nazi plan was for massive conquest in eastern Europe for the benefit of a master race.
Hitler and Stalin rose to power in Berlin and Moscow, but their visions of transformation concerned above all the lands between. Their utopias of control overlapped in Ukraine. Hitler remembered the ephemeral German eastern colony of 1918 as German access to the Ukrainian breadbasket. Stalin, who had served his revolution in Ukraine shortly thereafter, regarded the land in much the same way. Its farmland, and its peasants, were to be exploited in the making of a modern industrial state. Hitler looked upon collectivization as a disastrous failure, and presented it as proof of the failure of Soviet communism as such. But he had no doubt that Germans could make of Ukraine a land of milk and honey.
For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was more than a source of food. It was the place that would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics, rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image. Their programs and their power all depended upon their control of Ukraine’s fertile soil and its millions of agricultural laborers. In 1933, Ukrainians would died in the millions, in the greatest artificial famine in the history of world. This was the beginning of the special history of Ukraine, but not the end. In 1941 Hitler would seize Ukraine from Stalin, and attempt to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The Stalinists colonized their own country, and the Nazis colonized occupied Soviet Ukraine: and the inhabitants of Ukraine suffered and suffered. During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.
Nineteen thirty-three was a hungry year in the Western world. The streets of American and European cities teemed with men and women who had lost their jobs, and grown accustomed to waiting in line for food. An enterprising young Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, saw unemployed Germans in Berlin rally to the voice of Adolf Hitler. In New York he was struck by the helplessness of the American worker, three years into the Great Depression: “I saw hundreds and hundreds of poor fellows in single file, some of them in clothes which once were good, all waiting to be handed out two sandwiches, a doughnut, a cup of coffee and a cigarette.” In Moscow, where Jones arrived that March, hunger in the capitalist countries was cause for celebration. The Depression seemed to herald a world socialist revolution. Stalin and his coterie boasted of the inevitable triumph of the system they had built in the Soviet Union.1
Yet 1933 was also a year of hunger in the Soviet cities, especially in Soviet Ukraine. In Ukraine’s cities—Kharkiv, Kiev, Stalino, Dnipropetrovsk—hundreds of thousands of people waited each day for a simple loaf of bread. In Kharkiv, the republic’s capital, Jones saw a new sort of misery. People appeared at two o’clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until seven. On an average day forty thousand people would wait for bread. Those in line were so desperate to keep their places that they would cling to the belts of those immediately in front of them. Some were so weak from hunger that they could not stand without the ballast of strangers. The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two. Pregnant women and maimed war veterans had lost their right to buy out of turn, and had to wait in line with the rest if they wanted to eat. Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear.2
People in the cities of Soviet Ukraine were afraid of losing their place in breadlines, and they were afraid of starving to death. They knew that the city offered their only hope of nourishment. Ukrainian cities had grown rapidly in the previous five years, absorbing peasants and making of them workers and clerks. Ukrainian peasant sons and daughters, along with the Jews, Poles, and Russians who had inhabited these cities for much longer, were dependent upon food they obtained in shops. Their families in the country had nothing. This was unusual. Normally in times of hunger city dwellers will make for the countryside. In Germany or the United States the farmers almost never went hungry, even during the Great Depression. Workers and professionals in cities were reduced to selling apples, or stealing them; but always somewhere, in the Altes Land or in Iowa, there was an orchard, a silo, a larder. The city folk of Ukraine had nowhere to go, no help to seek from the farms. Most had ration coupons that they would need to present in order to get any bread. Ink on paper gave them what chance to live that they had, and they knew it.3
The proof was all around. Starving peasants begged along the breadlines, asking for crumbs. In one town, a fifteen-year-old girl begged her way to the front of the line, only to be beaten to death by the shopkeeper. The city housewives making the queues had to watch as peasant women starved to death on the side-walks. A girl walking to and from school each day saw the dying in the morning and the dead in the afternoon. One young communist called the peasant children he saw “living skeletons.” A party member in industrial Stalino was distressed by the corpses of the starved that he found at his back door. Couples strolling in parks could not miss the signs forbidding the digging of graves. Doctors and nurses were forbidden from treating (or feeding) the starving who reached their hospitals. The city police seized famished urchins from city streets to get them out of sight. In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with the police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air: “Let me die in peace, I don’t want to die in the death barracks.”4
Hunger was far worse in the cities of Soviet Ukraine than in any city in the Western world. In 1933 in Soviet Ukraine, a few tens of thousands of city dwellers actually died of starvation. Yet the vast majority of the dead and dying in Soviet Ukraine were peasants, the very people whose labors had brought what bread there was to the cities. The Ukrainian cities lived, just, but the Ukrainian countryside was dying. City dwellers could not fail to notice the destitution of peasants who, contrary to all seeming logic, left the fields in search of food. The train station at Dnipropetrovsk was overrun with starving peasants, too weak even to beg. On a train, Gareth Jones met a peasant who had acquired some bread, only to have it confiscated by the police. “They took my bread away from me,” he repeated over and over again, knowing that he would disappoint his starving family. At the Stalino station, a starving peasant killed himself by jumping in front of a train. That city, the center of industry in southeastern Ukraine, had been founded in imperial times by John Hughes, a Welsh industrialist for whom Gareth Jones’s mother had worked. The city had once been named after Hughes; now it was named after Stalin. (Today it is known as Donetsk.)5
Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, completed in 1932, had brought industrial development at the price of popular misery. The deaths of peasants by railways bore a frightful witness to these new contrasts. Throughout Soviet Ukraine, rail passengers became unwitting parties to dreadful accidents. Hungry peasants would make their way to the cities along railway lines, only to faint from weakness on the tracks. At Khartsyszk, peasants who had been chased away from the station hanged themselves on nearby trees. The Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, returning from a family visit to his hometown Berdychev, encountered a woman begging for bread at the window of his train compartment. The political emigré Arthur Koestler, who had come to the Soviet Union to help build socialism, had a similar experience. As he recalled much later, outside Kharkiv station peasant women held up “to the carriage windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, sticklike limbs, and swollen, pointed bellies.” He found that the children of Ukraine looked like “embryos out of alcohol bottles.” It would be many years before these two men, now regarded as two of the moral witnesses of the twentieth century, wrote about what they had seen.6
City dwellers were more accustomed to the sight of peasants at the marketplace, spreading their bounty and selling their wares. In 1933, peasants made their way to familiar city markets, but now to beg rather than to sell. Market squares, now empty of both goods and customers, conveyed only the disharmonies of death. Early in the day the only sound was the soft breathing of the dying, huddled under rags that had once been clothes. One spring morning, amidst the piles of dead peasants at the Kharkiv market, an infant suckled the breast of its mother, whose face was a lifeless grey. Passersby had seen this before, not just the disarray of corpses, not just the dead mother and the living infant, but that precise scene, the tiny mouth, the last drops of milk, the cold nipple. The Ukrainians had a term for this. They said to themselves, quietly, as they passed: “These are the buds of the socialist spring.”7
* * *
The mass starvation of 1933 was the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In those years, Stalin had taken control of the heights of the communist party, forced through a policy of industrialization and collectivization, and emerged as the frightful father of a beaten population. He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps. His policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation. He was still rightly concerned about opposition within the communist party, but was possessed of immense political gifts, assisted by willing satraps, and atop a bureaucracy that claimed to see and make the future. That future was communism: which required heavy industry, which in turn required collectivized agriculture, which in turn required control of the largest social group in the Soviet Union, the peasantry.8
The peasant, perhaps especially the Ukrainian peasant, was unlikely to see himself as a tool in this great mechanization of history. Even if he understood entirely the final purposes of Soviet policy, which was very unlikely, he could hardly endorse them. He was bound to resist a policy designed to relieve him of his land and his freedom. Collectivization had to mean a great confrontation between the largest group within Soviet society, the peasantry, and the Soviet state and its police, then known as the OGPU. Anticipating this struggle, Stalin had ordered in 1929 the most massive deployment of state power in Soviet history. The labor of building socialism, said Stalin, would be like “raising the ocean.” That December he announced that “kulaks” would be “liquidated as a class.”9
The Bolsheviks presented history as a struggle of classes, the poorer making revolutions against the richer to move history forward. Thus, officially, the plan to annihilate the kulaks was not a simple decision of a rising tyrant and his loyal retinue; it was a historical necessity, a gift from the hand of a stern but benevolent Clio. The naked attack of organs of state power upon a category of people who had committed no crime was furthered by vulgar propaganda. One poster—under the title “We will destroy the kulaks as a class!”—portrayed a kulak under the wheels of a tractor, a second kulak as an ape hoarding grain, and a third sucking milk directly from a cow’s teat. These people were inhuman, they were beasts—so went the message. 10
In practice, the state decided who was a kulak and who was not. The police were to deport prosperous farmers, who had the most to lose from collectivization. In January 1930 the politburo authorized the state police to screen the peasant population of the entire Soviet Union. The corresponding OGPU order of 2 February specified the measures needed for “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” In each locality, a group of three people, or “troika,” would decide the fate of the peasants. The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: “At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, “we create kulaks as we see fit.” Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas.11
In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on the trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe.12
The Ukrainian peasantry knew about deportations to prison camps, which had touched them from the mid-1920s onward. They now sang a lament that was already traditional:
Oh Solovki, Solovki!
Solovki was a prison complex on an island in the Arctic Sea. In the minds of Ukrainian peasants Solovki stood for all that was alien, repressive, and painful in exile from the homeland. For the communist leadership of the Soviet Union, Solovki was the first place where the labor of deportees had been transformed into profit for the state. In 1929, Stalin had decided to apply the model of Solovki across the entire Soviet Union, ordering the construction of “special settlements” and concentration camps. The concentration camps were demarcated zones of labor, usually surrounded by fences and patrolled by guards. The special settlements were new villages purpose-built by the inmates themselves, after they were dropped on the empty steppe or taiga. All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.13
Mass deportations of peasants for purposes of punishment coincided with the mass use of forced labor in the Soviet economy. In 1931, the special settlements and the concentration camps were merged into a single system, known as the Gulag. The Gulag, which the Soviets themselves called a “system of concentration camps,” began alongside the collectivization of agriculture and depended upon it. It would eventually include 476 camp complexes, to which some eighteen million people would be sentenced, of whom between a million and a half and three million would die during their periods of incarceration. The free peasant became the slave laborer, engaged in the construction of the giant canals, mines, and factories that Stalin believed would modernize the Soviet Union.14
Among the labor camps, the Ukrainian peasant was most likely to be sent to dig the Belomor, a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea that was a particular obsession of Stalin. Some 170,000 people dug through frozen soil, with picks and shovels and sometimes with shards of pottery or with their hands, for twenty-one months. They died by the thousand, from exhaustion or disease, finding their end at the bottom of a dry canal that, when completed in 1933, turned out to be of little practical use in water transport. The death rates at the special settlements were also high. Soviet authorities expected five percent of the prisoners in the special settlements to die; in fact, the figure reached ten to fifteen percent. An inhabitant of Archangelsk, the major city on the White Sea, complained of the senselessness of the endeavor: “it is one thing to destroy the kulak in an economic sense; to destroy their children in a physical sense is nothing short of barbaric.” Children died in the far north in such numbers that “their corpses are taken to the cemetery in threes and fours without coffins.” A group of workers in Vologda questioned whether “the journey to world revolution” had to pass “through the corpses of these children.”15
The death rates in the Gulag were high, but they were no higher than those that would soon attend parts of the Ukrainian countryside. Workers at the Belomor were given very poor food rations, some six hundred grams of bread (about 1,300 calories) a day. Yet this was actually better nutrition than what was available in Soviet Ukraine at about the same time. Forced laborers at Belomor got twice or three times or six times as much as the peasants who remained in Soviet Ukraine would get on the collective farms in 1932 and 1933—when they got anything at all.16
In the first weeks of 1930, collectivization proceeded at a blinding pace in Soviet Ukraine and throughout the Soviet Union. Moscow sent quotas of districts to be collectivized to capitals of the Soviet republics, where party leaders vowed to exceed them. The Ukrainian leadership promised to collectivize the entire republic in one year. And then local party activists, with an eye to impressing their own superiors, moved even more quickly, promising collectivization in a matter of nine to twelve weeks. Threatening deportation, they coerced peasants into signing away their claims to land and joining the collective farm. The state police intervened with force, often deadly force, when necessary. Twenty-five thousand workers were shipped to the countryside to add numbers to police power and overmaster the peasantry. Instructed that the peasants were responsible for food shortages in the towns, workers promised to “make soap out of the kulak.”17
By the middle of March 1930, seventy-one percent of the arable land in the Soviet Union had been, at least in principle, attached to collective farms. This meant that most peasants had signed away their farms and joined a collective. They no longer had any formal right to use land for their own purposes. As members of a collective, they were dependent upon its leaders for their employment, pay, and food. They had lost or were losing their livestock, and would depend for their equipment upon the machinery, usually lacking, of the new Machine Tractor Stations. These warehouses, the centers of political control in the countryside, were never short on party officials and state policemen.18
Perhaps even more so than in Soviet Russia, where communal farming was traditional, in Soviet Ukraine peasants were terrified by the loss of their land. Their whole history was one of a struggle with landlords, which they seemed finally to have won during the Bolshevik Revolution. But in the years immediately thereafter, between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks had requisitioned food from the peasants as they fought their civil wars. So peasants had good reason to be wary of the Soviet state. Lenin’s compromise policy of the 1920s had been very welcome, even if peasants suspected, with good reason, that it might one day be reversed. In 1930, collectivization seemed to them to be a “second serfdom,” the beginning of a new bondage, now not to the wealthy landowners, as in recent history, but to the communist party. Peasants in Soviet Ukraine feared the loss of their hard-won independence; but they also feared starvation, and indeed for the fate of their immortal souls.19
The rural societies of Soviet Ukraine were still, for the most part, religious societies. Many of the young and the ambitious, those swayed by official communist atheism, had left for the big Ukrainian cities or for Moscow or Leningrad. Though their Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna. Some Polish peasants in Ukraine, Roman Catholics, also saw collectivization in apocalyptic terms. One Pole explained to his son why they would not join the collective farm: “I do not want to sell my soul to the devil.” Understanding this religiosity, party activists propagated what they called Stalin’s First Commandment: the collective farm supplies first the state, and only then the people. As the peasants would have known, the First Commandment in its biblical form reads: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.”20
Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag. Even without the deported kulaks, peasants tried to rescue themselves and their communities. They tried to preserve their own little plots, their small patches of autonomy. They endeavored to keep their families away from the state, now physically manifest in the collective farms and the Machine Tractor Stations. They sold or slaughtered their livestock, rather than lose it to the collective. Fathers and husbands sent daughters and wives to do battle with the party activists and the police, believing that women were less likely to be deported than men. Sometimes men dressed as women just for the chance to put a hoe or a shovel into the body of a local communist.21
Crucially, though, the peasants had few guns, and poor organization. The state had a near monopoly on firepower and logistics. Peasants’ actions were recorded by a powerful state police apparatus, one that perhaps did not understand their motives but grasped their general direction. The OGPU noted almost one million acts of individual resistance in Ukraine in 1930. Of the mass peasant revolts in the Soviet Union that March, almost half took place in Soviet Ukraine. Some Ukrainian peasants voted with their feet, walking westward, across the frontier into neighboring Poland. Whole villages followed their example, taking up church banners, or crosses, or sometimes just black flags tied to sticks, and marching westward toward the border. Thousands of them reached Poland, where knowledge of famine conditions in the Soviet Union spread. 22
The flight of peasants to Poland was an international embarrassment and perhaps a source of real concern for Stalin and the politburo. It meant that Polish authorities, who at the time were trying to stage a political rapprochement with their own large Ukrainian national minority, learned about the course and consequences of collectivization. Polish border guards patiently interviewed the refugees, gaining knowledge of the course and the failure of collectivization. Some of the peasants begged for a Polish invasion to halt their misery. The refugee crisis also provided Poland with a major propaganda weapon to use against the Soviet Union. Under Józef Piłsudski, Poland never planned an aggressive war against the Soviet Union, but it did prepare contingency plans for the disintegration of the Soviet Union along national lines, and did take some steps designed to hasten such a course of events. Even as Ukrainians were fleeing Soviet Ukraine, Poland was dispatching its own spies in the opposite direction, to encourage the Ukrainians to revolt. Their propaganda posters called Stalin a “Hunger Tsar” who exported grain while starving his own people. In March 1930, politburo members feared that “the Polish government might intervene.”23
Collectivization was a general policy, the Soviet Union was a vast state, and instability in one borderland had to be considered in light of general scenarios for war.
Stalin and the Soviet leaders regarded Poland as the western part of an international capitalist encirclement, and Japan as the eastern. Polish-Japanese relations were rather good; and in spring 1930, Stalin seemed most troubled by the specter of a joint Polish-Japanese invasion. The Soviet Union, by far the largest country in the world, extended from Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and Stalin had to attend not only to European powers but also to the Asian ambitions of Japan.
Tokyo had made its military reputation at the expense of Russians. Japan had emerged as a world power by defeating the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, seizing the railways built by the Russians to reach Pacific ports. As Stalin well knew, both Poland and Japan took an interest in Soviet Ukraine, and in the national question in the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to feel the history of Russian humiliation in Asia quite deeply. He was fond of the song “On the Hills of Manchuria,” which promised bloody vengeance upon the Japanese.24
So just as chaos brought by collectivization in the western Soviet Union gave rise to fears of a Polish intervention, disorder in the eastern Soviet Union seemed to favor Japan. In Soviet Central Asia, especially in largely Muslim Soviet Kazakhstan, collectivization brought even greater chaos than in Soviet Ukraine. It required an even more drastic social transformation. The peoples of Kazakhstan were not peasants but nomads, and the first step in Soviet modernization was to make them settle down. Before collectivization could even begin, the nomadic populations had to become farmers. The policy of “sedentarization” deprived the herdsmen of their animals and thus of their means of supporting themselves. People rode their camels or horses across the border into the Muslim Xinjiang (or Turkestan) region of China, which suggested to Stalin that they might be agents of the Japanese, the dominant foreign power amidst Chinese internal conflicts.25
All was not going as planned. Collectivization, which was supposed to secure the Soviet order, seemed instead to destabilize the borderlands. In Soviet Asia as in Soviet Europe, a Five-Year Plan that was supposed to bring socialism had brought instead enormous suffering, and a state that was supposed to represent justice responded with very traditional security measures. Soviet Poles were deported from western border zones, and the border guard was strengthened everywhere. The world revolution would have to take place behind closed borders, and Stalin would have to take steps to protect what he called “socialism in one country.”26
Stalin had to delay foreign adversaries and rethink domestic plans. He asked Soviet diplomats to initiate discussions with Poland and Japan on nonaggression pacts. He saw to it that the Red Army was ordered to full battle readiness in the western Soviet Union. Most tellingly, Stalin suspended collectivization. In an article dated 2 March 1930 under the brilliant title “Dizzy with Success,” Stalin maintained that the problem with collectivization was that it had been implemented with just a little too much enthusiasm. It had been a mistake, he now asserted, to force the peasants to join the collective farms. The latter now disappeared just as quickly as they had been created. In spring 1930, peasants in Ukraine harvested the winter wheat, and sowed the seeds for the autumn crops, just as if the land belonged to them. They could be forgiven for thinking that they had won.27
Stalin’s withdrawal was tactical.
Given time to think, Stalin and the politburo found more effective means to subordinate the peasantry to the state. In the countryside the following year, Soviet policy preceded with much greater deftness. In 1931, collectivization would come because peasants would no longer see a choice. The lower cadres of the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet communist party were purged, to ensure that those working within the villages would be true to their purpose, and understand what would await them if they were not. The independent farmer was taxed until the collective farm became the only refuge. As the collective farms slowly regrouped, they were granted indirect coercive power over neighboring independent farmers. They were allowed, for example, to vote to take the seed grain away from independent farmers. The seed grain, what is kept from one crop to plant the next, is indispensible to any working farm. The selection and preservation of the seed grain is the basis of agriculture. For most of human history, eating the seed grain has been synonymous with utter desperation. An individual who lost control of the seed grain to the collective lost the ability to live from his or her own labor.28
Deportations resumed, and collectivization proceeded. In late 1930 and early 1931, some 32,127 more households were deported from Soviet Ukraine, about the same number of people as had been removed during the first wave of deportations a year before. Peasants thought that they would die either of exhaustion in the Gulag or of hunger close to home, and preferred the latter. Letters from exiled friends and family occasionally escaped the censor; one included the following advice: “No matter what, don’t come. We are dying here. Better to hide, better to die there, but no matter what, don’t come here.” Ukrainian peasants who yielded to collectivization chose, as one party activist understood, “to face starvation at home rather than banishment to the unknown.” Because collectivization came more slowly in 1931, family by family rather than whole villages at once, it was harder to resist. There was no sudden attack to provoke a desperate defense. By the end of the year, the new approach had succeeded. About seventy percent of the farmland in Soviet Ukraine was now collectivized. The levels of March 1930 had been reached again, and this time durably.29
After the false start of 1930, Stalin had won the political victory in 1931. Yet the triumph in politics did not extend to economics. Something was wrong with the grain yields. The harvest of 1930 had been wonderfully bountiful. Farmers deported in early 1930 had sown their winter wheat already, and that crop could be harvested by someone else that spring. The months of January and February, when most of the country had been collectivized on paper in 1930, is a time when farmers are idle in any case. After March 1930, when the collectives were dissolved, peasants had the time to put down their spring crops as free men and women. The weather was unusually fine that summer. The crop of 1930 in Ukraine set a standard that could not be met in 1931, even if collectivized agriculture were as efficient as individual farming, which it was not. The bumper crop of 1930 provided the baseline number that the party used to plan requisitions for 1931. Moscow expected far more from Ukraine than Ukraine could possibly give.30
By autumn 1931 the failure of the first collectivized harvest was obvious. The reasons were many: the weather was poor; pests were a problem; animal power was limited because peasants had sold or slaughtered livestock; the production of tractors was far less than anticipated; the best farmers had been deported; sowing and reaping were disrupted by collectivization; and peasants who had lost their land saw no reason to work very hard. The Ukrainian party leader, Stanisław Kosior, had reported in August 1931 that requisition plans were unrealistic given low yields. Lazar Kaganovich told him that the real problem was theft and concealment. Kosior, though he knew better, enforced this line on his subordinates.31
More than half of the (nonspoiled) harvest was removed from Soviet Ukraine in 1931. Many collective farms met their requisition targets only by handing over their seed grain. Stalin ordered on 5 December that collective farms that had not yet fulfilled their annual requirements must surrender their seed grain. Stalin perhaps believed that peasants were hiding food, and thought that the threat of taking the seed grain would motivate them to hand over what they had. But by this time many of them truly had nothing. By the end of 1931, many peasants were already going hungry. With no land of their own and with little ability to resist requisitions, they simply had no way to ensure that a sufficient number of calories reached their households. Then in early 1932 they had no seed grain with which to plant the fall crop. The Ukrainian party leadership asked for seed grain in March 1932, but by that time the planting was already delayed, meaning that the harvest that fall would be poor.32
In early 1932 people asked for help. Ukrainian communists requested that their superiors in the Ukrainian party ask Stalin to call in the Red Cross. Members of collective farms tried writing letters to state and party authorities. One of these, after several paragraphs of formal administrative prose, closed with the plaintive “Give us bread! Give us bread! Give us bread!” Ukrainian party members bypassed Kosior and wrote directly to Stalin, taking an angry tone: “How can we construct the socialist economy when we are all doomed to death by hunger?”33
The threat of mass starvation was utterly clear to Soviet Ukrainian authorities, and it became so to Stalin. Party activists and secret police officers filed countless reports of death by starvation. In June 1932 the head of the party in the Kharkiv region wrote to Kosior that starvation had been reported in every single district of his region. Kosior received a letter from a member of the Young Communists dated 18 June 1932, with a graphic description that was probably, by then, all too familiar: “Collective farm members go into the fields and disappear. After a few days their corpses are found and, entirely without emotion, as though this were normal, buried in graves. The next day one can already find the body of someone who had just been digging graves for others.” That same day, 18 June 1932, Stalin himself admitted, privately, that there was “famine” in Soviet Ukraine. The previous day the Ukrainian party leadership had requested food aid. He did not grant it. His response was that all grain in Soviet Ukraine must be collected as planned. He and Kaganovich agreed that “it is imperative to export without fail immediately.”34
Stalin knew perfectly well, and from personal observation, what would follow. He knew that famine under Soviet rule was possible. Famine had raged throughout Russia and Ukraine during and after the civil wars. A combination of poor harvests and requisitions had brought starvation to hundreds of thousands of peasants in Ukraine, especially in 1921. Scarcity of food was one of the reasons Lenin had made his compromise with peasants in the first place. Stalin was well aware of that history, in which he had taken part. That Stalin’s own policy of collectivization could cause mass starvation was also clear. By summer 1932, as Stalin knew, more than a million people had already starved to death in Soviet Kazakhstan. Stalin blamed the local party leader Filip Goloshchekin, but he must have understood some of the structural issues.35
Stalin, a master of personal politics, presented the Ukrainian famine in personal terms. His first impulse, and his lasting tendency, was to see the starvation of Ukrainian peasants as a betrayal by members of the Ukrainian communist party. He could not allow the possibility that his own policy of collectivization was to blame; the problem must be in the implementation, in the local leaders, anywhere but in the concept itself. As he pushed forward with his transformation in the first half of 1932, the problem he saw was not the suffering of his people but rather the possibility that the image of his collectivization policy might be tarnished. Starving Ukrainian peasants, he complained, were leaving their home republic and demoralizing other Soviet citizens by their “whining.”36
Somewhat inchoately, Stalin seemed to think in spring and summer 1932 that if starvation could somehow just be denied then it would go away. Perhaps he reasoned that Ukraine was in any case overpopulated, and that the deaths of a few hundred thousand people would matter little in the long run. He wanted local Ukrainian officials to meet grain procurement targets despite the certain prospect of lower yields. Local party officials found themselves between Stalin’s red hammer and the grim reaper’s sickle. The problems they saw were objective and not soluble through ideology or rhetoric: lack of seed grain, late sowing, poor weather, machinery insufficient to replace animal labor, chaos from the final push toward collectivization in late 1931, and hungry peasants unable to work.37
The world as local party activists had to see it, in the Ukrainian countryside, was described far better by this Ukrainian children’s song than by the terse orders and propaganda conceits coming from Moscow:
Father Stalin, look at this
Around the local party activists was death, and above them was denial. Starvation was a brute fact, indifferent to words and formulas, deportations and shootings. Beyond a certain point, the starving peasant could no longer productively work, and no amount of ideological correctness or personal commitment could change this. Yet as this message traveled upward through institutional channels it lost its force. True reports of hunger from below met political pressure from the top at a Ukrainian party central committee plenum of 6-9 July 1932 in Kharkiv. Ukrainian speakers complained of the impossibility of meeting the annual targets for grain requisitions. Yet they were silenced by Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov, politburo members and Stalin’s emissaries from Moscow. Stalin had instructed them to defeat the “Ukrainian destabilizers.”39
Molotov and Kaganovich were Stalin’s loyal and trusted allies, and with him dominated the politburo and thus ruled the Soviet Union. Stalin was not yet an unrivalled dictator, and the politburo was still in principle a kind of collective dictatorship. Yet these two men, unlike some of his previous allies in the politburo, were unconditionally loyal. Stalin manipulated them ceaselessly, but he did not really have to. They served the revolution by serving him, and tended not to distinguish between the two. Kaganovich was already calling Stalin “our father.” In July 1932 in Kharkiv, they told Ukrainian comrades that talk of starvation was just an excuse for laziness on the part of peasants who did not wish to work and activists who did not wish to discipline them and requisition grain.40
By this time, Stalin was on vacation, having traveled in a train well stocked with fine provisions south from Moscow through the starving Ukraine to the pretty resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea. He and Kaganovich wrote to each other, confirming their shared view of the famine as a plot directed against them personally. Stalin managed a nice reversal, imagining that it was the peasants, not him, who were using hunger as a weapon. Kaganovich reassured Stalin that talk of Ukrainians as “innocent victims” was just a “rotten cover-up” for the Ukrainian party. Stalin expressed his fear that “we could lose Ukraine.” Ukraine would have to be made into a “fortress.” The two of them agreed that the only reasonable approach was to hold tight to a policy of requisitions, and to export the grain as quickly as possible. By now Stalin seemed to have worked out, at least to his own satisfaction, the connection between starvation and the disloyalty of Ukrainian communists: hunger was a result of sabotage, local party activists were the saboteurs, treacherous higher party officials protected their subordinates—all in the service of Polish espionage.41
Perhaps as late as 1931, Stalin might indeed have interpreted Polish and Japanese policies as heralding an encirclement of the Soviet Union. The year 1930 was a peak time for Polish espionage in the Soviet Union. Poland had secretly founded a Ukrainian army on its own soil, and was training dozens of Ukrainians and Poles for special missions inside the Soviet Union. Japan was indeed ever more threatening. In 1931, the Soviets had intercepted a note from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, in which he advocated preparations for an offensive war to conquer Siberia. That year Japan had invaded Manchuria, a northeastern Chinese region with a long border with Soviet Siberia.42
In fall 1931, according to a Soviet intelligence report, Poland and Japan had signed a secret agreement concerning a joint attack on the Soviet Union. This was not the case; and insofar as there had been an incipient Polish-Japanese alliance, it was prevented by an adept Soviet foreign policy. Though Japan had declined to negotiate a nonaggression pact with Moscow, Poland had agreed. The Soviet Union wanted a treaty with Poland so that its economic transformation could be pursued in peace; Poland never had any intentions of starting a war, and was now experiencing economic depression. Its largely unreformed agrarian economic system could not support increasing military spending at a time of economic collapse. Soviet military budgets, comparable to Poland’s for many years, were now far greater. The Soviet-Polish agreement was initialed in January 1932.43
In 1932 and 1933, there could be no serious thought of Poland as a threat by itself. The Polish army had suffered massive budget cuts. The Soviet police and border guards had captured a large number of Polish spies. Polish agents had not hindered collectivization during the chaos of 1930, and were helpless to rouse a starving population in 1932. They tried, and they failed. Even the most enthusiastic Polish proponents of an aggressive policy saw summer 1932 as a time for calm. If the Soviets promised peace, it seemed best to make no provocative moves. Polish diplomats and spies were witnesses to the famine. They knew that “cannibalism has become a habit of sorts” and that “entire villages have died out completely.” But they had nothing to do with the famine’s origins, and could do nothing to help the victims. Poland did not publicize to the world what its diplomats knew about the famine. In February 1932, for example, an anonymous letter reached the Polish consulate in Kharkiv, pleading with the Poles to inform the world of the famine in Ukraine. But by then the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union had been initialed, and Warsaw would take no such step.44
Stalin now had won far more room for maneuver in his western borderlands than he had had in 1930. Poland had accepted the status quo by signing the nonaggression pact in July 1932, and so the Ukrainian peasants were at his mercy. With pedantic enthusiasm, Stalin in August (still on vacation) offered his closest collaborators the theory that collectivization was missing only the correct legal basis. Socialism, he claimed, just like capitalism, needed laws to protect property. The state would be strengthened if all agricultural production was declared to be state property, any unauthorized collection of food deemed theft, and such theft made punishable by immediate execution. Thus a starving peasant could be shot if he picked up a potato peel from a furrow in land that until recently had been his own. Perhaps Stalin really did think that this could work; the result, of course, was the removal of any legal protection that peasants may have had from the full violence of the triumphant state. The simple possession of food was presumptive evidence of a crime. The law came into force on 7 August 1932. 45
Soviet judges usually ignored the letter of the law, but the rest of the party and state apparatus understood its spirit. Often the most enthusiastic enforcers of the law were younger people, educated in the new Soviet schools, who believed in the promise of the new system. Members of the official youth organization were told that their “main task” was “the struggle against theft and the hiding of grain as well as kulak sabotage.” For the young generation in the cities, communism had offered social advance, and the world demonized in this agitation was one that they had left behind. The communist party in Soviet Ukraine, though disproportionately Russian and Jewish in its membership, now included many young Ukrainians who believed that the countryside was reactionary and were eager to join in campaigns against peasants.46
Watchtowers went up in the fields to keep peasants from taking anything for themselves. In the Odessa region alone, more than seven hundred watchtowers were constructed. Brigades went from hut to hut, five thousand youth organization members among their members, seizing everything they could find. Activists used, as one peasant recalled, “long metal rods to search through stables, pigsties, stoves. They looked everywhere and took everything, down to the last little grain.” They rushed through the village “like the black death” calling out “Peasant, where is your grain? Confess!” The brigades took everything that resembled food, including supper from the stove, which they ate themselves.47
Like an invading army the party activists lived off the land, taking what they could and eating their fill, with little to show for their work and enthusiasm but misery and death. Perhaps from feelings of guilt, perhaps from feelings of triumph, they humiliated the peasants wherever they went. They would urinate in barrels of pickles, or order hungry peasants to box each other for sport, or make them crawl and bark like dogs, or force them to kneel in the mud and pray. Women caught stealing on one collective farm were stripped, beaten, and carried naked through the village. In one village the brigade got drunk in a peasant’s hut and gang-raped his daughter. Women who lived alone were routinely raped at night under the pretext of grain confiscations—and their food was indeed taken from them after their bodies had been violated. This was the triumph of Stalin’s law and Stalin’s state.48
Raids and decrees could not create food where there was none. Of course peasants will hide food, and hungry people will steal food. But the problem in the Ukrainian countryside was not theft and deceit, which might indeed have been solved by the application of violence. The problem was starvation and death. Grain targets were not met because collectivization had failed, the harvest of autumn 1932 was poor, and requisition targets were too high. Stalin sent Molotov to Ukraine to urge comrades forward in the “struggle for grain.” But the enthusiasm of Stalin’s servants could not change what had already happened. Even Molotov was forced to recommend on 30 October that quotas for Ukraine be reduced somewhat. Stalin accepted the recommendation, but soon he was more categorical than ever. As of November 1932 only about one third of the annual target had been met.49
As reports about failed requisitions were delivered to the Kremlin, Stalin’s wife killed herself. She chose 7 November 1932, the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution, to shoot herself in the heart. Just what this meant to Stalin can never be entirely clear, but it seems to have been a shock. He threatened to kill himself as well. Kaganovich, who found Stalin a changed man, had to give the funeral oration.50
The next day Stalin approached the problem of the famine with a new degree of malice. He placed the blame for problems in Ukraine at the feet of Ukrainian comrades and peasants. Two politburo telegrams sent out on 8 November 1932 reflected the mood: individual and collective farmers in Soviet Ukraine who failed to meet requisition targets were to be denied access to products from the rest of the economy. A special troika was created in Ukraine to hasten the sentencing and execution of party activists and peasants who, supposedly, were responsible for sabotage. Some 1,623 kolkhoz officials were arrested that month. Deportations within Ukraine were resumed: 30,400 more people were gone by the end of the year. The activists told the peasants: “Open up, or we’ll knock down the door. We’ll take what you have, and you’ll die in a camp.”51
As Stalin interpreted the disaster of collectivization in the last weeks of 1932, he achieved new heights of ideological daring. The famine in Ukraine, whose existence he had admitted earlier, when it was far less severe, was now a “fairy tale,” a slanderous rumor spread by enemies. Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of progress.52
Resistance to his policies in Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now “quiet” and even “holy.” The “kulaks of today,” he said, were “gentle people, kind, almost saintly.” People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.53
Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations that he so interpreted, but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did: they had somehow to reconcile his ideological line to the evidence of their senses. Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die. Thus the wracked bodies of sons and daughters and fathers and mothers were nothing more than a facade behind which foes plotted the destruction of socialism. Even the starving themselves were sometimes presented as enemy propagandists with a conscious plan to undermine socialism. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people “who risked their lives to spoil our optimism.”54
Ukrainians in Poland gathered money for food donations, only to learn that the Soviet government categorically rejected any assistance. Ukrainian communists who asked for food relief from abroad, accepted by Soviet authorities in the early 1920s during the previous famine, got no hearing at all. For political reasons, Stalin did not wish to accept any help from the outside world. Perhaps he believed that if he were to remain atop the party, he could not admit that his first major policy had brought famine. Yet Stalin might have saved millions of lives without drawing any outside attention to the Soviet Union. He could have suspended food exports for a few months, released grain reserves (three million tons), or just given peasants access to local grain storage areas. Such simple measures, pursued as late as November 1932, could have kept the death toll to the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. Stalin pursued none of them.55
In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine. He shifted to a position of pure malice, where the Ukrainian peasant was somehow the aggressor and he, Stalin, the victim. Hunger was a form of aggression, for Kaganovich in a class struggle, for Stalin in a Ukrainian national struggle, against which starvation was the only defense. Stalin seemed determined to display his dominance over the Ukrainian peasantry, and seemed even to enjoy the depths of suffering that such a posture would require. Amartya Sen has argued that starvation is “a function of entitlements and not of food availability as such.” It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.56
Though collectivization was a disaster everywhere in the Soviet Union, the evidence of clearly premeditated mass murder on the scale of millions is most evident in Soviet Ukraine. Collectivization had involved the massive use of executions and deportations everywhere in the Soviet Union, and the peasants and nomads who made up the bulk of the Gulag’s labor force hailed from all of the Soviet republics. Famine had struck parts of Soviet Russia as well as much of Soviet Ukraine in 1932. Nevertheless, the policy response to Ukraine was special, and lethal. Seven crucial policies were applied only, or mainly, in Soviet Ukraine in late 1932 or early 1933. Each of them may seem like an anodyne administrative measure, and each of them was certainly presented as such at the time, and yet each of them had to kill.
1. On 18 November 1932, peasants in Ukraine were required to return grain advances that they had previously earned by meeting grain requisition targets. This meant that the few localities where peasants had had good yields were deprived of what little surplus they had earned. The party brigades and the state police were unleashed on these regions, in a feverish hunt for whatever food could be found. Because peasants were not given receipts for the grain that they did hand over, they were subject to endless searches and abuse. The Ukrainian party leadership tried to protect the seed grain, but without success.57
2. Two days later, on 20 November 1932, a meat penalty was introduced. Peasants who were unable to make grain quotas were now required to pay a special tax in meat. Peasants who still had livestock were now forced to surrender it to the state. Cattle and swine had been a last reserve against starvation. As a peasant girl remembered, “whoever had a cow didn’t starve.” A cow gives milk, and as a last resort it can be slaughtered. Another peasant girl remembered that the family’s one pig was seized, and then the family’s one cow. She held its horns as it was led away. This was, perhaps, the attachment that teenaged girls on farms feel for their animals. But it was also desperation. Even after the meat penalty was paid, peasants still had to fulfill the original grain quota. If they could not do this under the threat of losing their animals, they certainly could not do so afterward. They starved.58
3. Eight days later, on 28 November 1932, Soviet authorities introduced the “black list.” According to this new regulation, collective farms that failed to meet grain targets were required, immediately, to surrender fifteen times the amount of grain that was normally due in a whole month. In practice this meant, again, the arrival of hordes of party activists and police, with the mission and the legal right to take everything. No village could meet the multiplied quota, and so whole communities lost all of the food that they had. Communities on the black list also had no right to trade, or to receive deliveries of any kind from the rest of the country. They were cut off from food or indeed any other sort of supply from anywhere else. The black-listed communities in Soviet Ukraine, sometimes selected from as far away as Moscow, became zones of death.59
4. On 5 December 1932, Stalin’s handpicked security chief for Ukraine presented the justification for terrorizing Ukrainian party officials to collect the grain. Vsevolod Balytskyi had spoken with Stalin personally in Moscow on 15 and 24 November. The famine in Ukraine was to be understood, according to Balytskyi, as the result of a plot of Ukrainian nationalists—in particular, of exiles with connections to Poland. Thus anyone who failed to do his part in requisitions was a traitor to the state.60
Yet this policy line had still deeper implications. The connection of Ukrainian nationalism to Ukrainian famine authorized the punishment of those who had taken part in earlier Soviet policies to support the development of the Ukrainian nation. Stalin believed that the national question was in essence a peasant question, and as he undid Lenin’s compromise with the peasants he also found himself undoing Lenin’s compromise with the nations. On 14 December Moscow authorized the deportation of local Ukrainian communists to concentration camps, on the logic that they had abused Soviet policies in order to spread Ukrainian nationalism, thus allowing nationalists to sabotage the grain collection. Balytskyi then claimed to have unmasked a “Ukrainian Military Organization” as well as Polish rebel groups. He would report, in January 1933, the discovery of more than a thousand illegal organizations and, in February, the plans of Polish and Ukrainian nationalists to overthrow Soviet rule in Ukraine.61
The justifications were fabricated, but the policy had consequences. Poland had withdrawn its agents from Ukraine, and had given up any hope of exploiting the disaster of collectivization. The Polish government, attempting to be loyal to the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact signed in July 1932, declined even to draw international attention to the worsening Soviet famine. Yet Balytskyi’s policy, though it rode the coattails of phantoms, generated local obedience to Moscow’s policy. The mass arrests and mass deportations he ordered sent a very clear message: anyone who defended the peasants would be condemned as an enemy. In these crucial weeks of late December, as the death toll in Soviet Ukraine rose into the hundreds of thousands, Ukrainian activists and administrators knew better than to resist the party line. If they did not carry out requisitions, they would find themselves (in the best case) in the Gulag.62
5. On 21 December 1932, Stalin (through Kaganovich) affirmed the annual grain requisition quota for Soviet Ukraine, to be reached by January 1933. On 27 November, the Soviet politburo had assigned Ukraine a full third of the remaining collections for the entire Soviet Union. Now, hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths later, Stalin sent Kaganovich to hold the whip hand over the Ukrainian party leadership in Kharkiv. Right after Kaganovich arrived on the evening of 20 December, the Ukrainian politburo was forced to convene. Sitting until four o’clock the next morning, it resolved that requisition targets were to be met. This was a death sentence for about three million people. As everyone in that room knew in those early morning hours, grain could not be collected from an already starving population without the most horrific of consequences. A simple respite from requisitions for three months would not have harmed the Soviet economy, and would have saved most of those three million lives. Yet Stalin and Kaganovich insisted on exactly the contrary. The state would fight “ferociously,” as Kaganovich put it, to fulfill the plan.63
Having achieved his mission in Kharkiv, Kaganovich then traveled through Soviet Ukraine, demanding “100 percent” fulfillment of the plan and sentencing local officials and ordering deportations of families as he went. He returned to Kharkiv on 29 December 1932 to remind Ukrainian party leaders that the seed grain was also to be collected.64
6. As starvation raged throughout Ukraine in the first weeks of 1933, Stalin sealed the borders of the republic so that peasants could not flee, and closed the cities so that peasants could not beg. As of 14 January 1933 Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports in order to reside in cities legally. Peasants were not to receive them. On 22 January 1933 Balytskyi warned Moscow that Ukrainian peasants were fleeing the republic, and Stalin and Molotov ordered the state police to prevent their flight. The next day the sale of long-distance rail tickets to peasants was banned. Stalin’s justification was that the peasant refugees were not in fact begging bread but, rather, engaging in a “counterrevolutionary plot,” by serving as living propaganda for Poland and other capitalist states that wished to discredit the collective farm. By the end of February 1933 some 190,000 peasants had been caught and sent back to their home villages to starve.65
Stalin had his “fortress” in Ukraine, but it was a stronghold that resembled a giant starvation camp, with watchtowers, sealed borders, pointless and painful labor, and endless and predictable death.
7. Even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933, collection of grain continued. Requisitions went forward in February and March, as party members sought grain for the spring sowing. At the end of December 1932, Stalin had approved Kaganovich’s proposal that the seed grain for the spring be seized to make the annual target. This left the collective farms with nothing to plant for the coming fall. Seed grain for the spring sowing might have been drawn from the trainloads bound at that very moment for export, or taken from the three million tons that the Soviet Union had stored as a reserve. Instead it was seized from what little the peasants in Soviet Ukraine still had. This was very often the last bit of food that peasants needed to survive until the spring harvest. Some 37,392 people were arrested in Soviet Ukrainian villages that month, many of them presumably trying to save their families from starvation.66
This final collection was murder, even if those who executed it very often believed that they were doing the right thing. As one activist remembered, that spring he “saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes.” Yet he “saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide.” He had faith: “As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.” Other activists, no doubt, were less faithful and more fearful. Every level of the Ukrainian party had been purged in the previous year; in January 1933, Stalin sent in his own men to control its heights. Those communists who no longer expressed their faith formed a “wall of silence” that doomed those it surrounded. They had learned that to resist was to be purged, and to be purged was to share the fate of those whose deaths they were now bringing about.67
In Soviet Ukraine in early 1933, the communist party activists who collected the grain left a deathly quiet behind them. The countryside has its own orchestra of sound, softer and slower than the city, but no less predictable and reassuring for those born to it. Ukraine had gone mute.
Peasants had killed their livestock (or lost it to the state), they had killed their chickens, they had killed their cats and their dogs. They had scared the birds away by hunting them. The human beings had fled, too, if they were lucky; more likely they too were dead, or too weak to make noise. Cut off from the attention of the world by a state that controlled the press and the movements of foreign journalists, cut off from official help or sympathy by a party line that equated starvation with sabotage, cut off from the economy by intense poverty and inequitable planning, cut off from the rest of the country by regulations and police cordons, people died alone, families died alone, whole villages died alone. Two decades later, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt would present this famine in Ukraine as the crucial event in the creation of a modern “atomized” society, the alienation of all from all.68
Starvation led not to rebellion but to amorality, to crime, to indifference, to madness, to paralysis, and finally to death. Peasants endured months of indescribable suffering, indescribable because of its duration and pain, but also indescribable because people were too weak, too poor, too illiterate to chronicle what was happening to them. But the survivors did remember. As one of them recalled, no matter what peasants did, “they went on dying, dying, dying.” The death was slow, humiliating, ubiquitous, and generic. To die of starvation with some sort of dignity was beyond the reach of almost everyone. Petro Veldii showed rare strength when he dragged himself through his village on the day he expected to die. The other villagers asked him where he was going: to the cemetery to lay himself down. He did not want strangers coming and dragging his body away to a pit. So he had dug his own grave, but by the time he reached the cemetery another body had filled it. He dug himself another one, lay down, and waited.69
A very few outsiders witnessed and were able to record what happened in these most terrible of months. The journalist Gareth Jones had paid his own way to Moscow, and, violating a ban on travel to Ukraine, took a train to Kharkiv on 7 March 1933. He disembarked at random at a small station and tramped through the countryside with a backpack full of food. He found “famine on a colossal scale.” Everywhere he went he heard the same two phrases: “Everyone is swollen from starvation” and “We are waiting to die.” He slept on dirt floors with starving children, and learned the truth. Once, after he had shared his food, a little girl exclaimed: “Now that I have eaten such wonderful things I can die happy.”70
Maria Łowińska traveled that same spring through Soviet Ukraine, accompanying her husband as he tried to sell his handiworks. The villages they knew from previous treks were now deserted. They were frightened by the unending silence. If they heard a cock crow they were so happy that they were alarmed by their own reaction. The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. The party official Viktor Kravchenko entered a village to help with the harvest one evening. The next day he found seventeen corpses in the marketplace. Such scenes could be found in villages throughout Soviet Ukraine, where in that spring of 1933 people died at a rate of more than ten thousand a day.71
Ukrainians who chose not to resist the collective farms believed that they had at least escaped deportation. But now they could be deported because collective farming did not work. Some fifteen thousand peasants were deported from Soviet Ukraine between February and April 1933. Just east and south of Soviet Ukraine, in parts of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union inhabited by Ukrainians, some sixty thousand people were deported for failing to make grain quotas. In 1933 some 142,000 more Soviet citizens were sent to the Gulag, most of them either hungry or sick with typhus, many of them from Soviet Ukraine.72
In the camps they tried to find enough to eat. Since the Gulag had a policy of feeding the strong and depriving the weak, and these deportees were already weak from hunger, this was desperately difficult. When hungry prisoners poisoned themselves by eating wild plants and garbage, camp officials punished them for shirking. At least 67,297 people died of hunger and related illnesses in the camps and 241,355 perished in the special settlements in 1933, many of them natives of Soviet Ukraine. Untold thousands more died on the long journey from Ukraine to Kazakhstan or the far north. Their corpses were removed from the trains and buried on the spot, their names and their numbers unrecorded.73
Those who were starving when they left their homes had little chance of survival in an alien environment. As one state official recorded in May 1933: “When traveling, I often witnessed administrative exiles haunting the villages like shadows in search of a piece of bread or refuse. They eat carrion, slaughter dogs and cats. The villagers keep their houses locked. Those who get a chance to enter a house drop on their knees in front of the owner and, with tears, beg for a piece of bread. I witnessed several deaths on the roads between villages, in the bath-houses, and in the barns. I myself saw hungry, agonized people crawling on the sidewalk. They were picked up by the police and died several hours later. In late April an investigator and I passed by a barn and found a dead body. When we sent for a policeman and a medic to pick it up, they discovered another body inside the barn. Both died of hunger, with no violence.” The Ukrainian countryside had already exported its food to the rest of the Soviet Union; now it exported some of the resulting starvation—to the Gulag.74
Children born in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s found themselves in a world of death, among helpless parents and hostile authorities. A boy born in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years. Even in these circumstances, some younger children could manage a bit of good cheer. Hanna Sobolewska, who lost her father and five brothers and sisters to starvation, remembered her youngest brother Józef ’s painful hope. Even as he swelled from hunger he kept finding signs of life. One day he thought he could see the crops rising from the ground; on another, he believed that he had found mushrooms. “Now we will live!” he would exclaim, and repeat these words before he went to sleep each night. Then one morning he awoke and said: “Everything dies.” Schoolchildren at first wrote to the appropriate authorities, in the hope that starvation was the result of a misunderstanding. One class of elementary school students, for example, sent a letter to party authorities asking “for your help, since we are falling down from hunger. We should be learning, but we are too hungry to walk.”75
Soon this was no longer noteworthy. In eight-year-old Yurii Lysenko’s school in the Kharkiv region, a girl simply collapsed in class one day, as if asleep. The adults rushed in, but Yurii knew that she was beyond hope, “that she had died and that they would bury her in the cemetery, like they had buried people yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and every day.” Boys from another school pulled out the severed head of a classmate while fishing in a pond. His whole family had died. Had they eaten him first? Or had he survived the deaths of his parents only to be killed by a cannibal? No one knew; but such questions were commonplace for the children of Ukraine in 1933.76
The duties of parents could not be fulfilled. Marriages suffered as wives, sometimes with their husbands’ anguished consent, prostituted themselves with local party leaders for flour. Parents, even when alive and together and acting in the best of faith, could hardly care for children. One day a father in the Vynnitsia region went to bury one of his two children, and returned to find the other dead. Some parents loved their children by protecting them, locking them in cottages to keep them safe from the roving bands of cannibals. Other parents sent their children away in the hope that they could be saved by others. Parents would give their children to distant family or to strangers, or leave them at train stations. The desperate peasants holding up infants to train windows were not necessarily begging for food: often they were trying to give their children away to someone aboard a train, who was likely from the city and therefore not about to starve to death. Fathers and mothers sent their children to the cities to beg, with very mixed results. Some children starved on the way, or at their destination. Others were taken by city police, to die in the dark in a strange metropolis and be buried in a mass grave with other small bodies. Even when children returned, the news was rarely good. Petro Savhira went with one of his brothers to Kiev to beg and returned to find his other two brothers already dead.77
In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine “families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating.” Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter. One six-year-old girl, saved by other relatives, last saw her father when he was sharpening a knife to slaughter her. Other combinations were, of course, possible. One family killed their daughter-in-law, fed her head to the pigs, and roasted the rest of her body.78
In a broader sense, though, it was politics as well as starvation that destroyed families, turning a younger generation against an older. Members of the Young Communists served in the brigades that requisitioned food. Still, younger children, in the Pioneers, were supposed to be “the eyes and ears of the party inside the family.” The healthier ones were assigned to watch over the fields to prevent theft. Half a million preadolescent and young teenage boys and girls stood in the watchtowers observing adults in Soviet Ukraine in summer 1933. All children were expected to report on their parents.79
Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did. Ukraine in 1933 was full of orphans, and sometimes people took them in. Yet without food there was little that even the kindest of strangers could do for such children. The boys and girls lay about on sheets and blankets, eating their own excrement, waiting for death.80
In one village in the Kharkiv region, several women did their best to look after children. As one of them recalled, they formed “something like an orphanage.” Their wards were in a pitiful condition: “The children had bulging stomachs; they were covered in wounds, in scabs; their bodies were bursting. We took them outside, we put them on sheets, and they moaned. One day the children suddenly fell silent, we turned around to see what was happening, and they were eating the smallest child, little Petrus. They were tearing strips from him and eating them. And Petrus was doing the same, he was tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could. The other children put their lips to his wounds and drank his blood. We took the child away from the hungry mouths and we cried.”81
Cannibalism is a taboo of literature as well as life, as communities seek to protect their dignity by suppressing the record of this desperate mode of survival. Ukrainians outside Soviet Ukraine, then and since, have treated cannibalism as a source of great shame. Yet while the cannibalism in Soviet Ukraine in 1933 says much about the Soviet system, it says nothing about Ukrainians as a people. With starvation will come cannibalism. There came a moment in Ukraine when there was little or no grain, and the only meat was human. A black market arose in human flesh; human meat may even have entered the official economy. The police investigated anyone selling meat, and state authorities kept a close eye on slaughterhouses and butcher shops. A young communist in the Kharkiv region reported to his superiors that he could make a meat quota, but only by using human beings. In the villages smoke coming from a cottage chimney was a suspicious sign, since it tended to mean that cannibals were eating a kill or that families were roasting one of their members. Police would follow the smoke and make arrests. At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much greater.82
People in Ukraine never considered cannibalism to be acceptable. Even at the height of the famine, villagers were outraged to find cannibals in their midst, so much so that they were spontaneously beaten or even burned to death. Most people did not succumb to cannibalism. An orphan was a child who had not been eaten by his parents. And even those who did eat human flesh acted from various motivations. Some cannibals were clearly criminals of the worst kind. Bazylii Graniewicz, for example, lost his brother Kolya to a cannibal. When the cannibal was arrested by the militia, Kolya’s head was among eleven found in his house. Yet cannibalism was, sometimes, a victimless crime. Some mothers and fathers killed their children and ate them. In those cases the children were clearly victims. But other parents asked their children to make use of their own bodies if they passed away. More than one Ukrainian child had to tell a brother or sister: “Mother says that we should eat her if she dies.” This was forethought and love.83
One of the very last functions that the state performed was the disposal of dead bodies. As a Ukrainian student wrote in January 1933, the task was a difficult one: “The burial of the dead is not always possible, because the hungry die in the fields of wandering from village to village.” In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before. In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them. They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth. Burial crews were paid according to the number of bodies collected, which led to certain abuses. Crews would take the weak along with the dead, and bury them alive. They would talk with such people along the way, explaining to the starving that they would die soon anyway, so what difference could it make? In a few cases such victims managed to dig their way out of the shallow mass graves. In their turn the gravediggers weakened and died, their corpses left where they lay. As an agronomist recalled, the bodies were then “devoured by those dogs that had escaped being eaten and had gone savage.”84
In fall 1933, in villages across Soviet Ukraine the harvest was brought in by Red Army soldiers, communist party activists, workers, and students. Forced to work even as they died, starving peasants had put down crops in spring 1933 that they would not live to harvest. Resettlers came from Soviet Russia to take over houses and villages, and saw that first they would have to remove the bodies of the previous inhabitants. Often the rotten corpses fell apart in their hands. Sometimes the newcomers would then return home, finding that no amount of scrubbing and painting could quite remove the stench. Yet sometimes they stayed. Ukraine’s “ethnographic material,” as one Soviet official told an Italian diplomat, had been altered. As earlier in Soviet Kazakhstan, where the change was even more dramatic, the demographic balance in Soviet Ukraine shifted in favor of Russians.85
* * *
How many people were killed by famine in the Soviet Union, and in its Ukrainian republic, in the early 1930s? We will never know with precision. No good records were kept. Such records as do exist confirm the mass scale of the event: public health authorities in Kiev oblast, for example, recorded that 493,644 people were going hungry in that region alone in the month of April 1933. Local authorities feared to record deaths by starvation and, after a while, were in no position to record anything at all. Very often the only instance of state power that had any contact with the dead were the brigades of gravediggers, and they kept nothing like systematic records.86
The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected: most of these were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not then have. Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed. In 1933, Soviet officials in private conversations most often provided the estimate of 5.5 million dead from hunger. This seems roughly correct, if perhaps somewhat low, for the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, including Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia.87
One demographic retrojection suggests a figure of about 2.5 million famine deaths for Soviet Ukraine. This is too close to the recorded figure of excess deaths, which is about 2.4 million. The latter figure must be substantially low, since many deaths were not recorded. Another demographic calculation, carried out on behalf of the authorities of independent Ukraine, provides the figure of 3.9 million dead. The truth is probably in between these numbers, where most of the estimates of respectable scholars can be found. It seems reasonable to propose a figure of approximately 3.3 million deaths by starvation and hunger-related disease in Soviet Ukraine in 1932–1933. Of these people, some three million would have been Ukrainians, and the rest Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and others. Among the million or so dead in the Soviet Russian republic were probably at least two hundred thousand Ukrainians, since the famine struck heavily in regions where Ukrainians lived. Perhaps as many as a hundred thousand more Ukrainians were among the 1.3 million people who died in the earlier famine in Kazakhstan. All in all, no fewer than 3.3 million Soviet citizens died in Soviet Ukraine of starvation and hunger-related diseases; and about the same number of Ukrainians (by nationality) died in the Soviet Union as a whole.88
Rafał Lemkin, the international lawyer who later invented the term genocide, would call the Ukrainian case “the classic example of Soviet genocide.” The fabric of rural society of Ukraine was tested, stretched, and rent. Ukrainian peasants were dead, or humbled, or scattered among camps the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. Those who survived carried feelings of guilt and helplessness, and sometimes memories of collaboration and cannibalism. Hundreds of thousands of orphans would grow up to be Soviet citizens but not Ukrainians, at least not in the way that an intact Ukrainian family and a Ukrainian countryside might have made them. Those Ukrainian intellectuals who survived the calamity lost their confidence. The leading Soviet Ukrainian writer and the leading Soviet Ukrainian political activist both committed suicide, the one in May and the other in July 1933. The Soviet state had defeated those who wished for some autonomy for the Ukrainian republic, and those who wished for some autonomy for themselves and their families.89
Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity. The writer Arthur Koestler believed at the time that the starving were “enemies of the people who preferred begging to work.” His housemate in Kharkiv, the physicist Alexander Weissberg, knew that millions of peasants had died. Nevertheless, he kept the faith. Koestler naively complained to Weissberg that the Soviet press did not write that Ukrainians “have nothing to eat and therefore are dying like flies.” He and Weissberg knew that to be true, as did everyone who had any contact with the country. Yet to write of the famine would have made their faith impossible. Each of them believed that the destruction of the countryside could be reconciled to a general story of human progress. The deaths of Ukrainian peasants were the price to be paid for a higher civilization. Koestler left the Soviet Union in 1933. When Weissberg saw him off at the train station, his parting words were: “Whatever happens, hold the banner of the Soviet Union high!”90
Yet the end result of the starvation was not socialism, in any but the Stalinist sense of the term. In one village in Soviet Ukraine, the triumphal arch built to celebrate the completion of the Five-Year Plan was surrounded by the corpses of peasants. The Soviet officials who persecuted the kulaks had more money than their victims, and the urban party members far better life prospects. Peasants had no right to ration cards, while party elites chose from a selection of food at special stores. If they grew too fat, however, they had to beware the roving “sausage makers,” especially at night. Rich women in Ukrainian cities, usually the wives of high officials, traded their food rations for peasant embroidery and ornaments stolen from country churches. In this way, too, collectivization robbed the Ukrainian village of its identity, even as it destroyed the Ukrainian peasant morally and then physically. Hunger drove Ukrainians and others to strip themselves and their places of worship before it drove them to their deaths.91
Although Stalin, Kaganovich, and Balytskyi explained the repressions in Soviet Ukraine as a response to Ukrainian nationalism, Soviet Ukraine was a multinational republic. The starvation touched Russians, Poles, Germans, and many others. Jews in Soviet Ukraine tended to live in towns and cities, but those in the countryside were no less vulnerable than anyone else. One day in 1933 a staff writer for the party newspaper Pravda, which denied the famine, received a letter from his Jewish father. “This is to let you know,” wrote the father, “that your mother is dead. She died of starvation after months of pain.” Her last wish was that their son say kaddish for her. This exchange reveals the generational difference between parents raised before the revolution and children raised thereafter. Not only among Jews, but among Ukrainians and others, the generation educated in the 1920s was far more likely to accept the Soviet system than the generations raised in the Russian Empire.92
German and Polish diplomats informed their superiors of the suffering and death of the German and Polish minorities in Soviet Ukraine. The German consul in Kharkiv wrote that “almost every time I venture into the streets I see people collapsing from hunger.” Polish diplomats faced long lines of starving people desperate for a visa. One of them reported: “Frequently the clients, grown men, cry as they tell of wives and children starving to death or bursting from hunger.” As these diplomats knew, many peasants in Soviet Ukraine, not only Poles and Germans, hoped for an invasion from abroad to release them from their agony. Until the middle of 1932, their greatest hope was Poland. Stalin’s propaganda had been telling them for five years that Poland was planning to invade and annex Ukraine. When the famine began, many Ukrainian peasants hoped that this propaganda was true. As one Polish spy reported, they clung to the hope that “Poland or for that matter any other state would come and liberate them from misery and oppression.”93
When Poland and the Soviet Union signed their nonaggression pact in July 1932, that hope was dashed. Thenceforth the peasants could only hope for a German attack. Eight years later, those who survived would be in a position to compare Soviet to German rule.
The basic facts of mass hunger and death, although sometimes reported in the European and American press, never took on the clarity of an undisputed event. Almost no one claimed that Stalin meant to starve Ukrainians to death; even Adolf Hitler preferred to blame the Marxist system. It was controversial to note that starvation was taking place at all. Gareth Jones did so in a handful of newspaper articles; it seems that he was the only one to do so in English under his own name. When Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna tried to appeal for food aid for the starving in summer and autumn 1933, Soviet authorities rebuffed him nastily, saying that the Soviet Union had neither cardinals nor cannibals—a statement that was only half true.94
Though the journalists knew less than the diplomats, most of them understood that millions were dying from hunger. The influential Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, did his best to undermine Jones’s accurate reporting. Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, called Jones’s account of the famine a “big scare story.” Duranty’s claim that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” echoed Soviet usages and pushed euphemism into mendacity. This was an Orwellian distinction; and indeed George Orwell himself regarded the Ukrainian famine of 1933 as a central example of a black truth that artists of language had covered with bright colors. Duranty knew that millions of people had starved to death. Yet he maintained in his journalism that the hunger served a higher purpose. Duranty thought that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Aside from Jones, the only journalist to file serious reports in English was Malcolm Muggeridge, writing anonymously for the Manchester Guardian. He wrote that the famine was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.”95
In fairness, even the people with the most obvious interest in events in Soviet Ukraine, the Ukrainians living beyond the border of the Soviet Union, needed months to understand the extent of the famine. Some five million Ukrainians lived in neighboring Poland, and their political leaders worked hard to draw international attention to the mass starvation in the Soviet Union. And yet even they grasped the extent of the tragedy only in May 1933, by which time most of the victims were already dead. Throughout the following summer and autumn, Ukrainian newspapers in Poland covered the famine, and Ukrainian politicians in Poland organized marches and protests. The leader of the Ukrainian feminist organization tried to organized an international boycott of Soviet goods by appealing to the women of the world. Several attempts were made to reach Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the United States.96
None of this made any difference. The laws of the international market ensured that the grain taken from Soviet Ukraine would feed others. Roosevelt, preoccupied above all by the position of the American worker during the Great Depression, wished to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The telegrams from Ukrainian activists reached him in autumn 1933, just as his personal initiative in US-Soviet relations was bearing fruit. The United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.
The main result of the summer campaign of Ukrainians in Poland was skillful Soviet counterpropaganda. On 27 August 1933, the French politician Édouard Herriot arrived in Kiev, on an official invitation. The leader of the Radical Party, Herriot had been French prime minister three times, most recently in 1932. He was a corpulent man of known physical appetites, who compared his own body shape to that of a woman pregnant with twins. At the receptions in the Soviet Union, Herriot was kept away from the German and the Polish diplomats, who might have spoiled the fun with an untoward word about starvation.97
The day before Herriot was to visit the city, Kiev had been closed, and its population ordered to clean and decorate. The shop windows, empty all year, were now suddenly filled with food. The food was for display, not for sale, for the eyes of a single foreigner. The police, wearing fresh new uniforms, had to disperse the gaping crowds. Everyone who lived or worked along Herriot’s planned route was forced to go through a dress rehearsal of the visit, demonstrating that they knew where to stand and what to wear. Herriot was driven down Kiev’s incomparable broad avenue, Khreshchatyk. It pulsed with the traffic of automobiles—which had been gathered from several cities and were now driven by party activists to create the appearance of bustle and prosperity. A woman on the street muttered that “perhaps this bourgeois will tell the world what is happening here.” She was to be disappointed. Herriot instead expressed his astonishment that the Soviet Union had managed so beautifully to honor both “the socialist spirit” and “Ukrainian national feeling.”98
On 30 August 1933, Herriot visited the Feliks Dzierżyński Children’s Commune in Kharkiv, a school named after the founder of the Soviet secret police. At this time, children were still starving to death in the Kharkiv region. The children he saw were gathered from among the healthiest and fittest. Most likely they wore clothes that they had been loaned that morning. The picture, of course, was not entirely false: the Soviets had built schools for Ukrainian children, and were on the way to eliminating illiteracy. Children who were alive at the end of 1933 would very likely become adults who could read. This is what Herriot was meant to see. What, the Frenchman asked, entirely without irony, had the students eaten for lunch? It was a question, posed casually, on which the image of the Soviet Union depended. Vasily Grossman would repeat the scene in both of his great novels. As Grossman would recall, the children had been prepared for this question, and gave a suitable answer. Herriot believed what he saw and heard. He journeyed onward to Moscow, where he was fed caviar in a palace.99
The collective farms of Soviet Ukraine, Herriot told the French upon his return, were well-ordered gardens. The official Soviet party newspaper, Pravda, was pleased to report Herriot’s remarks. The story was over. Or, perhaps, the story was elsewhere.
Stalin’s second revolution in the Soviet Union, his collectivization and the famine it brought, was overshadowed by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. Many Europeans, distressed by the nazification of Germany, looked hopefully to Moscow for an ally. Gareth Jones was one of the few to observe the two systems in early 1933, as both Hitler and Stalin were consolidating power. On 25 February 1933, he flew with Adolf Hitler from Berlin to Frankfurt, as the first journalist to travel by air with the new German chancellor. “If this aeroplane should crash,” he wrote, “the whole history of Europe would be changed.” Jones had read Mein Kampf, and he grasped Hitler’s ambitions: the domination of Germany, the colonization of eastern Europe, the elimination of the Jews. Hitler, already chancellor, had dissolved the Reichstag and was in the midst of an electoral campaign, aiming to gain a greater mandate for himself and a stronger presence for his party in the German parliament. Jones saw how Germans reacted to their new chancellor, first in Berlin and then at a rally in Frankfurt. He felt the “pure primitive worship.”1
When Jones made for Moscow he was traveling from, as he put it, “a land where dictatorship has just begun” to “the dictatorship of the working class.” Jones understood an important difference between the two regimes. Hitler’s rise meant the beginning of a new regime in Germany. Stalin, meanwhile, was securing his hold on a one-party state with a powerful police apparatus capable of massive and coordinated violence. His policy of collectivization had required the shooting of tens of thousands of citizens and the deportations of hundreds ofthousands, and had brought millions more to the brink of death by starvation—as Jones would see and report. Later in the 1930s, Stalin would order the shooting of hundreds of thousands more Soviet citizens, in campaigns organized by social class and ethnic nation. All of this was well beyond Hitler’s capabilities in the 1930s, and probably beyond his intentions.2
For some of the Germans and other Europeans who favored Hitler and his enterprise, the cruelty of Soviet policy seemed to be an argument for National Socialism. In his stirring campaign speeches, Hitler portrayed communists and the Soviet state as the great enemies of Germany and Europe. During the very first crisis of his young chancellorship, he exploited fears of communism to gather more power to himself and his office. On 27 February 1933, two days after Hitler and Jones had landed in Frankfurt, a lone Dutchman set fire to the German parliament building. Though the arsonist was caught in the act and confessed, Hitler immediately seized the occasion to demonize opposition to his new government. Working himself up into a theatrical display of rage, he shouted that “anyone who stands in our way will be butchered.” Hitler blamed the Reichstag fire on German communists who, he claimed, were planning further terrorist attacks.3
For Hitler, the timing of the Reichstag fire could not have been better. As head of government, he could move against his political opponents; as a candidate running for election, he could turn fear to his advantage. On 28 February 1933 a decree suspended the rights of all German citizens, allowing their “preventive detainment.” In an atmosphere of insecurity, the Nazis decisively won the elections on 5 March, with 43.9 percent of the vote and 288 seats in the Reichstag. In the weeks and months that followed, Hitler used German police and Nazi paramilitaries to crush the two parties he grouped together as “Marxists”: the communists and the social democrats. Hitler’s close ally Heinrich Himmler established the first Nazi concentration camp, at Dachau, on 20 March. Himmler’s SS, a paramilitary that had arisen as Hitler’s bodyguard, provided the staff. Although the concentration camp was not a new institution, Himmler’s SS meant to use it for intimidation and terror. As an SS officer said to the guards at Dachau: “Any of the comrades who can’t see blood should resign. The more of these bastards go down, the fewer of them we’ll have to feed.”4
After his electoral victory, Hitler the chancellor quickly became Hitler the dictator. On 23 March 1933, with the first prisoners already incarcerated at Dachau, the new parliament passed an enabling act, which allowed Hitler to rule Germany by decree without reference to either the president or the parliament. This act would be renewed and would remain in force so long as Hitler lived. Gareth Jones returned to Berlin from the Soviet Union on 29 March 1933, a month after he had left Germany for the Soviet Union, and gave a press conference about the starvation in Soviet Ukraine. The worst political famine in history seemed like a minor news item compared to the establishment of a new dictatorship in the German capital. Indeed, the suffering in the Soviet Union had already become, during Jones’s absence, part of the story of Hitler’s rise to power.5
Hitler had used the Ukrainian famine in his election campaign, making the event a matter of furious ideological politics before it was established as historical fact. As he raged against the “Marxists,” Hitler used the starvation in Ukraine as an indictment of Marxism in practice. To a gathering at the Berlin Sportpalast on 2 March 1933, Hitler proclaimed that “millions of people are starving in a country that could be a breadbasket for a whole world.” With a single word (Marxists) Hitler united the mass death in the Soviet Union with the German social democrats, the bulwark of the Weimar Republic. It was easier for most to reject (or accept) his entire perspective than it was to disentangle the true from the false. For people lacking close familiarity with Soviet politics, which meant almost everyone, to accept Hitler’s assessment of the famine was to take a step toward accepting his condemnation of left-wing politics, which in his rhetoric was mixed with the rejection of democracy as such.6
Stalin’s own policies made it easier for Hitler to make this case, because they offered a similarly binary view of the political world. Stalin, his attention focused on collectivization and famine, had unwittingly performed much of the ideological work that helped Hitler come to power. When Stalin had begun to collectivize agriculture in the Soviet Union, the Communist International had instructed fraternal communist parties to follow the line of “class against class.” Communists were to maintain their ideological purity, and avoid alliances with social democrats. Only communists had a legitimate role to play in human progress, and others who claimed to speak for the oppressed were frauds and “social fascists.” They were to be grouped together with every party to their right, including the Nazis. In Germany, communists were to regard the social democrats, not the Nazis, as the main enemy.
In the second half of 1932 and the first months of 1933, during the long moment of Stalin’s provocation of catastrophe, it would have been difficult for him to abandon the international line of “class against class.” The class struggle against the kulak, after all, was the official explanation of the horrible suffering and mass death within the Soviet Union. In German domestic politics, this line prevented the German left from cooperating against Hitler. The crucial months for the famine, however, were also critical time for the future of Germany. The insistence of German communists on the need for immediate class revolution gained the Nazis votes from the middle classes. It also ensured that clerks and the self-employed voted Nazi rather than social democratic. Even so, the communists and the social democrats together had more popular support than the Nazis; but Stalin’s line ensured that they could not work together. In all of these ways, Stalin’s uncompromising stand in foreign policy during collectivization and famine in the Soviet Union helped Hitler win the elections of both July 1932 and March 1933.7
* * *
Whereas the true consequences of Stalin’s economic policies had been hidden from foreign reporters, Hitler deliberately drew attention to the policies of redistribution that were among his first policies as dictator. At the very moment that starvation in the Soviet Union was peaking, the German state began to steal from its Jewish citizens. After the Nazis’ electoral victory of 5 March 1933, they organized an economic boycott of Jewish businesses throughout Germany. Like collectivization, the boycotts indicated which sector of society would lose the most in coming social and economic transformations: not the peasants, as in the USSR, but the Jews. The boycotts, although carefully managed by Nazi leaders and Nazi paramilitaries, were presented as a result of the “spontaneous anger” of the people at Jewish exploitation.8
In this respect Hitler’s policies resembled Stalin’s. The Soviet leader presented the disarray in the Soviet countryside, and then dekulakization, as the result of an authentic class war. The political conclusion was the same in Berlin and Moscow: the state would have to step in to make sure that the necessary redistribution was relatively peaceful. Whereas Stalin had achieved by 1933 the authority and gathered the coercive power to force through collectivization on a massive scale, Hitler had to move far more slowly. The boycott had only a limited effect; the main consequence was the emigration of some 37,000 German Jews in 1933. It would be five more years before substantial transfers of property from Jews to non-Jewish Germans—which the Nazis called “Aryanization”—took place.9
The Soviet Union began from a position of international isolation, and with the help of many sympathizers abroad was able with some success to control its image. By many, Stalin was given the benefit of the doubt, even as his policies moved from shooting to deportation to starvation. Hitler, on the other hand, had to reckon with international opinion, which included voices of criticism and outrage. Germany in 1933 was full of international journalists and other travelers, and Hitler needed peace and trade for the next few years. So even as he called an end to the boycott, Hitler used unfavorable attention in the foreign press to build up a rationale for the more radical policies to come. The Nazis presented European and American newspapers as controlled by Jews, and any foreign criticism as part of the international Jewish conspiracy against the German people.10
An important legacy of the March 1933 boycotts was thus rhetorical. Hitler introduced an argument that he would never cease to use, even much later, when his armies had conquered much of Europe and his institutions were killing millions of Jews. No matter what Germany or Germans did, it was because they were defending themselves from international Jewry. The Jews were always the aggressor, the Germans always the victims.
* * *
At first, Hitler’s anti-communism was more pertinent to domestic politics than his anti-Semitism. To control the German state, he would have to break the communists and the social democrats. Over the course of 1933, some two hundred thousand Germans were locked up, most of them men seen as left-wing opponents of the regime. Hitler’s terror in 1933 was meant to intimidate rather than eliminate: most of these people were released after short periods in what the Nazis euphemistically called “protective custody.” The communist party was not allowed to take up the eighty-one seats that it had won in the elections; soon all of its property was seized by the state. By July 1933 it was illegal in Germany to belong to any other political party than the Nazis. In November the Nazis staged a parliamentary election in which only their candidates could run and win. Hitler had very quickly made of Germany a one-party state—and certainly not the sort of one-party state that Stalin might have expected. The German communist party, for years the strongest outside the Soviet Union itself, was broken in a matter of a few months. Its defeat was a serious blow to the prestige of the international communist movement.11
At first, Stalin seemed to hope that the Soviet-German special relationship could be preserved, despite Hitler’s rise to power. Since 1922, the two states had engaged in military and economic cooperation, on the tacit understanding that both had an interest in the remaking of eastern Europe at the expense of Poland. The 1922 agreement at Rapallo had been confirmed by the neutrality pact of the Treaty of Berlin, signed in 1926 and extended for another five years in 1931. The clearest sign of good relations and common purpose were the German military exercises on Soviet soil. These came to an end in September 1933. In January 1934, Nazi Germany signed a nonaggression declaration with Poland. This surprise move seemed to signal a basic reorientation in German foreign policy. It seemed that Warsaw had replaced Moscow as Berlin’s favored partner in the East. Might the Germans and the Poles now fight together against the Soviet Union?12
The new German relationship with Poland likely meant more to Stalin than the oppression of the German communists. Stalin himself always conducted foreign policy at two levels: the diplomatic and the ideological, one directed at states, the other at societies, including his own. For the one he had his commissar for foreign affairs, Maxim Litvinov; for the other he had the Communist International. He probably assumed that Hitler’s approach was much the same, and thus that overt anti-communism need not prevent good relations between Berlin and Moscow. But the approach to Poland added what looked like anti-Soviet diplomacy to an anti-communist ideology. As Stalin correctly suspected, Hitler was trying to enlist Poland as a junior ally in a crusade against the Soviet Union. While the German-Polish negotiations were underway in late 1933, Soviet leaders rightly worried that the Germans were trying to buy Polish territory in the west with the promise that Poland could later annex territories from Soviet Ukraine. Poland, however, never showed any interest in Germany’s propositions to extend the accord in such a way. The German-Polish declaration did not in fact include a secret protocol on military cooperation against the USSR, despite what Soviet intelligence and propaganda claimed. Yet Hitler did wish to use the German-Polish declaration as the beginning of a rapprochement with Warsaw that would culminate in a military alliance against the USSR. He wondered aloud in spring 1934 about the necessary inducements.13
* * *
In January 1934, the Soviet Union seemed to be in a dreadful position. Its domestic policies had starved millions of its own citizens to death. Its foreign policies had contributed to the rise of a threatening anti-communist dictator, Hitler, who had made peace with the previous common German-Soviet enemy, Poland.
Stalin found the rhetorical and ideological escape route. At the Soviet communist party congress of January-February 1934, known as “The Congress of Victors,” Stalin claimed that a second revolution had been completed within the Soviet Union. The famines, the most unforgettable experience of the Soviet peoples, went unmentioned. They blurred into a general story of how Stalin and his loyal retinue had overcome the resistance of enemies to implement the Five-Year Plan. Lazar Kaganovich praised his master Stalin as the creator of “the greatest revolution that human history has ever known.” The rise of Hitler, despite appearances, was a sign of the coming victory of the Soviet system in the world. The brutality of the Nazis revealed that capitalism would soon collapse under its own contradictions, and that a European revolution was around the corner.14
This interpretation could only make sense to revolutionaries by conviction, to communists already bound to their leader by faith and fear. It took a special sort of mind to truly believe that the worse things appeared, the better they actually were. Such reasoning went by the name dialectics, but by this time that word (despite its proud descent from the Greeks through Hegel and Marx) meant little more than the psychic capacity to adjust one’s own perceptions to the changing expressions of Stalin’s will.15
For his part, Stalin knew that rhetoric was not enough. Even as he proclaimed that Hitler’s revolution was a sign of the coming socialist victory, Stalin hastened to change his domestic policy. He did not take revenge on the Ukrainian peasant year after year. The peasants had to live on, frightened and intimidated, but productive of the foodstuffs needed by the Soviet state. Soviet policy now allowed all peasants to cultivate a small plot, the equivalent of a private garden, for their own use. Requisition quotas and export targets ceased their unreasoning climb. Starvation within the Soviet Union came to an end in 1934.16
The rise of Hitler was indeed an opportunity to present the Soviet Union as the defense of European civilization. Stalin, after more than a year, finally took it in June 1934. According to the new line of the Communist International, propagated then, politics was no longer a matter of “class against class.” Instead, the Soviet Union and communist parties around the world would unite the Left in a camp of “anti-fascists.” Rather than engaging in uncompromising class struggle, communists would rescue civilization from the rising tide of fascism. Fascism, the term popularized by Mussolini in Italy, was presented by the Soviets as a general corruption of late capitalism. Though fascism’s spread signified the end of the old capitalist order, its vicious hatred of the Soviet Union (went the argument) justified Soviet and communist compromises with other capitalist forces (in the interest of defending the Soviet Union). European communists were to restyle themselves as “anti-fascists,” and to cooperate with social democratsand other parties of the Left. Communists in Europe were expected to join “Popular Fronts,” electoral alliances and win election victories with social democrats and other parties of the Left. For the time being, communists were to work within democracies, rather than toward their destruction.17
This came too late for German communists and social democrats, of course. But throughout western and southern Europe, people concerned with halting the spread of Hitler and fascism celebrated the new Soviet approach. By presenting the Soviet Union as the homeland of “anti-fascism,” Stalin was seeking after a monopoly of the good. Surely reasonable people would want to be on the side of the anti-fascists, rather than that of the fascists? Anyone who was against the Soviet Union, was the suggestion, was probably a fascist or at least a sympathizer. During the period of the Popular Front, from June 1934 through August 1939, about three quarters of a million Soviet citizens would be shot to death by order of Stalin, and still more deported to the Gulag. Most of the repressed would be peasants and workers, the people whom the Soviet social system was supposed to serve. The others would generally be members of national minorities. Just as Hitler’s rise had obscured the Soviet famine of 1933, Stalin’s response would distract attention from the Great Terror.18
The Popular Front enjoyed the greatest chances for success in the west European democracies furthest from the Soviet Union, France, and Spain. The greatest triumph was in Paris, where a Popular Front government indeed came to power in May 1936. Left-wing parties (including Herriot’s Radicals) won elections, and the socialist Léon Blum became prime minister. The French communists, part of a victorious electoral coalition, did not formally join the government, but they did provide the parliamentary majority and influence policy. The votes could thus be found for reforms—although the communists were chiefly concerned with ensuring that French foreign policy was friendly to the Soviet Union. In Paris, the Popular Front was seen as a triumph of native traditions of the Left. But many, not least the political refugees from Nazi Germany, saw it as a Soviet success, and even a confirmation that the Soviets supported democracy and freedom. The Popular Front in France made it far more difficult for some of the most impressive European intellectuals to criticize the Soviet Union.19
In Spain, a coalition of parties also formed a Popular Front, and won the elections of February 1936. There, events took a rather different turn. In July army officers, supported by far-right groups, tried to overturn the elected government in a coup d’état. The government resisted, and the Spanish Civil War began. Though for Spaniards this was an essentially domestic struggle, the ideological enemies of the Popular Front era took sides. The Soviet Union began to supply arms to the embattled Spanish Republic in October 1936, while Nazi Germany and fascist Italy supported the right-wing forces led by General Francisco Franco. The Spanish Civil War occasioned closer relations between Berlin and Rome, and became the center of attention of Soviet policy in Europe. Spain was on the front pages of major Soviet newspapers every day for months.20
Spain became the rallying cry of European socialists who came to fight for the side of the endangered republic, many of whom took for granted that the Soviet Union was on the side of democracy. One of the more perceptive of the European socialists, the English writer George Orwell, was dismayed by the struggle of Stalinists within Spain to dominate the Spanish Left. As he saw it, the Soviets exported their political practices along with their weapons. Stalin’s assistance to the Spanish republic came with a price: his right to carry out factional struggles on Spanish territory. Stalin’s greatest rival, Trotsky, was still alive (if in distant Mexican exile), and many of the Spaniards defending their republic were more attached to Trotsky’s person than to Stalin’s Soviet Union. Soon communist propaganda was presenting the Spanish Trotskyites as fascists, and Soviet NKVD officers were sent to Spain to shoot them for their “treason.”21
* * *
The enemies of the Popular Front presented it as a conspiracy of the Communist International to rule the world. The Popular Front provided Japan and Germany with a convenient pretext to solidify their own relations. On 25 November 1936, Germany and Japan signed the Anti-Comintern Pact, which obliged the two states to consult with each other if either was attacked. An agreement between Japanese and German intelligence agencies of 11 May 1937 provided for the exchange of intelligence on the USSR, and included a plan for both to use national movements in the Soviet borderlands against the Soviet Union.22
From the Soviet perspective, the Japanese threat was more immediate than the German. During the first half of 1937, Germany appeared to be an addendum to a Japanese threat, rather than the other way around. Japanese politics was dominated by dueling visions of empire, one in the south and one in the north. An important clique in the Japanese military believed that Siberian resources were the key to the country’s future economic development. Japan’s Manchurian satellite, Manchukuo, had a long border with Soviet Siberia, and looked ever more like a launching pad for an invasion. The Japanese were toying with the idea of establishing a puppet Ukrainian state on Soviet territory in eastern Siberia, based on the million or so Ukrainians who lived there as deportees or settlers. As Tokyo understood, Ukrainians deported to the Gulag might well oppose Soviet power, given the assurance of foreign backing. Polish spies who knew of the idea referred to it as “Manchukuo Number Two.”23
The Japanese certainly seemed to have a long-term interest in Siberia. A special Japanese academy in Manchukuo, in the city of Harbin, had already trained a first generation of young, Russian-speaking imperialists, such as Chiune Sugihara. He was one of the negotiators of an agreement whereby the Soviets, in 1935, sold their rights to the railway in Manchuria to the Japanese. Sugihara was also in charge of the foreign policy office of Manchukuo. A convert to the Russian Orthodox religion and husband to a Russian wife, Sugihara called himself Sergei and spent most of his time in the Russian quarter of Harbin. There he befriended Russian exiles, and recruited them for espionage missions within the Soviet Union. The drama of the Soviet-Japanese duel in east Asia attracted the attention of Gareth Jones, who traveled to Manchuria that same year. The Welshman, with his uncanny instinct for news, was right to see this region as the crucial theater in the global conflict between “fascism” and “anti-fascism.” In somewhat mysterious circumstances, he was abducted by bandits and murdered.24
Stalin had to be concerned not only with a direct Japanese attack on Soviet Siberia but also with the consolidation of a Japanese empire in east Asia. Manchukuo was one Japanese colony taken from historically Chinese territory; perhaps more were to come. China had the longest border with the Soviet Union, and an unstable polity. China’s nationalist government had the upper hand in an ongoing civil war with the Chinese communist party. In the “Long March,” Chinese communist troops, led by Mao Zedong, had been forced to withdraw into the north and west of the country. Neither side, however, seemed able to achieve anything resembling a monopoly of force in the country. Even in regions where the nationalists had the upper hand, they were reliant upon local warlords. Perhaps most importantly for Stalin, the nationalists and communists were unable to cooperate against the advance of the Japanese.
Soviet foreign policy had to balance between support for fraternal communist parties (less important) and concerns of Soviet state security (more important). While in principle the Communist International supported the Chinese communists, Stalin armed and funded the nationalist government, in the hope of pacifying the border. In the largely Muslim Chinese province of Xinjiang, which had a long border with Soviet Kazakhstan, Stalin took an equally unideological approach. He supported the local warlord Sheng Shicai, sending engineers and miners to exploit natural resources, and NKVD men to ensure security.25
Globally, the German-Japanese rapprochement could be seen as completing an encirclement of the Soviet homeland by Japan, Germany, and Poland. These were the three most important neighbors of the Soviet Union; they were also three states that had defeated the Soviet Union (or the Russian Empire) in the wars of Stalin’s lifetime. Even though Germany had lost the First World War, its troops had defeated the Russian Army on the eastern front in 1917. Japan had humiliated the Russian Army and Navy in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. Poland had defeated the Red Army as recently as 1920. Now, after the German-Polish and the German-Japanese agreements, these three powers appeared to be arrayed against the Soviet Union. If the Anti-Comintern Pact and the German-Polish nonaggression declaration had indeed included secret protocols concerning an offensive war on the Soviet Union, then Stalin would have been right about encirclement. In fact, neither did; and an offensive alliance between Tokyo, Warsaw, and Berlin was highly unlikely, if not impossible. Although Poland’s relations with Japan were good, Warsaw wished to take no step that could be interpreted as hostile to the Soviet Union. Poland declined Germany’s invitation to join the Anti-Comintern Pact.26
* * *
Part of Stalin’s political talent was his ability to equate foreign threats with failures in domestic policy, as if the two were actually the same thing, and as if he were responsible for neither. This absolved him of blame for policy failures, and allowed him to define his chosen internal enemies as agents of foreign powers. As early as 1930, as problems of collectivization became apparent, he was already speaking of international conspiracies between supporters of Trotsky and various foreign powers. It was obvious, Stalin proclaimed, that “as long as the capitalist encirclement exists there will continue to be present among us wreckers, spies, saboteurs and murderers.” Any problem with Soviet policies was the fault of reactionary states that wished to slow the proper course of history. Any seeming flaws of the Five-Year Plan were a result of foreign intervention: hence the harshest of penalties was justified for traitors, and the blame always resided in Warsaw, Tokyo, Berlin, London, or Paris.27
In these years, Stalinism thus involved a kind of double bluff. The success of the Popular Front depended on a record of progress toward socialism that was largely a matter of propaganda. Meanwhile, the explanation of famine and misery at home depended upon the idea of foreign subversion, which was essentially without merit. Atop the Soviet party apparatus and atop the Communist International, Stalin was making these two bluffs simultaneously, and he knew just how they could be called: by a foreign military intervention by a state crafty enough to enlist Soviet citizens who had suffered under his policies. The power of the combination of foreign war and domestic opposition was, after all, the first lesson of Soviet history. Lenin himself had been a German secret weapon in the First World War; the Bolshevik Revolution itself was a side effect of the German foreign policy of 1917. Twenty years later, Stalin had to fear that his opponents within the Soviet Union would use a coming war to overthrow his own regime. Trotsky was in emigration, just as Lenin had been in 1917. During a war Trotsky might come back and rally his supporters, just as Lenin had done twenty years before.28
By 1937 Stalin faced no meaningful political opposition within the Soviet communist party, but this only seemed to convince him that his enemies had learned political invisibility. Just as he had during the height of the famine, he argued again that year that the most dangerous enemies of the state appeared to be harmless and loyal. All enemies, even the invisible ones, would have to be unmasked and eradicated. On 7 November 1937, the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution (and the fifth anniversary of his wife’s suicide), Stalin raised a toast: “We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!”29
Unlike Hitler, Stalin had at his disposal the tool to effect such a policy: the state police once known as the Cheka and the OGPU, and by this time called the NKVD. The Soviet state police had arisen during the Bolshevik Revolution itself, when it was known as the Cheka. Its mission at the beginning had been more political than legal: the elimination of opponents of the revolution. Once the Soviet Union was established, the Cheka (OGPU, NKVD) became a massive state police force that was charged with the enforcement of Soviet law. In situations regarded as exceptional, such as collectivization in 1930, normal legal procedures were suspended, and OGPU officers (leading troikas) in effect served as judges, juries, and executioners. This was a return to the revolutionary tradition of the Cheka, and was justified by the presence of a revolutionary situation: either an advance toward or a threat to socialism. In order to be in a position to crush the enemies of his choice in the second half of the 1930s, Stalin would need the NKVD to recognize that some sort of crisis was under way, one that required this sort of special measure.30
A dramatic murder gave Stalin the opportunity to assert control over the NKVD. In December 1934 one of Stalin’s closest comrades, Sergei Kirov, was assassinated in Leningrad. Stalin exploited the Kirov assassination much as Hitler had used the Reichstag fire the previous year. He blamed internal political opponents for the murder, and claimed that they planned further terrorist attacks against Soviet leaders. Although the assassin, Leonid Nikolaev, was arrested the day the crime was committed, Stalin would not be satisfied with a simple police action. He forced through a special law allowing for the swift execution of “terrorists.” Emphasizing the threat of terrorism, he declared that his former politburo opponents on the left plotted the murder of the Soviet leadership and the overthrow of Soviet power.31
Stalin’s interpretation of the Leningrad murder was a direct challenge to the Soviet state police. His was not a theory that the NKVD was inclined to accept, not least because there was no evidence. When the NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda dared to make inquiries of Stalin, he was told that he should beware, lest he be “slapped down.” Stalin found a confederate, Nikolai Yezhov, who was willing to propagate Stalin’s version of events. Yezhov, a diminutive man from the Polish-Lithuanian borderlands, was already known for his view that opposition was simultaneous with terrorism. In February 1935 he took charge of a “control commission” that collected compromising information about members of the central committee for the benefit of the politburo. Stalin and Yezhov seemed to reinforce each other’s beliefs in ubiquitous conspiracies. Stalin came to rely on Yezhov, even going so far, in a rare sign of intimacy, as to express concern about Yezhov’s health. Yezhov first became Yagoda’s deputy, then his replacement. In September 1936 Yezhov become commissar of internal affairs, chief of the NKVD. Yagoda was first appointed to another post, then executed two years later.32
Beginning in August 1936, Yezhov charged Stalin’s former political opponents with fantastic offenses in public show trials. The confessions of these famous men drew the attention of the world. Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, once Trotsky’s allies and Stalin’s opponents, were tried between 19 and 24 August. They confessed to participation in a terrorist plot to murder Stalin and, along with fourteen other men, were sentenced to death and executed. These old Bolsheviks had been intimidated and beaten, and were doing little more than uttering lines from a script. But their confessions, which were widely believed, provided a kind of alternative history of the Soviet Union, one in which Stalin had always been right. In the show trials to come, Stalin even followed the rhythm of the late 1920s: having dealt with his one-time opponents from the left, Kamenev and Zinoviev, he turned against his one-time opponent from Pravda, made the connection clear in a headline of 22 August 1936: “Trotsky-Zinoviev-Kamenev-Gestapo.” Could the three Bolsheviks in question, men who had built the Soviet Union, truly be paid agents of capitalist powers? Were these three communists of Jewish origin likely agents of the secret state police of Nazi Germany? They were not, but the charge was taken seriously, even outside the Soviet Union.33
For many Europeans and Americans, the show trials were simply trials, and confessions were reliable evidence of guilt. Some observers who were sympathetic to the Soviet Union saw them as a positive development: the British socialist Beatrice Webb, for example, was pleased that Stalin had “cut out the dead wood.” Other Soviet sympathizers no doubt suppressed their suspicions, on the logic that the USSR was the enemy of Nazi Germany and thus the hope of civilization. European public opinion was so polarized by 1936 that it was indeed difficult to criticize the Soviet regime without seeming to endorse fascism and Hitler. This, of course, was the shared binary logic of National Socialism and the Popular Front: Hitler called his enemies “Marxists,” and Stalin called his “fascists.”34 They agreed that there was no middle ground.
Stalin appointed Yezhov just as he decided to intervene in Spain; the show trials and the Popular Front were, from his perspective, the same policy. The Popular Front allowed for the definition of friends and enemies, subject of course to the changing line from Moscow. Like any opening to noncommunist political forces, it demanded great vigilance, both at home and abroad. For Stalin, the Spanish Civil War was simultaneously a battle against armed fascism in Spain and its foreign supporters, and a struggle against left-wing and internal enemies. He believed that the Spanish government was weak because it was unable to find and kill enough spies and traitors. The Soviet Union was both a state and a vision, both a domestic political system and an internationalist ideology. Its foreign policy was always domestic policy, and its domestic policy was always foreign policy. That was its strength and its weakness.35
As Orwell perceived, the public Soviet story of a clash with European fascism coincided with the blood purge of past or potential opponents at home. Soviet Homage to Catalonia, the war memoir that taught at least some Western leftists and democrats that fascism was not the only enemy.36
Within the Soviet Union, the confessions of the show trials seemed to create evidence of organized conspiracies, which Yezhov called “centers,” backed by foreign intelligence agencies. In late June 1937 in Moscow, Yezhov informed the central committee of the party of the conclusions that he had drawn. There was, Yezhov announced to the party elite, one master conspiracy, a “Center of Centers,” that embraced all of the political opponents, the armed forces, and even the NKVD. Its aim was nothing less than the destruction of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism on its territories. The agents of the “Center of Centers” would stop at nothing, including the castration of prize sheep—an act of sabotage Yezhov specifically mentioned. All of this justified purges within the party, the army, and the NKVD. Eight high commanders of the armed forces were show-tried that same month; about half of the generals of the Red Army would be executed in the months to come. Of the 139 members of the central committee who took part in the party congress of 1934 (the Congress of Victors), some 98 were shot. All in all, the purification of the armed forces, state institutions, and the communist party led to about fifty thousand executions.37
* * *
During these same years, 1934–1937, Hitler was also using violence to assert his control over the institutions of power: the party, the police, and the military. Like Stalin, he revisited his own rise to power, and visited death upon some of the people who had aided him. Although the scale of the murder was far smaller, Hitler’s purges clarified that the rule of law in Germany was subject to the whims of the Leader. Unlike Stalin, who had to subordinate the NKVD to his own authority, Hitler ordered terror as a way to develop his own favored paramilitary, the SS, and assert its superiority over the various German state police forces. Whereas Stalin used his purges to intimidate the Soviet armed forces, Hitler actually drew the German generals closer to his person by killing a Nazi that the army high command regarded as a threat.
The most prominent target of Hitler’s purge was Ernst Röhm, the leader of one of the Nazi paramilitaries, the SA brownshirts. The SA had helped Hitler assert his personal authority, to intimidate opponents (and voters), and to come to power in 1933. The streetfighting of the SA was less useful to Hitler as chancellor than it had been for Hitler as politician. Röhm spoke in 1933 and 1934 of the need for a second revolution, an idea that Hitler rejected. Röhm also nurtured personal ambitions that ill fit Hitler’s plans to rebuild the German military. Röhm portrayed his SA as a better reflection of the Nazi spirit than the German armed forces, which he wished to control himself. His three million SA brownshirts far outnumbered the hundred thousand soldiers permitted to the German armed forces by the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler meant to break those treaty obligations, but by rebuilding the German army rather than by replacing or merging it with a paramilitary.38
In late June 1934 Hitler ordered the SS to murder Röhm and several dozen of his associates, as well as other rivals within the Nazi movement and a few other politicians. The SS was led by Heinrich Himmler, who emphasized racial purity, ideological training, and personal loyalty to Hitler. In what came to be known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler was using one of the Nazi paramilitaries, the SS, to master the other, the SA. He was endorsing Himmler’s work, and putting an end to Röhm—and dozens of other people. Hitler told the parliament on 14 July 1935 that seventy-four men had been killed; the true number was at least eighty-five, several of whom were (Nazi) parliamentary deputies. He claimed, naturally, that Röhm and the others had been planning a coup against his legitimate government, and had to be stopped in advance. In addition to the SA leadership, Hitler’s blood purge had reached conservatives and former heads of government. Of the three chancellors who had preceded him, one was murdered, one was arrested, and the third fled.39
Because the SS was the chosen instrument of the murder campaign, Himmler moved closer to the center of power. The SS, now separated institutionally from the SA, became the most powerful institution within the National Socialist party. After the Night of the Long Knives, its task would be to subordinate the many German police institutions to Nazi ideology. Himmler would seek to merge his SS with Germany’s established police forces by way of rotation of personnel and institutional centralization under his personal command. In 1936 Hitler named Himmler the Chief of German Police. This placed him in charge of the uniformed men of the Order Police, the detectives of the Criminal Police, and the operatives of the Secret State Police (Gestapo). The police was a state institution (or rather comprised a number of different state institutions) and the SS was a Nazi party institution; Himmler sought to bring the two together. In 1937, Himmler established the office of Higher SS and Police Leaders, regional chiefs who in theory commanded both SS and police forces, and unified the hierarchy of command.40
Just as important as the elevation of the SS over the SA was the improvement of relations between Hitler and the generals. The execution of Röhm earned Hitler a debt of gratitude from the army high command. Until 1934, the army had been the only important state institution that Hitler had not fully mastered. Once Hitler showed that he planned to rebuild the army rather than overwhelm it with the SA, this quickly changed. When the German president died a few weeks later, the military endorsed Hitler’s elevation to head of state. Hitler would never claim the title “president”; he preferred “Leader.” From August 1934, German soldiers swore an unconditional oath of personal loyalty to Hitler, and thenceforth addressed him as “My Leader.” Later that month Hitler’s titles as “Leader and Reich Chancellor” were confirmed by national plebiscite. In March 1935, Hitler publically renounced Germany’s commitments under the Versailles Treaty, reintroduced military conscription, and began to rebuild the German armed forces.41
Like Stalin, Hitler showed himself to be the master of the organs of power, presenting himself as the victim of plots, and then ridding himself of real or imagined rivals. Simultaneously, however, Hitler was creating the kinds of instruments of coercion that Stalin had inherited from Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution. The SS and the German police would never be capable of organized terror within Germany on the scale of the NKVD in the Soviet Union. The Night of the Long Knives, with its dozens of victims, was dwarfed by the Soviet purges of the party, armed forces, and NKVD, in which tens of thousands of people were executed. That was far more people than the Nazi regime would kill before the Second World War. The SS would need time and practice before it could rival the NKVD. Himmler saw his charges as “ideological soldiers,” but they would fulfill their mission of racial conquest and domination only at the backs of true soldiers: behind the lines in Poland after 1939, or in the Soviet Union after 1941.42
The logic of Hitler’s domestic terror was of a future offensive war: fought by an expanded Wehrmacht loyal to Hitler, transformed into a war of destruction by the SS and the police. In this one sense, Stalin’s fears of war were perfectly justified. The Germans, however, were not counting on help from the Soviet population in that coming war. In this respect, Stalin’s scenario of threat, the union of foreign enemies with domestic opponents, was quite wrong. Thus the still greater terror that Stalin would unleash upon his own population in 1937 and 1938 was entirely fruitless, and indeed counterproductive.
* * *
The Soviet purges within the army, party, and NKVD were the prelude to Stalin’s Great Terror, which in 1937 and 1938 would take the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for reasons of class and nation. The interrogations of tens of thousands of people during the purges generated a multitude of “organizations,” “plots,” and “groups”—categories into which more and more Soviet citizens could fall. The executions of communist party members no doubt gave rise to fears within the communist party; but the party would generally be spared, if its members followed Stalin’s lead in summer 1937 and agreed to pursue the true enemies within the mass of Soviet society. The purges also tested the loyalty of the NKVD, as its leadership was changed at the whim of Stalin, and its officers were forced to watch as their colleagues were purged. Yet in summer 1937 the besieged NKVD would be turned against social groups that many of its officers were ready to define as enemies. For months the top leadership of the Soviet Union had been plotting a blow against a group that they perhaps did fear: the kulaks.43
The kulaks were peasants, the stubborn survivors of Stalin’s revolution: of collectivization and famine, and very often of the Gulag. As a social class, the kulak (prosperous peasant) never really existed; the term was rather a Soviet classification that took on a political life of its own. The attempt to “liquidate the kulaks” during the first Five-Year Plan had killed a tremendous number of people, but it created rather than destroyed a class: those who had been stigmatized and repressed, but who had survived. The millions of people who were deported or who fled during collectivization were forever after regarded as kulaks, and sometimes accepted the classification. What Soviet leaders had to consider was the possibility that the revolution itself had created its own opponents. At the plenum of the central committee of the communist party in February and March 1937, several speakers drew the logical conclusions. “Alien elements” were corrupting the pure proletariat of the cities. The kulaks were “impassioned enemies” of the Soviet system.44
To be a kulak was not only to have suffered, it was to have survived movement across vast distances. Collectivization had forced millions of kulaks into the Gulag or into the cities. This meant journeys of hundreds or even thousands of miles. Some three million peasants, at least, had become paid laborers during the first Five-Year Plan. That, after all, was the Plan: that the Soviet Union would be transformed from an agrarian to an industrial country. Perhaps two hundred thousand people who would have been stigmatized as kulaks had made for the cities before they could be executed or deported. About four hundred thousand kulaks had managed to flee the special settlements, some for the cities, more for the countryside. Tens of thousands more had been allowed to leave concentration camps and the special settlements after serving their terms. Five-year Gulag sentences in 1930, 1931, and 1932 meant mass releases of Gulag survivors in 1935, 1936, and 1937.45
The optimistic assumption had been that the movement and the punishment would strip the kulak of his harmful social origins, and make of him a Soviet person. By the second half of the 1930s, Stalinism had shed any such expectations of progress. The very social mobility intrinsic to his policy of industrialization was now unsettling. Kulaks were rejoining the collective farms: perhaps they would lead rebellions, as other peasants had done in 1930. The kulaks were returning to a social order that was traditional in many ways. Stalin knew, from the 1937 census that he suppressed, that a majority of adults still defied the atheism of the Soviet state and believed in God. Twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, religious faith was perplexing, and perhaps unnerving. Could the kulaks rebuild the society that once had been?46
The kulaks sentenced later or to longer terms in the Gulag were still in exile in Siberia or Kazakhstan, in Soviet east or central Asia: might not such people support a Japanese invasion? The NKVD reported in June 1937 that exiled kulaks in Siberia constituted a “broad base on which to build an insurgent rebellion.” Surely, given the support of a foreign power and the cover of war, the kulaks would fight against Soviet power. In the meantime, they were the enemy within. One repressive policy created the foundations for another: exiled kulaks did not love the Soviet system; and their place of exile, so far from their homes, was close to a source of foreign threat, the expanding Japanese empire.47
Reports from the NKVD in the Far East provided the scenario for an alliance between internal opponents and a foreign power. In April 1937 riots had broken out against the Soviet presence in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. In the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo, the Japanese were recruiting Russian émigrés, who were making contact with kulaks in exile throughout Siberia. According to the NKVD, a “Russian General Military Union,” backed by Japan, planned to incite exiled kulaks to rebel when Japan invaded. In June 1937 the regional NKVD received permission to carry out mass arrests and executions of people suspected of collaborating with the “Russian General Military Union.” The targets of the operation were to be exiled kulaks and the former Russian imperial officers who supposedly commanded them. Naturally, the former were in much greater supply than the latter. And so began the killing of the kulaks, in their Siberian exile.48
Soviet leaders always regarded the Japanese threat as the eastern half of a global capitalist encirclement involving Poland and Nazi Germany. Preparations for a war against Japan in Asia were also preparations for a war in Europe. Precisely because many kulaks were returning home at this time from Soviet Asia to Soviet Europe, it was possible to imagine networks of enemies that extended from one end of the Soviet Union to the other. Though the shooting of peasants began in Siberia, Stalin apparently decided to punish kulaks not only in eastern exile but throughout the Soviet Union.
In a telegram entitled “On Anti-Soviet Elements,” Stalin and the politburo issued general instructions on 2 July 1937 for mass repressions in every region of the Soviet Union. The Soviet leadership held kulaks responsible for recent waves of sabotage and criminality, which meant in effect anything that had gone wrong within the Soviet Union. The politburo ordered the provincial offices of the NKVD to register all kulaks who resided in their regions, and to recommend quotas for execution and deportation. Most regional NKVD officers asked to be allowed to add various “anti-Soviet elements” to the lists. By 11 July the politburo already had a first round of lists of people to be repressed. At Stalin’s initiative, these initial numbers were rounded up, adding “an extra thousand.” This raised the stakes of the operation, sending a clear signal to the state police that they were to do more than simply sentence all of the people on whom they already had files. In order to demonstrate their diligence in a climate of threats and purges, NKVD officers would have to find still more victims.49
Stalin and Yezhov wanted “the direct physical liquidation of the entire counter-revolution,” which meant the elimination of enemies “once and for all.” The revised quotas were sent back down from Moscow to the regions as part of Order 00447, dated 31 July 1937, “On the Operations to Repress Former Kulaks, Criminals, and Other Anti-Soviet Elements.” Here Stalin and Yezhov anticipated the execution of 79,950 Soviet citizens by shooting and the sentencing of 193,000 more to eight to ten years in the Gulag. It was not that the politburo or the NKVD central office in Moscow had 272,950 particular people in mind for repression. Just which Soviet citizens would fulfill these quotas remained to be seen; the local NKVD branches would decide that.50
The killing and imprisonment quotas were officially called “limits,” though everyone involved knew that they were meant to be exceeded. Local NKVD officers had to explain why they could not meet a “limit,” and were encouraged to exceed them. No NKVD officer wished to be seen as lacking élan when confronting “counter-revolution,” especially when Yezhov’s line was “better too far than not far enough.” Not 79,950 but five times as many people would be shot in the kulak action. By the end of 1938, the NKVD had executed some 386,798 Soviet citizens in fulfillment of Order 00447.51
Order 00447 was to be implemented by the same institution that had brought terror to the Soviet countryside in the early 1930s: the three-person commission, or troika. Composed of a regional NKVD chief, a regional party leader, and a regional prosecutor, the troikas were responsible for transforming the quotas into executions, the numbers into bodies. The overall quota for the Soviet Union was divided among sixty-four regions, each with a corresponding troika. In practice, the troikas were dominated by the NKVD chiefs, who usually chaired the meetings. 52
The fulfillment of Order 00447 began with the emptying of the file cabinets. The NKVD had some sort of material on kulaks, since kulak was a category created by the state. Criminals, the second group mentioned in the order, were by definition people who had an encounter with the judicial system behind them. In practical terms, the other “anti-Soviet elements” named in the order were simply the people on whom the local NKVD had a file. Local NKVD officers, helped by police, carried out investigations in “operational sectors” within each of the sixty-four zones. An “operational group” assembled a list of people to be interrogated. Those targeted were arrested, forced to confess, and encouraged to implicate others.53
Confessions were elicited by torture. The NKVD and other police organs applied the “conveyer method,” which meant uninterrupted questioning, day and night. This was complemented by the “standing method,” in which suspects were forced to stand in a line near a wall, and beaten if they touched it or fell asleep. Under time pressure to make quotas, officers often simply beat prisoners until they confessed. Stalin authorized this on 21 July 1937. In Soviet Belarus, interrogating officers would hold prisoners’ heads down in the latrine and then beat them when they tried to rise. Some interrogators carried with them draft confessions, and simply filled in the prisoner’s personal details and changed an item here or there by hand. Others simply forced prisoners to sign blank pages and then filled them in later at leisure. In this way Soviet organs “unmasked” the “enemy,” delivering his “thoughts” to the files.54
The numbers came down from the center, but the corpses were made locally. The troikas who fulfilled Order 00447 were responsible for sentencing the prisoners, with no need for any confirmation from Moscow, and no possibility for appeal. The three members of a troika would meet at night with investigating officers. For each case they would hear a very brief report, along with a recommendation for sentencing: death or the Gulag. (Only a very few of those arrested were not sentenced at all.) The troikas would almost always accept these recommendations. They handled hundreds of cases at a time, at a pace of sixty per hour or more; the life or death of an individual human was decided in a minute or less. In a single night the Leningrad troika, for example, sentenced to death 658 prisoners of the concentration camp at Solovki.55
Terror prevailed in the Gulag, as everywhere else. It might be difficult to see how concentration camp inmates could threaten the Soviet state: but like the regions of the USSR, the Gulag system had its own death quota, to be met or exceeded. Just as people who had been defined as kulaks might be dangerous, so might people who were incarcerated as kulaks—so went the logic. The camps of the Gulag had an initial quota of ten thousand executions, though in the end 30,178 of its prisoners were shot. Omsk, a southwest Siberian city whose environs were full of special settlers deported during collectivization, was the site of some of the most vicious campaigns. Its NKVD chief had already requested an additional quota of eight thousand executions on 1 August 1937, before Order 00447 even went into effect. His men once sentenced 1,301 people in a single night.56
This kulak operation was carried out in secret. No one, including the condemned, was told of the sentences. Those sentenced would simply be taken, first to some sort of prison, and then either to a freight car or an execution site. Execution facilities were built or chosen with an eye to discretion. Killings were always carried out at night, and in seclusion. They took place in soundproofed rooms below ground, in large buildings such as garages where noise could cover gunshots, or far from human settlement in forests. The executioners were always NKVD officers, generally using a Nagan pistol. While two men held a prisoner by his arms, the executioner would fire a single shot from behind into the base of the skull, and then often a “control shot” into the temple. “After the executions,” one set of instructions specified, “the bodies are to be laid in a pit dug beforehand, then carefully buried and the pit is to be camouflaged.” As the winter of 1937 came and the ground froze, the pits were prepared using explosives. Everyone who took part in these operations was sworn to secrecy. Only a very few people were directly involved. A team of just twelve Moscow NKVD men shot 20,761 people at Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, in 1937 and 1938.57
The kulak operation involved shooting from the beginning to the end: Yezhov reported to Stalin, with evident pride, that 35,454 people had been shot by 7 September 1937. During the year 1937, however, the number of Gulag sentences exceeded the number of death sentences. As time passed, new allocations tended to be for executions rather than exile. In the end, the number of people killed in the kulak operation was about the same as the number sent to the Gulag (378,326 and 389,070, respectively). The overall shift from exile to execution was for practical reasons: it was easier to kill than to deport, and the camps quickly filled to capacity—and had little use for many of the deportees. One investigation in Leningrad led to the shooting (not the deportation) of thirty-five people who were deaf and dumb. In Soviet Ukraine, the NKVD chief Izrail Leplevskii ordered his officers to shoot rather than exile the elderly. In such cases, Soviet citizens were killed because of who they were.58
Soviet Ukraine, where “kulak resistance” had been widespread during collectivization, was a major center of the killing. Leplevskii expanded the framework of Order 00447 to include supposed Ukrainian nationalists, who since the famine had been treated as a threat to the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union. Some 40,530 people in Soviet Ukraine were arrested on the charge of nationalism. In one variant, Ukrainians were arrested for supposedly having requested food aid from Germany in 1933. When the (already-twice-increased) quotas for Soviet Ukraine were fulfilled in December 1937, Leplevskii asked for more. In February 1938 Yezhov added 23,650 to the death quota for the republic. All in all, in 1937 and 1938, NKVD men shot 70,868 inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in the kulak operation. The ratio of shootings to other sentences was especially high in Soviet Ukraine during the year 1938. Between January and August, some 35,563 people were shot, as against only 830 sent to camps. The troika for the Stalino district, for example, met seven times between July and September 1938, and sentenced to death every single one of the 1,102 people accused. The troika in Voroshilovgrad, similarly, sentenced to death all 1,226 people whose cases it reviewed in September 1938.59
These tremendous numbers meant regular and massive executions, over enormous and numerous death pits. In Soviet Ukrainian industrial cities, workers with real or imagined kulak backgrounds were sentenced to death for some sort of sabotage, and typically killed the same day. In Vinnytsia, people sentenced to death were tied, gagged, and driven to a car wash. There a truck awaited, its engine running to cover the sound of the gunshots. The bodies were then placed in the truck and driven to a site in the city: an orchard, perhaps, or a park, or a cemetery. Before their work was done, the NKVD men had dug no fewer than eighty-seven mass graves in and around Vinnytsia.60
Like the show trials, the kulak operation allowed Stalin to relive the years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the period of his true political vulnerability, this time with a predictable outcome. The former political opponents, representing the moment of political debate over collectivization, were physically eliminated. So were the kulaks, standing for the moment of mass resistance to collectivization. Just as the murder of party elites confirmed Stalin’s succession of Lenin, so the murder of kulaks confirmed his interpretation of Lenin’s policies. If collectivization had led to mass starvation, that had been the fault of those who starved and the foreign intelligence agencies who somehow arranged the whole thing. If collectivization had given rise to a sense of grievance among the population, that too was the fault of the very people who had suffered and their supposed foreign sponsors. Precisely because Stalin’s policy was so disastrous in the first place, its defense seemed to require such tortured logic and massive death. Once these measures had been taken, they could be presented as the verdict of history.61
Yet even as Stalin presented his own policies as inevitable, he was abandoning (without admitting anything of the kind) the Marxism that allowed leaders to discuss and pretend to know the future. Insofar as Marxism was a science of history, its natural world was the economy, and its object of investigation the social class. Even in the harshest of Leninist interpretations of Marxism, people opposed the revolution because of their class background. Yet with Stalinism something was changing; normal state security concerns had infused the Marxist language and changed it unalterably. The accused in the show trials had supposedly betrayed the Soviet Union to foreign powers. Theirs was a class struggle, according to the accusation, only in the most indirect and attenuated sense: they supposedly had aided states that represented the imperialist states that encircled the homeland of socialism.
Although the kulak action was at first glance a class terror, the killing was sometimes directed, as in Soviet Ukraine, against “nationalists.” Here, too, Stalinism was introducing something new. In Lenin’s adaptation of Marxism, nationalities were supposed to embrace the Soviet project, as their social advance coincided with the construction of the Soviet state. Thus the peasant question was initially linked to the national question in a positive way: people rising from the peasantry into the working or clerical or professional classes would come to national awareness as loyal Soviet citizens. Now, under Stalin, the peasant question was linked to the national question in a negative sense. The attainment of Ukrainian national consciousness by Ukrainian peasants was dangerous. Other, smaller national minorities were more threatening still. Most of the victims of Order 00447 in Soviet Ukraine were Ukrainians; but a disproportionate number were Poles. Here the connection between class and nation was perhaps most explicit. In a kind of operational shorthand, NKVD officers said: “Once a Pole, always a kulak.”62
* * *
The Nazi terror of 1936–1938 proceeded along somewhat similar lines, usually punishing members of politically defined social groups for what they were, rather than individuals for anything that they might have done. For the Nazis the most important category were the “asocials,” groups that were thought to be (and sometimes truly were) resistant to the Nazi worldview. These were homosexuals, vagrants, and people who were thought to be alcoholic, addicted to drugs, or unwilling to work. They were also Jehovah’s Witnesses, who rejected the premises of the Nazi worldview with strikingly greater clarity than most other German Christians. The Nazi leadership regarded such people as racially German but corrupt, and thus to be improved by confinement and punishment. Like the Soviet NKVD, the German police carried out organized raids of districts in 1937 and 1938, seeking to meet a numerical quota of specified sectors of the population. They, too, often overfulfilled these quotas in their zealous desire to prove loyalty and impress superiors. The outcome of arrests, however, was different: almost always confinement, very rarely execution.63
The Nazi repression of these undesirable social groups required the creation of a network of German concentration camps. To the camps at Dachau and Lichtenberg, both established in 1933, were added Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), and Flossenberg (1938). By comparison with the Gulag, these five camps were rather modest. While more than a million Soviet citizens toiled in the Soviet concentration camps and special settlements in late 1938, the number of German citizens in the German concentration camps was about twenty thousand. When the difference in population size is taken into account, the Soviet system of concentration camps was about twenty-five times larger than the German one at this time.64
Soviet terror, at this point, was not only on a far greater scale; it was incomparably more lethal. Nothing in Hitler’s Germany remotely resembled the execution of nearly four hundred thousand people in eighteen months, as under Order 00447 in the Soviet Union. In the years 1937 and 1938, 267 people were sentenced to death in Nazi Germany, as compared to 378,326 death sentences within the kulak operation alone in the Soviet Union. Again, given the difference in population size, the chances that a Soviet citizen would be executed in the kulak action were about seven hundred times greater than the chances that a German citizen would be sentenced to death in Nazi Germany for any offense.65
After a purge of the leadership and an assertion of dominance over the key institutions, both Stalin and Hitler carried out social cleansings in 1937 and 1938. But the kulak action was not the entirety of the Great Terror. It could be seen, or at least presented, as class war. But even as the Soviet Union was killing class enemies, it was also killing ethnic enemies.
By the late 1930s, Hitler’s National Socialist regime was well known for its racism and anti-Semitism. But it was Stalin’s Soviet Union that undertook the first shooting campaigns of internal national enemies.
People belonging to national minorities “should be forced to their knees and shot like mad dogs.” It was not an SS officer speaking but a communist party leader, in the spirit of the national operations of Stalin’s Great Terror. In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds. The Five-Year Plans were supposed to move the Soviet Union toward a flowering of national cultures under socialism. In fact, the Soviet Union in the late 1930s was a land of unequalled national persecutions. Even as the Popular Front presented the Soviet Union as the homeland of toleration, Stalin ordered the mass killing of several Soviet nationalities. The most persecuted European national minority in the second half of the 1930s was not the four hundred thousand or so German Jews (the number declining because of emigration) but the six hundred thousand or so Soviet Poles (the number declining because of executions).1
Stalin was a pioneer of national mass murder, and the Poles were the preeminent victim among the Soviet nationalities. The Polish national minority, like the kulaks, had to take the blame for the failures of collectivization. The rationale was invented during the famine itself in 1933, and then applied during the Great Terror in 1937 and 1938. In 1933, the NKVD chief for Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytskyi, had explained the mass starvation as a provocation of an espionage cabal that he called the “Polish Military Organization.” According to Balytskyi, this “Polish Military Organization” had infiltrated the Ukrainian branch of the communist party, and backed Ukrainian and Polish nationalists who sabotaged the harvest and then used the starving bodies of Ukrainian peasants as anti-Soviet propaganda. It had supposedly inspired a nationalist “Ukrainian Military Organization,” a doppelganger performing the same fell work and sharing responsibility for the famine.2
This was a historically inspired invention. There was no Polish Military Organization during the 1930s, in Soviet Ukraine or anywhere else. It had once existed, back during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919–1920, as a reconnaissance group for the Polish Army. The Polish Military Organization had been overmastered by the Cheka, and was dissolved in 1921. Balytskyi knew the history, since he had taken part in the deconspiracy and the destruction of the Polish Military Organization back then. In the 1930s Polish spies played no political role in Soviet Ukraine. They lacked the capacity to do so even in 1930 and 1931 when the USSR was most vulnerable, and they could still run agents across the border. They lacked the intention to intervene after the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact was initialed in January 1932. After the famine, they generally lost any remaining confidence about their ability to understand the Soviet system, much less change it. Polish spies were shocked by the mass starvation when it came, and unable to formulate a response. Precisely because there was no real Polish threat in 1933, Balytskyi had been able to manipulate the symbols of Polish espionage as he wished. This was typical Stalinism: it was always easier to exploit the supposed actions of an “organization” that did not exist.3
The “Polish Military Organization,” Balytskyi had argued back in summer 1933, had smuggled into the Soviet Union countless agents who pretended to be communists fleeing persecution in their Polish homeland. In fact, communism was marginal and illegal in Poland, and Polish communists saw the Soviet Union as their natural place of refuge. Although Polish military intelligence doubtless tried to recruit Polish communists, most of the Polish leftists who came to the Soviet Union were simply political refugees. The arrests of Polish political émigrés in the Soviet Union began in July 1933. The Polish communist playwright Witold Wandurski was jailed in August 1933, and forced to confess to participation in the Polish Military Organization. With this link between Polish communism and Polish espionage documented in interrogation protocols, more Polish communists were arrested in the USSR. The Polish communist Jerzy Sochacki left a message in his own blood before jumping to his death from a Moscow prison in 1933: “I am faithful to the party to the end.”4
The “Polish Military Organization” provided a rationale for the scapegoating of Poles for Soviet policy failures. After the signing of the German-Polish nonaggression declaration in January 1934, Poles were blamed not only for the famine but also for the worsening of the Soviet international position. That month Balytskyi blamed the “Polish Military Organization” for the continuation of Ukrainian nationalism. In March 1934 in Soviet Ukraine, some 10,800 Soviet citizens of Polish or German nationality were arrested. In 1935, as the level of NKVD activity decreased in the Soviet Union as a whole, it continued to increase in Soviet Ukraine, with special attention to Soviet Poles. In February and March 1935, some 41,650 Poles, Germans, and kulaks were resettled from western to eastern Ukraine. Between June and September 1936, some 69,283 people, for the most part Soviet Poles, were deported from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Polish diplomats were confused by these developments. Poland was pursuing a policy of equal distance between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany: nonaggression agreements with both, alliances with neither.5
The “Polish Military Organization,” conjured up during the famine in 1933, was sustained as pure bureaucratic fantasy in Soviet Ukraine, then adapted to justify a national terror of Poles throughout the Soviet Union. Stalin gave a first cue in December 1934, asking that the Pole Jerzy Sosnowski be removed from the NKVD. Sosnowski, long before a member of the Polish Military Organization, had been turned by the Cheka and had worked productively for the Soviets for more than a decade. In part because the Soviet state police had been founded by a Polish communist, Feliks Dzierżyński, many of its most prominent officers were Poles, often people recruited in those early days. Yezhov, the NKVD chief, seems to have been threatened by these veteran Polish officers; he was certainly obsessed with Poles generally. Inclined to believe in intricate plots orchestrated by foreign intelligence agencies, he gave pride of place to Poland because Poles, in his view, “know everything.” The investigation of Sosnowski, who was arrested in December 1936, might have brought the historical Polish Military Organization to Yezhov’s attention.6
Yezhov followed Balytskyi’s anti-Polish campaign in Soviet Ukraine, and then reconceptualized it. As the show trials began in Moscow in 1936, Yezhov drew his subordinate Balytskyi into a trap. While prominent communists confessed in Moscow, Balytskyi was reporting from Kiev that the “Polish Military Organization” had been re-created in Soviet Ukraine. No doubt he simply wished to greater danger than Balytskyi claimed. It was a matter not for the regional NKVD in Kiev but for the central NKVD in Moscow. Balytskyi, who had invented the plot of the “Polish Military Organization,” now lost control of the story. Soon a confession was extracted from the Polish communist Tomasz Dąbal, who claimed to have directed the “Polish Military Organization” in the entire Soviet Union.7
Thanks to Yezhov’s initiative, the “Polish Military Organization” lost any residue of its historical and regional origins, and became simply a threat to the Soviet Union as such. On 16 January 1937 Yezhov presented his theory of a grand Polish conspiracy to Stalin, and then with Stalin’s approval to a plenum of the central committee. In March Yezhov purged the NKVD of Polish officers. Although Balytskyi was not Polish but Ukrainian by nationality, he now found himself in a very awkward position. If the “Polish Military Organization” had been so important, asked Yezhov, why had Balytskyi not been more vigilant? Thus Balytskyi, who had summoned up the specter of the “Polish Military Organization” in the first place, became a victim of his own creation. He yielded his Ukrainian position in May to his former deputy, Izrail Leplevskii—the NKVD officer who carried out the kulak operation in Soviet Ukraine with such vigor. On 7 July Balytskyi was arrested on charges of espionage for Poland; a week later his name was removed from the stadium where Dynamo Kiev played its soccer matches—to be replaced by Yezhov’s. Balytskyi was executed that November.8
In June 1937, when Yezhov introduced the imaginary “Center of Centers” to explain the kulak action and the continuing show trials, he also announced the threat of the equally unreal “Polish Military Organization.” The two, supposedly, were connected. Like the justification for the kulak action, the justification for the Polish action permitted the rewriting of the entirety of Soviet history, so that responsibility for all policy problems could be placed upon enemies, and those enemies clearly defined. In Yezhov’s account, the “Polish Military Organization” had been active in the Soviet Union from the beginning, and had penetrated not only the communist party but the Red Army and the NKVD. It had been invisible (went Yezhov’s argument) precisely because it was so important; it had agents in high places who were able to mask themselves and their works.9
On 11 August 1937, Yezhov issued Order 00485, mandating that the NKVD carry out the “total liquidation of the networks of spies of the Polish Military Organization.” Though issued shortly after the beginning of the kulak operation, Order 00485 notably radicalized the Terror. Unlike Order 00447, which targeted familiar categories of enemies definable at least theoretically by class, Order 00485 seemed to treat a national group as an enemy of the state. To be sure, the kulak order also specified criminals, and was applied to nationalists and political enemies of various kinds. But there was at least a faltering aureole of class analysis. Kulaks as a group could at least be described in Marxist terms. The enmity of the nations of the Soviet Union toward the Soviet project was something else. It looked like an abandonment of the basic socialist premise of the fraternity of peoples.10
Soviet influence in the world, in these years of the Popular Front, depended upon an image of toleration. Moscow’s major claim to moral superiority, in a Europe where fascism and National Socialism were on the rise, and for American southerners journeying from a land of racial discrimination and lynchings of blacks, was as a multicultural state with affirmative action. In the popular Soviet film Circus of 1936, for example, the heroine was an American performer who, having given birth to a black child, finds refuge from racism in the Soviet Union.11
Internationalism was not hypocrisy, and ethnic killing was a shock to the Soviet system. The NKVD was composed of many nationalities, and represented a kind of internationalism. When the show trials began in 1936, the heights of the NKVD were dominated by men whose own origins were within the Soviet national minorities, Jews above all. About forty percent of high-ranking NKVD officers had Jewish nationality recorded in their identity documents, as did more than half of the NKVD generals. In the climate of the day, Jews had perhaps more reason than others to resist policies of ethnic destruction. Perhaps to counter the internationalist (or self-preservation) instinct of his officers, Yezhov sent out a special circular assuring them that their task was to punish espionage rather than ethnicity: “On the Fascist-Insurgent, Sabotage, Defeatist, and Terrorist Activity of the Polish Intelligence Service in the USSR.” Its thirty pages expanded upon the theory that Yezhov had already shared with the central committee and with Stalin: that the Polish Military Organization was connected to other espionage “centers” and had penetrated every key Soviet institution.12
Even if the idea of a deep Polish penetration of Soviet institutions persuaded Yezhov and Stalin, it could not serve as the evidentiary basis for individual arrests. There simply was nothing resembling a vast Polish plot in the Soviet Union. NKVD officers had too few leads to follow. Even with a great deal of ingenuity, connections between the Polish state and events in the Soviet Union would be hard to document. The two most obvious groups of Polish citizens, diplomats and communists, were clearly inadequate for a mass killing action. The heyday of Polish espionage in the Soviet Union was long past, and the NKVD knew what there was to be known about what the Poles had tried to do in the late 1920s and early 1930s. To be sure, Polish diplomats still tried to gather intelligence. But they were protected by diplomatic immunity, not very numerous, and under constant surveillance already. For the most part, they knew better by 1937 than to contact Soviet citizens and thereby endanger their lives—this was a time when they themselves were furnished with instructions on how to behave when arrested. Yezhov told Stalin that Polish political émigrés were major “suppliers of spies and provocateur elements in the USSR.” Leading Polish communists were often already in the Soviet Union, and sometimes already dead. Some sixty-nine of the hundred members of the central committee of the Polish party were executed in the USSR. Most of the rest were behind bars in Poland, and so were unavailable for execution. And in any case, these numbers were far too small.13
Precisely because there was no Polish plot, NKVD officers had little choice but to persecute Soviet Poles and other Soviet citizens associated with Poland, Polish culture, or Roman Catholicism. The Polish ethnic character of the operation quickly prevailed in practice, as perhaps it was bound to from the beginning. Yezhov’s letter authorized the arrest of nationalist elements, and of “Polish Military Organization” members who had yet to be discovered. These categories were so vague that NKVD officers could apply them to almost anyone of Polish ethnicity or with some connection to Poland. NKVD officers who wished to show the appropriate zeal in carrying out the operation would have to be rather vague about the charges against individual people. Balytskyi’s previous actions against Poles had created a pool of suspects sufficient for a few purges, but this was far from enough. Local NKVD officers would have to take the initiative—not in looking up the card files, as in the kulak operation, but in creating a new paper trail to follow. One Moscow NKVD chief understood the gist of the order: his organization should “destroy the Poles entirely.” His officers looked for Polish names in the telephone book.14
Soviet citizens would have to “unmask” themselves as Polish agents. Because the groups and scenarios of the ostensible Polish plot had to be generated from nothing, torture played an important role in the interrogations. In addition to the traditional conveyer method and the standing method, many Soviet Poles were subjected to a form of collective torture called the “conference method.” Once a large number of Polish suspects had been gathered in a single place, such as the basement of a public building in a town or village of Soviet Ukraine or Soviet Belarus, a policeman would torture one of them in full view of the others. Once the victim had confessed, the others would be urged to spare themselves the same sufferings by confessing as well. If they wanted to avoid pain and injury, they would have to implicate not only themselves but others. In this situation, each person had an incentive to confess as quickly as possible: it was obvious that everyone would be implicated eventually anyway, and a quick confession might at least spare the body. In this way, testimony that implicated an entire group could be assembled very quickly.15
The legal procedures were somewhat different than in the kulak operation, but no less scanty. In the Polish operation, the investigating officer would compose a brief report for each of the prisoners, describing the supposed crime—usually sabotage, terrorism, or espionage—and recommending one of two sentences, death or the Gulag. Every ten days he would submit all of his reports to the regional NKVD chief and a prosecutor. Unlike the troikas of the kulak operation, this two-person commission (a “dvoika”) could not sentence the prisoners by itself, but had to ask for approval from higher authorities. It assembled the reports into an album, noted its recommended sentence for each case, and sent them on to Moscow. In principle, the albums were then reviewed by a central dvoika: Yezhov as the commissar for state security and Andrei Vyshynskii as state prosecutor. In fact, Yezhov and Vyshynskii merely initialed the albums after a hasty review by their subordinates. On a single day, they might finalize two thousand death sentences. The “album method” gave the appearance of a formal review by the highest Soviet authorities. In reality, the fate of each victim was decided by the investigating officer and then more or less automatically confirmed.16
Biographies became death sentences, as attachment to Polish culture or Roman Catholicism became evidence of participation in international espionage. People were sentenced for the most apparently minor of offenses: ten years in the Gulag for owning a rosary, death for not producing enough sugar. Details of everyday life were enough to generate a report, an album entry, a signature, a verdict, a gunshot, a corpse. After twenty days, or two cycles of albums, Yezhov reported to Stalin that 23,216 arrests had already been made in the Polish operation. Stalin expressed his delight: “Very good! Keep on digging up and cleaning out this Polish filth. Eliminate it in the interests of the Soviet Union.”17
In the early stages of the Polish operation, many of the arrests were made in Leningrad, where the NKVD had large offices and where thousands of Poles lived within easy reach. The city had been a traditional place of settlement of Poles since the days of the Russian Empire.
Janina Juriewicz, then a young Polish girl in Leningrad, saw her life altered by these early arrests. The youngest of three sisters, she was very attached to Maria, the eldest. Maria fell in love with a young man called Stanisław Wyganowski, and the three of them would go for walks together, little Janina serving as chaperone. Maria and Stanisław, married in 1936, were a happy couple. When Maria was arrested in August 1937, her husband seemed to know what this meant: “I will meet her,” he said, “under the ground.” He went to the authorities to make inquiries, and was arrested himself. In September the NKVD visited the Juriewicz family home, confiscated all of the Polish books, and arrested Janina’s other sister, Elżbieta. She, Maria, and Stanisław were all executed by a shot to the back of the neck, and buried anonymously in mass graves. When Janina’s mother asked the police about them, she was told the typical lie: her daughters and son-in-law had been sentenced to “ten years without the right to correspondence.” Because this was another possible sentence, people believed it and hoped. Many of them kept hoping for decades.18
People such as the Juriewiczes, who had nothing to do with Polish espionage of any kind, were the “filth” to which Stalin was referring. The family of Jerzy Makowski, a young Leningrad student, suffered a similar fate. He and his brothers were all ambitious, wishing to build careers for themselves in the Soviet Union, and fulfill their deceased father’s wish that they master a trade. Jerzy, the youngest of the brothers, wanted to be a shipbuilder. He studied each day with his older brother Stanisław. One morning the two of them were awakened by three NKVD men, who had come to arrest Stanisław. Though he tried to reassure his little brother, he was so nervous that he could not tie his shoes. This was the last Jerzy saw of his brother. Two days later, the next brother, Władysław, was also arrested. Stanisław and Władysław Makowski were executed, two of the 6,597 Soviet citizens shot in the Leningrad region in the Polish operation. Their mother was told the typical lie: that her sons had been sent to the Gulag without the right of correspondence. The third brother, Eugeniusz, who had wished to be a singer, now took a factory job to support the family. He contracted tuberculosis and died.19
The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, then living in Leningrad, lost her son to the Gulag during the Terror. She recalled an “innocent Russia” that writhed “beneath the bloody boots of the executioners, beneath the wheels of the black marias.” Innocent Russia was a multinational country, Leningrad was a cosmopolitan city, and its national minorities were the people most at risk. In the city of Leningrad in 1937 and 1938, Poles were thirty-four times more likely to be arrested than their fellow Soviet citizens. Once arrested, a Pole in Leningrad was very likely to be shot: eighty-nine percent of those sentenced in the Polish operation in this city were executed, usually within ten days of the arrest. This was only somewhat worse than the situation of Poles elsewhere: on average, throughout the Soviet Union, seventy-eight percent of those arrested in the Polish operation were executed. The rest, of course, were not released: most of them served sentences of eight to ten years in the Gulag.20
Leningraders and Poles had little idea of these proportions at the time. There was only the fear of the knock on the door in the early morning, and the sight of the prison truck: called the black maria, or the soul destroyer, or by Poles the black raven (nevermore). As one Pole remembered, people went to bed each night not knowing whether they would be awakened by the sun or by the black raven. Industrialization and collectivization had scattered Poles throughout the vast country. Now they simply disappeared from their factories, barracks, or homes. To take one example of thousands: in a modest wooden house in the town of Kuntsevo, just west of Moscow, lived a number of skilled workers, among them a Polish mechanic and a Polish metallurgist. These two men were arrested on 18 January 1938 and 2 February 1938, and shot. Evgenia Babushkina, a third victim of the Polish operation in Kuntsevo, was not even Polish. She was a promising and apparently loyal organic chemist. But her mother had once been a washer-woman for Polish diplomats, and so Evgenia was shot as well.21
Most Soviet Poles lived not in Soviet Russian cities, such as Leningrad or Kuntsevo, but in westerly Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, lands Poles had inhabited for hundreds of years. These districts had been part of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Over the course of the nineteenth century, when these territories were western regions of the Russian Empire, Poles had lost a great deal of their status, and in many cases had begun to assimilate with the surrounding Ukrainian and Belarusian populations. Sometimes, though, the assimilation was in the other direction, as speakers of Belarusian or Ukrainian who regarded Polish as the language of civilization presented themselves as Poles. The original Soviet nationality policy of the 1920s had sought to make proper Poles of such people, teaching them literary Polish in Polish-language schools. Now, during the Great Terror, Soviet policy distinguished these people once again, but negatively, by sentencing them to death or to the Gulag. As with the contemporary persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany, the targeting of an individual on ethnic grounds did not mean that this person actually identified himself strongly with the nation in question.22
In Soviet Belarus the Terror coincided with a massive purge of the party leadership in Minsk, carried out by NKVD commander Boris Berman. He accused local Belarusian communists of abusing Soviet affirmative action policies and fomenting Belarusian nationalism. Later than in Ukraine, but with much the same reasoning, the NKVD presented the Polish Military Organization as the mastermind behind supposed Belarusian disloyalty. Soviet citizens in Belarus were accused of being “Belarusian national fascists,” “Polish spies,” or both. Because Belarusian lands, like Ukrainian lands, were divided between the Soviet Union and Poland, such arguments could easily be made. To be concerned with Belarusian or Ukrainian culture as such involved attention to developments on the other side of a state border. The mass killing in Soviet Belarus included the deliberate destruction of the educated representatives of Belarusian national culture. As one of Berman’s colleagues later put it, he “destroyed the flower of the Belarusian intelligentsia.” No fewer than 218 of the country’s leading writers were killed. Berman told his subordinates that their careers depended upon their rapid fulfillment of Order 00485: “the speed and quality of the work in discovering and arresting Polish spies will be the main consideration taken into account in the evaluation of each leader.”23
Berman and his men took advantage of economies of scale, killing at one of the largest murder sites in the Soviet Union. They carried out executions in the Kurapaty Forest, twelve kilometers north of Minsk. The woods were known for their white flowers—Kurasliepy in literary Belarusian, Kurapaty in the local dialect. The black ravens drove through the white flowers day and night, in such numbers that they flattened the narrow gravel alley into what the locals called “the road of death.” Within the forest, fifteen hectares of pine had been cleared, and hundreds of pits dug. After condemned Soviet citizens were driven through the gates, they were escorted by two men to the edge of a pit. There they were shot from behind, and pushed into the ditch. When bullets were in short supply, NKVD men would force their victims to sit side by side, their heads in a line, so that a single bullet could be fired through several skulls at once. The corpses were arranged in layers and covered with sand.24
Of the 19,931 people arrested in the Polish operation in the Belarusian republic, 17,772 were sentenced to death. Some of these people were Belarusians, and some were Jews. But most were Poles, who were also subject to arrest in Belarus in the kulak action and in the other purges. All in all, as a result of executions and death sentences the number of Poles in Soviet Belarus fell by more than sixty thousand during the Great Terror.25
The Polish operation was most extensive in Soviet Ukraine, which was home to about seventy percent of the Soviet Union’s six hundred thousand Poles. Some 55,928 people were arrested in Soviet Ukraine in the Polish operation, of whom 47,327 were shot. In 1937 and 1938, Poles were twelve times more likely than the rest of the Soviet Ukrainian population to be arrested. It was in Soviet Ukraine that the famine had generated the theory of the Polish Military Organization, here that Balytskyi had persecuted Poles for years, and here that his former deputy, Izrail Leplevskii, had to prove his vigilance after his former superior was removed from the scene. It did Leplevskii little good: he too was arrested, in April 1938, and executed before the Polish operation in Ukraine was even completed. (His successor A. I. Uspenskii was wise enough to disappear in September 1938, but was eventually found and executed.)26
One of Leplevskii’s deputies, Lev Raikhman, provided categories of arrest that could be applied to the large Polish population of Soviet Ukraine. One of the suspect groups, interestingly enough, was that of Soviet police agents working among the Soviet Poles. This recreated the dilemma of vigilance facing Balytskyi, Leplevskii, and NKVD officers generally. Once it had been “established” that the “Polish Military Organization” was and had been ubiquitous in Soviet Ukraine and powerful throughout the Soviet Union, the NKVD could always argue that policemen and informers had failed to show sufficient vigilance at an earlier moment. Although many of these police agents were themselves Soviet Poles, some were Ukrainians, Jews, or Russians.27
Jadwiga Moszyńska fell into this trap. A Polish journalist working for a Polish-language newspaper, she informed on her colleagues to the police. As her colleagues were arrested and charged as Polish spies, she was left in an impossible position. Why had she not told the authorities that the entire Polish community was a nest of foreign agents? Czesława Angielczyk, an NKVD officer of Polish-Jewish origin who reported on teachers of the Polish language, suffered a similar fate. Once the Polish operation was in full swing and teachers were routinely arrested, she too was vulnerable to the accusation that she had not previously been sufficiently diligent in her work. Both women were executed and buried at Bykivnia, a huge collection of mass graves northeast of Kiev. At least ten thousand Soviet citizens were executed at that site during the Great Terror. 28
In the Ukrainian countryside the Polish operation was, if anything, even more arbitrary and ferocious than in Kiev and the cities. “The black raven flew,” as Polish survivors remembered, from town to town, village to village, visiting grief upon the Poles. The NKVD would bring crews to cities in the hopes of completing the business of arresting and executing Poles in a few weeks, or even days. In Zhmerynka, an important railway junction, the NKVD appeared in March 1938, rounded up hundreds of Poles, and tortured them to produce confessions. In Polonne, the dvoika of the NKVD chief and prosecutor commandeered the desecrated Roman Catholic church building. Poles from Polonne and surrounding villages were arrested and locked in the church basement. Some 168 people were killed in the Polonne church.29
In the smallest settlements, it was difficult to discern even the emptiest of judicial formalities. NKVD task forces appeared suddenly, with instructions to arrest and execute a certain number of people. They would begin from the assumption that an entire village, factory, or collective farm was guilty, surround the place by night, and then torture the men until they got the results they needed. Then they would carry out the executions and move on. In many such cases the victims were long dead by the time that the albums with their case files were assembled and reviewed in Moscow. In the countryside, the NKVD task forces were death squads. In Cherniivka the NKVD waited until 25 December 1937 (Christmas for Roman Catholic Poles, not for Orthodox Ukrainians) and then arrested whoever attended church. Those arrested simply disappeared, as a local woman remembered: “a stone in the water.”30
Those arrested were almost always men, and their arrests left families in despair. Zeferyna Koszewicz saw her father for the last time as he was arrested at his factory and taken to Polonne for interrogation. His last words to her were: “listen to your mother!” Yet most mothers were all but helpless. In the Ukrainian countryside, as throughout the Soviet Union, wives would ritually visit the prison each day, bringing food and clean undergarments. Prison guards would give them soiled undergarments in exchange. Since these were the only sign that husbands still lived, they were received with joy. Sometimes a man would manage to smuggle out a message, as did one husband in the underwear he had passed to his wife: “I suffer and I am innocent.” One day the undergarments would be soiled by blood. And the next day there would be no undergarments, and then there would be no husband.31
In October and November 1937, before the camps and special settlements were full, wives were exiled to Kazakhstan after their husbands were shot. During these weeks the NKVD often abducted Polish children over the age of ten and took them to orphanages. That way they would certainly not be raised as Poles. From December 1937, when there was no longer much room in the Gulag, women were generally not exiled, but were left alone with their children. Ludwik Piwiński, for example, was arrested while his wife was giving birth to their son. He could not tell her his sentence, as he was never allowed to see her, and only learned it himself on the train: ten years felling trees in Siberia. He was one of the lucky ones, one of those relatively few Poles who was arrested but who survived. Eleanora Paszkiewicz watched her father being arrested on 19 December 1937, and then watched her mother giving birth on Christmas Day.32
The Polish operation was fiercest in Soviet Ukraine, in the very lands where deliberate starvation policies had killed millions only a few years before. Some Polish families who lost men to the Terror in Soviet Ukraine had already been horribly struck by the famine. Hanna Sobolewska, for example, had watched five siblings and her father die of starvation in 1933. Her youngest brother, Józef, was the toddler who, before his own death by starvation, had liked to say: “Now we will live!” In 1938 the black raven took her one surviving brother, as well as her husband. As she remembered the Terror in Polish villages in Ukraine: “children cry, women remain.”33
In September 1938, the procedures of the Polish operation came to resemble those of the kulak operation, as the NKVD was empowered to sentence, kill, and deport without formal oversight. The album method, simple as it was, had become too cumbersome. Even though the albums had been subject to only the most cursory review in Moscow, they nevertheless arrived more quickly than they could be processed. By September 1938 more than one hundred thousand cases awaited attention. As a result, “special troikas” were created to read the files at a local level. These were composed of a local party head, a local NKVD chief, and a local prosecutor: often the same people who were carrying out the kulak operation. Their task was now to review the accumulated albums of their districts, and to pass judgment on all of the cases. Since the new troikas were usually just the original dvoika plus a communist party member, they were just approving their own previous recommendations.34
Considering hundreds of cases a day, going through the backlog in about six weeks, the special troikas sentenced about 72,000 people to death. In the Ukrainian countryside, the troikas also operated now as they had in the kulak operation, sentencing and killing people in large numbers and in great haste. In the Zhytomyr region, in the far west of Soviet Ukraine near Poland, a troika sentenced an even 100 people to death on 22 September 1938, then another 138 on the following day, and then another 408 on 28 September.35
The Polish operation was in some respects the bloodiest chapter of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. It was not the largest operation, but it was the second largest, after the kulak action. It was not the action with the highest percentage of executions among the arrested, but it was very close, and the comparably lethal actions were much smaller in scale.
Of the 143,810 people arrested under the accusation of espionage for Poland, 111,091 were executed. Not all of these were Poles, but most of them were. Poles were also targeted disproportionately in the kulak action, especially in Soviet Ukraine. Taking into account the number of deaths, the percentage of death sentences to arrests, and the risk of arrest, ethnic Poles suffered more than any other group within the Soviet Union during the Great Terror. By a conservative estimate, some eighty-five thousand Poles were executed in 1937 and 1938, which means that one-eighth of the 681,692 mortal victims of the Great Terror were Polish. This is a staggeringly high percentage, given that Poles were a tiny minority in the Soviet Union, constituting fewer than 0.4 percent of the general population. Soviet Poles were about forty times more likely to die during the Great Terror than Soviet citizens generally.36
The Polish operation served as a model for a series of other national actions. They all targeted diaspora nationalities, “enemy nations” in the new Stalinist terminology, groups with real or imagined connections to a foreign state. In the Latvian operation some 16,573 people were shot as supposed spies for Latvia. A further 7,998 Soviet citizens were executed as spies for Estonia, and 9,078 as spies for Finland. In sum, the national operations, including the Polish, killed 247,157 people. These operations were directed against national groups that, taken together, represented only 1.6 percent of the Soviet population; they yielded no fewer than thirty-six percent of the fatalities of the Great Terror. The targeted national minorities were thus more than twenty times as likely to be killed in the Great Terror than the average Soviet citizen. Those arrested in the national actions were also very likely to die: in the Polish operation the chances of execution were seventy-eight percent, and in all of the national operations taken together the figure was seventy-four percent. Whereas a Soviet citizen arrested in the kulak action had an even chance of being sentenced to the Gulag, a Soviet citizen arrested in a national action had a three-in-four chance of being shot. This was perhaps more an accident of timing than a sign of especially lethal intent: the bulk of the arrests for the kulak action was earlier than the bulk of the arrests for the national actions. In general, the later in the Great Terror that a citizen was arrested, the more likely he was to be shot, for the simple reason that the Gulag lacked space.37
Although Stalin, Yezhov, Balytskyi, Leplevskii, Berman, and others linked Polish ethnicity to Soviet security, murdering Poles did nothing to improve the international position of the Soviet state. During the Great Terror, more people were arrested as Polish spies than were arrested as German and Japanese spies together, but few (and very possibly none) of the people arrested were in fact engaged in espionage for Poland. In 1937 and 1938, Warsaw carefully pursued a policy of equal distance between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Poland harbored no plans for an offensive war with the Soviet Union.38
But perhaps, Stalin reasoned, killing Poles could do no harm. He was right to think that Poland would not be an ally with the Soviet Union in a war against Germany. Because Poland lay between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, it could not be neutral in any war for eastern Europe. It would either oppose Germany and be defeated or ally with Germany and invade the Soviet Union. Either way, a mass murder of Soviet Poles would not harm the interests of the Soviet Union—so long as the interests of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with the life and well-being of its citizens. Even such cynical reasoning was very likely mistaken: as puzzled diplomats and spies noted at the time, the Great Terror diverted much energy that might usefully have been directed elsewhere. Stalin misunderstood the security position of the Soviet Union, and a more traditional approach to intelligence matters might have served him better in the late 1930s.
In 1937 Japan seemed to be the immediate threat. Japanese activity in east Asia had been the justification for the kulak operation. The Japanese threat was the pretext for actions against the Chinese minority in the Soviet Union, and against Soviet railway workers who had returned from Manchuria. Japanese espionage was also the justification for the deportation of the entire Soviet Korean population, about 170,000 people, from the Far East to Kazakhstan. Korea itself was then under Japanese occupation, so the Soviet Koreans became a kind of diaspora nationality by association with Japan. Stalin’s client in the western Chinese district of Xinjiang, Sheng Shicai, carried out a terror of his own, in which thousands of people were killed. The People’s Republic of Mongolia, to the north of China, had been a Soviet satellite since its creation in 1924. Soviet troops entered allied Mongolia in 1937, and Mongolian authorities carried out their own terror in 1937–1938, in which 20,474 people were killed. All of this was directed at Japan.39
None of these killings served much of a strategic purpose. The Japanese leadership had decided upon a southern strategy, toward China and then the Pacific. Japan intervened in China in July 1937, right when the Great Terror began, and would move further southward only thereafter. The rationale of both the kulak action and these eastern national actions was thus false. It is possible that Stalin feared Japan, and he had good reason for concern. Japanese intentions were certainly aggressive in the 1930s, and the only question was about the direction of expansion: north or south. Japanese governments were unstable and prone to rapid changes in policy. In the end, however, mass killings could not preserve the Soviet Union from an attack that was not coming.
Perhaps, as with the Poles, Stalin reasoned that mass killing had no costs. If Japan meant to attack, it would find less support inside the Soviet Union. If it did not, then no harm to Soviet interests had been done by preemptive mass murder and deportation. Again, such reasoning coheres only when the interests of the Soviet state are seen as distinct from the lives and well-being of its population. And again, the use of the NKVD against internal enemies (and against itself) prevented a more systematic approach to the actual threat that the Soviet Union faced: a German attack without Japanese or Polish assistance and without the help of internal opponents of Soviet rule.
Germany, unlike Japan and Poland, was indeed contemplating an aggressive war against the Soviet state. In September 1936, Hitler had let it be known to his cabinet that the main goal of his foreign policy was the destruction of the Soviet Union. “The essence and the goal of Bolshevism,” he claimed, “is the elimination of those strata of mankind which have hitherto provided the leadership and their replacement by world Jewry.” Germany, according to Hitler, would have to be ready for war within four years. Thus Hermann Göring took command in 1936 of a Four-Year Plan Authority, which would prepare the public and private sectors for an aggressive war. Hitler was a real threat to the Soviet Union, but Stalin seems not to have abandoned hope that Soviet-German relations could be improved. For this reason, perhaps, actions against Soviet Germans were milder than those against Soviet Poles. Some 41,989 people were shot in a German national operation, most of whom were not Germans.40
In these years of the Popular Front, the Soviet killings and deportations went unnoticed in Europe. Insofar as the Great Terror was noticed at all, it was seen only as a matter of show trials and party and army purges. But these events, noticed by specialists and journalists at the time, were not the essence of the Great Terror. The kulak operations and the national operations were the essence of the Great Terror. Of the 681,692 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937 and 1938, the kulak and national orders accounted for 625,483. The kulak action and the national operations brought about more than nine tenths of the death sentences and three quarters of the Gulag sentences.41
The Great Terror was thus chiefly a kulak action, which struck most heavily in Soviet Ukraine, and a series of national actions, the most important of them the Polish, where again Soviet Ukraine was the region most affected. Of the 681,692 recorded death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine—and this figure does not include natives of Soviet Ukraine shot in the Gulag. Ukraine as a Soviet republic was overrepresented within the Soviet Union, and Poles were overrepresented within Soviet Ukraine.42
The Great Terror was a third Soviet revolution. Whereas the Bolshevik Revolution had brought a change in political regime after 1917, and collectivization a new economic system after 1930, the Great Terror of 1937–1938 involved a revolution of the mind. Stalin had brought to life his theory that the enemy could be unmasked only by interrogation. His tale of foreign agents and domestic conspiracies was told in torture chambers and written in interrogation protocols. Insofar as Soviet citizens can be said to have participated in the high politics of the late 1930s, it was precisely as instruments of narration. For Stalin’s larger story to live on, their own stories sometimes had to end.
Yet the conversion of columns of peasants and workers into columns of figures seemed to lift Stalin’s mood, and the course of the Great Terror certainly confirmed Stalin’s position of power. Having called a halt to the mass operations in November 1938, Stalin once again replaced his NKVD chief. Lavrenty Beria succeeded Yezhov, who was later executed. The same fate awaited many of the highest officers of the NKVD, blamed for the supposed excesses, which were in fact the substance of Stalin’s policy. Because Stalin had been able to replace Yagoda with Yezhov, and then Yezhov with Beria, he showed himself to be at the top of the security apparatus. Because he was able to use the NKVD against the party, but also the party against the NKVD, he showed himself to be the unchallengeable leader of the Soviet Union. Soviet socialism had become a tyranny where the tyrant’s power was demonstrated by the mastery of the politics of his own court.43
The Soviet Union was a multinational state, using a multinational apparatus of repression to carry out national killing campaigns. At the time when the NKVD was killing members of national minorities, most of its leading officers were themselves members of national minorities. In 1937 and 1938, NKVD officers, many of whom were of Jewish, Latvian, Polish, or German nationality, were implementing policies of national killing that exceeded anything that Hitler and his SS had (yet) attempted. In carrying out these ethnic massacres, which of course they had to if they wished to preserve their positions and their lives, they comprised an ethic of internationalism, which must have been important to some of them. Then they were killed anyway, as the Terror continued, and usually replaced by Russians.
The Jewish officers who brought the Polish operation to Ukraine and Belarus, such as Izrail Leplevskii, Lev Raikhman, and Boris Berman, were arrested and executed. This was part of a larger trend. When the mass killing of the Great Terror began, about a third of the high-ranking NKVD officers were Jewish by nationality. By the time Stalin brought it to an end on 17 November 1938, about twenty percent of the high-ranking officers were. A year later that figure was less than four percent. The Great Terror could be, and by many would be, blamed on the Jews. To reason this way was to fall into a Stalinist trap: Stalin certainly understood that Jewish NKVD officers would be a convenient scapegoat for national killing actions, especially after both the Jewish secret policemen and the national elites were dead. In any event, the institutional beneficiaries of the Terror were not Jews or members of other national minorities but Russians who moved up in the ranks. By 1939 Russians (two thirds of the ranking officers) had replaced Jews at the heights of the NKVD, a state of affairs that would become permanent. Russians became an overrepresented national majority; their population share at the heights of the NKVD was greater than their share in the Soviet population generally. The only national minority that was highly overrepresented in the NKVD at the end of the Great Terror were the Georgians—Stalin’s own.44
This third revolution was really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and Leninism had failed. In its fifteen or so years of existence, the Soviet Union had achieved much for those of its citizens who were still alive: as the Great Terror reached its height, for example, state pensions were introduced. Yet some essential assumptions of revolutionary doctrine had been abandoned. Existence, as the Marxists had said, no longer preceded essence. People were guilty not because of their place in a socioeconomic order but because of their ostensible personal identities or cultural connections. Politics was no longer comprehensible in terms of class struggle. If the diaspora ethnicities of the Soviet Union were disloyal, as the case against them went, it was not because they were bound to a previous economic order but because they were supposedly linked to a foreign state by their ethnicity.45
* * *
The link between loyalty and ethnicity was taken for granted in the Europe of 1938. Hitler was using this very argument, at this very time, to claim that the three million Germans of Czechoslovakia, and the regions they inhabited, must be allowed to join Germany. In September 1938 at a conference in Munich, Britain, France, and Italy had agreed to let Germany annex the western rim of Czechoslovakia, where most of those Germans lived. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that the arrangement had brought “peace for our time.” French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier believed nothing of the sort, but he allowed the French people to indulge the fancy. The Czechoslovaks were not even invited to the conference, and were simply expected to accept the result. The Munich agreement deprived Czechoslovakia of the natural protection of mountain ranges and the fortifications therein, leaving the country vulnerable to a future German attack. Stalin interpreted the settlement to mean that the Western powers wished to make concessions to Hitler in order to turn the Germans toward the East.46
In 1938, Soviet leaders were concerned to present their own nationality policy as something very different from that of the racism of Nazi Germany. A campaign of that year devoted to this goal included the publication of children’s stories, including one called “A Tale of Numbers.” Soviet children learned that Nazis were “rummaging through all kinds of old documents” to establish the nationality of the German population. This was, of course, true. Germany’s Nuremberg laws of 1935 excluded Jews from political participation in the German state and defined Jewishness according to descent. German officials were indeed using the records of synagogues to establish whose grandparents were Jews. Yet in the Soviet Union the situation was not so very different. The Soviet internal passports had a national category, so that every Soviet Jew, every Soviet Pole, and indeed every Soviet citizen had an officially recorded nationality. In principle Soviet citizens were allowed to choose their own nationality, but in practice this was not always so. In April 1938 the NKVD required that in certain cases information about the nationality of parents be entered. By the same order, Poles and other members of diaspora nationalities were expressly forbidden from changing their nationality. The NKVD would not have to “rummage around in old documents,” since it already had its own.47
In 1938, German oppression of Jews was much more visible than the national operations in the USSR, though its scale was much smaller. The Nazi regime began a program of “Aryanization,” designed to deprive Jews of their property. This was overshadowed by the more public and spontaneous theft and violence that followed the German annexation of Austria that same month. In February Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Austrian chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, demanding that he make of his country a German satellite. Schuschnigg at first accepted the terms, then returned to Austria and defied Hitler by calling a referendum on independence. On 12 March, the German army entered Austria; the next day, Austria ceased to exist. About ten thousand Austrian Jews were deported to Vienna that summer and fall. Thanks to the energetic efforts of Adolf Eichmann, they were among the many Austrian Jews who left the country in the coming months.48
In October 1938, Germany expelled seventeen thousand Jews of Polish citizenship from the Reich into Poland. These Jews were arrested at night, placed in train cars, and dumped unceremoniously on the Polish side of the border. A Polish Jew in France whose parents had been expelled decided to take revenge. He assassinated a German diplomat—a deed unfortunate in itself, and unfortunatein its timing: the shooting took place on 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution; its victim died the next day, the anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923. The murder gave German authorities the pretext for Kristallnacht, the first large open pogrom in Nazi Germany. Pressure had been building in the Reich, especially in Vienna, where in the previous weeks there had been at least one attack every day on Jewish property. Between the ninth and eleventh of November 1938, a few hundred Jews were killed (the official count was ninety-one), and thousands of shops and hundreds of synagogues destroyed. This was generally regarded in Europe, except by those who supported the Nazis, as a sign of barbarism.49
The Soviet Union benefited from the public violence in Nazi Germany. In this atmosphere, supporters of the Popular Front counted on the Soviet Union to protect Europe from the descent into ethnic violence. Yet the Soviet Union had just engaged in a campaign of ethnic murder on a far larger scale. It is probably fair to say that no one beyond the Soviet Union had any notion of this. A week after Kristallnacht, the Great Terror was brought to an end, after some 247,157 Soviet citizens had been shot in the national operations. As of the end of 1938, the USSR had killed about a thousand times more people on ethnic grounds than had Nazi Germany. The Soviets had, for that matter, killed far more Jews to that point than had the Nazis. The Jews were targeted in no national action, but they still died in the thousands in the Great Terror—and for that matter during the famine in Soviet Ukraine. They died not because they were Jews, but simply because they were citizens of the most murderous regime of the day.
In the Great Terror, the Soviet leadership killed twice as many Soviet citizens as there were Jews living in Germany; but no one beyond the Soviet Union, not even Hitler, seemed yet to have grasped that mass shootings of this kind were possible. Certainly nothing of the kind was carried out in Germany before the war. After Kristallnacht, Jews entered the German concentration camp system in large numbers, for the first time. Hitler wished at this point to intimidate German Jews so that they would leave the country; the vast majority of the twenty-six thousand Jews who entered the concentration camps at this time left them again soon thereafter. More than one hundred thousand Jews left Germany in late 1938 or 1939.50
The violence and motion did stimulate the Nazi imagination about the fate of European Jews generally. A few days after Kristallnacht, on 12 November 1938, Hitler had his close collaborator Hermann Göring present a plan for the removal of European Jews: they were to be sent by boat to the island of Madagascar, in the southern Indian ocean, off the southeastern coast of Africa. Although Hitler and Göring would no doubt have liked to see German Jews worked to death on some sort of SS reservation on the island, such grand imaginative plans really pertained to some future scenario wherein Germany controlled a large population of Jews. The Madagascar scheme was most applicable to a future in which Germany had mastered a large Jewish population. Jews at the time comprised no more than one half of one percent of the German population, and even this total was shrinking with emigration. There had never been very many Jews in Germany; but insofar as they were regarded as a “problem,” the “solution” had already been found: expropriation, intimidation, and emigration. (German Jews would have departed even faster than they did had the British allowed them to go to Palestine, or the Americans seen fit to increase—or even fill—immigration quotas. At the Evian Conference of July 1938, only the Dominican Republic agreed to take more Jewish refugees from Germany.)51
Madagascar, in other words, was a “solution” for a Jewish “problem” that had not yet really arisen. Grand deportation schemes made a kind of sense in 1938, when leading Nazis could still delude themselves that Poland might become a German satellite and join in an invasion of the Soviet Union. More than three million Jews lived in Poland, and Polish authorities had also investigated Madagascar as a site for their resettlement. Although Polish leaders envisioned no policies toward their large national minorities (five million Ukrainians, three million Jews, one million Belarusians) that were remotely comparable to Soviet realities or Nazi plans, they did wish to reduce the size of the Jewish population by voluntary emigration. After the death of the Polish dictator Józef Piłsudski in 1935, his successors had taken on the position of the Polish nationalist right on this particular question, and had established a ruling party that was open only to ethnic Poles. In the late 1930s, the Polish state supported the aims of the right-wing or Revisionist Zionists in Poland, who wished to create a very large State of Israel in the British Mandate of Palestine—if necessary, by means of violence.52
So long as Warsaw and Berlin thought in terms of a Jewish “problem” and some distant territorial solution, and so long as the Germans were still courting the Poles for an eastern alliance, the Germans could imagine some arrangement to deport east European Jews involving Polish support and infrastructure. But there would be no alliance with Poland, and no common German-Polish plan for the Jews. Piłsudski’s heirs in this respect followed Piłsudski’s line: a policy of equal distance between Berlin and Moscow, with nonaggression pacts with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, but no alliance with either. On 26 January 1939 in Warsaw, the Poles turned down the German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, one last time. In five years of trying, the Germans had failed to convince the Poles that it was in Poland’s interests to fight a war of aggression for Soviet territory—while granting Germany Polish territory and becoming a German satellite. This meant a German war not with Poland but against Poland—and against Poland’s Jews.53