Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Stalin and Hitler and the Second World War

There's been a lot of controversy about Josef Stalin recently. In Eastern Europe, as they commemorate the beginning of the Second World War 70 years ago, there has been a right royal row going on about how Stalin was as bad as Hitler, and therefore the Soviet Union must have been as bad as Nazi Germany. The Poles have been trading verbal blows with the Russians. The zealots of the right would have us all believe that the Soviet Union was equably to blame with Nazi Germany for the war. But it wasn't, and Soviet communism was in no way equivalent to the Nazism.

Stalin was a brutal dictator who did immense damage to the Soviet Union. On the eve of the war he authorised a secret non-aggression pact with the Nazis - the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact . Its worth quoting from the Encyclopaedia Britannica article about the pact:

"The Soviet Union had been unable to reach a collective-security agreement with Britain and France against Nazi Germany, most notably at the time of the Munich Conference in September 1938. By early 1939 the Soviets faced the prospect of resisting German military expansion in eastern Europe virtually alone, and so they began searching about for a change of policy"

The pact was a pragmatic, if cynical, piece of diplomacy
on the part of the USSR because it divided eastern Europe into spheres of influence, including the division of Poland. But at the time there must have been doubts that the USSR could resist a German invasion. Following the outbreak of war the USSR carried out a massacre of Polish army leaders and intellectuals at Katyn. Non of this is forgivable but it does not mean that Soviet communism was as bad as Nazism.

Some people would have us believe that a simple body count is all you need to decide if one regime was as brutal and corrupt as another. But nothing in politics or history is that simple. Stalin was responsible for the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union. Many of those people were good communists who had supported the revolution. In the 1930s leading Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev were eliminated by Stalin in a series of show trials. Zinoviev and the others confessed in open court that they were counter revolutionaries. They undoubtedly did this because of torture but also, I believe, because they wanted to preserve the revolution and believed that in the longer term they would be exonerated.

After Stalin's death the new Soviet leader Khrushchev denounced Stalin and exonerated those who had been executed. Lenin in his last Testament said that Stalin should have been removed as general Secretary of the Communist Party. Stalin was condemned by Soviet communists.

So where does that leave us with Hitler and Stalin? Hitler embodied Nazism. He was the only leader of the Nazis and responsible for policies which lead to the murder of six million Jews, and many hundreds of thousands more socialists, communists, homosexuals and Roma. The total has been estimated at somewhere between eleven and seventeen million. He was the undoubted aggressor in the Second World War. He has never been denounced by any of the the Nazi leaders or their successors. In fact he is revered by them.

Twenty million Russians died in the Second World War. That is very hard for us to begin to imagine. That is why they call it the Great Patriotic War, and that is why Stalin is still seen by some in Russia as a great leader. Winston Churchill was a fervent supporter of the British Empire - how many people died because of the Empire? In fact there was no doubt that as Prime Minister during the Second World War one of his main aims was to preserve the Empire. He also deployed troops against striking miners in 1910. He is still regarded with respect in Britain as a great war leader.

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