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Confronting Soviet and Nazi History

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Which ideology of the final solution, Stalinism or Naziism, was worse? This rhetorical question can lead to many interesting topics.  Classless society was the goal of Stalinism, racial purity was the goal of Naziism.  Each of these goals was presumably progressive; each was identified with social harmony and happiness. But what was actually hidden behind the classless-society ideology of the Soviet Union?

Let me answer this question by describing Kolyma (part of Siberia facing Alaska), only one of many Gulag regions.  I am focusing on that region because my own father died there.  Not too many Americans know that the number of lives lost in Kolyma camps alone was comparable to the number of those wasted in Hitler's Auschwitz.  Likewise, most Americans are not familiar with the ideology used to justify the horrors of Stalinism.  That is unfortunate; the danger of other dictatorial systems is as real today as it was in the last century.  That is why Stalinism and Naziism should be part of history curricula at all levels of education.  The Soviet Union was the first country to implement the idea of proletarian dictatorship. Its history is worth studying.  Can it be studied objectively?

My father, a Polish communist, believed it was his duty to emigrate to the Soviet Union (with his family) to contribute to the building of the new classless society.  Several years later he was arrested and sent to Kolyma.  He died there two years later, at the age of 36.  According to a recent rough estimate (1), the number of prisoners who died in Kolyma camps was close to one million.  Considerably higher numbers were offered by authors of older estimations (2).

About five years ago Stalinism was informally discussed at Montclair State University, where I was teaching.  A colleague observed that a large number of students did not know who Stalin was.  Very surprised, I decided to survey students in one of my classes.  Of 23 present only 13 raised their hands indicating they knew who Stalin was.  Was my small sample a good representation of the student population at our university?  As an exercise in data gathering I asked each student to conduct a survey in another class on campus.  This produced 19 samples based on 439 students.  Results, published in (3), confirmed the observation made by my colleague.

A recent book (4) about how German people cope with the legacy of Hitler's crimes analyzes the trauma of those who lived in the Third Reich and those who learned about mass killings from textbooks.  Are there similar books analyzing attitudes of people from the ex-Soviet Union countries?  How do Russians, and others, view Stalin's crimes?  Do they learn about them in high school? How do they debate them?  What is similar and what is different in attitudes of German and Russian students toward their country's history of mass killing?

According to a Harvard University historian (5), "the task of confronting unpleasant historical episodes is difficult for any country, even the long-established democracies.  The Germans had a term for this process after World War II, . . . but it was not until the 1960s and afterward that most Germans truly acknowledged the enormity of Nazi Germany's crimes.

In France today, many citizens are still reluctant to look closely at the Vichy period; in Austria many people still pretend that their country was a victim of Nazi aggression; and in Japan political leaders still frequently downplay the atrocities committed by Japanese troops in China, Korea, and Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s.  In the United States, too, many tragic aspects of history--the enslavement of blacks, the campaigns against American Indians, and the internment of Japanese-Americans at the start of World War II--have often been glossed over.  Difficult as the process of historical reckoning may be for these Western countries, it is even more onerous in Russia....''

In my opinion, Germans and Austrians were no less victims of Nazism than Russians and Poles were victims of Communism. A well known Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, wrote several books about Soviet ideology.  Many topics from his book (6) are certainly worth discussing, in the context of teaching history, especially at the university level.  What are mechanisms by which some historical episodes are swept under the carpet?  Why does this happen?  Who is promoting it and why?  We all know what Santayana wrote about those who do not learn from history.


1) Martin J. Bollinger, "Stalin's slave ships: Kolyma, the Gulag fleet, and the role of the west; Prager Publishers, Wset Point, Conn, 2003
2) Robert Conquest, "Kolyma, The Artic Death Camps",: The Viking Press, New York, 1978.
3) Ludwik Kowalski, "Hell on Earth: Brutality and Violence Under the Stalinist Regime;" Wasteland Press, Shelbyville, KY, USA, 2008. Excerpts can be seen at:
4) Gitta Sereny, "The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections, 1938-1999," Penguin Books, 2000.
5) Mark Kramer, "Why Soviet History Matters in Russia;" Davis Center of the Harvard Project on Cold War Studies, January 2001 (distributed over the Internet).
6) Leszek Kolakowski, "Modernity on Endless Trial," The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1990.

Stalinism, Naziism, classless society, racial purity, final solution, teaching history, Kolyma, Gulag.


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Ludwik Kowalski is a retired physics teacher (Professor emeritus, Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA). He is the author of two recently-published FREE books:

1) "Hell on Earth: Brutality and violence under the Stalinist regime" (more...)

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