August 14, 2002

Koba and Adolf the Dread

Matthew Yglesias clearly stays up far, far too late and takes the very reasonable position that "Stalin was clearly a very, very, very, very bad man and the USSR was a very, very, very, very bad thing," and announces that he has no interest in debating whether or not Stalin was just as bad as Hitler or not.

I think that he misses the point that there is an important historical question that turns on whether Stalin was just #2 or is tied for #1 in the competition for most evil moral monster of the twentieth century. You see, the belief that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler entails the belief that Roosevelt's and Churchill's policies toward the end of World War II were criminally in error.

Consider World War II in Europe toward the end of 1943. The Italian government has changed sides. The tide has clearly turned against Nazi Germany. At that point Roosevelt and Churchill could have offered Hitler a deal: the Nazis evacuate the West--Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, France, Italy--and in return Britain and the U.S. make peace. Hitler would in all likelihood have accepted.

What would have been gained by such a deal? The death and destruction of the last year and a half of the war in the west would have been avoided. What would have been lost? Nazi proconsuls would have continued to rule in Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest, and perhaps in Minsk and Kiev. But if Stalin was really as bad as Hitler--if the Soviets were really as bad as a Nazis--that's not a net loss, is it?

If Stalin really was as bad as Hitler, Roosevelt's and Churchill's insistence on unconditional surrender and refusal to make a separate peace with the Nazis toward the end of World War II was a sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of British, American, French, and Canadian lives in the interest not of making the world a better place but of expanding the empire of international communism.

Now I think that this is wrong: I think that U.S. and British policy toward the end of World War II was by and large a good policy and the right policy. So I can't share Mr. Yglesias's unconcern with the issue...


Matthew Yglesias: Koba the Dread: Patrick Nielsen Hayden's reflections on Martin Amis' new Stalin book say everything that I (like Patrick, someone who hasn't actually read the book) would want to say except that, frankly, I've lost all interest in debating the Hitler/Stalin moral equivalency thesis with people on the right. Stalin was clearly a very, very, very, very bad man and the USSR was a very, very, very, very bad thing. It seems very important to conservatives to establish that he was just as bad as Adolf Hitler, the official Worst Man Ever and, frankly, given how important it is to the right I don't intend to spend any of my time or intelligence defending a man and a state that deserve neither. So sorry Koba if you wind up getting a raw deal, but all that goes to show is that no one likes mass murder.

Posted by Matthew Yglesias at August 14, 2002 02:41 AM

Posted by DeLong at August 14, 2002 08:09 AM | TrackBack

Comments

I hate to be snarky, but this whole "Hitler vs. Stalin" debate can probably be turned into a wedge issue to pry the Neocons [who are almost all Jewish] away from the Conservative movement.

I can just see it now:

"My archivillian is evil-er than your archivillian."

"No way! Mine is worse than yours!"

And so on.

Posted by: Hesiod on August 14, 2002 08:23 AM

Natalie Solent and I debated this one a month or so back (go to http://junius.blogspot.com/2002_07_07_junius_archive.html#78681684 and follow the links). It isn't really about the comparative badness of H and S, anyway, but about the badness of the two regimes. The clincher for me is that the Nazis aimed to murder or enslave the populations of the East; the Soviets, by contrast, set up the German Democratic Republic. Don't get me wrong, life was dull and grim in the GDR and there were many serious violations of human rights, but the East Germans probably got a better deal than the native Soviet Russians did.

Posted by: Chris Bertram on August 14, 2002 09:02 AM

"You see, the belief that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler entails the belief that Roosevelt's and Churchill's policies toward the end of World War II were criminally in error."

This doesn't logically follow at all. I think Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, and I don't think that Roosevelt's and Churchill's policies toward the end of World War II were criminally in error. In fact, I can quite clearly see how cooperating with Stalin (who did not then directly threaten the free world's existence) was preferable to a separate peace. I can also see how Roosevelt in particular was ignorant (if willfully so) of the things that made Stalin morally equivalent to Hitler.

It's a rare breed indeed who would advance the argument you construct as a straw man.

Posted by: Josh on August 14, 2002 09:27 AM

This is a wedge issue on many levels, with some high policital stakes (ie who gets to rewrite history). The conservatives really hate FDR, often considered to be the best American president (or at least one of the better ones) by almost everyone else. If they can rewrite history to show that FDR was wrong and Commie-hating Cold Warriors were right, then they've scored a major bragging point victory. If Bush supporters can show that Prescott Bush and George Walker weren't so bad even though they were convicted of trading with the Nazis while we were at war with them, then four generations of Bush's get to rewrite history. Further, if Hitler wasn't as bad as Stalin, then killing Jews isn't as bad as killing Eastern Europeans.

This is all pretty mindless. Evil is not a zero sum game. Both are bad. Further, their entire argument seems predicated on an assumption I don't buy: That Hitler would have accepted a peace proposal in 1943, and wouldn't have caused trouble later. A more likely assumption: The main reason Stalin murdered more people was that he was in power longer. By stopping Hitler, we stopped a mass murderer before he could be worse.

It's all well and good to debate history, but our Greatest Generation did the right thing.

Posted by: Dave Romm on August 14, 2002 09:37 AM

Wildly tangential discussion topic: Was Stalin the most successful capitalist in history?

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on August 14, 2002 09:56 AM

Methinks that, even if we assume that Hitler and Stalin were equally bad, there are some problems with the argument that Churchill and Roosevelt were therefore "criminally in error."

Problem #1: There was no way, in 1943, to know what territories would be taken by the USSR, and what would be taken by England, the US, and Co. It was even quite possible, at this point, that the USSR's offensive could fall apart. If the democracies continued to advance while the USSR stalled, it may have been for the democracies to take all of Germany and all of the USSR's "buffer states." Then, when the time came for dividing up the land, the countries would most likely return to sovereign rule instead of being turned into puppet states by the USSR.

Problem #2: In 1943, the CW was that the USSR was a socialist utopia -- that it represented the possibilities for world socialism in Europe. Practically the only dissenter was Mr. George Orwell. Churchill and Roosevelt couldn't be expected to know what the Soviet Union would show itself as after the war.

Problem #3: You argue that, if we made a peace in 1943, we perhaps could have had the same land ruled by democratic governments as ruled by dictators. True enough on the Eastern Front, where two dictators were fighting. But Hitler, in a hypothetical 1943 treaty, would needed to have to agree to give up 3/4 of Germany to the British, Americans, and France for the ratio in Germany to remain the same between free land and dictator's land. For a man that fought to the very end, this is -- too put it lightly -- not very likely.

Posted by: David Kenner on August 14, 2002 09:59 AM

"A more likely assumption: The main reason Stalin murdered more people was that he was in power longer."

A wrong assumption. Stalin would have been one of history's greatest mass-murderers even if he too had only been limited to twelve years.

Posted by: Josh on August 14, 2002 10:12 AM

>>A wrong assumption. Stalin would have been one of history's greatest mass-murderers even if he too had only been limited to twelve years.<<

Which twelve years would these be?

Posted by: Daniel Davies on August 14, 2002 10:32 AM

>>> Consider World War II in Europe toward the end of 1943 .... The tide has clearly turned against Nazi Germany. At that point Roosevelt and Churchill could have offered Hitler a deal .... Hitler would in all likelihood have accepted. <<<

This seems an extremely dubious bit of revisionism, both as to plausibility and purported "benefits".

1) Hitler wasn't the guy to make a separate peace with the west and it wouldn't have helped him if he had. He was going to be crushed from the east, and that's where the *vast* majority of his fighting forces were. Shifting the small minority of his forces in the west eastward wouldn't have changed that.

The premise that U.S. peace with Hitler would have let him beat back the Soviets and control central Europe is just false and naive. The idea that he would have agreed to it is too.

Note that in early 1944 Hitler actually *did* muse about making a separate peace with Stalin, and there is evidence that Stalin might have accepted it. Shifting the huge eastern German armies westward to fight a one-front war *would* have gone a long way to saving the German position. But Hitler even rejected that idea!

2) Let's assume we could keep Hitler in power controlling Central Europe (the Soviet armies vanishing somehow). As to the cost being "merely" that the Nazis would have proconsuls ruling various eastern countries, are we giving Hitler a free hand with the death camps there and his final solution policies? Clearing the land of Slavs to make room for the Aryan race? These becoming mere German domestic issues?

3) Back to reality, make no mistake, Soviet armies are still crushing into Germany. Then what? If we want to keep Germany intact we have to defend it, Nazi Germany, with US forces -- which makes us the enemies of the Soviets, who took the fight with the Germans *very* personally.

Now, best case is we make a deal with the Soviets and throw Hitler and the German government overboard to do it. But how can we do that after we made peace with them? If we stay neutral and out the Soviets are going to run through *all* of Germany and that world is going to be worse than our reality. If we enter western Germany militarily to stop the Soviets, at *best* they will stop rather than fight us and keep what they've conquered, including the eastern part of Germany -- and we get the same world we got, except we have the honor of keeping the Nazis in power in what's left of Germany.

Worst case is we have a full war with the Soviets. In 1945, maybe we can push them back. But we are talking about the mother of all American wars in terms of bloodshed - and we will be doing it to defend Hitler and the Nazis against Good Old Uncle Joe who has been portrayed in US war propaganda for years as our good friend. How's that going to play in domestic politics? And in the judgment of history? "1984", anyone?

In 1943 the western political leaders were already foreseeing and planning the world of 1945. Which of them was going to make a separate peace with Hitler that could bring *all this* about???

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 14, 2002 11:06 AM

One can't rank Hitler and Stalin as #1 and #2 like they were a couple of shortstops.

They had very different characters. Hitler was a very aggressive, often reckless gambler. Stalin was ruthless where he ruled and very opportunistic abroad, but also very cautious in direct push-comes-to-shove confrontations with other powers. He highly valued his own survival, and never wanted to pay too much of a cost for something, while Hitler was always willing to risk it all.

In the big scheme of history this may well make Stalin "worse" than Hitler since it lead to his surviving for a much longer period, enabling him to kill and ruin arguably many more innocent people over decades.

But in the context of the 1940s, if the threats were having either Hitler or Stalin lock up all the resources of continental Europe for future use, one would want to make damn sure it wasn't Hitler who got them. He'd have been much more aggressive and wonton about using them. And one would make one's own plans accordingly.

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 14, 2002 11:32 AM

Jim Glass makes some good points, that may well be decisive. Hitler thought that war was the health of the state--of the race, rather. Stalin, by contrast, thought that History with a capital H was on his side.

Hitler thought that, if he bided his time, the Aryan race--hemmed in, lacking lebensraum, et cetera, et cetera--would be demographically swamped by the sub-human Slavs. Stalin thought that, if he bided his time, the contradictions of capitalism would lead the imperialist powers to war on each other, after which he could move in and pick up the pieces. World War I had created the Soviet Union. World War II had created the power vacuum that allowed the Communist conquest of East Europe and China. In Stalin's view in 1945, World War III would be fought in less than a generation between Britain and America as their imperial surplus-extraction interests came into conflict, and the aftermath would see Communism take over the world. Given that view of how History was bound to develop, Stalin was willing to wait...

Hence Hitler had to be destroyed, while Stalin could be contained...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 14, 2002 12:12 PM

I forgot to mention that if this implausible proposal actually worked as intended, and the Nazis actually "continued to rule in Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest, and perhaps in Minsk and Kiev" -- that is in all Central Europe and the Ukraine -- with the Soviets obviously totally defeated, then Hitler's Germany would have emerged *vastly* more powerful than it started.

This was exactly Hitler's original goal! Eastward expansion to build his power base. It was what Britain and France tried to stop when they declared war after Germany invaded Poland, because they couldn't let Germany gain control of the resources of the rest of the continent.

Hitler would have won!!

Does anyone imagine that after getting what he set out for, multiplying his power and destroying the only enemy big enough to directly challenge him, he'd suddenly have become a nice guy with no further ambitions?

Now he turns west again with an army many times larger than he had in the west before, no second front to worry about, vastly more logistical resources than before, and all the time he needs to build up a fleet as large as he wants. And he's been known to break peace treaties before. How are France and England feeling now?

And this is what this proposal intends if it works?

Posted by: Jim Glass on August 14, 2002 12:17 PM

Well... Yes, I agree that Stalin (out of his innate caution, and his belief that History was on his side) could be (somewhat) reasoned with, negotiated with, and contained, while Hitler was a genocidal maniac who wanted to spread death, destruction, and terror to the ends of the earth.

But we *are* pretty far from saying that Stalin was "as bad as" Hitler now, aren't we?

Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on August 14, 2002 12:35 PM

As noted in previous comments, Hitler/Nazi Germany presented a different problem from Stalin/USSR, and therefore might require different responses, even if they were equally evil to within 0.01%. I would like to propose this description of the difference.

Both used the same totalitarian means. Hitler used them in support of a frankly xenophobic and not much less frankly inhuman ideology. Stalin used them in support of a universal and putatively humanistic ideology. Since totalitarianism is inherently xenophobic and inhuman, there was an internal contradiction in Soviet communism that was absent in Nazism, but the Soviets could put on a prettier face than the Nazis could.

The ugly face of Nazism made it easier to form a coalition for the purpose of directly attacking it. The internal contradiction in Soviet communism made its eventual collapse in the absence of direct attack more certain. Therefore, we invaded Germany and contained Russia. Both worked. Have a cigar.

Posted by: Bob Hawkins on August 14, 2002 12:57 PM

The separate peace in 1943 arguement neglects the role the USSR was to play in the non-nuclear destruction of Japan and the Japanese Empire. As it was, the USSR still knocked the stuffing out of the Japanese in Manchuria. The US was planning, as late as V-J day, for two invasions of Japan, Operation Coronet in the fall of '45, and Olympic in the sping of '46. The USSR was a valuble ally in the Pacific war as well. A Stalin versus Hitler argument ignores half the war.

Posted by: etc. on August 14, 2002 01:24 PM

Just to reinforce Jim's point, I don't think you could easily find, in Churchill's six-volume history of World War II, two sentences considering the moral dilemma presented by an alliance with Stalin's regime. And Churchill was certainly a lifelong foe of Bolshevism. He apparently considered the whole question of evilness-ranking completely irrelevant to the question of how Britain should conduct the war.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 14, 2002 10:34 PM

Well, that sure didn't come out making a whole lot of sense. What I *wanted* to say (I think)was that Churchill felt that the case for stopping Hitler and allying with Stalin rested quite firmly on the grounds Jim has summarized -- the intolerable danger of allowing Hitler free reign in Europe. That was clear enough to Churchill during the war that (IIRC) he quipped "if Hitler attacked Hell I would gladly send an ambassador to work out alliance terms with Satan" And it was still clear enough to him after the war that he did not feel any obligation to defend, let alone apologize for, the alliance with the Soviet regime, although Stalin was now our cold war foe.

So even if somebody could perform the metaphysical mathematics which would prove decisively that Stalin ranked lower in hell than Hitler, it is not at all likely that this would have mattered to Churchill in the least. And although I wouldn't claim that we should never challenge the justice of a war unless we have arguments which would have persuaded the participants themselves, I think it would take an extra-special kind of "pure" moralist to conclude that the reasons given by Churchill should count for nothing, and the reasons virtually ignored by Churchill should in fact have counted for everything.

OK, that made more sense to me at least.

Posted by: Jeffrey Kramer on August 15, 2002 12:36 AM

Summary:

Hitler ~= flesh-eating bacteria

Stalin ~= HIV

So, treat the necrosis aggressively, and bank on the ensuing decades to find suitable therapy for the retrovirus.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle on August 15, 2002 06:41 AM

The idea that Churchill was influenced by who was worse (Hitler or Stalin) is laughable. His prewar utterances made clear that he despised and well understood the evil of both. Churchill simply practiced Realpolitik: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend". He could not safely allow Germany to get control of the whole of Eastern Europe so he did what he had to in order to achieve that.

Anyway, you all seem to miss the point of the Amis argument. What he asked is why US "liberals" are unashamed of supporting the evil Stalin while at the same time frothing at the mouth over the evil Hitler. The answer is clear: See http://jonjayray.blogspot.com

John Ray

Posted by: John Ray on September 2, 2002 05:33 PM

In May 1940, Churchill and his Cabinet actually faced this choice. See "Five Days in London: May 1940", by John Lukacs. Halifax and others, deeming Bolshevism the greater evil, wanted to follow up a peace feeler from Hitler; this implied leaving the British Empire alone in exchange for a free hand in continental Europe, especially against the USSR. Although the most imperialist of British politicians, Churchill didn't hesitate, faced down his adversaries and carried on the war. I still get a shiver from the contemporary David Low cartoon of John Bull on the cliffs of Dover defiantly facing the black clouds over Europe: "Very well, then, alone".

The key to the Hitler/Stalin inequality is that Stalin stood, since his defeat of Trotsky, for "socialism in one country", with limited and prudent attempts to export communism through propaganda, espionage and tame Communist Parties. World revolution was a very long-tern project. His main victims, like those of Mao and Pol Pot, were compatriots: terible for them but not automatically for everyone else. Hitler's violence was directed outwards, to non-Germans (German Jews were not German in his eyes); there was never any discernible limit to his ambition, and he was always in a hurry, to the point of recklessness - witness his casual abandonment of his prewar instructions to the Kriegmarine to prepare for war no earlier than 1946, nnd the opportunistic conquest of the Balkans in th esummer of 1941 that delayed Barbarossa by a crucial few weeks. Churchill was right - coexistence was simply not possible.

Isn't there an analogy here with the reckless Osama bin Laden and the cautious Saddam Hussein?

For FDR, the question is unreal. The US was an undeclared ally of Britain, which was at war with Germany and, from July 1941, an ally of the USSR; Germany declared war on the USA after Pearl Harbour, not the other way round - why is not entirely clear. What else could FDR have done but join the existing anti-Hitler alliance? The people against this at the time were anti-Semites and Nazi apologists.

Posted by: James Wimberley on September 6, 2002 07:17 AM

I just wanted to point out that Hitler didn't want to spread death and destruction upon "everyone". As sick as he was, he wasn't a completely maniac killing machine.

Hitler had the following goals:

- Claim land for the aryans in the east.

- Fight non-aryans

- Fight communists

He perceived all western and nothern European countries as aryan and therefore not as natural enemies but as potential allies. He occupied several of those countries only to ensure safety for his main plans as pointed out above. Note that this was more an occupation than a full flegded war, as the resistance was low and collaboration high. The low resistance was certainly attributed to the fact that the citizens of those countries didn't had to fear death or deportation in contrast to the non-aryan poulation of the east. This is with the exception of the jews of course. But that didn't seem to be too much of a worry to a majority in the occupied countries as Hitler found many willing helpers there.

As to the question of who was Mr. Bad Guy #1 and whether it would have been better to fight Stalin first:

The allies did the right thing.

Stalin was probably #1 in number of deaths counts, but the allies couldn't know that back at that time. Germany was perceived as a greater danger than russia as russia had never been as powerful as Germany, England and France. Therefore Hitler had to be brought down and only towards the end of the war the allies began to see early glimbs of the threads that Stalin was about to bring above the world. And as bad as Stalin was for eastern Europe, the east-west conflict probably saved Germany from being permanently turned into an agricultural state.

Posted by: Peter Hosten on September 9, 2002 11:34 PM

It is certainly the case that pre-war almost all right wingers were, to a greater or lesser extent, hoping for a successful war by Hitler against Stalin.

Nonetheless it takes a belief in the most excessive estimates to claim that Stalin killed as many as Hitler.

This was with Hitler failing. It is difficult to see anybody, with the exception of the Volga Germans, whom Stalin killed but Hitler wouldn't had he been successful. In terms of intent Hitler was clearly far more murderous.

Hitler had a philosophy that basically demanded he kill till he was stopped. Stalin & his regime was merely paranoid - a paranoia which, for example, led him to believe that the western powers would destroy his country if given the slightest opening. It will be obvious from this discussion that that was not an entirely unjustified paranoia.

Even had Stalin been as bad as Hitler the fact is that Hitler was a threat to us who could not be trusted to keep any peace agreement whereas Stalin was neither. Even during the cold war the USSR kept to the letter of their agreements (we said they didn't keep to the spirit & they said we didn't which is why agreements get written down).

Even had that not been so any country that to openly turns on its allies in the middle of a war is denying itself the possibility of being trusted by anybody for generations. This is one of several points where Machavelli turns out to be smarter than Kissenger.

By 1943 the USSR would probably have won anyway assuming we didn't actually join Hitler - it would just have taken longer & killed more - the humanitarian case for this escapes me.

The peoples of Europe, Britain & the US were of the opinion that the governments they were fighting for had some moral basis (in light of the way we openly helped the nazi Tudjman in Croatia they may have been wrong). Betraying our allies & helping Hitler would have imperiled these governments.

At the end of the war we absorbed 3/4 of Germany & hired such nazis as the Gehlen Org so we got most of it without the embarassment of Hitler's presence.

Posted by: Neil Craig on October 11, 2003 03:37 PM

It is certainly the case that pre-war almost all right wingers were, to a greater or lesser extent, hoping for a successful war by Hitler against Stalin.

Nonetheless it takes a belief in the most excessive estimates to claim that Stalin killed as many as Hitler.

This was with Hitler failing. It is difficult to see anybody, with the exception of the Volga Germans, whom Stalin killed but Hitler wouldn't had he been successful. In terms of intent Hitler was clearly far more murderous.

Hitler had a philosophy that basically demanded he kill till he was stopped. Stalin & his regime was merely paranoid - a paranoia which, for example, led him to believe that the western powers would destroy his country if given the slightest opening. It will be obvious from this discussion that that was not an entirely unjustified paranoia.

Even had Stalin been as bad as Hitler the fact is that Hitler was a threat to us who could not be trusted to keep any peace agreement whereas Stalin was neither. Even during the cold war the USSR kept to the letter of their agreements (we said they didn't keep to the spirit & they said we didn't which is why agreements get written down).

Even had that not been so any country that to openly turns on its allies in the middle of a war is denying itself the possibility of being trusted by anybody for generations. This is one of several points where Machavelli turns out to be smarter than Kissenger.

By 1943 the USSR would probably have won anyway assuming we didn't actually join Hitler - it would just have taken longer & killed more - the humanitarian case for this escapes me.

The peoples of Europe, Britain & the US were of the opinion that the governments they were fighting for had some moral basis (in light of the way we openly helped the nazi Tudjman in Croatia they may have been wrong). Betraying our allies & helping Hitler would have imperiled these governments.

At the end of the war we absorbed 3/4 of Germany & hired such nazis as the Gehlen Org so we got most of it without the embarassment of Hitler's presence.

Posted by: Neil Craig on October 11, 2003 03:37 PM

It is certainly the case that pre-war almost all right wingers were, to a greater or lesser extent, hoping for a successful war by Hitler against Stalin.

Nonetheless it takes a belief in the most excessive estimates to claim that Stalin killed as many as Hitler.

This was with Hitler failing. It is difficult to see anybody, with the exception of the Volga Germans, whom Stalin killed but Hitler wouldn't had he been successful. In terms of intent Hitler was clearly far more murderous.

Hitler had a philosophy that basically demanded he kill till he was stopped. Stalin & his regime was merely paranoid - a paranoia which, for example, led him to believe that the western powers would destroy his country if given the slightest opening. It will be obvious from this discussion that that was not an entirely unjustified paranoia.

Even had Stalin been as bad as Hitler the fact is that Hitler was a threat to us who could not be trusted to keep any peace agreement whereas Stalin was neither. Even during the cold war the USSR kept to the letter of their agreements (we said they didn't keep to the spirit & they said we didn't which is why agreements get written down).

Even had that not been so any country that to openly turns on its allies in the middle of a war is denying itself the possibility of being trusted by anybody for generations. This is one of several points where Machavelli turns out to be smarter than Kissenger.

By 1943 the USSR would probably have won anyway assuming we didn't actually join Hitler - it would just have taken longer & killed more - the humanitarian case for this escapes me.

The peoples of Europe, Britain & the US were of the opinion that the governments they were fighting for had some moral basis (in light of the way we openly helped the nazi Tudjman in Croatia they may have been wrong). Betraying our allies & helping Hitler would have imperiled these governments.

At the end of the war we absorbed 3/4 of Germany & hired such nazis as the Gehlen Org so we got most of it without the embarassment of Hitler's presence.

Posted by: Neil Craig on October 11, 2003 03:44 PM
Post a comment