Books to read: The Dictators – The guilt of the people

How popular was Adolf Hitler with the German population?  Some information is available on the subject.  In the March 1932 presidential elections, against the ancient and uninspiring Hindenburg, Hitler received 30 percent of the vote; in the April runoff, his share of the vote rose to 37 percent, as opposed to 53 percent for Hindenburg.  In July of that year, the Nazis again won 37 percent of the vote.  While a distinct minority of Germans favored Hitler and his party, they were enough to make him a force in German politics, and this in turn paved the way to his appointment as Chancellor, by legitimate means, in January 1933.

Of course, since Hitler ruled until 1945, and the true nature of the Nazi system only emerged after the conquest of power, we may ask whether his popularity increased or diminished as a result of the violent security measures, pushing Germany into a world war, the mass murder of Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals – the immense moral and political transformation that gave rise to the term “totalitarianism.”  The question is of great importance  to our understanding of the causes of tyranny and human degradation, but an answer may well be impossible to obtain.  Hitler held referendums while in power, but the results, I believe, can be dismissed as meaningless.  By the “fuehrer principle,” his was the only vote that counted.  Referendums were ritualistic triumphs, not open debates between opposed points of view.

This is my second post on Richard Overy’s penetrating analysis of Hitler and Stalin, The Dictators.  The first discussed the moral foundations of totalitarianism.  Both systems (if I read Overy correctly) placed ultimate value in advancing the revolutionary struggle, but defined this struggle as the identification and destruction of various classes of enemies.  The millions who died under Hitler and Stalin were necessary sacrificial offerings to the totalitarian morality of destruction.  Most posed no threat to either regime:  they needed to die in large numbers to fuel the moral and political energy of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.

To what degree were ordinary people complicit in these crimes?  Asked in a historical void, the question is gibberish.  Neither dictatorship would have been possible without that culture-shattering catastrophe we call the First World War.  The collapse of capitalism during the Depression added to the sense of moral failure and political doom.

The death of the West was not only predicted, it was welcomed by many intelligent persons.  Beyond that, Germany and Russia, among the great European nations, had the least developed sense of individual freedom, individual rights and protections, ultimately of the individual as the foundation of all legitimate government.  Historical accidents taught both societies the virtue of obedience to authority:  the leadership principle was in place long before Hitler turned up on the scene.

Overy provides the historical context, and his analysis of the totalitarian moral universe erected on that foundation is nothing short of brilliant.  But the question of the people’s complicity, which is asked forthrightly, gets answered with a certain evasiveness.  Overy acknowledges the difficulty of learning what went on inside people’s minds in regimes that killed over a casual word or gesture.  He could conceivably have stopped right there.  Instead, he offers up a number of vague assertions, beginning with a classification of the people by the intensity of devotion:  zealots, opportunists, silent rejectionists, open dissenters.

The categories are intuitive but unsupported by anything in the text or notes.  I might assert (also intuitively, but with an equal lack of evidence) that individuals moved from one category to another as their situation in life, or even of the moment, changed.  I could be a zealous Nazi when the Jew in the appartment I craved was taken away, and a silent rejectionist, even a dissident, when asked to die for the cause in the Eastern Front.

I find most troubling Overy’s conclusion that “broad sections of the German and Soviet public supported the dictatorships, often with enthusiasm and devotion, or at least with a general approval.”  This might well have been the case, but where’s the evidence?

Overy states that, in reaching his conclusion, he merely follows the findings of “recent discussion of popular attitudes to the two dictatorships.”  I confess to not having partaken of those discussions; the notes indicate nearly all concern Hitler’s Germany.  Whatever these sources turned up in the way of evidence, one finds only soft information – impressions and anecdotes – in The Dictators, fortified by repeated assertions about the “broad, if conditional, approval” of the murderous regimes by their peoples.

Let this stand as illustration:  “The promises made by the dictatorships were seductively attractive because they reflected aspirations already shared by an important fraction of the population, and easily communicated to the rest.”

What are we to make of such statements?  Obviously, some fraction of the population had actively to support the dictators – the political goon squads and secret police, at a minimum, had to be staffed.  But what constitutes “an important fraction”?  Five percent?  Fifty percent?  Given the lack of data provided by Overy, we immediately slam into a theoretical wall:  no one has the slightest idea what the minimum number of thugs and zealots required to terrorize a modern nation happens to be.  All we can do, then, is look at such facts as we do have in each case, and see if we can arrive at a reasonable guess.

In Germany, as I noted, a truly “important fraction” of the population voted for Adolf Hitler to become president.  After his rise to power, no significant internal opposition, whether peaceful or violent, manifested itself.  Leftwing thugs, evident in large numbers before 1933, either ended up in prison camps or switched uniforms.

Lack of organized resistance, it should be said, fits the pattern of totalitarian regimes.  The risk is too high, the cost too terrible.  Yet German workers watched their living standards erode without protest.  German males went off to an endless and ultimately disastrous war, fighting valiantly to the end.  Desertion was rare.  Emigration was largely limited to Jews, intellectuals, and artists.

Matters stand differently with the Soviet Union.  The Bolsheviks came to power in a military coup.  The elections they held after achieving power went badly, and were disregarded.  Stalin faced a violent, if uncoordinated, revolt of the farmers, during the collectivization campaign.  It was drowned in blood.  Soviet soldiers deserted in large numbers, and some enlisted on the German side.  This was partly a factor of ethnic hatreds, but the Nazis, according to Overy, raised two divisions of ethnic Russians from their pool of POWs.  Stalin’s successor, Khrushchev, considered the adulation of the great man “nauseatingly false.”   Khrushchev, who had been deeply implicated in the crimes of the regime, described their psychological effect on good communists:  “insecurity, fear, and even desperation.”  One can only guess how ordinary Russians felt.

Stalinism has endured long after Stalin’s death, long after Khrushchev’s secret speech.  Nowhere do I find an indicator of broad enthusiasm or devotion.  We can ignore nationalist rebellions in places like Poland and Hungary that were essentially colonies of the Soviet Union.  But if we turn to Cuba, we observe more than a million escapees.  And if we look to North Korea, and the tormenting and starving of an entire population, we must begin to wonder whether that “important fraction” mentioned by Overy can be a very small number indeed, armed with technology, cunning, and an absolute ruthlessness.

I have no idea.  I can only guess.  Provisionally, from the scant evidence, it would appear that the German population was complicit in the crimes of Adolf Hitler.  Large numbers supported him, willingly carried out murder and destruction, and defended to the death the system he imposed on them.  Evil, in this case, attaches to persons – Hitler, the Nazis, “good Germans” – who made monstrous choices at a given time.

I find it much more difficult to pass a similar judgment on the Russian people.  Anecdotal support of Stalin can be gathered in bulk, but that falls in the same category as Hitler’s referendums:  ritual genuflection, inspired by motives unknown.  Certainly, the Gulags were almost as efficiently run as the Nazi concentration camps.  How was that possible, without a minimum of support?  But here we once again run into our theoretical wall:  how many jailers are required to cow and demoralize a population of 150 million?  We can’t say.

We know that, all things being equal, people tend to obey the commands of power; and historically, it may be, the Russians tended to obey somewhat faster than most.  We also know that people like to live, not die, and live happily, not in misery, and that if the cost of survival is acceptance of monstrous evil, or even complicity in it, many people will look away and accept and live, and a smaller number will join in murder and try to conceal or forget or rationalize.

These actions, whatever their moral worth, are done out of weakness, not enthusiasm or devotion.  On occasion, dissenting from his own theme, Overy appears to glimpse the tragedy of human weakness:  “Most people…neither opposed nor wildly applauded but adapted their expectations to existing possibilities.”

If my guess is correct, the Russian people were more victims than accomplices in the crimes of their masters.  But it follows, too, that Stalin was less original in his guilt than Hitler:  he inherited his apparatus of terror from Lenin, and only put it to more extreme use.  So, later, did Mao in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia; so does Kim Jong Il to this very day.

Between the 1917 coup and the end of the Russian civil war, the Bolsheviks engineered the most effective machinery in history for the domination by a minority of huge populations.  The moral horror is in the system, which began before Hitler and is still with us today, having spread like a plague across continents and cultures.  If guilt falls on the evil geniuses, like Stalin, who wielded the system to destroy tens of millions of lives, complicity must pertain to those who first built it, and others who promoted and defended it without compulsion, or failed to expose and condemn it when free to do so.



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