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Life And Fate: Totalitarianism, Authoritarianism And Racism

The greatest horror of totalitarianism is that it tries to eliminate all individual freedom...

My interest in totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and racism is not confined to antisemitism. Since hearing about the Milgram experiments in my college years – blind obedience to authority has been a major intellectual core to my efforts to understand the world around me.

My Ph.D. thesis was in part based on attempts to define authoritarianism and racist attitudes. One basic assumption in my research is that racism is racism and moreover, with a few exceptions those prone to racist rarely specify just one group. The OUN-B stood out as antisemitic because it was part of the Nazi war effort. At the same time because of the OUN thousands perhaps hundreds of thousands of Poles met the same fate as Jew because of racism associated with West Ukraine. There have perhaps been greater genocides than evidenced by the Holocaust, but perhaps what made the Holocaust different is that it was critical to defining the Nazi agenda. In Hitler’s writing it was clear that he felt Jewish blood tainted what was termed Aryan blood.

The Irony Of Ukrainian Holocaust Victims

Often the best view of important histories come from the world of fiction. In my opinion the best novel on war was “Life and Fate,” written by the Russian war correspondent Vasily Grossman. I would rate Grossman’s book even higher than Tolstoy’s masterpiece “War and Peace.” Some critics such as Simon Duffy consider Life and Fate among the greatest novels in any genre. In addition to its vivid description of the battle of Stalingrad, which was the most consequential in the entire war, it also describes the life of a fictional character that by occupation was based on a Russian scientist, presumably Lev Landau, and by personality and philosophy was based on Grossman, himself. It is not possible to read the book without vividly recalling the iconic letter the mother of the protagonist sent to her son on her way to a sure execution at a concentration camp in Ukraine. Grossman, himself, was a Ukrainian Jew, whose own mother was executed by Ukrainian Nazi sympathizers. The only liberty Grossman took in describing the Ukrainian holocaust victims was that they were not taken to concentration camps, as was implied in the book, but were shot and killed and buried in mass graves.

Grossman was an extraordinarily skilled war correspondent, and “Life and Fate” is actually a sequel to “Stalingrad,” which is much more focused on the actual fighting in Stalingrad, a battle which many consider to be the most brutal ever fought in any war to date. As to WWII it was clearly the turning point. The battle ended in February 1943, amassing over one million Russian deaths. The much better armed Germans lost about 400,000, which basically sealed its fate. The number of Russians killed in the Stalingrad battle surpassed the number of U.S. casualties in the entire war. By no means is this meant to diminish the extraordinary heroism of the U.S. or British. Still almost an unimaginable number of Russians died to save their homeland. They succeeded, and in the process, made it possible for the allies to succeed more easily. This is probably the reason many Russians say their favorite of the two books is Stalingrad as its emphasis is more on the heroism of the Russian soldiers in defeating Hitler.

I believe most critics would probably favor “Life and Fate” as it’s a much broader look at the evil and horror mankind is capable of committing. And on this topic Grossman has little difference between Hitler and Stalin. Each in his own way personified the extent of evil that can reside in a human being. Because of this comparison, Life and Fate, unlike Stalingrad, was rejected for publication in Russia. Indeed, its publication in the West qualifies as a mini miracle. Despite diligent efforts to destroy all evidence of the book, three copies of the typing ribbon on which the book was created were smuggled out. After a tremendous amount of manual effort and the exceptional translating skills of Robert Chandler and his wife, Life and Fate was published in English in 1980.

The Greatest Horror of Totalitarianism

Unlike Ukraine, Russia has done its best to erase the “heroic” deeds of the likes of Stalin and to a lesser extent Lenin. Some credit should go to Grossman who exposed the evil of both Stalin and saw little differences between the two Russian ideologues and Hitler. Totalitarianism in any guise is the worst sort of evil – one that shreds freedom in every sphere of life.

One of the best known quotes from Life and Fate comes from a scene in a German concentration camp. Scribbled on the cell wall are some writings from an old Bolshevik who died in German captivity. While Ikonnikov is described in the book as something of a lunatic, his few words probably say more about war, totalitarianism and the importance of having something sacred in your life:

“This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being,” writes Ikonnikov. “It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil.” Ikonnikov goes on to note that “kindness is powerful only while it is powerless”—the point here being that religions, when in power, lose their goodness in attempting to maintain and protect that power. For Ikonnikov, “the powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of [human] immortality. It can never be conquered.” Ikonnikov concludes.

Toward the end of his writings Ikonnikov states: “Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

This extraordinary piece of prose has multiple meanings. The kindness of which Ikonnikov speaks is not born out of the rituals and tapestry of places of religious worship. Rather it is a sacred human characteristic which can be denoted by a simple word, kindness, strongly suggests a unique goodness that perforce is an immaterial characteristic that potentially endows all with a pure and unshakeable form of freedom.

Often in my own experience when I have been told about a person of accomplishment, I have asked whether he or she is kind. Often the answer I receive is ‘what in the world has to do with anything.’ Well, it has a lot more to do with whatever monetary accomplishment an individual has obtained, a lot more to do with the survival of our species, which will require those small acts of kindness not only among individuals but also among nations if human kind is to survive. Indeed, once the kindness becomes ritualized it starts competing with other interpretations and it is swallowed up for what currently passes for religion and the sacred in the West, money and power. 

The quote, I think, is meant to convey that the greatest horror of totalitarianism is that it tries to eliminate all individual freedom. But there is a big hint of how individuals in totalitarian societies can preserve and still find some form of freedom. Freedom comes from accepting that the kindness within you is sacred.

Sacred – as opposed to secular – is the key word here and one that I will continue to focus upon. As much as the quote of Ikonnikov evidences a pithy and profound brilliance, and suggests that an untouchable freedom can thrive in the face of totalitarianism, I believe that if you dig a bit deeper you can still find differences between the practices of totalitarianism.

Hitler And The Nazi’s Vs. Stalin’s Totalitarianism

Both Russia and Germany were ruled by murderous and vicious dictators. For both countries the dictators, Hitler, and Stalin, were the source of the inhumanity that infected both countries. When the dictators departed the scene, in a large measure, so did the worst of totalitarianism. In the case of both Germany, the concentration camps were liberated shortly after Hitler’s death by the Red Army. In the case of Russia upon Stalin’s death his decrees for the purges of some Russian citizens – mostly doctors, who Stalin has a strong antipathy towards – were annulled. Also noteworthy was a 1956 speech by Khrushchev, who followed Stalin as leader of the Communist Party. In his speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist party he denounced Stalin and the cult of personality that had been built around him. The process of de-Stalinization followed.  

Though Life and Fate was not available to Russians until 1988, because of its sharp and insightful criticism of Stalin and totalitarianism which ruled Russia for about 30 years. Still Stalin’s hatred and killings were not as focused as Hitler’s. Without a scintilla of doubt Stalin would (without blinking an eye) order the death of any group or individual who gave a scintilla of a hint of being anything but utterly loyal to the state and its dictator. But when it came to groups defined by religion or race, he made many exceptions. In the case of Jews, though, historians have mixed views as to whether Stalin was antisemitic. A large portion of the Jews that were killed by Stalin were thought to be members of the Bolsheviks who led the 1917 revolutions. Leading Bolsheviks such as Lennin and Trotsky were Jewish and also harshly critical of Stalin, who was younger than the founding members. Moreover, unlike Germany, Jews served in the Russian army.

In the case of Jews within the intellectual and scientific communities, not to mention chess geniuses such as Botvinnik- Jews were not only tolerated, but in some cases feted. And if not feted for their intellectual contributions often forgiven for “crimes” that would have been punishable by death if committed by others. Indeed, Lev Landau, the presumed character on whom the protagonist in Life and Fate was partially based, was Jewish. While he was imprisoned for a year for passing out pamphlets that were harshly critical of Stalin, he was considered too valuable and was set free to continue his brilliant scientific career. In general Jews that were deemed useful to the state were tolerated by Stalin. In some cases, such as the great pianist Maria Yudina, who gave private concerts for Stalin despite making clear her disdain for the man. Indeed, there is a very subtle hint in the quote about kindness discussed above that Grossman himself may have thought there was a difference between Hitler and Stalin. Though the imprisoned Ikonnikov, as a Bolshevik was presumed to have been in the concentration camp as a result of being a Russian, but many Bolsheviks were Jewish, which for Hitler would have been a much more compelling reason for his death than his Russian heritage. 

Hitler engineered a Holocaust, which killed about 6 million Jews of about 70% of Europe’s Jewish population. Though the Jewish genocide was the greatest ever perpetrated, Jews were not the only group that Hitler focused, as countless Poles, for example, were also wantonly slaughtered. Also true is that Stalin fought against Hitler, and, indeed, it was the willingness of those under his control to give their lives that was the major reason Hitler was defeated. A critical question is what motivated Hitler. Was his hatred of Jews just a random contingent of his wanting to conquer Europe and the world. It was much more than that.

Geoffrey Waddington, a research fellow at the University of Leeds argues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9X3dfFz1l70) that Hitler’s hatred of Jews ran far deeper than his wanting to restore what he believed was Germany’s greatness. It was not hatred based on religion. It was a hatred that he termed vicious, vituperative, and murderous. It was a hatred based on his belief that Jews were a biologically determined race, it was a race that by nature wanted to replace all others. Jews, in other words, were an existential threat to Germany. Moreover, there is also evidence that Hitler believed there was a worldwide Jewish conspiracy whose goal was global hegemony.

To put the Holocaust in historical perspective, I again turn to fictional history, one penned by the brilliant Oxford art historian Ian Pears. Like all of Pears’ books, many of the characters are actual individuals. The novels tend to present historical happenings through the medium of mystery and intrigue. I would call them highly erudite page turners. My favorite “The Dream of Scipio” is focused on the decline of various civilizations that become ever more barbaric as power loses contact with individuals and freedom. His most riveting and chilling example is WWII, but more than WWII the book focuses on the Holocaust and makes the case that the Holocaust while a major element of the war, still has to be regarded on its own terms.

Fast Forward To Today…

In discussing Russia’s current leader, Vladimir Putin, we find there are many inconvenient facts that are glossed over. Putin, while serving in the KGB in East Germany was a highly skilled technocrat who resigned from his post in 1988 toward the end of the Cold War. According to some sources, Wikipedia, for example, he was unable to make ends meet after his resignation and drove a cab for a period to make extra money. There are also rumors and also unconfirmed that he did do some field work during his 16 years with the KGB. To the best of my knowledge there are no rumors of his involvement in assassinations or other heinous acts of which he is regularly accused. What is not rumor but confirmed by multiple sources both written and verbal is that Vladimir Putin is highly educated – perhaps better educated than any leader of any major country in recent history.


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