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Hitler’s ruthlessness vs.Stalin's

LAURENCE REES: Although Stalin isn’t getting involved in creating factories of death where enormous numbers of people come and they’re absolutely all eliminated.

DAVID CESARANI: You’re trying to convince me that Stalin doesn’t take it as far as Hitler?


DAVID CESARANI: I think that Stalin takes it further than Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: But if you go to the Crimea today, there are still Tatar communities. And these were people who were hideously persecuted by Stalin. But, years later, the communities, albeit horribly damaged, are still there. But when you go to Lithuania there are scarcely any Jewish communities at all?

DAVID CESARANI: Well, I think that both of these ghastly men were cheated of final success in their own terms. Had Stalin lived longer, certainly if the thousand year Reich had lasted for more than 12 years then I think there would have been fewer survivors of the groups targeted for destruction. We know that when the German Army with its allies invaded the Soviet Union at Hitler’s orders that there was a plan for 30 million Soviet citizens to perish. It is almost certain that had Operation Barbarossa been successful 30 million Soviet citizens would have died, and, incidentally, the mass murder of the Jews would have paled into insignificance in comparison with that crime.

Equally if Stalin had not died when he did it’s very likely that there would have been a state organised pogrom, a rounding up of the Jews in the Soviet Union and another million Jews would have been murdered there. The fate of the Tatars and the Chechens was redeemed simply because Stalin died when he did and the men who followed didn’t have the kind of ruthlessness that he had and let the remnants of these groups survive.

LAURENCE REES: So you really don't see much of a difference between Stalin and Hitler in this respect? 

DAVID CESARANI: Well, I think the parallels between Hitler and Stalin are appropriate at the level of scale and totality. There are significant differences in terms of the technology of destruction and also the motivation. What makes the Nazis war against the Jews, and I think it is appropriate to use that term, war against the Jews, the genocide against the Jews, what makes it unique, is the way that it draws upon, commingles with, a millennia of hostility between Jews and Christians. This is singular: the hostility between Jews and Christians. This ancient hatred need not have eventuated in genocide, that wasn’t at all inevitable; I’m not saying that. It is the unique coalescence of racial biological thinking about the Jews and traditional hatred of Jews and hatred of Judaism that leads to this unprecedented and, as yet, and we hope forever, unsurpassed genocide that used certain kinds of modern technologies of destruction. It’s the use of the technology, the fixed site extermination centres, that distinguishes the war against the Jews and its culminating phase, the genocide, from other genocides and from what Stalin did. Stalin never ordered his henchmen to set up killing centres and then to ship people by the hundreds of thousands to those places.

LAURENCE REES: Stalin did set up killing centres - but not to kill hundreds of thousands of people - in the context of the Katyn massacre. He set up killing centres to murder over 20,000 Polish officers and the Polish elite.

DAVID CESARANI: Yes, but that was no different to Ivan the Terrible wiping out the Boyars or..

LAURENCE REES: No. But it’s interesting that in this case the Soviets, the NKVD, did set up killing centres, that’s what they were - people arrived, they’d be documented, checked and then shot in the back of the head.

DAVID CESARANI: It’s a very traditional way of killing.

LAURENCE REES: But from what you’ve said before, I thought you were arguing that Stalin held the view that the Chechens or the Crimean Tatars should be eradicated as a people, but that he hadn’t had time to do this before the end of his life?

DAVID CESARANI: Well, there are variations on the theme of genocide: politicide, ethnocide, for example. Stalin destroyed the national basis for the Chechen people for a period. Their culture outlawed, the social economic basis for a Chechen existence completely disrupted, the people physically separated from their lands for a period of time, which, had it been perpetuated, might have led to their entire disappearance as tribes and nations in human history have indeed disappeared if they have been so disrupted and driven from their traditional homelands. In a sense time and luck saved some of the ethnic and national groups targeted by Stalin. Stalin and his people never made the conceptual leap that certainly the Nazis made, to accelerating the process of destruction of a defined group, an ethnic, religious group; what they considered to be a biological racial group, and using modern technology to be able to achieve it within a very short period of time; within the foreseeable future.

And that takes us to one of the turning points in the war, and in policy towards the Jews. Hitler, for the first two years of the war, had said the Jewish question would be solved after the war, deferred to the indefinite future.

There comes a moment during the war in the autumn of 1941 when Hitler decides that the Jewish question will be solved during the war, and that’s a very radical change. Not only does it involve certain logistical issues because he’s fighting a global war as well as now deciding to physically destroy the Jews or get rid of them in the most radical way imaginable, but he’s going to do it within the span of the war. And wars are usually finite; he believed the war would be won. Indeed, I think there’s a lot of truth in Christopher Browning’s argument that it’s the euphoria of victory, the belief that victory in the war with Russia is imminent, that enables Hitler to conceive of now physically destroying the Jews or at least shifting them so far to the margins of human civilisation that they can be safely forgotten about; their power utterly broken, removed as any threat at all.

The point to be aware of is that never before in history, I think, had a leader decided that within a conceivable timeframe, an ethnic religious group would be physically destroyed and that equipment would be devised and created to achieve that. That was unprecedented and it has not been repeated. It remains, in that sense, quite singular, and it’s at that point that the conceptual leap, and the combination of the technologies of destruction with a willingness to destroy human life on a massive scale, come together.