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Red Army atrocities

LAURENCE REES: How can we understand the reasons for the atrocities that the Red Army commits in Eastern Europe - why is this happening?

SIMON SEBAG-MONTEFIORE: I think that it’s partly vengeance. If you look at 1812, for example, on the retreat, there are incredible barbarities committed by ordinary peasants on the retreating French. If you look back into the early 18th Century you see the Swedes do exactly the same after Poltava. So it is sort of Russian, there’s something rather Russian about that, the sense that when the motherland is threatened you can do anything. I mean, it didn’t just come from the top it also came from the bottom, and I think one’s got to recognise that.

But it did also come from a brutalised nation. Stalin and Bolshevism had made an absolute virtue of hardness, toughness, brutality, pitilessness and that all came into play with the war. Of course it came naturally because they really were facing the most barbarous regime in all of history which made even them look vaguely, well, I wouldn’t say civilised, but compared with the Holocaust and all that sort of thing and the idea of untermenschen, you know, even Stalin’s regime had some redeeming features, though not many. So all this came into play and they realised that they were fighting with the ultimate beasts in the Nazi regime; but also from the top they got the message that they could do what they liked. These peasant boys had fought right the way from Moscow into Europe and when they got to Europe it was party time.

Stalin talked about that in his famous conversations with Millovan Djilas, the Yugoslav communist leader,  when he said what does it matter if a boy who’s fought his way from Stalingrad all the way across Europe plays with a girl on the way? And you’ve got to realise that the whole Bolshevik ethos and Stalin’s ethos personally was that individuals mattered nothing, what mattered more than anything was that his people mattered more than anybody else’s people, and so there was this sort of hierarchy there. And he just thought they could do what the hell they liked. And so he actually gave that impression, he talked about that with his commanders and that went all the way down from the top. So it was something that came from the top and the bottom, it was vengeance, it was national pride, it was Bolshevism and it was Stalinism as well.