Jun 2004 Journal

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The demons inside dictators' minds (editorial)

Whereas May comes on strong on the very first day, June reaches its high point two-thirds of the way through the month. On 21 June, the date of the summer solstice, the sun reaches the northernmost point of its ecliptic - the longest day of the year.

In the Third Reich the occasion used to be marked by Sonnwendfeiern - community singing, dancing and athletic contests around bonfires lit on hilltops and in forest glades - as part of the Nazi drive to turn the country back from Christian to pagan practices.

The night of 21 June 1941 was also the date the astrology-conscious Hitler chose to launch his most audacious enterprise, the invasion of Russia. The invading forces were staggeringly successful at first - but failed to land a decisive knock-out blow on the retreating Red Army. Then, in October, the first snowfall heralding the bitter Russian winter brought the Wehrmacht's advance to a temporary halt.

Why did Hitler allow his troops the ludicrously short time-span of four months to vanquish an enemy who had worsted Napoleon? The answer lies in the pathological racism which addled his brain. Reared in a home suffused with Pan-Germanism - his father was a Schönerer supporter - he hated 'mongrelised' Vienna, a city full of Slavs and Jews.

Convinced by his Slavophobia that the Russians were a subhuman rabble, he proceeded on the assumption that the Wehrmacht would 'finish the job' in one brief campaigning season. (Consequently he omitted to provide his troops with adequate winter clothing, causing widespread frostbite.)

His pathological racism also militated against a successful outcome of Operation Barbarossa in another way. Russian - and especially Ukrainian - revulsion at Soviet rule with its forced collectivisation and man-made famines had turned many inhabitants of the German-occupied territories into potential collaborators, but Hitler's Slavophobic inhumanity drove them back into Stalin's arms.

The world Hitler envisioned after victory bore the hallmarks of his race-mania. It was to be 'cleansed' of all Jews, and the vast spaces of Russia were to be inhabited by a severely culled Slav population in a state of perpetual serfdom to their German overlords.

Whereas Hitler's pathological mindset was fully formed by his late twenties, Stalin's proceeded on its downward spiral into total paranoia throughout the best part of his life.

This had something to do with the widely disparate origins of their superficially similar totalitarian ideologies. Nazism harked back - via (ill-digested) Nietzsche to Gobineau's racism and Fichte's Teutomania - to a rejection of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Marxism-Leninism, on the other hand, was a bastardised offspring of that very same Enlightenment.

This meant that the multinational Soviet Union over which Stalin ruled after 1924 subscribed - officially at least - to notions of racial equality. It also meant that in the newly established ruling apparatus minorities that had been discriminated against under the Tsar - such as Poles, Georgians and Jews - were over-represented.

The beginning of Stalin's reign was taken up by his struggle with Trotsky, whom he fought as an intellectual internationalist - hence Stalin's slogan 'Socialism in one country' - but not as a Jew. In contrast to the polyglot highbrow Trotsky, Stalin would point to his trusted 'buddy', the Jewish proletarian, i.e. ex-cobbler, Lazar Kaganovich. For all that Kaganovich was known by the antisemitically tinged nickname 'Kosherovich' among the Kremlin elite, he never entirely forfeited Stalin's trust. And there was another curious factor. Possibly because well brought up daughters of the Tsarist bourgeoisie disdained professional revolutionaries as marriage partners, an amazing number of Soviet high-ups - Molotov, Marshal Voroshilov, KGB chief Yezhov, etc. - had married less conventionally minded Jewesses.

Early on, these Jewish wives in the Kremlin brought a badly needed touch of glamour to Stalin's court. The whole phenomenon was symbolised by the appointment of Polina Molotov as the first commissar of the Soviet perfumery industry.

In the thirties the rise of Hitler made Stalin stress the Soviet Union's anti-racist credentials and allow another polyglot Jewish intellectual, Maxim Litvinov, to represent Russia vis-à-vis the outside world. At Geneva Litvinov tirelessly preached 'collective security' to an unfortunately unresponsive West to preserve peace.

Then in May 1939 Stalin replaced Litvinov with Molotov, signalling to Hitler that the way was open for a Nazi-Soviet pact. (At the same time, he ordered Molotov to 'clear out the synagogue', i.e. purge the many Jews staffing the foreign ministry.)

With the conclusion of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Russian media stopped reporting overnight the antisemitic atrocities that occurred in German-occupied Eastern Europe. Soviet Jews therefore had no inkling of the fate that was to overtake them once the German invaded - a fate symbolised by the dreadful massacre in Babi Yar near Kiev.

At the height of the war the hard-pressed Stalin, re-enacting his earlier role as a stalwart anti-antisemite, set up a Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in Moscow and sent its chairman, the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels, to the USA and Britain to drum up support for the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile in the territories newly liberated from the Germans Soviet officialdom refused to treat Jewish survivors as special cases, saying that all Soviet citizens had suffered equally at the hands of the Nazis. After 1945 in the run-up to the Israeli War of Independence the Soviets aided the Jewish cause, both diplomatically and with arms shipments from Czechoslovakia.

This was followed by another volte-face on Stalin's part. When Golda Meir arrived as Israel's first ambassador to Moscow, Polina Molotov was observed chatting to her in Yiddish. This earned the Soviet Prime Minister's Jewish wife a sentence of eight years' banishment in Siberia, and symbolised his growing suspicion that the sympathies of Soviet Jews did not lie with their socialist homeland, but with Israel and America. As Stalin's paranoia deepened over the last five years of his life, Jews were cumulatively targeted. First came the KGB's murder of Mikhoels, which coincided with a vicious media campaign against 'rootless cosmopolitans'. There followed the judicial murder of exponents of Yiddish culture such as Perets Markish and Leib Kvitko - a chapter of horrors climaxed by the notorious Doctors' Plot.

It is rumoured that Stalin was even contemplating the mass deportation of Soviet Jewry to Siberia when he shuffled off his mortal coil, thereby lifting the shadow of fear from millions.

next article:The longest hatred