The Killing Ground
To the Editor:
Robert Alter’s cogent criticism of the exploitation of the Holocaust [“Deformations of the Holocaust,” February] evoked intense debate among correspondents in your June issue. Yet that same issue contained George Watson’s curious attempt to imply that Stalin and the Soviet Union bear major responsibility not only for having presented Nazi Germany with a model for mass murder, but for actually cooperating in the Holocaust [“Rehearsal for the Holocaust?”]. Actually, Stalin’s record is monstrous enough without having to indict him for Hitler’s crimes as well.
Mr. Watson is fundamentally wrong to imply that the decision to kill all the Jews was made at the infamous Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942. . . Just when the actual decision by Hitler to eliminate all Jews once and for all was taken is unknown. Histories have narrowed the likely period down to between early December 1940 and mid-March 1941, joining the elimination of Jewry with the elimination of the “Jew-Bolshevik” Communist empire.
Himmler, head of the SS, was given special authority to eliminate all Jews and other Bolsheviks during the invasion of Russia. To carry out his orders, Himmler directed the formation of special mobile police units, the infamous Einsatzgruppen, which by the end of 1941 had killed at least a half-million Jews and others. Eventually, these mobile killing squads may have killed over two million, using firearms as well as mobile gas chambers.
The Wannsee Conference marked the attempt by Reinhard Heydrich, the commander of the Germany security and police forces, to coordinate the various bureaucracies of Nazi Germany for a major intensification and acceleration of the anti-Jewish campaign. (Heydrich had already been charged, on July 31, 1941, with the task of achieving the “Final Solution” to the Jewish question.) Did the Germans find and use a Soviet model for mass murder? Mr. Watson uses admittedly circumstantial evidence to build his case for an affirmative answer.
He refers to the secret military cooperation between Weimar Germany and Soviet Russia in the 1920′s, when both were pariah states. He goes on to stress the cooperation in partitioned Poland (1939-41) in putting down resistance in the respective German and Soviet areas of occupation. Although the Soviets did perfidiously turn over to the Gestapo numerous German Communists, including Margarete Buber, whom Mr. Watson cites as a source, he goes too far when he claims that the Soviets turned over “vast numbers of Poles and others” for Nazi forced labor. Mr. Watson even suggests that the SS and NKVD exchanged concentration-camp personnel.
Perhaps the SS learned something of killing techniques from the shooting of over 4,000 Polish army officers and others whose remains were found in mass graves in the Katyn forest near Smolensk in February 1943. It is generally accepted that these Poles were killed by the Soviets, probably in April 1940, along with over 10,000 other Poles whose remains have never been located. But without any real evidence, Mr. Watson also suggests that the Katyn massacre was “discussed, even sponsored” at a secret conclave of the Gestapo and NKVD at Krakow, in April 1940.
Mr. Watson is fascinated by the superficial similarities in technique used by the Soviets at Katyn and by the German mobile-killing units later: the neatly layered bodies, shot through the back of the neck “rather than the heart.” The Germans prided themselves on being “truly humane”; a shot in the back of the neck is more likely to be quickly fatal than an attempt to shoot through the heart. Additionally, one need not look the victim in the eyes. . . .
Mr. Watson makes passing reference to the use of mass shootings as “the Soviet way” by the 1930′s. Since he refers to Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror (1968), it is odd that Mr. Watson does not go into the mass killings of hundreds and thousands of prisoners by the NKVD, ordered periodically during 1936-39. Conquest estimates a minimum toll in Stalin’s great purge of over one million shot to death, while millions more died of starvation, exhaustion, and exposure in the prison camps of Siberia. Here is where one might find a comparison with the Nazi campaign against the Jews—although one should be careful to discern the difference between the political charges (albeit trumped up by Stalin’s cohorts) and the Nazi racist goal of exterminating Jewry from the elderly to the infants. . . .
It is wrong to identify, as Mr. Watson does, the use of the term “resettlement” in a September 1941 Soviet decree with the use it was put to by the Nazis. In the fall of 1941, the Soviet Union was engaged in a desperate effort to survive the massive German invasion. Millions of workers and whole factories were “resettled” to enable the Soviet Union to mount the counterattack that was a primary factor in the defeat of the Nazi juggernaut.
This is not to say that hundreds of thousands of Poles and others were not deported from Soviet-occupied areas to the Far East and Central Asia during 1939-41, before the German invasion. Conquest estimates that over a million Poles were deported as unreliable elements. They included over 200,000 captured Polish troops, among whom were many Jews, including a young officer named Menachem Begin.
Although tens of thousands of Jews died as a result of the harsh conditions in Soviet Central Asia or as a result of NKVD shootings (many Jewish officers were identified among the dead at Katyn), perhaps a quarter-million Polish Jews survived the war because of “resettlement” to the East of the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviets made no special effort to shelter Jews from the Germans. Throughout the period preceding the June 1941 invasion, Soviet censorship blocked any reports of the persecutions, atrocities, and outright mass murder already being committed by the Germans in Poland. Thus, thousands of Jews mistakenly fled the oppressive Soviet regime for what they assumed could not be worse conditions in Western Poland. . . .
Regarding the concentration camp, Mr. Watson makes the common error of confusing the handful of extermination camps (Vernichtungslagern) with the mass of concentration camps. Although many thousands died in the German concentration camps and all of the major camps had crematoria and small gas chambers, the concentration camps were not primarily for the purpose of killing. Initially set up to hold masses of arrestees, the camps would eventually become a major source of forced labor for the German war effort, though conditions were so brutal that an SS accountant during the war calculated that the average prisoner survived no more than nine months.
Thus, contrary to Mr. Watson’s assertion, the Nazis did originate the extermination camp; they were pioneers in such systematized, mechanized, bureaucratized murder of millions of civilians. However, Mr. Watson is correct to imply that the Nazis did not invent the concentration camp. Not even Lenin has that dubious distinction. The first known uses of such camps were in Cuba by the Spanish and in South Africa by the British during the Boer War. The Bolsheviks may have used camps to hold the masses of “class enemies” arrested during the first years of the Soviet Union. The vast system of prison camps described by Solzhenitsyn was a necessary development to accommodate the millions upon millions arrested for political offenses real and imagined during Stalin’s reign. Conquest estimates an average of eight million prisoners in the Soviet camps during the late 30′s. . . .
Finally, Mr. Watson’s claim that Marx and Engels “publicly advocated racial extermination” is absurd. In fact, Conquest emphasizes that the founders of Communism were opposed to the use of terror. If Mr. Watson has the citation for racial extermination in the works of Marx and Engels, it would be useful to publish it. . . .
Robert Moses Shapiro
Baltimore Hebrew College
To the Editor:
George Watson . . . claims in his article that “there is no known Soviet parallel to the Nazi gas chambers” and adds, “gas must be presumed the original Nazi contribution.” May I cite a source that claims there were Soviet gas chambers as early as 1938?
The scarce, few witnesses who chanced by some miracle to survive from among those who took part in the annihilation of the old Communists also told us that bathhouses at the brick factory had been rigged up as gas chambers for Oppositionists. Under the pretext of giving them sterilizing baths for hygienic purposes before they were to be shipped off, they herded people into these bathhouses, from which they never returned.
The quotation is from “Memoirs of a Bolshevik-Leninist” and appears on p. 171 of Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition (edited by George Saunders, Monad Press, New York, 1974). The author is anonymous but was once a member of the Left Opposition in the 1920′s. The chambers apparently were at Vorkuta. The reference is cited with approval by Nikolai Tolstoy in his Victims of Yalta. . . .
Gregory J. Lanning
Vancouver, British Columbia
George Watson writes:
Robert Shapiro is an inattentive reader. He calls me fundamentally wrong to imply that the Nazi decision to exterminate the Jews was first taken at the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, though in my article I called Wannsee “a climax rather than a beginning,” adding that perhaps half a million had already died before that. There is no difference between us in this matter. Again, he complains that I go too far in speaking of “vast numbers of Poles” being turned over by the USSR to the Nazis as forced labor, during the Hitler-Stalin pact, though the remark is not mine but Winston Churchill’s, and though I quote that source. I have never claimed to know how many Poles were handed over.
I cannot understand why Mr. Shapiro accuses me, as an impropriety, of suggesting “without any real evidence” that the Katyn massacre of Poles by the Soviets was discussed and even sponsored by the NKVD-Gestapo conference in Cracow in April 1940. What I wrote was: “That these two events happened simultaneously may or may not be a coincidence.” A suggestion, in fact, is all that it is. I fully accept and assert that similarities between Soviet and Nazi techniques of mass-killing, during and after their alliance of 1939-41, may be no more than circumstantial. My article was published to elicit evidence.
Other muddles remain. I am accused, in addition, of “identifying” Soviet uses of the term “resettlement” with the Nazis, though I do not; and of confusing concentration camps with extermination camps, though these terms sometimes need to be confused, since some camps served a double purpose. That there were institutions called concentration camps in Cuba and South Africa in the last century is beside the point: I was not concerned in my article with the lexical question of how this term arose, interesting as that question is, but with the priority of events themselves. Institutions are not resemblant merely by virtue of sharing a common name, as any People’s Democracy shows.
Mr. Shapiro calls my claim that Marx and Engels publicly advocated racial extermination absurd, and challenges me to produce evidence from their published works. I have already done so, in my book Politics and Literature in Modern Britain (Macmillan: London, 1977), pp. 127 ff., in a chapter called “Race and the Socialists” previously published in Encounter (November 1976). The chief texts are from the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (January-February 1849) on the Slavs: “. . . The chief mission of all other races and peoples, large and small, is to perish in the revolutionary holocaust;. . . they are counter-revolutionary.” The article calls for extermination or absorption for “ethnic trash” (“Völkerabfall”): “The next world war will cause not only reactionary classes and dynasties, but also entire reactionary peoples to disappear from the earth. And that too is progress.” A remarkable prediction of World War II, for 1849. Politics and Literature goes on to link Marx’s belief in racial extermination with 19th-century views of eugenics, using the new evidence of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks (1972), along with some details eventually incorporated in Das Kapital and reappearing in the writings of Beatrice Webb, H. G. Wells, and later socialists. I hope, then, that I will not be arraigned for lack of documentary evidence when I assert that racial purification has been a common, often an essential, element in socialist thought, in that century and this, and that Hitler’s title to call himself a socialist, as he did throughout his political life, may have been better than is often supposed. Socialists should study their own scriptures more closely.
The reason why the Soviet holocaust is harder to research than the Nazi is that the same party is still in power in the USSR. No Soviet camp has ever been liberated, as the Nazi camps were. This makes my comparison speculative, for want of balancing evidence. I am well aware that I have not yet proved that the Nazis learned extermination from the Soviet Union: all I have shown is that they could have done so, and may have done so. But I am hopeful that others can do more. If there are camp survivors from Communist or Nazi hands, or any who remember them, who can recall evidence of Soviet-Nazi collaboration, or exchange of camp-personnel, or of similarities of method so exact as to be compelling, I warmly hope they will write to me at St. John’s College, Cambridge, England.