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Pining for Authoritarianism By: Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, September 17, 2009

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is David Satter, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.


FP: David Satter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.


On July 3, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OBSE) passed a resolution to make August 23 an international day of memory for the victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The gist of this resolution was, naturally, that Stalinism and Nazism are essentially the same. Russia called the resolution “a direct insult to the memory of millions” of Soviet citizens who died in the war.


What are your thoughts on these developments?


Satter: The question of whether Stalinism and Nazism are the same phenomenon is not new. The identity of the two forms of totalitarianism was first suggested by Hannah Arendt in the 1950s in her classic study, The Origins of Totalitarianism. It is being raised again now because Russia, in order to rehabilitate the Soviet past, is emphasizing the role of Stalinism in crushing Nazism. At the same time, Ukraine and the Baltic republics, some of whose citizens were Nazi collaborators, are seeking to call attention to their suffering under Stalinism.


Under these circumstances, I think the question needs to be considered in two ways, theoretically and practically. First, in theoretical terms, I believe that Stalinism and Nazism are the same phenomenon. In both cases, what was involved was the use of total terror to impose a supposedly infallible ideology. The German and Soviet leaders conjured up a false and horrifyingly oversimplified view of the universe and then, using it as a model, employed overwhelming force to remake reality.


At the same time, however, the content of the ideologies was different. Soviet ideology promised universal brotherhood based on the triumph of the working class. Nazi ideology took its inspiration from the animal world. By exterminating inferior races, it wanted to ensure the “survival of the fittest.” Because of this difference in the nature of the totalitarian ideologies, it is possible to say that Nazism was worse than Stalinism and represented an absolute evil that has never been equaled. The communists did not pursue extermination for its own sake but rather in order to build their version of a just society. Once that society was built, the extermination stopped. The Nazis, however, treated mass murder as an end in itself. Their plans for the racial purification of Europe envisaged an open ended process. With the Jews gone, the next target would have been the Poles and when all other undesirables had been eliminated, a Nazi regime would have begun the racial winnowing of the German people themselves.


The OBSE resolution is a political issue and so the question of the relationship between Stalinism and Nazism also has to be considered practically. When we speak of millions of victims, does the difference in Nazi and Stalinist ideology really matter? According to most estimates, five to seven million persons, mostly Ukrainians, suffered a gruesome death by starvation as a result of the 1932-33 famine at a time when the Soviet Union exported grain. Is it important that the goal of the policies that led to the famine was not extermination per se but the collectivization of agriculture? In 1940, 14,000 Polish army officers were executed in the Katyn Forest and other locations. Does it matter that the goal was not to destroy all Poles but merely to eliminate potential opposition and create the conditions for the establishment of a future Polish socialist republic? The Stalinists stopped at nothing in their efforts to bring “happiness” to humanity or at least that part which was left after they got done exterminating everyone who stood in their way. For this reason, the OBSE was right to equate Nazism and Stalinism. It does not pay to make too much of the differences between the two forms of totalitarianism. But we should be aware of them. 


FP: I’m not so sure that “The communists did not pursue extermination for its own sake but rather in order to build their version of a just society. Once that society was built, the extermination stopped.”


This might be what communists say they believe in, but their ultimate yearnings and impulses are about something very different. 


There is a reason why Karl Marx invoked a dictum of Goethe’s devil: Everything that exists deserves to perish. That’s because the communist impulse is one of hatred. When you study Stalinism and other communist phenomena, it becomes clear that, whatever the slogans were, the key agenda was to purify the earth through human blood. And this purification process never stops. It takes on a life of its own.


So I would disagree if you mean that in its actions communism reached a stage when “extermination” stopped. It may have gone to different levels of intensity, but terror and destruction never ceases in a communist system. The theory is that it stops when utopia is finally built, but in reality, since utopia is never built, and since communism is based on a hatred of human nature and of the human being, extermination, purges and persecution against one “enemy” or another always continues unabated. We know that Stalin was planning new purges.


The communist impulse is to destroy the earth and the universe as it is, then once “the class enemy” is eliminated, then new enemies must be found because the killing must continue. The regime begins to look for new targets for terror and that is why this system is ultimately suicidal and turns on itself, devouring itself.


So both communism and Nazism are born of hatred of human life the way it is and of the human being the way he is. They both seek to build a new earth with a new man, and so they must engage in destruction in order to build that new earth. And this process of destruction is deliberately sought and never ends.

Satter: The history of Stalin’s worst crimes shows that they were directed toward tangible ends. The 1932-33 famine was Stalin’s greatest atrocity but it came to an end once the collective farms were functioning, resistance was crushed and there was an improvement in the weather. The Great Terror, during which 800,000 persons were shot, similarly came to an end (although terror in the country continued) once all real and potential resistance was destroyed.


It’s true, of course, that the Soviet Union never stopped being repressive and there were murders of political opponents during the Brezhnev years. But this is not the same thing as mass extermination.


It is tempting to see no shades of difference in totalitarian regimes but the threat of totalitarian fanaticism will be with us for a long time and to understand its weaknesses we must also acknowledge its strengths. In the case of Stalinism, this was the ability to harness good intentions in the pursuit of utopian goals even if they required heinous crimes for their realization. Stalinism pretended to offer a society without injustice or exploitation. It “proved” that under conditions of socialism, national conflicts would disappear. It held out the hope, in a completely socialized world, of an end to war. It was this that allowed it to win widespread support. In the case of Nazism, intellectual support came from crackpots, mystics and rabid nationalists. Stalinism, however, mesmerized the leading intellectuals of the time. Many of these persons later changed their views and worked to expose the evils of communism but there is no question that they were at one time in thrall to it.


The Soviet Union could not have achieved its goals, including the defeat of Nazism, on the basis of terror alone. It also needed to inspire people and it did this by promising “heaven on earth.” Of course, no such “heaven” was ever created. But people could be terrorized into acting as if it was. And once the regime could force each citizen to play his part in the overall ideological play giving the impression that its goals were achieved, the terror could stop. “To change the direction of the herd,” my late friend, Vyacheslav Luchkov, a Russian psychologist, once said, “you have to kill one in ten. But once the herd is moving in a new direction, it is not necessary to continue killing. You only need occasionally to crack the whip.”


FP: Russia has called the OBSE resolution “infuriating” and an insult to the memory of millions of Soviet citizens who died in the war. Is what you are saying a partial justification of the Russian position? What are the Russians’ motives in this?


Satter: The Russians are trying to interpret their history in a way that will justify authoritarian rule but without the support of the previous ideology. To do this, they have developed a new theory according to which the creation of a strong state is the purpose of Russian history independent of any reason for it to be so. In other words, a means becomes the end.


This new theory requires the glorification of the periods when the Russian state was strong. It also requires uncritical adulation for the Russian state’s achievements. The state was never stronger than under Stalin and its greatest achievement was the defeat of Nazism. Modern day Russia is therefore compelled to glorify the victory in the war and look favorably on Stalin.


It goes without saying that, in this situation, any attempt to point out the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism is very threatening. Such a comparison does not negate the importance of the Soviet victory in the war but it puts it into perspective. It calls needed attention to the suffering of the peoples of the former Eastern bloc and it demonstrates that long range futility of attempts to achieve political ends with undemocratic means. This is why the Russians are reacting so hysterically to the OBSE resolution. They claim that it dishonors their war dead. It does nothing of the kind. It dishonors the criminal regime which waged the war but the heroic role of the Soviet population in the defeat of Nazism is unaffected.


FP: Where then does the essential evil of communism reside?


Satter: The communists did not believe in metaphysics. For the communists, the world was completely knowable. There was no transcendent sphere from which values could be obtained for human life. Society properly organized was the source of values and everything that such a society did was right by definition. Communism replaced the notion of man as a creation of God with the idea of man as a replaceable part in the mechanism of a society. All of its crimes and all the torment it inflicted grew out of these simple but monstrous false premises.


FP: David Satter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.


Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.

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