January 24, 2020


What unites the Nazis and Communists? (Douglas Murray, January 24, 2020, Unherd)

One of the central, simple insights of the work is the way in which it innocently demonstrates how Nazism and Communism were mirrors of each other.

On one side, the Nazis would put people in camps because of their racial origin. On the other, Soviet, side people could be consigned to the camps because of a relative who had chosen to live abroad or who had the "wrong" job before the revolution. In both cases, the individual could be disappeared due to factors over which they had absolutely no control. As one of the more decent Russian characters of the novel reflects:

"To me, a distinction based on social origin seems legitimate and moral. But the Germans obviously consider a distinction based on nationality to be equally moral. One thing I am certain of: it's terrible to kill someone simply because he's a Jew.  They're people like any others -- good, bad, gifted, stupid, stolid, cheerful, kind, sensitive, greedy... Hitler says none of that matters -- all that matters is that they're Jewish. And I protest with my whole being. But then we have the same principle: what matters is whether or not you're the son of an aristocrat, the son of a merchant, the son of a kulak; and whether you're good-natured, wicked, gifted, kind, stupid, happy is neither here nor there. And we're not talking about the merchants, priests and aristocrats themselves -- but about their children and grandchildren. Does noble blood run in one's veins like Jewishness? Is one a priest or a merchant by heredity?"

Never over-laboured, the mirror keeps offering up reflections. The Germans had their crazed purges just as the Russians -- before, and after, as well as during 1937 -- had theirs. The Nazis had Rohm, the Russians had Bukharin. Stalin and Hitler are not just evil geniuses of their own creation, but clever students of each other.

A genius of Grossman's narrative is not just that he explains the uniqueness and similarity of these evils, but that he causes the reader to get meshed up in this for themselves. As the chapters switch from one camp to another or one command control to another, it takes time -- often not until the give-away of a surname -- to work out which totalitarianism we are in. It is not always at first clear whether we are in the Gulag or Auschwitz, the Reich Chancellery or the Kremlin.

They are so close, that at one breath-holding point Grossman has the two dictators communing. Immediately after the German defeat in the city that has taken his name, Stalin has a moment of "superstitious anxiety" which makes him put down his pencil at his desk. "At that moment he could feel very clearly that Hitler -- conscious of Stalin's thoughts -- was thinking about him."

Posted by at January 24, 2020 5:03 PM