Sunday, May 6, 2012

Stalin's Genocides by Norman Naimark

The idea behind this book is, perhaps if not 'good', at the very least interesting. But this book should have been entitled 'Stalin's Genocides?' as it does a better job asking the question of whether we can consider Stalin's actions 'genocidal' rather than simply stating that they were. Naimark does a good job of synthesizing much of the recent literature on Stalin and the system he implemented throughout the Soviet Union. Some of the points he brings up are simple yet poignant; for instance, the fact that with the death of Stalin actions that could be considered 'genocidal' abruptly ended. Thus, although in many ways Stalin cannot be blamed for all the deaths that took place under his reign, he was in many ways the catalyst that made possible the atmosphere in which those deaths occurred. Unfortunately, this slim volume is plagued by generalizations, omissions, and leaps of logic. A case in point is the argument made by Naimark that Stalin 'set out to eliminate the kulaks as a class, and he did precisely that...' (69) But Naimark himself admits that 'kulaks' were not a real class, they were a creation of the regime, a boogeyman that needed to be excised from Soviet society, and the designation was in constant flux depending on the location, date, or person in question. Thus just because the campaign against kulaks came to an end does not mean that Stalin was successful in their elimination; one cannot eliminate a class that never truly existed! In another instance, Naimark seems to be speaking from hindsight rather than taking the approach of a historian and putting himself in the position of his subject(s). He claims that 'the campaign against the nationalities was suspended precisely in 1938-39, when the war was indeed imminent!' (83) Unfortunately, not everyone considered that war was 'imminent' and considering Hitler's achievements with the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia, Stalin was more inclined to believe future changes in borders would take place through diplomatic negotiations rather than war. When dealing with Hitler and the Nazis, Naimark understands that what became the Holocaust, the genocide of the Jewish population, did not start off as such in 1930s Germany. Yet he attempts to argue that the Nazis did not intend to kill all Jews because many emigrated from Germany before 1939 (126). This conflates German goals and the history of the Holocaust, and in the end is simply a fallacious argument as the Holocaust as it evolved during the Second World War cannot be compared to what was going on in Germany before 1939. While it is true that there were exceptions to the genocide of Jews in Germany (i.e. Jewish soldiers serving in the Wehrmacht, etc.), this does not so much force a comparison between the Holocaust and Stalin's crimes as put into context to what degree was the Holocaust a well thought-out, intentional extermination of the Jewish population of Europe. That is, perhaps genocide should be considered an 'ideal type' that fits within the confines of 'total war', both of which can never truly be achieved due to human limits. A final example is Naimark's contention that the definition of genocide should include more than just 'national, ethnic, and religious' groups, as he asks 'What is, after all, the difference when it comes to human life?' (125) Indeed, what is the difference? Why not just label everything 'mass murder' in that case? This is hardly a credible line of argument. In part Naimark's strengths are his weaknesses as he presents arguments from other scholars that undermine his. This balances out the book but he does not address them adequately enough at times and simply bypasses them while reiterating that Stalin's actions should in the end be considered genocide. Unfortunately this text is best at asking questions rather than positing concrete answers, thus the title should have been 'Stalin's genocides?' as the reader is left with more questions than answers when it comes to not only Stalin but the idea of genocide in general.

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