The Spectator

Stalin’s Cannibals

What the new book Bloodlands tells us about the nature of evil.

How much should the cannibalism count? How should we factor it into the growing historical-moral-political argument over how to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides, and the death tolls of communism and fascism in general. I know I had not considered it. I had really not been aware of the extent of the cannibalism that took place during the Stalinist-enforced famine in the Ukraine in 1933 until I read Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder’s shocking, unflinching depiction of it in Bloodlands, his groundbreaking new book about Hitler’s and Stalin’s near-simultaneous genocides.

For the past three decades, beginning with what was called in Germany the Historikerstreit, or historians’ battle, continuing with the 1997 French publication of The Black Book of Communism (which put the death toll from communist regimes at close to 100 million compared with 25 million from Hitler and fascism), there has been a controversy over comparative genocide and comparative evil that has pitted Hitler’s mass murders against Stalin’s, Mao’s, and Pol Pot’s.

I had been all too vaguely aware of the role the Stalin-imposed Ukraine famine played in the argument—according to many calculations, it added more than 3 million dead to the sum of Stalin’s victims.

But I suppose that, without looking deeply into it, I had considered Stalin’s state-created famine a kind of “soft genocide” compared with the industrialized mass murder of Hitler’s death camps or even with the millions of victims of Stalin’s own purges of the late ‘30s and the gulags they gave birth to.

Snyder’s book, while controversial in some respects, forces us to face the facts about the famine, and the cannibalism helps place the Ukraine famine in the forefront of debate, not as some mere agricultural misfortune, but as one of the 20th century’s deliberate mass murders.

Students of comparative evil often point out that Stalin caused a higher death toll than Hitler, even without taking the famine deaths into account; those losses were not treated the same way as his other crimes or as Hitler’s killing and gassing in death camps. Shooting or gassing is more direct and immediate than starving a whole nation.

But Snyder’s account of the Ukraine famine persuasively makes the case that Stalin in effect turned the entire Ukraine into a death camp and, rather than gassing its people, decreed death by famine.

Should this be considered a lesser crime because it’s less “hands-on”? Here’s where the accounts of cannibalism caused me to rethink this question—and to examine the related question of whether one can distinguish degrees of evil in genocides by their methodology.

The argument has been simmering for some time because it has consequences for how we think of events in contemporary history. Nazism, it is generally agreed, cannot be rehabilitated in any way, because it was inextricable from Hitler’s crimes, but there are some on the left who believe communism can be rehabilitated despite the crimes of Stalin, and despite new evidence that the tactics of terror were innovations traceable to his predecessor Lenin.

There are those like the Postmodern sophist Slavoj Žižek who argue that Stalin’s crimes were his aberrational distortion of an otherwise admirably utopian Marxist-Leninism whose reputation still deserves respect and maybe a Lacanian tweak in light of the genocidal reality of Marxist/Leninist regimes. But can one really separate an ideology from the genocides repeatedly committed in its name?

In reviewing Bloodlands in The New York Review of Books, my Slate colleague Anne Applebaum observed:

[U]ntil recently, it was politically incorrect in the West to admit that we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another. Only now … has the extent of the Soviet Union’s mass murders become better known in the West. In recent years, some in the former Soviet sphere of influence … have begun to use the word “genocide” in legal documents to describe the Soviet Union’s mass killings too.

Are there distinctions to be made between Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides? Is it possible—without diminishing Hitler’s evil—to argue that Stalin’s crimes were by some measures worse? If we’re speaking of quantity, Stalin’s mass murder death toll may have far exceeded Hitler’s, with many putting the figure at 20 million or so, depending on what you count.

But quantity probably shouldn’t be the only measure. There is also intent. To some, Stalin’s murders are not on the same plane (or at the same depth), because he may have believed however dementedly that he was acting in the service of the higher goal of class warfare and the universal aspirations of the oppressed working class. As opposed to Hitler, who killed in the service of a base, indefensible racial hatred.

But on the other hand, one could argue, Hitler too may have believed he was serving an idealistic cause, “purifying” humanity of a “plague bacillus” (his charming term for Jews) like a doctor (he often compared himself to Koch and Pasteur).

Indeed, I’ll never forget the moment, which I recount in Explaining Hitler, when the great historian H.R. Trevor-Roper leaned toward me over a coffee table in London’s Oxford and Cambridge Club after I’d asked him whether he felt Hitler knew what he was doing was wrong. No, Trevor Roper snapped, “Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude.”

I find it hard to understand anyone who wants to argue that the murder of 20 million is “preferable” to anything, but our culture still hasn’t assimilated the genocidal equivalence between Stalin and Hitler, because, as Applebaum points out, we used the former to defeat the latter. *

Consider the fact that downtown New York is home to a genuinely likable literary bar ironically named “KGB.” The KGB, of course, was merely the renamed version of Stalin’s NKVD, itself the renamed version of the OGPU, the secret police spearhead of his genocidal policies. And under its own name the KGB was responsible for the continued murder and torture of dissidents and Jews until the Soviet Union fell in 1991 (although of course an ex-KGB man named Putin is basically running the place now).

You could argue that naming a bar “KGB” is just a kind of Cold War kitsch (though millions of victims might take issue with taking it so lightly). But the fact that you can even make the kitsch argument is a kind of proof of the differential way Soviet and Nazi genocides and their institutions are still treated. Would people seek to hold literary readings at a downtown bar ironically named “Gestapo”?

The full evil of Stalin still hasn’t sunk in. I know it to be true intellectually, but our culture has not assimilated the magnitude of his crimes. Which is perhaps why the cannibalism jolted me out of any illusion that meaningful distinctions could be made between Stalin and Hitler.

Perhaps we’ve failed to assimilate what we’ve learned about Stalin, Soviet communism, and Mao’s communism (50 million may have died in the Great Leap Forward famine and the Cultural Revolution’s murders) because for some time the simmering argument had a kind of disreputable side. In the mid-’80s there were German historians such as Jürgen Habermas accusing other German historians such as Ernst Nolte of trying to “normalize” the Nazi regime by playing up its moral equivalence to Stalinist Russia, by suggesting even that Hitler’s murderous methods were a response to Stalinist terror and genocide, which some saw as an attempt to “excuse” Hitler.

But the disreputable uses to which the argument has been put—normalizing Hitler by focusing on Stalin’s crimes—should not blind us to the magnitude and consequences of those crimes.

There is no algorithm for evil, but the case of Stalin’s has for a long time weighed more heavily the ideological murders and gulag deaths that began in 1937 and played down the millions who—Snyder argues—were just as deliberately, cold-bloodedly murdered by enforced famine in 1932 and 1933.

Here is where the shock of Snyder’s relatively few pages on cannibalism brought the question of degrees of evil alive once again to me. According to Snyder’s carefully documented account, it was not uncommon during the Stalin-imposed famine in Soviet Ukraine for parents to cook and eat their children.

The bare statement alone is horrifying even to write.

The back story: While Lenin was content, for a time anyway, to allow the new Soviet Union to develop a “mixed economy” with state-run industry and peasant-owned private farms, Stalin decided to “collectivize” the grain-producing breadbasket that was the Ukraine. His agents seized all land from the peasants, expelling landowners and placing loyal ideologues with little agricultural experience in charge of the newly collectivized farms, which began to fail miserably. And to fulfill Five-Year Plan goals, he seized all the grain and food that was grown in 1932 and 1933 to feed the rest of Russia and raise foreign capital, and in doing so left the entire Ukrainian people with nothing to eat—except, sometimes, themselves.

I’ve read things as horrifying, but never more horrifying than the four pages in Snyder’s book devoted to cannibalism. In a way I’d like to warn you not to read it; it is, unfortunately, unforgettable. On the other hand, not to read it is a refusal to be fully aware of what kind of world we live in, what human nature is capable of. The Holocaust taught us much on these questions, but alas, there is more to learn. Maybe it’s better to live in denial. Better to think of human history Pollyanna-like, as an evolution upward, although sometimes I feel Darwin spoke more truly than he knew when he titled his book The Descent of Man. Certainly one’s understanding of both Stalinism and human nature will be woefully incomplete until one does read Snyder’s pages.

Here is an excerpt:

In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine “Families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating.” Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter. One 6-year-old girl, saved by other relatives last saw her father when he was sharpening a knife to slaughter her. Other combinations were, of course, possible. One family killed their daughter-in-law, and fed her head to the pigs, and roasted the rest of her body.”

According to Snyder “at least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, although the actual number of cases was most certainly greater.”

One more horror story. About a group of women who sought to protect children from cannibals by gathering them in an “orphanage” in the Kharkov region:

“One day the children suddenly fell silent, we turned around to see what was happening, and they were eating the smallest child, little Petrus. They were tearing strips from him and eating them. And Petrus was doing the same, he was tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could. The other children put their lips to his wounds and drank his blood. We took the child away from their hungry mouths and we cried.”

“And appetite, an universal wolf/ So doubly seconded with will and power/ Must make perforce an universal prey/ And last eat up himself.” So Shakespeare wrote, but note that he is speaking not just of the appetite for food, but for power. Stalin was the true cannibal.

How should one react to this? There may only have been a few thousand cases, compared with the millions Stalin starved or murdered, compared with Hitler’s slaughters, but there is something in these accounts that forces one to realize there are depths of evil one has not been able to imagine before. Killing another human being, killing millions of human beings. Evil. But forcing parents to cook and eat their children—did one know this was in the repertoire of human behavior? Must we readjust radically downward our vision of human nature? That any human could cause or carry out such acts must mean many are capable of it.

The point of the controversy really should be not whether Hitler or Stalin was worse, but that there was more than one of them, more than two of course: There are also Pol Pot and the Rwandan killers, among others.

Even if those 2,500 arrests for cannibalism were dwarfed by the numbers of those 2 million or more starved to death, they have something unspeakable to say, something almost beyond words. In the light of these reports, can those such as Slavoj Žižek still defend Marxism for its utopian universalism and dismiss the cannibalism as unfortunate unintended consequences of too much zealousness in pursuit of a higher cause? Just a detour on the road to Utopia. Tell us, Mr. Žižek, please. (And by the way, to scorn Postmodern Marxism is not to defend the failings of Postmodern capitalism.)

Should we hold different kinds of genocide differentially evil? One would think brutal direct mass slaughter to be the worst form, but forcing human beings to descend to cannibalizing their children goes beyond physical torture and killing. It is spiritual torture, murder of the souls. In a way more vicious and wicked because the enforced self-degradation is unimaginable in its suffering.

We know what it says about Stalin and his henchmen, all too willing to be accomplices of this horror. But what about the cannibals? How should we regard them? Purely as victims, with no choice? Certainly they must have suffered mentally and spiritually more than we can imagine. But does that mean they didn’t have a choice? If we accept they had a choice are we blaming the victims? Or is it clear they were driven insane by starvation—and cannot be held fully culpable by reason of diminished capacity? On the other hand not every family that starved to death turned to cannibalism; were they of stronger moral constitution?

Snyder is very careful about this. He concedes “cannibalism is a taboo of literature as well as life, as communities seek to protect their dignity by suppressing the record of this desperate mode of survival. Ukrainians outside the Soviet Union have treated cannibalism as a source of great shame.”

This is an almost too carefully, thus confusingly, worded sentence. It seems as if he’s saying that some communities haven’t sought to suppress the facts, but feel shame—”Ukrainians outside the Soviet Union.” But there is no more Soviet Union. What did or do the Ukrainians who now have their own nation feel? What are they supposed to feel? Victimized into being perpetrators?

These are not easy questions, the ones about how to evaluate degrees of evil. I spend probably too much time thinking about them. Sometimes there are distinctions without a significant difference. Here are some very preliminary thoughts:

—Even if the cannibalism was confined to a few thousand and the larger genocides involved millions, they are not irrelevant to the heart of darkness revealed in the “bloodlands” that lay between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

—There are some distinctions, but no real difference, between Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides. Once you get over 5 million, it’s fair to say all genocidal monsters are alike.

Finally, the only other conclusion one can draw is that “European civilization” is an oxymoron. These horrors, Nazi and Communist, all arose out of European ideas, political and philosophical, being put into practice. Even the Cambodian genocide had its genesis in the cafes of Paris where Pol Pot got his ideas. Hitler got his ideas in the cafes of Vienna.

“After such knowledge,” as Eliot said, “what forgiveness?”

Correction, Feb. 9, 2011: This sentence originally transposed the words
former and latter, inadvertently suggesting that the Allies used Hitler to defeat Stalin, rather than vice versa. (Return to the corrected sentence.)