Consent or coercion?


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The concentration camps of both regimes clearly were not alike. While the Gulag was an extremely lethal environment, it in no way resembled the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The Jews and Gypsies who happened to be caught by the Gestapo had a very slim chance to survive, while the victims of the NKVD-camps had a reasonable chance to make it out alive, though often physically and mentally devastated. Overy states that: “In Germany Jews could not become Aryans, any more than a crippled child could learn to walk; their fate was sealed. But in the Soviet Union the whole object of social and welfare policy was to create the conditions that would eradicate crime and social deviancy and enhance health and social wellbeing.”227 However, the way this utopia was realized was brutal to say the least. The famous novel by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, paints a grimly realistic picture of life in a soviet concentration camp. Richard Overy estimates that approximately 14.6 percent of all inmates in the Gulag died or were murdered, while the German camps had an average lethality of 40 percent. On the other hand, the NKVD shot an enormous amount of people, whom in Nazi-Germany would probably have not been punished so severely.228 And the Soviet government had other ways of dealing with ‘socially dangerous elements’. Millions of people, sometimes complete ethnic groups, were deported to remote areas. They were often just dumped in barren wastelands, either in Siberia, the far north or the Urals. Between 1934 and 1945 there were 5.181.121 people who suffered this fate.229 Nazi officials also deported mainly Polish people deemed “incapable of Germanization” to sparsely populated areas where these innocent civilians had to endure famine and disease.

When we compare the enormous numbers of victims, counted in millions, with the number of political police officials, counted in tens of thousands, we can state that both states had a tremendously productive “legal” system. One could almost say that the officers and other employees of the German and Soviet secret services must have been tireless workaholics. In 1942 for example, the NKVD shot 23,278 people, put 88,809 in concentration camps and exiled a further 7070, with 5249 getting some other sort of punishment.230 This totaled 124,406 sentenced cases in this year, which was also a dramatic war year for the Soviet Union, with less than two thirds of its own population still under its control. Since the NKVD men probably had a lot of other matters on their hands, this was quite an achievement indeed. In the last years of the Third Reich, the Gestapo also worked ferociously. It was plain to see that Germany's defeat was imminent, and the state had to be kept from falling into anarchy. Over 1.7 million Polish workers had been forced into German industry and agriculture by 1944, and they were becoming a threat to domestic society.231 From July to September 1943 105,262 foreign, mainly Polish, workers and servants were arrested.232 For 1944 and 1945 there are no reliable figures, since the authorities stopped registering all their dealings with foreign workers. In these periods it is very difficult to differentiate between the operations at the front line and policing in the interior, since both regimes waged war on a part of its own population. But the amount of arrestees is enormous considering the small police apparatuses.

A striking difference between policing the Reich and the Soviet Union was the fact that the Nazi's projected their power primarily against minorities and against other countries and nationalities, while the Stalinists mostly terrorized their own people. As has already been noticed, being a Communist Party member in the USSR provided no safety. In fact, the Party and government were hit hardest by the Terror. Being a Nazi-party member in Hitler’s Germany did give individuals a personal advantage. Of course there was a great deal of oppression in Germany itself; Nazi Germany had no freedom of speech, freedom of press or of gathering anymore than Stalin’s Russia had. But any German who was not part of a (ethnic) group, religion or political stream discriminated against could live a fairly decent life (provided he or she was not bombed out of course). Johnson’s article demonstrates that amongst Non-Jews in the cities of Cologne, Krefeld, Dresden and Berlin over three quarters “had absolutely no fear at any time of being arrested for any reason by the Gestapo during the Third Reich.”233 However it is known that fear of the Nazi-regime increased notably in the last years of the war. By then “any hint of defeatism or demoralization was punished with brutal indifference”.234
The systems of Nazi-Germany and the USSR were different in a lot of aspects, yet the same in even more. Both countries waged war against a part of their own population, throwing the full weight of their security and judicial systems against groups of people who in practically every other nation of that day and age would have been considered innocent. There was no freedom of speech, freedom of congregation, freedom of press or freedom of movement for large groups in both states. Both states were “run by a one-man, one-party dictatorship, full of concentration camps and secret policemen”235. But Nazi-Germany and the Soviet-Union under Stalin were not like Hobbes’s Leviathan; they were popular regimes, supported by many citizens. Both regimes were the product as well as the transmitters of an aggressive and pervasive ideology, convinced of its own historical correctness. The two ideologies took care of their supporters, by creating jobs and housing, providing medical aid and schooling and by amusing citizens through mass-entertainment and leisure-activities. In short, both regimes were totalitarian.

Nazi's and Stalinists deployed secret police forces against malcontents and other groups they considered enemies. In Nazi-Germany and the USSR the Gestapo and the NKVD had approximately the same tasks, though they were rather different in organization. The NKVD was larger than the Gestapo; however it also had more tasks. Both regimes had remarkably little political policemen. When it came to controlling the population and the battle against enemies of the regime they largely used the same methods. Harassment, arrests, torture, blackmail and bribery were common. Both systems had a system of law that granted their police forces almost complete freedom to act as they saw fit. Their goals were ideologically different but practically similar: the creation of a utopia without ‘undesirable elements’.

In this striving for a ‘better tomorrow’, both secret services were assisted by the people of their respective state. Either voluntarily or involuntarily, rewarded or unrewarded, actively or passively, citizens participated in the policing of other citizens. We have seen in what various ways people denounced or were denounced, and how the secret police apparatuses used fear, greed, jealousy and patriotism to get people to cooperate. There were probably no specific differences between the reasons for denouncement in the USSR or Nazi-Germany, though further research is necessary. Human nature showed itself at its basest or at its most naive in both states from time to time. Reasons for denouncing another person were seldom one-dimensional, but often a combination of circumstances, convictions and impulses. People could turn others in to the authorities for profit or promotion, out of fear, commitment to the regime or a combination of all these factors. The willingness to belong to the new state was a very powerful incentive for some denouncers. However, the denouncers were not the outcasts they were sometimes made out to be. In both totalitarian systems there were citizens from all walks of life who tried to use the states might to further their interests or satisfy their needs. And there were also a lot of citizens who cooperated with the regime out of habit. As mentioned before, the regime needed its citizen’s consent in carrying out its policies, and this consent could be as passive as just ignoring what was happening. To quote Richard Overy's grim remark: “Thousands of those victimized […] were isolated by their social group or their peers, not by the political police.”236 An important factor in understanding denunciations is acknowledging the fact that the denouncers were morally right according to the dominant political views of their day and age. The constant stream of propaganda altered the moral compass of many people. A lot of people simply wanted to belong and acted accordingly. Having the approval of the state to spy on others was a very strong incentive for many denunciations by ordinary citizens.

As mentioned above, the Gestapo and the NKVD were somewhat similar in their organization, their objectives and their means, however they appear to have differed in aims. After all, the number of Jews was fixed; the number of 'enemies of the people' certainly was not. But both systems arrested and executed individuals on a comparable scale. The process of ‘cumulative radicalization’, in both countries made the security services ever more zealous in the hunting down and locking up of ‘enemies’. This was not only a characteristic aspect of the NKVD; in the case of Jews and other “racial threats” the Gestapo was equally ferocious. However, in the USSR anyone could be unmasked as an enemy, while the Gestapo tended more to acquitting German civilians from minor misdemeanors, yet persecuting and punishing Jews and other Rassenfeinde mercilessly.

The NKVD-officers had to work under a lot of pressure since they themselves could be the next victims. Especially those higher up were vulnerable to political fluctuations; when their boss lost Stalin’s trust, they were bound to fall with him. Their only chance to avoid the ‘meat grinder’ was at every moment show their complete commitment to the Vohzd by following every order without question. Gestapo-officials lived and worked under considerably less stress; some of them were allowed to continue their work even if they were known to be unenthusiastic about Nazism. A loss of ideological zeal like that was all but unthinkable in the NKVD. Gestapo personnel on the whole were also better educated than NKVD-men.

So in conclusion one could state that the Gestapo had greater autonomy, more specialized personnel and was less inclined to arrest as many people as possible in comparison to the NKVD. Gestapo-officers were not under the threat of their own organization as were their NKVD-counterparts. Therefore we could say that in order to create and sustain a totalitarian regime it is not necessary per se to terrorize the political police force itself. We could also conclude that political police-officers did not need to be educated civil servants; remorseless thugs could also do the regimes bidding. What was necessary for a totalitarian states police apparatus was a large network of actively or passively cooperating citizens. The reactive nature of both organizations clearly shows that the regimes could not have functioned without consent. A schematic expression of the comparison can be seen in Table 4.



Size of organization


Rather small


Mostly educated, middle class civil servants.

Largely uneducated operator level executives.

Level of autonomy




Mostly reactive.

Mostly reactive.

Dependence on denouncers/informers

Very high.

Very high.

Number of denouncers/informers



Involvement in large security operations



Level of public participation in law-enforcement



‘Cumulative radicalization’

Yes. From 1938 to the end of the war.

Yes. Predominantly during 1936-1938.

Impact on general society



Table 4: Schematic comparison between the Gestapo and the NKVD

The differences in character of the NKVD and the Gestapo are reflected in the victims they made. In Stalin's Russia an enormous amount of people were arrested and put in labor camps for something they had allegedly done. Almost every arrest meant tragedy for the direct family of the victim, who would be exiled, disowned or arrested themselves. However, most of those arrested survived. In Nazi-Germany, certain ethnic groups, like Jews and Gypsies, were hunted down for what they were. The chance of these people to survive was very slim, since they were not punished for a crime or “reformed”, but simply exterminated.

With all these differences considered, it is important to recognize that both NKVD and Gestapo helped sustain two of the most destructive and all-powerful systems the world has ever seen. Yes, the organizations were different, yet the roles they fulfilled in the phantasmagorical nightmares of Stalin's Russia and Nazi-Germany were very much alike. The NKVD and the Gestapo both used informers, denouncers, investigations, enticements, torture and blackmail to create and sustain one of the most diabolical inventions of the twentieth century; the totalitarian state.



-Hall, C., An army of spies? The Gestapo Spy Network 1933—45, in the Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2009)

-Pavlova, I., Contemporary Western historians on Stalin’s Russia in the 1930’s, A critique of the “revisionist” approach, in Russian social science review, vol. 42, no. 6, November-December 2001, pp. 4-30

-Bullock, A., Hitler, A study in tyranny (New York 1962)

-Chang, J. and J. Halliday, Mao, the unknown story (London 2005)

-Conquest, R., Inside Stalin’s secret police (London 1986)

-Conway, J., The Nazi persecution of the churches, 1933-1945 (New York 1968)

-Croes, M. and P. Tammes, Gif laten wij niet voortbestaan, Een onderzoek naar de overlevingskansen van joden in de Nederlandse gemeenten, 1940-1945 (Nijmegen 2006)

-Deutscher, I., Stalin: A Political Biography (New York and London 1949)

-Eberle, H. and M. Uhl, The Hitler book, The secret dossier prepared for Stalin, transl. Giles MacDonogh (London 2005)

-Figes, O., The whisperers, Private life in Stalin’s Russia (London 2007)

-Friedrich, C. ed., Totalitarianism (New York 1964)

-Friedrich C., ed., Totalitarianism in perspective (New York and London 1969)

-Fukuyama, F., The end of history and the last man (New York and London 1992)

-Geifman, A., Thou shalt kill, Revolutionary terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (New Jersey 1993)

-Gellately, R., The Gestapo and German society, Enforcing racial policy 1933-1945 (Oxford 1990)

-Gill, G., Stalinism (London 1990)

-Herbert U. ed., National socialist extermination policies, Contemporary German perspectives and controversies (New York and Oxford 2000)

-Hirschfeld, G., The policies of genocide, Jews and Soviet prisoners of war in Nazi Germany (London 1986)

-Johnson, E. ed., Social control in Europe 1800-2000 (London 2004)

-Juviler, P., Revolutionary law and order, Politics and social change in the USSR (New York and London 1976)

-Kershaw, I. and M. Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in comparison (Cambridge 1997)

-Kershaw, I., Hitler, Hubris 1889-1936 (London 1998)

-Kershaw, I., Hitler, Nemesis 1936-1945 (London 2000)

-Kershaw, I., Popular opinion and political dissent in the Third Reich, Bavaria 1933-1945 (Oxford and New York 1983)

-Langer, W., The mind of Adolf Hitler, The secret wartime report (New York and London 1972)

-Levytsky, B., The uses of terror, The Soviet secret service 1917-70 (London 1971)

-Lewin, M., Stalin in the mirror of the other (Cambridge 1997)

-Montefiore, S., Stalin, The court of the red Tsar (London 2003)

-Montefiore, S., Stalin’s jeugdjaren, Van rebel tot rode Tsaar (Amsterdam 2007)

-Neumann, F., Behemoth (New York 1963)

-Overy, R., The dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (London and New York 2004)

-Overy, R., Why the allies won (London 1995)

-Paul G. and K-M. Mallmann, Karrieren der Gewalt: Nationalsozialistische Täterbiographien (Darmstadt 2004)

-Riasanovsky, N. and M. Steinberg, A history of Russia, Seventh edition (New York and Oxford 2005)

-Trotsky, L., The Revolution Betrayed (London 1936)

-Tucker, R., Stalin in power, The revolution from above 1928-1941 (New York and London 1992)

1F. Fukuyama, The end of history and the last man (New York and London 1992) 23

2A. Inkeles, The totalitarian mystique: some impressions of the dynamics of totalitarian society, in C. Friedrich ed., Totalitarianism (New York 1964) 87

3For instance in A. Bullock's biography of Hitler: Hitler, A study in tyranny (New York 1962) 380-381

4As portrayed for instance by I. Deutscher in: Stalin: A political biography (New York and London 1949) 371

5L. Trotsky, The revolution betrayed (London 1936) 13-14

6“Until the mid-1970s the social history of the Third Reich was a terra incognita” states Mary Nolan in her article “Work, gender and everyday life: reflections on continuity, normality and agency in twentieth-century Germany”, in I. Kershaw and M. Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in comparison (Cambridge 1997) 311

7I. Pavlova, Contemporary Western historians on Stalin’s Russia in the 1930’s (A critique of the revisionist approach), in Russian social science, vol. 42, no. 6 (2001) 13

8 E. Johnson, Some thoughts on social control in “totalitarian” society: the case of Nazi Germany in, E. Johnson ed., Social control in Europe 1800-2000 (London 2004) 259

9C. Hall, An army of spies? The Gestapo Spy Network 1933—45, in the Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2009) 247

10R. Overy, The dictators, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia (London and New York 2004) 208

11K. Deutsch, Social and economic organization, in Friedrich ed., Totalitarianism (1964) 316-317

12 R. Overy, The dictators (2004) 48-49

13C. Friedrich, The unique character of totalitarian society in Friedrich ed. (1964) 50

14Friedrich (1964) 50

15Friedrich (1964) 52

16Friedrich (1964) 52-53

17I. Pavlova, Contemporary Western historians on Stalin’s Russia in the 1930’s, in Russian social science review, vol. 42, no. 6, November-December (2001) 5

18Overy (2004) xxxiii

19I. Kershaw and M. Lewin, The regimes and their dictators: perspectives of comparison, in Stalinism and Nazism , Dictatorships in comparison (Cambridge 1997) 1

20Kershaw and Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism (1997) 1

21Mao Zedong's China, however, will not be taken into the equation. John Halliday and Jung Chang best articulate the reasons for this choice. They demonstrate that Mao was even “more extreme than Hitler or Stalin” in his destruction of civil society. Another major difference between aforementioned dictators and Mao is the fact that Mao wanted his crimes against people to be seen by and participated in by everyone, whereas Hitler and Stalin tried to cover them up to at least some degree. J. Halliday and J. Chang, Mao, the unknown story (London 2005) 549

22I. Kershaw, Hitler, Hubris 1889-1936 (London 1998) 468

23Kershaw, Hitler, Hubris (1998) 152

24Overy (2004) 114

25I. Kershaw, Hitler, Nemesis 1936-1945 (London 2001) xlii

26Overy (2004) 127

27It is because of this long line of predecessors and their fondness of aliases that we now know Stalin as Stalin. He was actually born as Joseph Vissarionovitch Dzugashvili. Vladimir Illich Ulyanov chose the alias Lenin, Vyacheslav Scriabin became Molotov and Lev Davidovich Bronstein went down in history as Trotsky.

28S. Montefiore, Stalin, The court of the red Tsar (London 2003) 33-34

29Montefiore, Stalin (2003) 36-37

30Montefiore (2003) 37

31Overy (2004) 28

32Overy (2004) 29

33Overy (2004) 43

34Montefiore (2003) 36-38

3535 R. Suny, ‘Stalin and his Stalinism’, in Kershaw and Lewin ed.,

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