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Stalin And The Macho Cult of Mass Murder

History tells us that purges, show trials and other sadistic state policies were integral to the birth and expansion of the Soviet Union. But a new book focuses on how Stalin helped form the unique “boot and leather jacket-wearing” character of the Bolshe

Gulag prisoners working to build the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Wikipedia)
Gulag prisoners working to build the White Sea-Baltic Canal (Wikipedia)
Peter Merseburger

BERLIN -- The Kronstadt rebellion in Russia in 1921 did not mark the beginning of Stalinism, as some mainly left-leaning historians would later claim. But it did mark a peak in a bloody campaign of terror without which the Revolution could not have prevailed.

The winner of this rebellion, according to Jörg Baberowski, a Berlin-based historian of Eastern Europe, could only be the force that was prepared not only to overthrow but to exterminate the opposition. In his new German-language book, Verbrannte Erde (Scorched Earth), Baberowski argues that Stalin based his reign of terror on the culture of war, thus creating a "permanent civil war by other means' that in the 1930s made mass killings a basic tenet.

What is new about Baberowski's account is not his coverage of the gruesomeness that characterized the birth and existence of the Soviet Union: starvation in Ukraine that claimed nearly two million victims, the deportation of entire ethnic groups, the Gulag Archipelago, the show trials, and the purges that would ultimately destroy the Communist Party. Verbrannte Erde stands out instead for its attempt to sketch the collective character of fascist men and the murdering type.

Unlike the intellectual Socialists, Baberowski writes, the "boot and leather jacket-wearing" Bolshevik revolutionaries projected an "aura of manliness and decisiveness." Stalin's inner circle, recruited from the working classes, consciously cultivated a "proletarian cult of manhood." These players spoke a language of violence rather than ideology, the author explains. It was a "macho cult of killing and murdering, primitiveness and malignancy" that supposedly marked them as "men of action."

Remorseless and manipulative

Baberowski goes back to Stalin's native Georgia, where friendship and honor did not have the same connotations as they did in the tsarist empire. Stalin admired the leaders of robber bands, fighters who obeyed their commanders unconditionally, archaic fighting societies where banishment or death were the punishment for betrayal.

According to the author, Stalin's understanding of domination was somewhat akin to the Mafia's, and he forced those in his inner circle to carry out his every order unquestioningly.

Stalin, Baberowski writes, met all the criteria of the typical psychopath: he was manipulative, with no conscience, incapable of remorse or empathy. It was this psychopathic personality structure that not only unleashed such massively destructive forces but also bound other psychopaths and sadists to him – violent men who publically acted out "the macho cult of killing" wearing army boots, uniforms, military insignia, and pistol holsters. These men viewed empathy or even tolerance with detestation.

"Nobody," Baberowski writes, "ever saw Stalin without his boots or army cap." Even when faced with economic issues, the tyrant could usually "only imagine terrorist solutions' – such as building the White Sea-Baltic Canal linking Petersburg with the Barents Sea that cost tens of thousands of lives.

The canal was constructed by Gulag prisoners without the use of modern technology – no earth movers, steel, concrete or cranes – just bare hands, shovels and wood. It was one of the largest forced labor projects in history.

Baberowski's book is neither a history of the Soviet Union nor of Stalinism. It sticks to one subject: Stalin's control through violence. It is a bloody tale indeed, focusing on torture, violence and hideous excess, Stalin's despotic character, and an analysis of the Soviet system of terror in the 1930s and 1940s.

And as such, as a history of terror with millions of victims at all levels of Soviet society, terror that bit into every aspect of Soviet life until Stalin's death, Verbrannte Erde is one of the most alarming and frightening accounts of a century that had no shortage of butchers and atrocities.

Baberowski doesn't put much stock in attempts to place Stalinist excess in a historical context. He prefers Sigmund Freud's idea that idealistic motives sometimes serve as a kind of curtain for forces of destruction. To him, the Stalinist era is about a lust for violence, pleasure at destruction, enjoyment derived from quelling and humiliating. "We must see Stalin as a happy person, who rejoiced in the agonies of soul he caused his victims," the author concludes.

Read the original story in German

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