Peter Singer writes of the suddenly divergent attitudes toward the two greatest mass murderers of the 20th Century, Hitler and Stalin: “Hitler and Stalin were ruthless dictators who committed murder on a vast scale. But, while it is impossible to imagine a Hitler statue in Berlin, or anywhere else in Germany, statues of Stalin have been restored in towns across Georgia (his birthplace), and another is to be erected in Moscow as part of a commemoration of all Soviet leaders.” When Putin was asked recently about his plan to erect statues of Stalin, he justified it by comparing Stalin to Oliver Cromwell: “Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the seventeenth-century English Civil War, and asked: “What’s the real difference between Cromwell and Stalin?” He then answered his own question: “None whatsoever,” and went on to describe Cromwell as a “cunning fellow” who “played a very ambiguous role in Britain’s history.” (A statue of Cromwell stands outside the House of Commons in London.)”
The idea behind Putin’s analogy seems to be that great leaders often need to commit crimes or atrocities. Cromwell was undoubtedly brutal to the Irish. Similarly, Stonewall Jackson was brutal to the South, but he is still honored by many. Of course, Stalin killed people as well, but he also won WWII against Hitler and elevated the Soviet Union to superpower status. The moral seems to be that great leaders often must dare to act in morally questionable ways, which does not disqualify them as great leaders worthy of commemoration: To make an omelet, goes the saying, you must break a few eggs.
Singer wants to argue, rightly, that there is a difference between leaders like Cromwell and someone like Stalin. His answer, however, is simply that Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Cromwell:
“Unlike Cromwell, Stalin was responsible for the deaths of very large numbers of civilians, outside any war or military campaign. According to Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, 2-3 million people died in the forced labor camps of the Gulag and perhaps a million were shot during the Great Terror of the late 1930’s. Another five million starved in the famine of 1930-1933, of whom 3.3 million were Ukrainians who died as a result of a deliberate policy related to their nationality or status as relatively prosperous peasants known as kulaks.”
It is insufficient, however, to say that Stalin differs from Cromwell only in the number of people he killed. For one thing, the Irish population Cromwell had to suppress was significantly smaller than the European Jews or the Russian peasants. By one estimate, Cromwell killed nearly one-third of the million-and-a-half Catholics living in Ireland, all within a nine-month siege. While most of those fatalities were soldiers, many also were priests and civilians. Singer’s retreat to a numerical distinction is simply too easy and does not take seriously enough the question: What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Stalin?
Cromwell’s conquest and pacification of Ireland was truly brutal. In a mere nine months, he and his Ironsides killed over 500,000 people. Further, Cromwell characterized and justified his killing as God’s work. In one letter justifying his particularly bloody victory in Drogheda, he wrote: “This is a righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood.... it will tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future, which are satisfactory grounds to such actions, which otherwise work remorse and regret.” A crusader for England, Cromwell can be seen both as an unprincipled warrior and as one of the great defenders and proponents of a uniquely English brand of political virtue. It is that ambiguity that allows him to be both reviled and also memorialized in England.
For all his incomparable evil, Stalin led the Soviet Union through its war with Germany. The Soviet resistance in the Battle of Leningrad is legendary. And Stalin ultimately led his country to a victory over the Nazis and elevated it to become one of the world’s two 20th century superpower. He is a hero for many Russians. Sure, many also hate him; but so do many Irish and Scottish citizens of the United Kingdom disdain and hate Cromwell. Cromwell is memorialized in spite of these hatreds. Should Stalin not be memorialized for this contribution to Russian and Soviet history?
To answer that question, it is important to realize also how Stalin differs from Cromwell. What Stalin brought to politics was a totalitarian ideology, a politics that, as Hannah Arendt argues in “Image of Hell,” “invariably appears in the clothes of an inevitable logical conclusion made on the basis of some ideology or theory.” Stalin’s mass killings were “justified” by his scientific theories of history, and the murdered were assigned to the “dying classes” whose deaths were justified because they stood on the wrong side of the march of historical progress. That only Stalin could know the “true interests of the proletariat” was simply one component of the general Stalinist program that imagined entire populations to be representatives of a “hostile class.”
The technical method that Stalin, like Hitler, hit upon to support their ideologies was terror. For Arendt, Stalinism and Nazism are united in their reliance upon scientific ideologies held in place by apparatuses of terror. They differ in that the Nazi ideology calls upon nature and race to mark its enemies, while the Stalinist ideology turns to history. Racial ideologies are “more thorough and more horrible than the Marxist or pseudo-Marxists” or Stalinist varieties, but both are devastating insofar as the reliance on “science” sweeps away all opposition and all limiting factors. By adding to the reality of political power a “superstitious belief in the eternity of that power,” scientific totalitarianisms magnify their self-justifications and thus enable the most extreme and unlimited doing of evil.
The difference between someone like Cromwell versus figures like Stalin and Hitler is that the latter employed unlimited terror in pursuit of the impossible victory of supposedly scientific absolute idea—be it the idea of a master race or a socialist utopia. Cromwell may have thought his was a divine task, but he did not arbitrarily decide that innocent people were suddenly enemies of the people, to be eliminated either on account of their religion, race, or supposed class interest. In short, Cromwell may have been a rabid and morally compromised political leader, but he was still engaged in a politics of interest, not a crusade of terror that dehumanized people according to quasi-scientific theories.
Stalin’s crime was not simply to kill masses of people, for Cromwell and many other heroes have done that as well. What Stalin did is institute an entire totalitarian edifice in which the entire Soviet people were ruled by terror and fear. Stalin’s totalitarian government was not morally ambiguous in the sense of Cromwell’s, it was an amoral and immoral system in which anything could be justified in the name of power and control. To memorialize Stalin is—in spite of his undeniable importance for modern day Russia—is to look the other way not simply at mass murder, but at a totalitarian system of government that eviscerates freedoms for everyone. It is that horrific message that President Putin seems not to understand—or maybe he just doesn’t find it so horrific.
Here is Peter Singer’s attempt to distinguish Stalin from Cromwell. It is your weekend read.