Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
10Jan/142

Stalin, Hitler, and Cromwell and the Politics of Memory

ArendtWeekendReading

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.”

cromwell

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.

stalin

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.

-RB

11Dec/120

Talking through the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in Prison

As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.

A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?

I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.

But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.

And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.

Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.

On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).

I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?

I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?

Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.

-Jeff Jurgens