German leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Josef 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.
The difference in attitude extends beyond the borders of the countries over which these men ruled. In the United States, there is a bust of Stalin at the National D-Day Memorial in Virginia.
In New York, I recently dined at a Russian restaurant that featured Soviet paraphernalia, waitresses in Soviet uniforms, and a painting of Soviet leaders in which Stalin was prominent. New York also has its KGB Bar. To the best of my knowledge, though, there is no Nazi-themed restaurant in New York. Nor is there a Gestapo or SS bar.
So, why is Stalin seen as relatively more acceptable than Hitler?
At a press conference last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted a justification. Asked about Moscow’s plans for a statue of Stalin, he pointed to Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the Parliamentarian side in the 17th-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.)
“Ambiguous” is a reasonable description of the morality of Cromwell’s actions. While he promoted parliamentary rule in England, ended the civil war and allowed a degree of religious toleration, he also supported the trial and execution of Charles I and brutally conquered Ireland in response to a perceived threat from an alliance of Irish Catholics and English Royalists. But, 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 million to 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 1930s. Another 5 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.
Snyder’s estimate of the total number of Stalin’s victims does not take into account those who managed to survive forced labor or internal exile in harsh conditions. Including them might add as many as 25 million to the number of those who suffered terribly as a result of Stalin’s tyranny.
The total number of deaths that Snyder attributes to Stalin is lower than the commonly cited figure of 20 million, which was estimated before historians had access to the Soviet archives. It is nonetheless a horrendous total — similar in magnitude to the Nazis’ killings (which took place during a shorter period).
Moreover, the Soviet archives show that one cannot say that the Nazi’s killings were worse because victims were targeted on the basis of their race or ethnicity. Stalin, too, selected some of his victims on this basis — not only Ukrainians, but also people belonging to ethnic minorities associated with countries bordering the Soviet Union. Stalin’s persecutions also targeted a disproportionately large number of Jews.
There were no gas chambers, and arguably the motivation for Stalin’s killings was not genocide, but rather the intimidation and suppression of real or imaginary opposition to his rule. That in no way excuses the extent of the killing and imprisonment that occurred.
If there is any “ambiguity” about Stalin’s moral record, it may be because communism strikes a chord with some of our nobler impulses, seeking equality for all and an end to poverty. No such universal aspiration can be found in Nazism, which, even on its face, was not concerned about what was good for all, but about what was good for one supposed racial group, and which was clearly motivated by hatred and contempt for other ethnic groups.
But communism under Stalin was the opposite of egalitarian, for it gave absolute power to a few, and denied all rights to the many. Those who defend Stalin’s reputation credit him with lifting millions out of poverty, but millions could have been lifted out of poverty without murdering and incarcerating millions more.
Others defend Stalin’s greatness on the basis of his role in repelling the Nazi invasion and ultimately defeating Hitler. Yet Stalin’s purge of military leaders during the Great Terror critically weakened the Red Army, his signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in 1939 paved the way for the start of World War II, and his blindness to the Nazi threat in 1941 left the Soviet Union unprepared to resist Hitler’s attack.
It remains true that Stalin led his country to victory in war, and to a position of global power that it had not held before and from which it has since fallen. Hitler, by contrast, left his country shattered, occupied, and divided.
People identify with their country and look up to those who led it when it was at its most powerful. That may explain why Muscovites are more willing to accept a statue of Stalin than Berliners would be to have one of Hitler.
But that can be only part of the reason for the different treatment given to these mass murderers. It still leaves me puzzled about New York’s Soviet-themed restaurant and KGB Bar.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne. © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)