Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 62 (2014), 2, S. 313-316

Verfasst von: Mark Edele


Jörg Baberowski: Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt. München: Beck, 2012. 606 S., 74 Abb. ISBN: 978-3-406-63254-9.

Unlike most revised and expanded editions,Verbrannte Erde neither shares its title nor its argument with the original. InDer Rote Terror. Die Geschichte des Stalinismus (Munich: DVA, 2002; paperback: Frankfurt a. M.: Fischer, 2007), Baberowski had argued for an interpretation of Soviet history revolving around the notion ofmodernity”. Violence emerged from the attempt to abolish ambivalence, to create a clear and rational order, to landscape the human garden. What made the Stalinists more brutal than other modernizers was that they read modernization through the secular salvation doctrine of Marxism, while bringing the culture of violence of the empires villages to the center of power. This was a bold thesis and it got the attention it deserved. Then, in 2010, Baberowski was invited to update the book for translation into English. When he sat down to re-read what he had written nearly a decade earlier, Baberowski began to feel uncomfortable. Somewhere in the intervening years, his description of Stalinism as an instantiation of modernity had begun to bother him. He describes the internal struggle in the introduction to Verbrannte Erde”:It was painful to read my own book. The sentences and the diction no longer pleased me. […] Everything I had since read, said, and written about Stalin and Stalinism stood in odd contrast to those strong opinions which gave the book its structure.” (pp. 9–10) Not a man to pull his punches, even if his own book is at stake, Baberowski now describes much of what he had written earlier asnonsense” (Unfug, p. 10). Few historians would be so publicly self-critical.

The expanded and revised edition ofDer Rote Terror”, then, became a new book altogether, albeit one with large overlaps with its predecessor: The preface of the old book became an enlarged and substantially revised chapter one, chapter one became chapter two, chapter two transformed into chapter three, and so on. There is more re-writing in some chapters than in others. An enormous amount of material has been added to the chapter on the terror, and the one on war and postwar likewise grew from a slim sketch of under fifty to a detailed treatment of well over a hundred pages. Chapter seven, on Stalins successors, is entirely new. The result is a much thicker book of 606 as opposed to the original 288 pages. It is driven by the thesis: no Stalin, no Stalinism. Zygunt Bau­mans idea of thegardening state” isbeautiful” but ultimatelynot more than an assertion” (p. 10). Other governments in other countries alsodreamed of unambiguous order” but did not killmillions of human beings”. Stalinist terror also targeted perfectly finenew people”, communists and loyal functionaries, orderly and unambiguous. Hence, there wasno causal link” betweenmodernity and that monstrous violence” (p. 26). Likewise, the recourse to Marxist millennialism helps little. Communism gave ajustification for the murder of enemies” but it did not commit its adherents tomass murder” (p. 10). There were many rulers in the twentieth centurywho professed to be communists without deducing a license to mass murder from this ideology”. Justification must not be confused with motivation (p. 15–16).

According to the Baberowski of 2012, then, attempts to understand what happened in the 1930s which focus on modern statecraft, Stalins ideology, or his perception of threats from within and from without, are misleading. Instead, Stalin was apsycho­path” who loved the state of exception,because it redefined normality and madenormal’ people do what they would not under other circumstances” (p. 218). This is not to say that Stalin was a madman:He had neither lost the control over himself, nor did he suffer from depression or hallucination.” (p. 363) Instead, he was aman of violence” (Gewaltmensch), whose brutality was directed by a mixture or relish and cool calculation. Inflicting terror was both part of his technique of rule” and a source of great enjoyment: Stalin liked what he was doing to others (p. 363); he wasan evil psychopath, who needed violence like air to breathe” (p. 476).

The revised argument avoids a logical problem of its predecessor. If Stalinism was the result of the project of modernity under Russian conditions, why would it stop with the death of Stalin? In the old book, this lead to something of a residual introduction of Stalin’s central role: Stalinism was a result of the project of modernity in Russian conditions, but it would never have existed without Stalin himself (cf.Der Rote Terror, p. 16–17). This was not terribly convincing. By contrast, if a psychopathic Stalin was the source of the mass terror (which forms the essence of Stalinism for Baberowski), then this problem is removed: once the dictator died, his terror-system died with him.

How could one man play such a central role in Soviet history? Stalin and his teamviolent men from the fringes of Russian society, social climbers with poor education, practitioners of revolutionary and military forcehad less scruples in brutal power games and were hence better able than their more refined intellectual peers to use and manipulate the closed political system which had emerged from war and civil war. These former plebeians were willing and able to instrumentalize the resentments of lower class Bolsheviksmen and women like themselvesto unleash terror against the rest of the population, including the remainder of the Party.

At the center of this history, then, lies the Great Terror. Stalin controlled the beginning, the end, and the extent of the bloodletting personally and with great relish. On the one hand, Baberowski stresses irrational and deeply personal causes: the suffering of others excited Stalin, spreading terror pleased him. On the other hand, there was also a central motive: terror was a technique of rule. Crucial to this part of the argument is the notion of a clash between goals and ends. There wasno strong state and no central control” in the Soviet Union (as the revisionists had stressed); there was also noStalinism from below” (as some of them had hoped to find). Rather,we have to imagine a weak state whose representatives delighted in creating permanent chaos and violence, because this was the only way they could ensure that their claim to power was remembered” (p. 23). Terror, then, was the answer of a violent man intent at projecting totalitarian claims from a position of impotence created by a mismatch between his lofty aspirations and thepre-modern governmental system” at his disposal. Stalin let the terror escalate beyond any bounds in the 1930s, when it engulfed even his own companions, because the randomness of violence increased the personal power he craved so much.

This books great merit is putting the violence of Stalinism back to the center of the narrative. The chapter on the German-Soviet war, for one, is the best available one-chapter account of the barbarity of Soviet war making. One could quibble with some of the empirical details, but overall this narrative forms a powerful and necessary antithesis to other recent histories stressing ideological motivation rather than compulsion. Reading this chapter together with Jochen Hellbecks introduction to his Stalingrad-Protokolle (Frankfurt: Fischer, 2012), for example, will make for a lively discussion in the advanced undergraduate classroom and the graduate seminar alike.

This book is self-consciously not a history of Soviet society, Soviet subjectivity, or Soviet politics, but ahistory of violence” (p. 15). Hence, any criticism targeting the centrality of physical force in this account ultimately misses its mark: what is at stake here is exactly to explain why this political system became so violent and what the results of this brutalization were. Nevertheless, this history has its weaknesses, too. Non-specialists must be excused if they come away with the notion that terror grew and grew and grew: Thedespot in the Kremlin could not stop to be violent” (p. 30). After collectivization, Baberowski writes, terror did not stop but was continued with the draconian anti-theft legislation of 1932 (p. 184); at the end of the Great Terror, likewise, Stalincould not stop being a violent perpetrator” (Gewalttäter) (p. 363); the Great Patriotic War was waged as a terror campaign; and the postwar years were marked by continued lethal terror. Uninformed readers are likely to miss important changes in Stalinist violence: from the war against the peasantry in the early 1930s when tens of thousands were shot to thethree good years” of 1934–36, when mass arrests continued but much smaller numbers were executed; from the mass extermination of presumed enemies through bullets in the back of their heads in the Great Terror 1937–38 and the western borderland mass murders of 1940–41, to the end of mass extermination after the war, when deportations and increasingly regular policing took over. It is true that the threat and the administration of violence never stopped, but the ways this threat was enacted differed from period to period.

Baberowski is of course aware of the fact that the terror moved inwaves”, increasing in intensitywhen Stalin decided to let violence speak” and retreatingwhen he grew tired of it” (p. 217). The number of death sentences fluctuated dramatically, as did the tally of those condemned to stints in camps or prisonsthe high-point for both remained the Great Terror of 1937–38 (see the table in Otechestvennye arkhivy [1992], 2, p. 28). Indeed, the terrornever again reached the extent of the year 1937”, as Baberowski notes on page 470. Such occasional statements, however, are easy to miss in an account constantly hammering home terror and brutality.  

Why these changes in the level and the means of violence? Did Stalin’s personality change? Did he learn from the earlier killing operations? Were these tactical (and maybe temporary) adjustments, not touching theessence of Stalinism”? Or did the perceptions of external and internal threats change? There is some ambivalence here. In some sections, Baberowski dismisses existing explanations for the timing and dynamic of Stalin’s terror and replaces contextualization with appeals to themoods of the dictator” (p. 302), which moves Stalinist violence into the realm ofthe incomprehesible” (das Unfassbarep. 217). In other sections, Baberowski treats the violence as a tool of rule, which required more brutality at some times than in others. The Great Terror is the pivot for this explanation: in the escalating and utterly unpredictable mass terror, any possibility for resistance was pulverized, leaving Stalin a truly totalitarian dictator. Once this goal was achieved, mass killings were no longer necessary, asSoviet society” wasparalyzed and intimidated” (p. 372). More regular repression could now take over to keep the cowed population at bay. Once the Soviet Union expanded westward in 1939–41, however, Stalin’s power again came under threat, and as a result the newly acquired territories were subjected to mass killing operations again. The war against Germany, then, was an apocalypse of terror against the own side. After the war, terror returned, but did not escalate in the same way as before the war. Why? Because the growing bureaucratic apparatus now limited Stalin’s ability to act: arbitrariness was checked because Stalin was no longer able to control the gigantic apparatus and its functionaries” (p. 476).

Every great book has its weaknesses, and it is easy to quibble about points of fact and interpretation. Every historian will put the stress on different aspects of the overall story, and many readers will be disturbed by Baberowski’s account. But disturbed they should be after reading a book about one of the most callous dictatorships of the past century. We can only hope that the promised translation will soon hit the bookshelves of the English reading world, and that it will match the literary qualities of the original. Nobody will walk away from this tome untouched.

Mark Edele, Crawley, Western Australia

Zitierweise: Mark Edele über: Jörg Baberowski: Verbrannte Erde. Stalins Herrschaft der Gewalt. München: Beck, 2012. 606 S., 74 Abb. ISBN: 978-3-406-63254-9, http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Edele_Baberowski_Verbrannte_Erde.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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