Stalin, cannibalism, and the true nature of evil.

Stalin, cannibalism, and the true nature of evil.

Stalin, cannibalism, and the true nature of evil.

Scrutinizing culture.
Feb. 7 2011 2:17 PM

Stalin's Cannibals

What the new book Bloodlands tells us about the nature of evil.


How much should the cannibalism count? How should we factor it into the growing historical-moral-political argument over how to compare Hitler's and Stalin's genocides, and the death tolls of communism and fascism in general. I know I had not considered it. I had really not been aware of the extent of the cannibalism that took place during the Stalinist-enforced famine in the Ukraine in 1933 until I read Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder's shocking, unflinching depiction of it in Bloodlands, his groundbreaking new book about Hitler's and Stalin's near-simultaneous genocides.

For the past three decades, beginning with what was called in Germany the Historikerstreit, or historians' battle, continuing with the 1997 French publication of The Black Book of Communism (which put the death toll from communist regimes at close to 100 million compared with 25 million from Hitler and fascism), there has been a controversy over comparative genocide and comparative evil that has pitted Hitler's mass murders against Stalin's, Mao's, and Pol Pot's.


I had been all too vaguely aware of the role the Stalin-imposed Ukraine famine played in the argument—according to many calculations, it added more than 3 million dead to the sum of Stalin's victims.

But I suppose that, without looking deeply into it, I had considered Stalin's state-created famine a kind of "soft genocide" compared with the industrialized mass murder of Hitler's death camps or even with the millions of victims of Stalin's own purges of the late '30s and the gulags they gave birth to.

Snyder's book, while controversial in some respects, forces us to face the facts about the famine, and the cannibalism helps place the Ukraine famine in the forefront of debate, not as some mere agricultural misfortune, but as one of the 20th century's deliberate mass murders.

Students of comparative evil often point out that Stalin caused a higher death toll than Hitler, even without taking the famine deaths into account; those losses were not treated the same way as his other crimes or as Hitler's killing and gassing in death camps. Shooting or gassing is more direct and immediate than starving a whole nation.

But Snyder's account of the Ukraine famine persuasively makes the case that Stalin in effect turned the entire Ukraine into a death camp and, rather than gassing its people, decreed death by famine.

Should this be considered a lesser crime because it's less "hands-on"? Here's where the accounts of cannibalism caused me to rethink this question—and to examine the related question of whether one can distinguish degrees of evil in genocides by their methodology.

The argument has been simmering for some time because it has consequences for how we think of events in contemporary history. Nazism, it is generally agreed, cannot be rehabilitated in any way, because it was inextricable from Hitler's crimes, but there are some on the left who believe communism can be rehabilitated despite the crimes of Stalin, and despite new evidence that the tactics of terror were innovations traceable to his predecessor Lenin.

There are those like the Postmodern sophist Slavoj Žižek who argue that Stalin's crimes were his aberrational distortion of an otherwise admirably utopian Marxist-Leninism whose reputation still deserves respect and maybe a Lacanian tweak in light of the genocidal reality of Marxist/Leninist regimes. But can one really separate an ideology from the genocides repeatedly committed in its name?

In reviewing Bloodlands in The New York Review of Books, my Slate colleague Anne Applebaum observed:

[U]ntil recently, it was politically incorrect in the West to admit that we defeated one genocidal dictator with the help of another. Only now … has the extent of the Soviet Union's mass murders become better known in the West. In recent years, some in the former Soviet sphere of influence … have begun to use the word "genocide" in legal documents to describe the Soviet Union's mass killings too.

Are there distinctions to be made between Hitler's and Stalin's genocides? Is it possible—without diminishing Hitler's evil—to argue that Stalin's crimes were by some measures worse? If we're speaking of quantity, Stalin's mass murder death toll may have far exceeded Hitler's, with many putting the figure at 20 million or so, depending on what you count.

But quantity probably shouldn't be the only measure. There is also intent. To some, Stalin's murders are not on the same plane (or at the same depth), because he may have believed however dementedly that he was acting in the service of the higher goal of class warfare and the universal aspirations of the oppressed working class. As opposed to Hitler, who killed in the service of a base, indefensible racial hatred.

But on the other hand, one could argue, Hitler too may have believed he was serving an idealistic cause, "purifying" humanity of a "plague bacillus" (his charming term for Jews) like a doctor (he often compared himself to Koch and Pasteur).

Indeed, I'll never forget the moment, which I recount in Explaining Hitler, when the great historian H.R. Trevor-Roper leaned toward me over a coffee table in London's Oxford and Cambridge Club after I'd asked him whether he felt Hitler knew what he was doing was wrong. No, Trevor Roper snapped, "Hitler was convinced of his own rectitude."