The Cycle of Terror

George Watson

T HE TWENTIETH CENTURY had two world wars. It did something else, too, no less tragic and original. It was the first age to practise terror by concentrating civilians by the thousand for slaughter in lonely places.

'The Soviets, it is now known, even pioneered the use of poison gas, so the Nazi debt was practical as well as theoretical, and Hitler often praised Stalin in conversation. "The whole of National Socialism," he once confessed to a confidant, was based on Marx...'

The new terror was cyclic, and the cycle took exactly a century to complete. It began as a Marxian revolutionary doctrine in mid-nineteenth-century Germany; Lenin acted on it promptly after the October Revolution, Hitler after his conquest of eastern lands in 1941; and it was finally turned against the Germans by Stalin in the Soviet zone of occupation in 1945. The last stage was little reported, however, being the work of an ally, and though recent it is now largely forgotten. It can be surprising to learn that Stalin used some of Hitler's concentration camps, notably Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, for their original purpose. The last link in the cycle of terror is the least known.

The background may be briefly sketched. In January 1849, months before he migrated to London, Karl Marx published an article by Friedrich Engels in Die Neue Rheinische Zeitung announcing that in Central Europe only Germans, Hungarians and Poles counted as bearers of progress. The rest must go. "The chief mission of all other races and peoples, large and small, is to perish in the revolutionary holocaust."

Genocide arose out of Marx's master-theory of history - feudalism giving place inevitably to capitalism, capitalism to socialism. The lesser races of Europe - Basques, Serbs, Bretons and others - being sunk in feudalism, were counter-revolutionary; having failed to develop a bourgeoisie, they would be two steps behind in the historical process. Engels dismissed them as leftovers and ethnic trash (Völkerabfall), and called for their extinction.

So genocide was born as a doctrine in the German Rhineland in January 1849, in a Europe still reeling from the revolutions of 1848. It was to become the beacon-light of socialism, proudly held and proudly proclaimed, and for a century it remained a doctrine uniquely socialist.

It differed from earlier doctrines and earlier massacres in striking ways. It involved millions, and it was racial. In both respects it differed from the Jacobin terror in Paris. In 1793-94 the Jacobins had publicly guillotined several thousand enemies of the Republic; but that had nothing to do with race, and the numbers in retrospect look modest. The concentration camps of colonial Cuba in 1895, and British camps in the Boer War soon after, are distinct too, though the term began there. Their purpose was to isolate women and children and hasten the end of colonial wars. Lenin may well have found the term in a newspaper, probably in a report of the South African war; the Bolsheviks, at all events, adopted it. The term sounds neutral. But what Lenin built in 1918, months after the October Revolution, and Stalin and Hitler after him, was far different. Their camps were meant to kill. In 1918 the death factory was born.

It is clear that all three dictators knew and applauded Marx's genocidal call. In a 1908 essay "Lessons of the Commune", Lenin had held up the defeat of the French Left after the Franco-Prussian War as a warning. Paris in 1871 had shown that the first, necessary act of any revolutionary government was terror: to kill your opponents before they killed you. Lenin's motto, "Who whom?", sums up his credo. In class war, those who hesitate will pay. The first act of the French Left, when Napoleon III was overthrown, should have been extermination, and that must be the first act in Russia - "the cleansing of Russian soil of all harmful insects, of scoundrel fleas, of bedbugs".

'In a 1908 essay "Lessons of the Commune", Lenin had held up the defeat of the French Left after the Franco-Prussian War as a warning. Paris in 1871 had shown that the first, necessary act of any revolutionary government was terror: to kill your opponents before they killed you.'

That was a decade before the October Revolution, but racialism was already widely accepted as the mark of the Left in many countries, including England. There the Fabians led. In 1900, in Fabianism and the Empire, they announced in imperial vein that "the state which obstructs international civilisation will have to go, be it big or little". Two years later H.G. Wells, another Fabian, wrote Anticipations, where in its last pages he called for the extermination or all non-white races to build a universal socialist utopia; and in August 1913, in the New Statesman, Sidney and Beatrice Webb called for the endless domination of the world by the white races:

Idle to pretend that anything like effective self-government, even as regards strictly local affairs, can be introduced for many generations to come - in some cases, conceivably never.

Years later, in February 1938, Bernard Shaw sent Beatrice a letter, contemplating Hitler's anti-Jewish program. Whatever Hitler's faults, he told her, we must assert "the right of states to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable", though he hoped their methods, at least, would be humane. Indeed in a newspaper he called on scientists to invent a humane gas.

BY THEN, as everybody knew, Stalin's terror was in full spate. The Webbs had included a cautiously approving chapter on political murder in Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? in 1935, removing the question-mark from the title page in the second edition of 1937 and adding a new entry on concentration camps to the index. Socialism meant terror.

Stalin too acknowledged his debt to Marx, and at the Twelfth Party Congress in Moscow in 1923, as Lenin lay dying, he proposed a threefold division of the Soviet people according to the new principles of scientific socialism: one with a grasp of revolutionary doctrine, like the Bolsheviks; one at the capitalist stage, ripe for conversion; and one composed of communities too primitive to count, like Poles and Jews. (Engels, by then, had demoted Poles from his list of the master races.) They must be destroyed. So it would be a mistake to suppose that communism was about class and fascism about race. "Race is itself an economic factor," Engels had written in a letter of January 1894 - a view to be echoed by all who believed that economics determines history. Marxism was genocidal from the start.

The response of National Socialism to all that is famous, and Hitler's holocaust is the most extensively studied massacre in all history. But though Hitler called himself a socialist, and was widely accepted as one, inside and outside Germany, his socialist sources are less well known, though they reached as far as Soviet exterminatory techniques. After the war Rudolf Hoess wrote a memoir called Kommandant in Auschwitz, as he awaited execution in a Polish prison, recalling how as commandant of a death camp he received detailed reports of what the Soviet camps did. The Soviets, it is now known, even pioneered the use of poison gas, so the Nazi debt was practical as well as theoretical, and Hitler often praised Stalin in conversation. "The whole of National Socialism," he once confessed to a confidant, was based on Marx.

In 1945 Stalin, as the master of East Germany, turned extermination back on the Germans, though his revenge is less well known. He was understandably nervous, however, about his collaboration with Hitler in 1939, and in 1946 at the Nuremberg trials he put Vyshinsky in charge of a secret commission to stage-manage the trial of Nazi war criminals, blocking any evidence of criminal collaboration between the two dictatorships as allies in Poland in 1939 - 41. The fear lingered. When I first visited Poland, which was in 1957, it was still forbidden in a post-Stalinist state to describe the Nazi camps in the Polish press, for fear it might be seen as a covert attack on the Soviet camps. The resemblances, after all, were vivid, and far from accidental.

SINCE THE FALL of the Wall in 1989, the Soviet use of Nazi camps has become easier to grasp, and survivors have told their story. In 1991, for example, Benno Priess published a memoir of his arrest by Soviet authorities in East Germany in May 1946, when he was a teenager. His story echoes that of millions under the Nazis: arrest without trial and without charge, a packed train, and years on a starvation diet with beatings and humiliation. The book, Innocent in the NKVD Death Camps, was privately published in Germany and remains little known, and it tells of imprisonment in four former Nazi camps, notably Sachsenhausen, and later in the Soviet Union itself.

It is a stark tale of bare existence without hope. For years Priess had no contact with the outside world, so that his parents had no idea if he was alive or dead. When German guards replaced the Russians they proved even harsher, and the death rate rose, mainly through starvation and tuberculosis; in March 1950, in a night that lives in memory as Hubert Night, there was a revolt in Bautzen, east of Dresden, with prisoners shouting through the bars, "We are starving!" Release came after seven years, and very suddenly, in January 1954, nearly a year after Stalin's death.

By then the East German regime had closed Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald is now a national monument, on a hilltop near Weimar. What it commemorates is a Nazi atrocity rather than a communist, though the death toll of some 13,000 prisoners in Soviet Buchenwald probably exceeded the Nazi death toll as a percentage.

The most famous prisoner of the Nazi period, Leon Blum, summed up the consequences. A former French prime minister, he spent the last two years of the war there as a privileged prisoner, and wrote a memoir after the liberation called Le Dernier Mois. "You are already conquerors in this sense," he wrote bitterly of his Nazi captors. "You have succeeded in communicating to the world your cruelty and your hatred," and he duly predicted that their enemies would imitate them, as they did, in "exasperated rage". He foresaw the revenge that would come.

The two camp regimes can, however, be distinguished. Soviet prisoners did not usually die quickly, by shooting or hanging, but slowly of hunger and disease. Survivors of Soviet Buchenwald and elsewhere tell how they seldom saw a Russian soldier, except at one of the endless parades or high above on one of the control towers preserved from Nazi times. There was no prison uniform now and little discipline. You died unnoticed and by inadvertence.

The daily diet, according to one report, amounted to 800 to 900 calories, which is enough to sustain life if you sit or lie but not if you move. In one reported case, only 10 per cent of prisoners worked; the rest were shut up in crowded barracks. Daily parades took two hours, when prisoners were forced to stand or march. Dying prisoners were carried to a sick bay once Soviet doctors had declared them unfit, while their companions seized their clothes and their spoons as objects too precious to lose.

The Soviet camps of the German Democratic Republic were not a secret, but newspaper reports in the West were sparse. Few remember it happened at all, fewer still resent it. An ally of the Second World War took its silent revenge on the enemy of all mankind, and the world hardly noticed.

Fewer still remember, or even know, that the Soviets were occupying sites Marx had once inspired. The Nazi camp system owed a lot to the Russians, as its camp commandants knew, and Stalin's terror had owed its prime impulse to Marx. The first conquerors to enter the main gate of Buchenwald in 1945 were Americans, and Eisenhower's report of what his troops had seen was announced in the spring of 1945 in tones of muted horror by Winston Churchill, as prime minister, to a shocked House of Commons.

The Americans torched Buchenwald's putrid barracks and handed it over, by prior agreement, to the Russians. They, at least, can have had no doubts what it was for. Over the main gate, in bold iron work, still stands the Nazi slogan JEDEM DAS SEINE - to each his own - and the Soviets may have reflected too on Lenin's adage WHO WHOM? The Nazis had once promised to each his own. And that, in heaping measure, is what they got.

Note: Gerhard Finn, Die Politischen Häftlinge der Sowjetzone (1960, reprinted 1989) is a documented report of the years 1945 to 1959; see also K.W. Fricke, Politik und Justiz in der DDR (1979). For a survivor's account see Benno Priess, Unschuldig in den Todeslargern der NKVD (privately printed, 1991). Stalin's suppression of evidence at the Nuremberg trials is detailed in Arkady Vaksberg, The Prosecutor and the Prey (1990), translated from Russian.

George Watson, who has taught at New York University and the universities of Minnesota and Georgia, is the author of The Lost Literature of Socialism (Lutterworth Press, 1998), which details Hitler's praise of Marx and Stalin. He is a Fellow of St John's College, Cambridge.