Timothy Snyder: Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale. His new book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, was published this month. (October 2010)]

As we recall the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 1945, sixty-six years ago today, we might ask: who was worse, Hitler or Stalin?

In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils. Hitler was worse, because his regime propagated the unprecedented horror of the Holocaust, the attempt to eradicate an entire people on racial grounds. Yet Stalin was also worse, because his regime killed far, far more people—tens of millions, it was often claimed—in the endless wastes of the Gulag. For decades, and even today, this confidence about the difference between the two regimes—quality versus quantity—has set the ground rules for the politics of memory. Even historians of the Holocaust generally take for granted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, thus placing themselves under greater pressure to stress the special character of the Holocaust, since this is what made the Nazi regime worse than the Stalinist one.

Discussion of numbers can blunt our sense of the horrific personal character of each killing and the irreducible tragedy of each death. As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the difference between zero and one is an infinity. Though we have a harder time grasping this, the same is true for the difference between, say, 780,862 and 780,863—which happens to be the best estimate of the number of people murdered at Treblinka. Large numbers matter because they are an accumulation of small numbers: that is, precious individual lives. Today, after two decades of access to Eastern European archives, and thanks to the work of German, Russian, Israeli, and other scholars, we can resolve the question of numbers. The total number of noncombatants killed by the Germans—about 11 million—is roughly what we had thought. The total number of civilians killed by the Soviets, however, is considerably less than we had believed. We know now that the Germans killed more people than the Soviets did. That said, the issue of quality is more complex than was once thought. Mass murder in the Soviet Union sometimes involved motivations, especially national and ethnic ones, that can be disconcertingly close to Nazi motivations.

It turns out that, with the exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive. Judging from the Soviet records we now have, the number of people who died in the Gulag between 1933 and 1945, while both Stalin and Hitler were in power, was on the order of a million, perhaps a bit more. The total figure for the entire Stalinist period is likely between two million and three million. The Great Terror and other shooting actions killed no more than a million people, probably a bit less. The largest human catastrophe of Stalinism was the famine of 1930–1933, in which more than five million people starved.

Of those who starved, the 3.3 million or so inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine who died in 1932 and 1933 were victims of a deliberate killing policy related to nationality. In early 1930, Stalin had announced his intention to “liquidate” prosperous peasants (“kulaks”) as a class so that the state could control agriculture and use capital extracted from the countryside to build industry. Tens of thousands of people were shot by Soviet state police and hundreds of thousands deported. Those who remained lost their land and often went hungry as the state requisitioned food for export. The first victims of starvation were the nomads of Soviet Kazakhstan, where about 1.3 million people died. The famine spread to Soviet Russia and peaked in Soviet Ukraine. Stalin requisitioned grain in Soviet Ukraine knowing that such a policy would kill millions. Blaming Ukrainians for the failure of his own policy, he ordered a series of measures—such as sealing the borders of that Soviet republic—that ensured mass death....
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Arnold Shcherban - 2/8/2011

<But there is no reason to believe Stalin was less manipulative or cruel than Hitler>
That's a valid statement.

Donald Wolberg - 2/7/2011

While correcting the historic record is of great importance,there is something absurd in comparing "evils" of Hitler and Stalin by comparisons of which dictator killed more millions. Of course the Nazis death camps and ovens and slaughter of cities are so well documented by the record keeping, almost boasting, documentarianism of the evil that was Nazism. The murkier evil of Stalin and his henchmen that led to the extermination of the Kulaks, the persecution of Jews and even geneticists, and so many others, while seeming to have resulted in the deaths of fewer millions, is no less horrid that the Nazis evil. We are contemplating after all, the murder of millions of human beings. It may be that we know the names of more of those murdered by the Nazis death machine. But there is no reason to believe Stalin was less manipulative or cruel than Hitler, only less efficient.

Arnold Shcherban - 2/6/2011

Observing how even over the very last decade, having access to all those archives and secret documents the author mentions in his article, a majority of Western historians and political commentators were free-willingly throwing around numbers from thirty to sixty millions of the victims of Stalin's regime, with essentially complete disregard to even common sense, I have left with little choice for any other conclusion about the main cause of such woefully wrong estimates than deliberate, largely excessive, and ideologically-driven vilification of the Soviet regime and recent apologetic tendencies (with one notable exception - Holocaust) towards Nazism.