Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Seumas Milne tries to rehabilitate Stalin

I'd like to draw your attention to this piece by the Guardian's Seumas Milne, in which he attempts to absolve Stalin's USSR of all guilt for the Second World War. To be blunt, I find it offensive. Much as I am tempted to, I'll avoid going through the article to knock every claim down point-by-point (although given the treatment usually meted out to Milne's pieces, someone will doubtless do this elsewhere).

Milne's central argument is that the Soviet Union cannot be blamed in any way for the start of the war, despite signing a deal with the Nazis that gave them complete freedom to invade Poland and to do what they wanted there. He also believes that this pact was in no way aggressive, despite the fact that it handed the Soviets large chunks of Poland, which they invaded a mere 16 days after the Nazis. Worst of all, he argues that no Soviet atrocity can ever be compared to a Nazi atrocity.

In his desperate attempt to show that no comparison can be drawn between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Milne is drawn into a contorted intellectual game of limbo, supporting his case with comparisons and claims that range from the merely spurious to the downright disgraceful. I feel I should add at this point that I am in no way seeking to excuse any Nazi action, and that I believe that war would have broken out in Europe regardless of the pact, simply because Hitler was an insane man with monstrous views. I also have the greatest respect for the many millions of Soviet war dead, but merely object to attempts to rehabilitate Stalin, another insane man with monstrous views.

However, I feel it is absurd to pretend that having a guarantee of non-aggression in the east did not make the Nazi invasion of Poland easier, or that Hitler did not use the extra time he gained in Poland to act more brutally. To claim that a pact to carve a country in two was "an instrument of defence, not aggression" is simply absurd. Whereas the Munich Agreement was an act of cowardice and misjudgement and Poland's own 1934 non-aggression treaty an attempt at self-defence, ideologically-driven expansionism - the imperialism Milne claims to hate so much - was an essential part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact from the very beginning.

The part of Milne's piece that really sticks in my throat is his refusal to acknowledge that Communist atrocities count quite as much as Nazi ones. Since someone killed for being Jewish is just as dead as someone killed for being a 'class enemy', and in both cases these killings occurred as part of vast, precisely brutal programmes of state repression, the only remaining conclusion is that Milne believes that Soviet repression was somehow more justifiable (incidentally, this also ignores Communism's own spasms of anti-Semitism - thinly-disguised pogroms occurred throughout Stalin's reign, and there was a major purge of Jewish party members in Poland in the 1950s and 60s).

Here Milne comes up with his most ridiculous denial of logic - that the "acknowledgements" in Russia of that country's part in Soviet crimes go further than "apologies" for the crimes of colonialism in Britain and France. This is true, but only in the narrow sense that the British and French governments haven't issued formal apologies for these crimes, although they fully acknowledge they took place. The Russian Ministry of Defence, however, still occassionally publishes denials of Second World War atrocities on its website, especially the Katyn massacre of Polish officers. Apologies are rarely more than brief statements of 'regret' or a 'mistake' and a Kremlin initiative to make 'falsifying history' a crime has recently become law.

To wind up his increasingly farcical article, Milne attacks the Baltic states, all independent before World War II, for not accepting their post-war annexation by the Soviet Union with complete good grace. Almost in passing, he does make a valid point that the countries need to confront the issue of their Nazi collaborators, but omits to mention that their hostility towards the Soviets might be somewhat fuelled by the mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of Balts to Siberia in the late 1940s.

Seumas Milne is absolutely right that the full horror of Nazism must not be downplayed. However, this horror is not diluted by acknowledging other horrific events that took place elsewhere. The sacrifices made ordinary Soviet citizens to defeat Nazism were huge, but we cannot and should not ignore the aggressive deals and murderous programmes of oppression ordered by the Soviet leadership. Wilful blindness to Red repression is offensive, absurd and wrong.

- To demonstrate that the Left certainly don't have a monopoly on offensive historical revisionism, US commentator Pat Buchanan has had this article pulled from conservative sites for claiming that Hitler didn't want war and that his territorial desires were reasonable. Read at your peril.

- Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita' is one of the great Russian novels, offering an unforgettable take on Stalinism, religion and love. The acclaimed 2005 Russian miniseries is available on a video-sharing website near you and is highly recommended.

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