Recently I started two books, one was given to me by someone who came in for an interview at the Museum it is entitled Alone in Berlin, by German writer Hans Fallada (nom de plume) whose real name was Rudolf Wilhelm Adolf Ditzen (1893-1947). He was the greatest writer of the XXth century. Fallada suggests that morality under the Nazi Dictatorship was not measured by the size of the struggle; it mattered only that one did not capitulate…the very act of writing Alone in Berlin – to say nothing of the stunning political clout of the novel itself – implies that for Fallada, the artist’s true role under fascism was chiefly one of bearing witness.
The story starts in an apartment building in central Berlin where several families live. All have different economic conditions, a retired senior Judge, an old Jewess, a worker and his wife, a Nazi party family with sons in the SS, a shifty alcoholic and his prostitute wife and their 5 kids. Tragedy strikes when the worker Quangel and his wife learn by official letter of the death of their son Otto, a soldier in the German Army invading France, this death will make of them resisters, the book is dark and full of anguish and fear. The Quangel write postcards denouncing the Fuhrer and leave them around Berlin. The Gestapo and the SS embark on a hunt to find whoever is responsible and it is a game of Cat and Mouse. The reader understands that many Germans resisted the Nazi, hated them but given the politics of fear and the Police State with the constant threat of the Concentration Camp for anyone resisting or criticizing the Fuhrer, people kept their heads low. Fallada who lived through it all also explains how the Nazi regime financed itself through extortion of the public in general and Party members.
Primo Levi called this book ”the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. I have read other books about German resistance and living conditions during the Nazi dictatorship, it has been 75 years now and more biographies and diaries are coming out, it was not a black and white picture many shades of grey and complex reality. The picture is one of a society in turmoil and we have to ask ourselves what would we do if we lived in such atmosphere where the police can arbitrarily arrest you, beat you up, kill you or send you to a concentration camp. Where the wrong word can mean a death sentence, where no one can be trusted, where no one will be foolish enough to come to your defence.
A few years ago I read two biographies entitled Purgatory of Fools and Berlin Diaries 1940-45, it was the stories of two sisters of Russian-German origin, Marie Princess Vassilchikov and Tatiana Princess Metternich. Both worked at the German Foreign Ministry as secretaries and were implicated in the attempt on Hitler’s life in 1944. They miraculously survived the war. However they do give a gripping account of the horrors under the Nazis.
The other book is about Joseph Stalin, who was not Russian but Georgian who becomes the all powerful dictator of Soviet Russia under the Bolcheviks. Entitled Stalin, the Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. It gives a psychological picture of the man and his family and entourage. It also re-establishes in reality what actually happened from 1917 onwards, removing all the romantic nonsense about the Revolution or that it was done for the people. What we see is how the people, the peasants, millions of people were starved, put to death, a country destroyed by fanaticism similar to what we see with the Taliban today. It was not the overthrow of the Tsar or the old Aristocratic Regime that was achieved, since the regime stop to exist in February 1917 by the sudden abdication of Nicholas II forced out by his cousins, a surprise to all including the Bolcheviks. No it was the fanatical pursuit of an inhumane ideology ”Bolchevism” to create the new man, a robot basically who only thought in terms of means of production, devoid of any human feelings described as Bourgeois sentimentality.
The author Montefiore gives us a detailed psychological portrait of the people in Stalin’s entourage, few actual Russians, many were Jews who occupied top positions around him, their families, the children, their lack of education, their poverty and in the case of the Jewish colleagues the oppression they felt in Russian society. Even after the so called Revolution, Bolchevik Jews could not be promoted to senior positions because they were considered non-Russian, though non-Jews like the Armenians, Ukrainians, Abkazians, our other Ethnic groups could. Stalin will eventually get rid of all of them in his purges.
Montefiore did meticulous research much through interviews of the children now aged, and newly opened Kremlin State Archives , diaries and personal journals of who they were. We see Lenin the petit bourgeois, from a small noble family whose father was a Tsarist bureaucrat, Lenin who was absolutely convinced that in 1919 the world was going to fall into an orgy of blood and revolution, who believed that the people were with him, totally delusional. When he realized that nothing of the sort was happening, he turned to absolute violence against the very people he claimed to be wanting to free. As he said quote Change will come through total terror. Something Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia years later will copy.
Trotsky the Jewish intellectual despised by all for his grandeur and aloofness, forced into exile and later assassinated in Mexico City on Stalin’s orders.
Stalin the Georgian street urchin, low birth and next to no education raised in a violent family background dominated by superstition and blood feud typical of the Mountains he came from, ready to kill for any reason. Stalin’s second wife Nadya, an unstable self-centred egoistical schizophrenic who after a party in 1932 will go to her bedroom in the Kremlin palace and shoot herself. Followed by the horrible vengeance of Stalin on his own family and all his close friends who he will blame for her death. Stalin himself is paranoid and violent, though highly intelligent and manipulative, always suspicious and ready to believe in conspiracy against him. A man who has no scrupules about exterminating, his own word, millions of innocent people simply because they do not fit into Bolchevik ideology. The mass starvation in the Ukraine where 10 million peasant died to satisfy the Five Year Plan for grain export to the rest of the Soviet Empire. The life of luxury on special trains taking the entourage and their families on vacation in the Crimea or to Sochi, the lavish banquets and constant drinking binges while the whole country is in flames gripped by a Civil War and then the purges 1936 of entire families, the old revolutionaries Stalin came to despise and fear, they knew too much. What the author shows us is that the entourage of Stalin who were rough necks of low birth and little education enabled him to become the Boss. He dominated them with his quick grasp of events. But also Stalin’s children how they did not fare very well, his first son Yakov from his first marriage, died during the Second World War a prisoner of the Germans in 1943, Stalin refused to save him for political reasons. He second son Vasily who will become a general in the Soviet Air Force drank himself to death unable to cope with such a father. Svetlana his daughter will fare a little better, but just, she will escape to the West and finally return to Russia to a life of oblivion, the crimes of her dead father followed her everywhere. The only one who appears to have done relatively well is Artyom his adoptive son who became a general and wrote two books about his adoptive father Stalin. He died in Moscow in 1981.
Lenin and others had no plan for the new promised Proletarian society, Bolchevism led to a dead end and Communism and Karl Marx mere shiny objects of little meaning used to retain absolute power over the masses. Stalin with the help of people like Beria, Molotov and others developed a State Secret Police to maintain a system of constant terror, creating the infamous Gulag. Even during the Second World War which again caught the Bolcheviks by surprised, so certain they were of their pact with Hitler to divide the world, Stalin would spy on his own troops at the Front and shoot here and there soldiers on the mere suspicion that they might not be faithful to him. He signed order 270 condemning as traitor any Soviet soldier who surrendered to the enemy or was made a POW. Some 28 years in power and the total destruction of a society is the legacy of Stalin and his henchmen.
Stalin lived like a Tsar using Palaces and Dachas surrounding himself and his cronies with opulent luxury while the people had nothing. A sad commentary on a revolution that was not and almost 70 years of rule by one ideology. It explains a lot about Russia today and the many problems it faces. If you love history this is a great book.