Thursday, July 24, 2008

Robert Gellately

Robert Gellately is the Earl Ray Beck Professor of History at Florida State University and was the Bertelsmann Visiting Professor of Twentieth-Century Jewish Politics and History at Oxford University in 2004–05. His latest book is Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe.

He is also the author of The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy, 19331945 and Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.

Recently, I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I’ve just published Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (Knopf, 2007). I am now researching the much neglected Late Stalinist period in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. What happened to ordinary people in the early postwar has been lost in the shadow of the Cold War. There were cases of ethnic cleansing, civil wars (plural!), pogroms (even in the light of the Holocaust), and lynch justice. Some nations were no sooner liberated from the Nazis, than they found themselves nearly as bad off under the Soviets. Inside the USSR victory brought little solace. There was deep disappointment that the sacrifices made and the energies expended during the Great Patriotic War were not rewarded with greater freedoms or at least a better quality of life. Destruction was unimaginable and ordinary people, many living in holes they dug in the ground, suffered horrible deprivations. Famine struck in 1946 and into 1947 took the lives of between 1 and 1.5 million. Political considerations made it unthinkable for Stalin to negotiate a loan or accept Marshall Plan Aid offered by the U.S. even when the Soviets (and their new “allies”) were desperate and starving.

In the midst of all this new reading, I have found a tiny gem that stands out, namely, Paul R. Gregory’s, Lenin’s Brain and other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives (Stanford, CA., 2008). He is an American professor in charge of copying newly released Soviet documents and making them available for study at the Hoover Institution. His short book consists of 14 chapters, each a vignette illustrating what these documents can divulge. In “Relatives and Falsifying Death Certificates” he tells a unique story. In 1937 and 1938 during the Great Terror, countless thousands had been arrested and shot. Their loved ones were told nothing, but some found out the unfortunates had been given 10 years in prison “without right of correspondence.” Historians left the story there. What Gregory discovered in the secret archives was what happened in 1947, 1948, and later. Where were the prisoners once their sentences had been served in full? Letters and petitions began raining down on the authorities from the late ‘50s onward, and over the years they invented newer and bigger lies. Relatives of the persecuted were torn between hope and despair that dragged on until June 6, 1992 – a whole lifetime of heartache. Only then were the heirs officially allowed to dig for the truth, and even then it was an uphill battle.

Paul Gregory shows us that these relatives have a story. We learn much more in this book, including what really happened to Lenin’s brain. (It was sent for study to Germany of all places!) But the story of the relatives of the terror’s victims is striking because it reminds us how dictators inflict enduring pain on those outside the camps. The book reprints a brilliant Anna Akhmatova poem that would make the stones weep. Written for her lost son, the grief she expresses is something she shares with millions who were or are related to those made to “disappear” without a trace by dictators around the world.
Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War, on Gellately's Lenin, Stalin and Hitler:
IN THEIR different ways they were as bad as each other, the three monsters of 20th-century Europe. That is an oddly controversial statement. Hitler is almost universally vilified; Lenin remains entombed on Red Square as Russia's most distinguished corpse; and modern Russia is looking more kindly on Stalin's memory.

Robert Gellately elegantly scrutinises their differences and highlights their similarities. He places all three men in the context of a Europe shattered by the first world war. “Before 1914 they were marginal figures,” he writes, without “the slightest hope of entering political life.” The whirlwind of destruction that started in 1914 turned their fantasies of racial purity and class dictatorship into reality, killing people on a scale unknown in human history. [read more]
Learn more about Robert Gellately's Lenin, Stalin and Hitler at the Knopf website.

--Marshal Zeringue