I have just been reading this piece by Lawrence Rees on the BBC website plugging his TV show on BBC 2 at 9 tonight on the origins of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Germany. I hope that the programme will take account of the recent revelation of Stalin’s offer in August 1939 to send a million troops with armour and air support to the German border (with Polish agreement) if the British and French would agree a military alliance. The non-aggression pact was a response to the failure of the western powers – doubtless fuelled by the same anti-communism that saw them allow democracy in Spain to be crushed by fascism – to agree. I suspect though, that this won’t turn up in the programme, but will watch to see.
Rees has an excellent pedigree in making superb programmes on this period, and I look forward to tonight’s show very much. His piece I have linked to above, however, I find somewhat less compelling than his past shows. Here is the introduction (though admittedly it may be the work of a sub-editor).
He had the blood of millions on his hands, yet Joseph Stalin has escaped Hitler-style demonisation, and even become a trendy pin-up. Why has history been so kind to this murderous leader, asks Laurence Rees.
I find the idea that Stalin has escaped demonisation somewhat questionable, especially on the basis of one poster of him on a campus. However the recent video released by Russell Brand may suggest he has more of a point. It is actually nearly impossible to find a poster of Stalin or any of his writings in this day and age, unless you go to one of those post-ironic places on the net, or parts of Europe. Unlike, say Mein Kampf, which can be found in most Waterstone’s.
Rees argues that Uncle Joe has gotten off lightly as a result of wartime propaganda still shaping the popular consciousness (note in fact my use of Uncle Joe as conclusive and subconscious proof).
The trouble is that the legacy of these “expedient lies” has still not entirely left us. Which is why I hope people will come to realise just how appalling Stalin was, and students might think twice before hanging pictures of Stalin on their walls.
Nonsense. Firstly Stalin’s image in the popular consciousness is a lot closer to Hitler, especially among young people, than Rees allows. Secondly, if he has a better image that is simply because he ought to have. After all, it was the Red Army that, in Churchill’s words, ripped the guts out of the Nazis’ military machine, and the USSR backed the liberation struggles of many countries. Yes the USSR under Stalin could be a brutal and violent place, and huge mistakes were made. Equally, we know that the Communists were fighting for their lives, and at the same time transformed the lives of the peoples of the USSR immeasurably for the better in healthcare, literacy, life expectancy and other areas. As well as saving us all from fascism.
A commentator here uses the name Baku 26, after 26 Soviet commisars delievered up by the British for execution to the Whites during the civil war. There can be no doubt that Stalin et al faced death if the forces of counter-revolution succeeded against them at any point. Nor is there any doubt that there were real challenges and conspiracies, though paranoia overstimated them. As a historian, perhaps Rees could talk a bit more about these and spare us the moral judgments. The point of historical writing is to get inside the heads of those you are writing about – little or no effort to do so is made in this day and age with regard to the USSR under Stalin.
In a world where reactionary regimes in eastern Europe seek to use the EU to ban the teaching of anything positive about communism, we must fight to defend the truth. In all its ugliness, yes. But also in all its progress, hope, sacrifice, and, indeed, glory.