TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

On Genocidal Dictators and Totalitarian States

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Beau Mullen looks at Norman Naimark’s “Totalitarian States and the History of Genocide” from Telos 136 (Fall 2006).

The twentieth century was witness to no shortage of political violence and mass death perpetrated by the state. The two most well-known genocides of the century—those that occurred under the rule of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union—did not occur because the state broke down and lawlessness prevailed. Quite the contrary: both regimes had complete control over their citizenry, and the apparatus of government was used to make the butchery as efficient and as inescapable as possible. Both regimes were characterized by extreme violence and terror, key elements of the totalitarian system as defined by Hannah Arendt, so it seems only logical that totalitarianism increases the potential for genocide.

In his article “Totalitarian States and the History of Genocide,” Norman Naimark investigates the exact relationship between genocide and totalitarianism by comparing the regimes of the Nazis and of Stalinist Russia, both of which he refers to as “paradigmatic dictatorships” (10). Naimark is quick to point out that totalitarian states are by no means the sole perpetrators of genocide and that genocide can occur without the instigation of a dictator. While there is a link between totalitarian states and genocide, one does not require the other. A recent genocidal campaign, that in Rwanda, occurred without elements of a totalitarian government; in fact it was the result of the absence of government. Naimark himself points to the eradication of indigenous people in southwest Africa by German settlers at the turn of the twentieth century as an example of genocide without totalitarian rule.

After establishing that the Nazi regime and the genocide it committed are universally condemned while the Stalinist regime and its genocide have been alternately ignored, downplayed, or even defended by a generation of historians, Naimark turns his eye to the similarities of the two regimes’ origins. Naimark writes:

The first and most important commonality between Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany is their transformative utopian ideologies, which grew out of the cataclysmic events of World War I and the civil wars that raged at its conclusion. The war was the crucible of those changes in both Germany and Russia that the new breed of charismatic ideological leaders brought to the fore. From their perspective, the old, decadent, bourgeois world came to a crashing end, and a new one was born, based on a milleranian political religion. (20)

Both regimes sought to radically transform every aspect of the society over which they had control. Naimark observes that in both cases transformation was a two-step process. In the first step, the totalitarian power gains absolute governmental power. In the case of the Nazis, control began with the ending of the Weimar Republic, and in that of Russia, this first step was the Bolshevik Revolution (21). At this stage, political rivals for power are eliminated and control of the legal and legislative system is established to prevent opposition.

While there certainly is bloodshed at the first revolutionary stage, it is not until the second stage that the truly genocidal campaign begins. Having cemented its control over the state, the totalitarian power now begins to bring about the societal transformation it originally envisioned. In the case of Nazi Germany, societal transformation meant the death or expulsion of those deemed to be racial enemies, and in Stalinist Russia, it was intended to be achieved through forced collectivization and further elimination of state enemies.

Even though it is clear that this was the manner in which the totalitarian regimes implemented their genocidal campaigns, what Naimark seeks to establish is whether or not the genocide was intrinsic to the goals of the regimes. Naimark asks, “Was genocide a necessary component of these two regimes? Was it, as the Germans say, Systemimmanent, built into the system? Or was it in both cases contingent, circumstantial, and therefore unnecessary?” (22). The answer to this complicated question in Naimark’s view, is what differentiates the two regimes.

Naimark concludes that the very ideology of Hitler’s Nazism called for genocide. The regime promised the elimination of racial enemies and imperial expansion. In Naimark’s words: “As far as the Holocaust is concerned, the evidence is very persuasive that the Nazi ideology itself, the very essence of Hitler’s view of the world and his ambitions, was centered on the ‘elimination’ (Vernichtung) of the Jews” (22). Genocide was part of the scheme all along; it was the goal the totalitarian government was established to achieve.

Alternatively, even if the conditions created by Communism in Soviet Russia made genocide likely, it was not a stated goal of the regime at its founding. Even though there was political violence against wealthy peasants and other “class enemies” during the establishment of the regime’s power and during the rule of Lenin, Stalin’s predecessor, Naimark suggests that the genocidal campaign was more the result of Stalin’s own personal power schemes:

. . . Stalin’s revolution both changed the system and provided him with the kind of unlimited power and control that increased the likelihood of intentional mass killing. Stalin was not only personally indifferent to the suffering of others; he seemed to enjoy it, profit from it, and intentionally provoke it, both on the personal and societal level. (23)

In the case of the Stalinist genocide, the crime seems to be more linked to the specific dictator than to the stated goals of the regime. Although Hitler’s personality drove the genocide, he had incorporated his ambitions into the ideology of Nazism. Stalin’s regime committed genocide to further its goal of total collectivization, whereas the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis was the very end desired by the regime. In the case of Soviet violence, the deliberate move to commit genocide seems more linked to Stalin’s own paranoia and homicidal nature.

Naimark does not suggest that one totalitarian state is more or less culpable than the other. In both cases the totalitarian government paved the way for the genocide that became its defining historical event. Naimark concludes:

Clearly, in both cases, history also mattered: the international dynamics of the approaching war; the evolution of violence—and its acceptance—in both societies; the development of institutions for carrying out mass murder; and sheer happenstance. Yet in both cases, genocide was as much tied to the leaders involved, Hitler and Stalin, as to the state systems that they created, mastered, and ruled. (25)

While the totalitarian regimes under which the crime of genocide was committed certainly facilitated its furtherance, in both cases the presence of a despotic personality in a supremely powerful position was to the inevitable of widespread atrocity. Mass death was tied to the despotic leader’s personality in both cases, be it in the racist ideology and megalomaniacal ambitions of Hitler or the paranoid and sadistic whims of Stalin. While this does raise questions about the relationship between despotism and totalitarianism, Naimark’s thesis places the blame for genocide squarely on the shoulders of human actors rather than on forms of government.

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