Category Archives: Ideologies

Political and social thought, and its impact on world history.

“Enemies who never were”: Stalin, Yezhov, and the Great Purges, 1936-1938

English: Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin.

Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the prominent Bolshevik theorist, and one of the most high-profile victims of the Great Purges. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In March 1938, at the height of what would be termed the “Great Purges” or the “Great Terror”, Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, the prominent Bolshevik theorist and leading member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (hereafter CPSU), was found guilty of conspiracy in relation to the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad party chief, who was killed in 1934. Bukharin, according to the court’s ruling, had actively worked “for the defeat and dismemberment of the Soviet Union and the restoration of capitalism”, and his guilt was already assured by the theatrical appeal to patriotism by the prosecutor, Vyshinsky. Bukharin, along with his co-accused, confessed to all charges, and was shot shortly after the end of the trial. Exactly one month earlier, in the city of Kiev, a 63 year old seamstress named Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia was also shot to death, having been arrested three months earlier by the NKVD on suspicion of espionage on behalf of Poland. These people could not have been more different; Bukharin, the eloquent intellectual, was seen as the most intelligent and incisive of all the CPSU theorists. Ditkovskaia, on the other hand, was a modest, private pensioner, who was also illiterate, to the extent that she could “barely sign her own name.” Indeed, the one common attribute that bound these two completely different individuals together was the fact that they, along with some 700,000 other Soviet citizens, were arrested by the NKVD between 1936 and 1938, branded enemies of the people, and executed. In more recent years, both have been rehabilitated, with authorities noting that their apparent complicity in any crime against the USSR was implausible and unfounded.


The Purges were defining events in the history of the Soviet Union. In the space of two years, the upper echelons of the CPSU, as well as the Soviet armed forces, were devastated by seemingly arbitrary arrests and executions. But the extent of these arrests extended well beyond that of the power structure of the USSR; as the case of Mariia Ditkovskaia shows, the Purges also tainted facets of ordinary Soviet society as well. In the wealth of historiography devoted to the subject, the focus has been on discerning the agency behind the Purges. Some historians, like Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko and Edvard Radzinsky, tend to paint Stalin as the single causative factor of the Purges, an all-powerful monolith who ordered deaths because it suited him. Others, such as J. Arch Getty, Amy Knight and Sergo Beria, have portrayed Stalin’s functionaries, such as the internal officials of the NKVD, as the true driving force behind the Purges, with Stalin more of a figurehead. However, in many ways it can be stated that the Purges were a causative agent in themselves, a self-propagating spiral of denouncement and murder that, once begun, took on a life of their own. The Purges began as an outgrowth of Stalin’s paranoia and fear of internal saboteurs, assassins and conspirators. However, once they took shape, they did not satisfy their perpetrators or Stalin himself, instead fuelling their insecurity through the vast number of informants and arrests that virtually confirmed to Stalin and his inner circle that their imagined anti-Soviet conspiracy groups actually existed.


Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin, Sochi, 1934.

Sergei Kirov and Joseph Stalin, early 1934. Kirov’s murder in Leningrad proved the spark for Stalin’s subsequent reign of terror, though some have speculated that Stalin himself arranged his friend’s killing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Purges accounted for roughly three quarters of a million deaths by the time they wound down in 1938. The origin of this Great Terror is largely seen by most historians as the murder of Sergei Kirov in Leningrad, at the hands of an assassin named Nikolaev. The original investigation into the murder had been conducted by Genrikh Grigorevich Yagoda, the head of the NKVD, but it proved inconclusive. Yagoda’s own credibility had already been called into question by the shooting, due to the fact that his agency had been unable to prevent the murder of a high-profile Party leader by a single assailant. Yagoda’s investigation did little to alleviate Stalin’s feeling that Yagoda was unsuited and inadequate; though the NKVD chief implicated Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev, two of the most well-known early Bolshevik leaders, and high-profile opponents of Stalin, in the killing, he had uncovered no concrete evidence of this theory. In the eighteen months following the assassination, several “plots and conspiracies” were uncovered, but not by Yagoda or his much vaunted secret police. In early 1936, Nikolai Yezhov reopened the Kirov murder case, with a startling conclusion: Lev Kamenev and Grigory Zinoviev had conspired with a “Trotskyist underground” movement, and arranged the assassination of the popular Leningrad Party leader. But more startling revelations were to come. With approval from Stalin, Yezhov distributed a letter throughout the Central Committee and to all Party leaders throughout the USSR, within which he reported the existence of a large and powerful “Trotskyist-Zinovievist counter-revolutionary bloc.” The disclosures were astonishing. Under a paragraph entitled “THE FACTS”, Yezhov warned the Party that the NKVD had discovered “a host of terroristic groups made up of Trotskyists and Zinovievists”, spread as far afield as Moscow, Leningrad, Gorky, Minsk, Kiev, Baku “and other cities.” The activities of these groups, which Yezhov termed “the All-Union Trotskyist-Zinovievist centre”, were not limited to the murder of Kirov, but, according to the NKVD man, were tasked with murdering a veritable who’s who of the Soviet Union, including “Comrades Stalin, Voroshilov, Kaganovich, Kirov, Ordzhonikidze, Zhdanov, Kosior, and Postyshev”, and following these high-level assassinations, subverting the armed forces using terrorist cells implanted in the army hierarchy, and then making use “of confusion and failure of every sort in order to seize power.” Most historians credit the murder of Kirov in 1934 as the catalyst for the Purges, but the mass arrests and executions did not begin for a full two years after his homicide; rather, Yezhov’s letter was, more fairly, the spark that ignited the Terror. In order to understand why, however, we must understand the man for whom Yezhov was primarily writing his letter: Josef Vissarionovich Stalin.


Kliment Voroshilov, Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin...

Nikolai Yezhov (far right) with Josef Stalin (centre right). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Much has been made of Stalin’s apparent paranoia, although few have attempted to really understand it. George Kennan, for example, notes that Stalin had a “darkly mistrustful mind, [in which] no political issue was ever without its personal implications”, but Kennan treated this more as the caprice of a despotic tyrant, rather than a genuine psychological flaw that would impair his judgement. What many of the modern-day biographers and Russian historians fail to acknowledge is that Stalin was not merely paranoid, but utterly fearful. Nikolai Tolstoy, descendant of the famous author Leo Tolstoy, insists that “if there is a consistent thread to be traced in Stalin’s policy it is fear, a fear so absolute and omnipresent that one can safely claim that it governed his waking and sleeping hours.” Indeed, Stalin’s fear seems to have known few bounds. All of his meals were tested for poisons before being delivered to him, and “on no account was tea to be taken twice from the same packet.” If Stalin were to attend the Kremlin cinema, a short walk across Red Square from his office, he would be flanked by companies of armed bodyguards and an escort of armoured cars. As Tolstoy explains: “Other rulers, more or less tyrannical, have had cause to fear assassination but continued to lead public lives. Stalin alone appears to have believed himself to be living in a country where every man’s hand was against him. As his atrocities mounted year by year, so he surely knew that there was scarcely a person in the land, man, woman or child, who did not have cause for a bitter hatred against the architect of all their sufferings. Everything in Stalin’s life suggests that at any rate that was what he believed.”


Given Stalin’s ever-present fear of “the possibility of betrayal from any quarter”, Yezhov’s letter would not, as Getty has suggested, have merely constituted another justification for a conniving and manipulative Stalin, but in fact have terrified the vozhd. When Stalin, frustrated – and likely made suspicious – by Yagoda’s inability to prove a conspiracy between Kamenev and Zinoviev to murder Kirov, gave Yezhov carte blanche to reopen the investigation, he would have done so, fearful of what connections Yezhov might turn up. And Yezhov did not disappoint. By ‘exposing’ a large-scale internal bloc that aimed to overthrow Stalin and install Trotsky as ruler of the USSR, Yezhov had confirmed Stalin’s very worst fears. Almost certainly, Yezhov did so quite deliberately, “eager to make a case and a name for himself”, and to pull himself into contention for Yagoda’s position at the head of the NKVD. In this way, Yezhov was able to rid Stalin of Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and other people in opposition, while at the same time convincing Stalin that he was safeguarding the USSR’s paranoid leader. In expanding this circle of conspirators, however, Yezhov had miscalculated. He had released a force that he would no longer be able to control. The evidence for this appeared very soon after the distribution of his letter.


On 20 August 1936, Yezhov received a letter from A. Flegontov, the chairman of the Council of the Handicrafts Cooperatives of the Ukraine, who “consider[ed] it my duty […] to report that Grigory Maksimovich Krutov, chairman of the Far Eastern Territorial Executive Committee […] was on exceptionally friendly terms with Mrachkovsky.” Mrachkovsky had been implicated, along with Kamenev and Zinoviev, in the plot against Stalin and the murder of Sergei Kirov. Yezhov could thus not afford to ignore this evidence that a Party official had been friendly with a declared member of the “Trotskyist, counterrevolutionary, terroristic organisation.” Krutov was removed from his post, and, in 1938, shot. Flegontov’s letter was by no means unique; further denunciations followed. By the time the Purges ground to a halt in 1938, the Party had been decimated. Almost the entire “Old Guard” Bolsheviks found themselves facing a firing squad. Of Lenin’s first Council of People’s Commissars, named in 1917 as the first Bolshevik government of Russia, very few remained alive. Some, like Nogin, Lunacharsky, Stepanov and Lenin himself, had died of natural causes before the purge began. Of the others, only two – Teodorovich and Stalin – remained unscathed. The rest had been arrested, and all of them would be liquidated. The Central Committee of the CPSU lost 110 of its 139 members who had been elected at the XVIIth Party Congress in 1934, and other apparatchiks of the Party suffered similar arrests and executions.


English: Document for the Gulag prisoner who w...

NKVD identity papers for a gulag prisoner. Those convicted of crimes against “Soviet power” during the Great Terror were usually either shot or sent into exile to the prison camps in Siberia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But the victims were not all Party officials. Having branded Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and others as Trotskyist saboteurs, working in collaboration with the German Gestapo or “one or more fascist states”, Yezhov had publicised a distinct link between Trotskyism, the policies and activities of the “collaborators”, and hostile foreign powers. In effect, he had cast suspicions upon anyone who had ever known, followed or sympathised with Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Rykov and so on, or who had visited or had any dealing with foreign countries or their nationals. Thus, Grigory Krutov, the Far Eastern Territorial Executive Committee chairman, was implicated in the “crimes” of Kamenev and Zinoviev, through no more concrete a link than his previous convictions as a follower of Trotsky. Beyond the Party, even greater recriminations were taking place. In the armed forces, the officer corps was decimated by vilification and association. According to Bialer, at least one third of the Red Army’s officer corps was arrested by the NKVD, and either executed or imprisoned. Yezhov’s “uncovering” of terrorist cells within the Red Army led to the near-complete annihilation of the Soviet officer class, with horrific consequences. Most astonishing, however, was the fact that most of the victims were not high-ranking officers in a position to betray the Soviet Union, but mid-level functionaries, with little of value to offer to any of the USSR’s enemies (real or imagined), and limited influence. Colonel I. T. Starinov, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, recalled returning to Leningrad, and being informed that his colleague, Boris Filippov of the Leningrad Railway Station, had been arrested: “From the newspapers I knew that Iakir, Tukhachevskii, Uborevich, Kork, and Primakov had confessed their guilt in full. Apparently they had really betrayed something to the enemy, had been plotting something. But what could Boris Ivanovich have betrayed or plotted?” Starinov’s incredulity reflected a growing trend, not just within the Red Army, but also in the wider sphere of Soviet society. Indeed, the vast majority of the 700,000 victims of the Great Purges were not army officers or Party officials, but “those whose lives meant absolutely nothing to Stalin: innocent people who were swept up in the maelstrom.” Thus, in late 1937, the Kiev seamstress Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia was arrested, solely for the fact that she may possibly have made the acquaintance of some Poles. Also in 1937, Fedor Vasilevich Doroshko, a traditional Ukrainian musician, was arrested after being denounced as a Ukrainian nationalist, and sentenced to death with the ludicrous charge of being a spy for the Japanese. Ditkovskaia and Doroshko are just two examples of those denounced by their neighbours, relatives, friends and acquaintances as being enemies of the people; in Doroshko’s case, because he had voiced doubts over the policy of forced agricultural collectivisation. Doroshko, like so many others, was shot.


It is very simple to look at the Purges and see in it the hand of Stalin, an attempt by the vozhd to terrorise the subject peoples of the USSR into submission. This is certainly the view of such popular historians as Edvard Radzinsky, but other, such as Getty, view this explanation as flawed, verging on asinine. Certainly, it ignores Tolstoy’s argument that Stalin was a man governed by his own fear. If this fear and paranoia is taken into account, however, we begin to build a clearer picture of why Stalin embarked upon this mass murder of close to a million of his own people. In the aftermath of the Kirov assassination, the investigation was handled by Yagoda, whose conclusion of Kamenev and Zinoviev’s probable guilt did not satisfy Stalin. When Nikolai Yezhov reopened the case, however, he sparked a chain of events that snowballed completely out of his or Stalin’s control. In insisting on a widespread Trotskyist terror movement, Yezhov, as it has been shown, catalysed a string of denouncements from Party members and ordinary citizens, implicating their acquaintances as being associated with Trotskyist-Zinovievist policies or figures. With every denouncement, however, Stalin’s worst fears were realised: given his paralysing fear, and his clear belief that “every man is an enemy”, Stalin could not help but treat each arrest and execution as both a validation of his fears of conspiracies against him, and satisfaction that such conspiracies were being rooted out. With each new trial, Stalin would, in his own mind, become both more terrified and more secure. A lack of arrests, on the other hand, would not ease his mind in the belief that there was no threat, but rather indicate that the threats existed but were not being detected by the NKVD. Often, therefore, the only sensible conclusion that Stalin could draw was that the NKVD had been compromised. Such was the case of Yagoda, Yezhov’s predecessor, who had “proved himself incapable of unmasking the Trotskyite-Zinovievite bloc.” Apparently unable to satisfy Stalin’s need to bring more enemies to trial, the NKVD chief became one himself, deposed from his position and denounced as being an embezzler and a member of the Trotskyist underground. Appearing as a defendant in the same show trial as Nikolai Bukharin, Yagoda was found to be a member of the “Rightist conspiracy in the NKVD”, and shot. Thereafter, his young successor, Nikolai Yezhov, diligently acted upon the evidence accumulating against Party officials, Red Army officers, and normal Soviet citizens, sending a vast number to the firing squads to satisfy his leader’s urge to destroy the non-existent conspiracy against the Soviet state that he, Yezhov, had concocted in his letter to the Central Committee. Thus, the Purges, though begun by Yezhov and Stalin, were able to propagate themselves, by setting into motion the very actions and processes that would convince Stalin that they were still necessary, even in the face of ridiculous charges against essentially irrelevant individuals.


The Great Purges were not the first, nor last, attempt to crush perceived opposition or threats to the regime. Indeed, brutal repression of dissidents by the secret police is a recurring trait in Russian history (among others), that can be traced with little difficulty to the Tsarist secret police predating Lenin’s October Revolution. Yet the Great Purges stand out in history for their scale, ferocity and sheer impact upon the ruling party, the armed services, and the population in general. The mass arrests and murder that characterised the Purges have been justified as “the [genuine] struggle between revolution and counter-revolution in a country surrounded by hostile governments”, and vilified as a petty attempt by Stalin to solidify his own personal dictatorship. In reality, the Purges were fundamentally a mistake. The period of the Great Purges – which in Russian is often termed Yezhovshchina, or “the Time of Yezhov” – is one marked by Yezhov’s ambition and miscalculation, and Stalin’s fear and paranoia. Once Yezhov’s annihilation of Stalin’s opponents, real and perceived, was in full swing, it took on a life of its own, and Yezhov’s only course of action, to satisfy his vozhd, was to follow it to its conclusion.


Stalin, (Nikolai Yezhov, censored) and Molotow...

After his arrest and execution, Yezhov was “disappeared” from official Soviet history. The same photograph from before is reproduced here, retouched by Soviet censors to remove the now-discredited “enemy of the people.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 20 December 1937, Yezhov attended a meeting of the Presidium at the Bolshoi Theatre, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the NKVD. Anastas Mikoyan, an influential member of the Politburo who would under Khrushchev become the second most powerful man in the Soviet Union, took to the floor to praise the NKVD chief. Yezhov, Mikoyan proclaimed, was a “gifted, faithful Stalin pupil [who] has smashed the vicious spy nests of Trotskyist-Bukharinist agents of the foreign intelligence services.” He finished with a plea to all members of the Politburo, the Central Committee, the CPSU and the USSR itself: “Learn from Comrade Yezhov the Stalinist style of working he has learned and is learning from Comrade Stalin!” It is somewhat fitting, therefore, that this diligent student of Stalinism, who created the circumstances by which some 700,000 people would be swept away in a maelstrom of trumped-up charges and arbitrary killings, would himself be purged. In 1938, with Yezhov “arous[ing] distrust by his failure to produce a public Reserve Rightist Centre trial”, Stalin accused his once-faithful NKVD chief of “complicity in the plot by Frinovski, Shapiro, Ryzhova, Fedorov and others to use his bodyguard to assassinate him.” Arrested and interrogated by his own former subordinates, in much the same way that his predecessor Yagoda was, Nikolai Yezhov was shot sometime after the end of the Great Purges, most likely in the early part of 1940.


Bukharin, Zinoviev, Kamenev

Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev. Once indispensable members of the Party and close associates of Lenin himself, by 1938 all three had been shot on Stalin’s orders. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Great Terror spanned just two years, but in that time it changed the face of the Soviet Union and Stalinism irrevocably. Along the way, it eliminated nearly a million people, some of whom were important figures of opposition against Stalin, but most of whom were inconsequential: villagers, musicians, cobblers, people who had no political inclination, no disposition towards treason, no connection to Stalin and the high politics of the USSR. Yet, through a system of institutionalised murder, spawned by the irrational paranoia and fear of Stalin, these people became victims of Yezhovshchina. Eventually, the Purges can be characterised as they were at the beginning of this examination, through the examples of a prominent Communist theorist and an obscure Kiev seamstress. Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin, in his last letter to Stalin, accepted his fate with typical philosophical eloquence. “Great plans, great ideas, and great interests take precedence over everything”, he wrote his one-time political ally, “and I know that it would be petty for me to place the question of my own person on a par with the universal-historical tasks resting, first and foremost, on your shoulders.” At the other extreme, we have no record of Mariia Stanislavovna Ditkovskaia’s last thoughts, or whether she accepted and understood her fate. All we know is that Mariia Ditkovskaia and Nikolai Bukharin died as innocents, accused by their executioners of being agents for enemies who never were.


Further reading


  • Antonov-Ovseyenko, Anton. The Time of Stalin: Portrait of a Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.
  • Bialer, Seweryn. Stalin and His Generals: Soviet Military Memoirs of World War II. New York: Pegasus, 1969.
  • Carmichael, Joel. Stalin’s Masterpiece: The Show Trials and Purges of the Thirties – the Consolidation of the Bolshevik Dictatorship. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976.
  • Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. London: Macmillan, 1968.
  • Conquest, Robert. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-39. London: Macmillan, 1985.
  • Getty, J. Arch. Origins of the Great Purges: The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933-1938. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Getty, J. Arch, and Naumov, Oleg V. The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
  • Jansen, Marc, and Petrov, Nikita. Stalin’s Loyal Executioner: People’s Commissar Nikolai Ezhov 1895-1940. Stanford: Hoover Institute Press, 2002.
  • Kuromiya, Hiroaki. The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. New York: Vintage, 1973.
  • Radzinsky, Edvard. Stalin: The First In-Depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives. Anchor: New York, 1997




1 Comment

Filed under Ideologies

The Myth of Nazi “Efficiency”

Patterns of Force (Star Trek: The Original Series)

Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy investigate a planet that has turned into Nazi Germany by another name. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the classic Star Trek episode “Patterns of Force”, the starship Enterprise arrives at a planet gone mad. An historian named John Gill, who had been observing the citizens of the planet Ekos, had decided to break Starfleet’s policy of non-interference – the Prime Directive – and directly intervene in the political and societal development of the Ekosian people. In doing so, Gill decided to pattern the new Ekosian society on the “most efficient” state Earth had ever known, Nazi Germany. However, his attempts to achieve this efficiency and unity of will, without the state resorting to the horrors of Hitler’s regime, ultimately failed; Gill, now the self-styled Führer, was drugged by his deputy, who then waged a racial war of genocide against the neighbouring Zeons. Happily, this interstellar Third Reich is defeated by Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock, just before Ekos launches its “Final Decision” against the Zeon people. Predictably, as he died, Gill apologised to Kirk, admitting that his breach of the Prime Directive was wrong. With the crisis resolved, the Enterprise thus leaves Ekos.

Of course, the episode dispensed with any attempt at metaphor. John Gill is referred to as the Führer. There is an SS and a Gestapo, and it is no coincidence that the “race enemies” of the Ekosians, the Zeons, have names that so closely resemble Jewish ones (Isak, Abrom, and Davod, are all Zeons encountered by Kirk and Spock during the adventure, and “Zeon” is close enough to “Zion”, the Hebrew word for ancient Israel). In doing so, the episode’s moral was aimed at the legacy of Nazi racial policies. Yet there is a deeper historical concept at play here. Gill contends that a Nazi-like regime is the preferable form of government because of the efficiency of the Nazi state, only to discover that this efficiency goes hand-in-hand with the horrors of the Holocaust. Gill, however, is portrayed as an historian who admires the overall achievements of National Socialism while abhorring the methods.

The idea that Nazi Germany was a remarkably efficient state used to be taken as a given. Those (like the fictitious Gill) who argued this contended that the Germans were possessed by a unifying goal, that the German economy outstripped anything else in its class, and that the proof of this efficiency can be found in the fact that Germany was able to wage war against the combined weights of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union for many years, before finally buckling and collapsing under the overwhelming force of these states. That it held out for so long, and even looked set to win, these commentators argued, demonstrated Germany’s superior management and organisation.

In order to evaluate Germany’s economic performance under the Nazis, it is important to understand  the context that came before. There is no doubt that, in the years leading up to Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933, the German economy had been subjected to disastrous forces. Germany had, at the end of the First World War, been required to pay severe reparations to the victorious Allies. In the event, these reparations were not ever fully paid, but it is important to note that the amount that was demanded of the Germans was well beyond that which Germany could feasibly ever pay. Throughout the mid-1920s, however, the German foreign minister, Gustav Stresemann, appealed to the Americans to have the terms of reparations payments changed. This was achieved through a remarkable series of circumstances.

Owen D. Young in 1924

Owen Young, Dawes Committee economist, and chairman of General Electric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Firstly, the so-called Dawes Committee was convened, with its chief economist, Owen Young, tasked with coming up with a plan to calculate German repayments without endangering the German economy itself. Young was a brilliant financial mind, as he was the chairman of General Electric. But Young had reasons to ensure Germany’s economic recovery, beyond merely ensuring that reparations could be met. General Electric had entered into a tight commercial alliance with the German electrical giant AEG; improving the health of the German domestic market, then, could only improve AEG’s bottom line, which in turn would benefit GE and Young. Moreover, American industry relied on a series of capital investments by American merchant banks, ensuring a close relationship between companies and banks. The banks, in turn, had looked to Germany hungrily. Since savings in German banks had been all but wiped out after the First World War and during the German economic slump, those banks could not afford to extend loans that would be necessary to recover the economy without hard currency backing. On the other hand, American financiers, such as J.P. Morgan, had monetary reserves, and saw a lucrative opportunity in providing German banks and companies with large, high interest loans. Thus, American banks were encouraged to sink capital into Germany’s recovery. This suited the Americans, since they foresaw massive returns on these investments. For a time, this also suited the Germans, who were able to secure such enormous loans that they quickly began making their reparations payments, not with their own money, but with American cash. Effectively, then, the Germans borrowed American money, which they then used to pay their required reparations to the British and the French, who were then obliged to pay installments on their war debt to the Americans (using American money that had been borrowed by the Germans).

A solemn crowd gathers outside the Stock Excha...

Horrified crowds outside the New York Stock Exchange, October 1929. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This arrangement may have suited all parties in the short term, but it is astonishing that neither Young nor Stresemann saw the dangers of the system they had encouraged. By 1925, the German economy was almost entirely dependent on American money, secured through loans. But what would happen if the Germans were unable to make their repayments? Or, more worryingly, what would happen if, for some reason, the American banks were forced to recall their loans? As it was, the world was about to find out. In October 1929, after years of heavy speculative trading, the Wall Street Stock Exchange crashed. The results were catastrophic. Banks that had invested on the exchange suddenly lost millions, and their first impulse – to squeeze borrowers – was met with panic by those who kept savings accounts. The subsequent run on currency placed the banks in a position in which they no longer had either public confidence or monetary backing in order to continue trading. The obvious response was to recall the massive loans to Germany.

The banks could do little other than demand German payment. But this brought about its own repercussions. German banks, trading houses, and even government budgets had been largely dependent on American capital for several years. The impressive recovery of the German economy since the immediate postwar days had been largely a fiction, since the risk had been shouldered not by the Germans but by over-keen US investors. In any case, the German balance of payments, especially with regards the enormous reparations debt, was kept afloat by the greenback rather than the Reichsmark. So, by suddenly recalling their loans, the American banks were not simply trimming Germany of a luxury it had enjoyed. They were undermining the entire foundation of the new German economy.

As one might reasonably expect, the sudden withdrawal of American capital smashed the German economy. Virtually overnight, banks and other companies collapsed, personal savings accounts that had only just begun to recover from the postwar downturn were once again wiped out, and the government found itself insolvent. This change of fortunes reversed the growth that the country had been experiencing; in the months immediately before the crash, some 20 million Germans had held paid employment, but by 1933 that number had fallen precipitously, to just 11.5 million, though this figure hardly does justice to the situation, since workers who remained employed usually had to accept pay cuts and a decline of their working conditions. Not only did employment problems rob Germany of revenue, but it also added millions of families to an already overstretched and inadequate social welfare programme that simply could not keep up with the huge numbers of those who could no longer support themselves independently.

stamp series Winterhilfswerk with additional s...

The Autobahn was such a feted achievement of the Nazi economic policies that it was even celebrated on postage stamps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was in this context that Hitler would eventually rise to power and, certainly, the logic of the conclusions drawn (as much by the fictitious John Gill as by real, established names in the field) seems impressive. In 1933, on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power, official unemployment stood at six million. Within a year it had been halved, and by 1937 fewer than one million Germans were without jobs. In order to raise the employment figures, the regime had begun a number of public works schemes, including the famed Autobahn motorways. Several thousand kilometres of road were built in a few short years, and the Autobahnen alone had employed over 150,000 Germans in gainful work. The number of welfare recipients soon fell by more than 60 percent in large cities. Indeed, by 1936, Germany was in such a strong economic position that Berlin was able to host a triumphant Olympic Games, complete with all the pageantry expected of the situation, and German Zeppelin airships criss-crossed the Atlantic as symbols of renewed German might. The design of the so-called “People’s Car” (Volkswagen), which would open motoring to the masses, was another crowning achievement of the regime’s economic policies. Away from industry, too, the economy had improved. Agricultural production gained from strength to strength throughout the 1930s, and by 1939 output was some 71 percent higher than it had been in 1933 – no doubt an amazing achievement. In short, Germany’s economic recovery, it is claimed, was a miracle, a Wirtschaftswunder before the term had been coined, and at the heart of this were Hitler and his ministers.

This logic is seductive, but it is based on faulty assumptions. Let us first address the question of the motorways. The Autobahn project certainly employed over 100,000 people, and the country was soon festooned with bitumen and bridges. These projects, however, were not entirely of the Nazis’ making. The first Autobahn – Hamburg to Basel – was begun in September 1933, but it had been in the works for years; only the more pressing matters of combatting the hyperinflation of the early 1920s had prevented the successive Weimar governments from implementing the plans. It is also worth noting that, though it was begun in 1933, the Hamburg-Basel corridor was not completed by the time construction work was suspended due to the outbreak of war in 1939. It would not be finished until the 1960s. In any event, while the Autobahnen were successful insofar that they were built, and that they employed more than 100,000 otherwise unemployed Germans, the plan had been for the projects to employ over four times as many people as they actually did. On their own terms, then, the Autobahn projects were, at best, only qualified successes.

But even if the motorways were built, they were useless without traffic. Here we have an illustration of the strange nature of Nazi economics, or the difference between image and reality. In 1939, the prototype of the Volkswagen was demonstrated by Hitler himself in Berlin, but the car did not enter production at all under the Third Reich, in spite of the Führer’s pledge to have a million of them built every year. Without this “People’s Car”, the Reich had begun building a system of roads that were inaccessible to most Germans, since motoring was an unaffordable luxury. At the height of the Autobahn building phase, in 1935, for every sixty people in Germany there was just one automobile, compared to one for every twenty in France, or one for every twenty-five in Denmark; in the United States, one person out of every five owned a car of their own.

As impressive as the rises in agriculture were, the figures here are misleading as well. In 1936, Hitler had launched a campaign of economic improvement – the Four-Year Plan – which was overseen not by economists, such as Hjalmar Schacht, but by the chief of the air force and minister-president of Prussia, Hermann Göring. Hitler declared that “Germany must be wholly independent” in its production of the necessities of modern economies, foodstuffs being chief among them. Yet this never happened; by 1938, Germany was still reliant on the importation of fodder for draught animals, fats and eggs were so hard to come by that butter and lard were both heavily rationed well before the war, and fruits and coffee became increasingly difficult to source. The latter was due to heavy importation duties, since coffee crops were not native to Germany. The former, however, was for the most part due to massive inefficiencies in the German countryside. Though production on farms had increased between 1933 and 1939, this was not the full story. The German agrarian sector had been severely depressed since 1914, when the farming manpower was conscripted and left for war. After the war, hyperinflation and uncontrolled recession, coupled with the fact that many of the labourers had never returned from the war, left the agricultural markets in a parlous state. Farmers turned to subsistence production – that is, focusing on providing enough only for themselves – since there was no longer any benefit to boosting production for a market economy that could not pay them for their labours. So, it is true that, in the six years between Hitler’s rise to power and the outbreak of the Second World War, agricultural production was increased, but this increase in production only returned the agrarian sector to pre-First World War levels. In short, by 1939, Hitler and Göring’s Four-Year Plan had perhaps improved some areas of farm production, but only in the sense that Germany was back to the levels of a quarter-century earlier. In absolute terms, then, Germany was twenty-five years behind. Moreover, the countryside lost a large number of labourers (approximately 1.4 million) in these National Socialist prewar years, as urbanisation increased and more and more farmhands moved to the growing cities and towns to try and find their fortunes among the urban classes. Apples, which had been a staple of German fruit diets, were planted and grown, but in many cases orchards were understaffed by the time the apples were ripe for picking. The contraction of the import market also meant that fruits that were not native to Germany, such as bananas and oranges, became heavily restricted commodities. It is no coincidence that, in the Kander and Ebb musical Cabaret, based on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, one of the subplots revolves around a fruit shop owner, Herr Schultz, who woos his paramour, Fräulein Schneider, by presenting her with a pineapple. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, such fruits were so rare as to only be vaguely remembered, dreamt-of commodities, luxurious and a product of a bygone age. Elsewhere, while meats were more available, they were still subject to stringent rationing, as were all legumes except lentils. Again, it should be emphasised here that, at this point in time, Germany is not at war, and is supposedly in the midst of a miraculous economic recovery.

Members of the Sicherheitsdienst during a Łapa...

SD officers leap from a car to conduct an arrest. Though the SD was theoretically in charge of domestic intelligence, it also controlled the German police, which caused problems between it, its parent organisation (the SS), the secret police (Gestapo), and military intelligence. Once Germany began to expand, it also ignored that its mandate was only for Germany; this picture is taken in occupied Poland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The planning for the Four-Year Plan also reveals another hindrance to German recovery. Far from being the model of order and productivity, the German bureaucracy was, in fact, labyrinthine and combative, frequently at odds with itself, and incapable of rapid and decisive reaction to circumstances. Many roles were decided on personal favour – hence how a First World War fighter pilot with no financial experience would be selected to run Germany’s attempt at centralised economy, rather than the accomplished and experienced banker Hjalmar Schacht. Within the existing apparatus, too, delineations of power were confusing. Take, for example, the security organisations. The Schutzstaffel (SS) had been conceived of as an elite, paramilitary unit, providing personal security for Nazi Party leaders and meetings. However, once Hitler came to power, the role of the SS was expanded, in order to provide national security; in effect, its role was to ensure that Nazi power was not threatened from within. As a result, the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), or “Security Service”, was created, which was to act as a domestic intelligence outfit. In order to give this new organisation teeth, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, ordered the integration of the municipal police forces – the Kriminalpolizei, the Ordnungspolizei, and the Sicherheitspolizei – into the SD. This meant that detectives and uniformed policemen alike were now members of the Nazi domestic intelligence service, which was itself part of the Party bodyguard organisation. This also put the SD and SS in competition with both the infamous Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei, or “Secret State Police”), whose brief it was to also operate as a domestic security police force with a purview over criminal intelligence, and the Abwehr, or German military intelligence, which resented the encroachment on the Party’s paramilitary wing on its turf. Later, though the SS was technically limited to domestic duties, it would form its own regiments (termed Waffen-SS, or “Armed SS”), which would place it in competition with the army. In no case were the competences of these forces clearly defined; it was not uncommon for Kripo detectives to be investigating a case that was already being investigated by the Gestapo, or for the umbrella organisation of the SS to become involved, without any of these branches recognising that they were, in effect, stepping on one another’s toes.

English: NSDAP dues revenue stamp, 1 RM, 1942 ...

The Nazi Party soon began to meddle in the affairs of state, attempting to circumvent the organs of state authorities. Party paraphernalia became de facto symbols of the German state itself; here, a postage stamp, supposedly controlled by federal postal authorities, bears the Party insignia and initials. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Perhaps more crucially, there was a severe disconnect between the defined roles of the Party and the state. The German state had already possessed institutions – the foreign ministry, the treasury, and so on – but upon seizing power, Hitler clearly felt that the state had become irrelevant. The departments of the state apparatus, he felt, could be replaced by those of the Party (hence, the police were absorbed into the Party bodyguard). This was not always the case, however. The Four-Year Plan, for example, may have been headed by Göring, but it was impossible to implement without a large body of civil servants, trained in economics at a state level. This, the Party did not possess. Yet the insistence that the state civil servants suborn themselves to the Nazi Party was met with some resistance and, as the actions of Party functionaries diluted the perks and allure of working in the civil service, numbers of professional bureaucrats dwindled. Pay and prestige were both low commodities. The number of students at German universities declined precipitously, both as a halo result of the Great Depression, as well as a Party emphasis on militarisation rather than education. Of those who were well-educated and well placed to enter the state bureaucracy, the fact that competing bureaucracies were being set up within the Party – better paid positions with significantly more prestige – lured them away from working for ministries in favour of Nazi divisions and departments. Of the civil servants who remained, many were weeded out by the Gestapo, either for political reasons (i.e. having been supporters of the old Weimar Republic, or of the Social Democratic Party), or for racial reasons; there had been a not inconsiderable number of Jewish German civil servants when Hitler came to power, but they were quickly removed. Nonetheless, in spite of these severe problems, the civil service limped through the 1930s, for the simple reason that, even though its members were effectively discriminated against, the service itself was invaluable. Put another way, while the Nazis were suspicious of state organs, they could not immediately do without them. At the same time, however, the Party manoeuvred to create its own apparatus that could supersede the state’s role in statecraft, meaning that, for much of the 1930s, Germany became heavily and confusingly bureaucratised, with an unclear sense of direction and a near-complete lack of efficiency that alienated the very people who were needed to make the National Socialist socioeconomic policies a success.

So, the National Socialist regime in Germany was not the efficient megalith that has been supposed. There is more, however, to attack than merely the myth of recovery. Let us return to our first premise. Our fictitious historian, John Gill, purports that he wished to model a whole planet on Nazi Germany, in order to make it more efficient, and to unite it in will, all without the horrendous persecution and violence of the Earth equivalent. Let us, for the sake of argument, ignore what we have previously argued. Let us presume that Germany was highly efficient. Gill’s argument to Captain Kirk maintains that this can be achieved without the bloodshed that accompanied Hitler’s rule. To suggest this, however, is to misunderstand the nature of Nazism itself.

What is Nazism? Or rather, what are the ideas that govern Nazism? These are rather complex questions, but the essential character of the ideology can be found through Hitler’s semi-autobiographical ramblings in Mein Kampf, as well as his later actions. This character is perhaps best summed up by Sir Richard Evans:

Hitler had assembled the ideology of Nazism from disparate elements of antisemitism, pan-Germanism, eugenics and so-called racial hygiene, geopolitical expansionism, hostility to democracy, and hostility to cultural modernism, which had been floating around for some time but had not so far been integrated into a coherent whole.

At its fundamental core, Nazism was a political ideology based around difference and hostility towards difference. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party did not come to power in 1933 as just another legitimate political movement. Its success at the polls – for it did, indeed, become a party with a reasonable measure of public support – was conditional, based largely on divisive rhetoric, and this rhetoric became the driving force behind the attempts to modernise the economy. Indeed, Hitler’s immediate economic measures – approving an increase of rearmament spending to some ten percent of Germany’s total gross domestic product (GDP), proportionately three times higher than the armament spending levels of any of the western democracies – demonstrate the belligerent nature of German recovery. The vaunted reduction of unemployment was achieved through a combination of statistical chicanery (such as counting seasonal workers as fully employed), but more importantly through a massive recruitment drive for both the army and for military-industrial labour. In addition to Hitler’s immediate moratorium on reparations payments, which placed Germany in direct contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, these measures can only be seen as preparations for war.

Bismarck left Hamburg for the first time on 15...

The battleship Bismarck was a product of the Four-Year Plan, and Hitler’s plans for massive rearmament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Furthermore, the Four-Year Plan was devised as a means to rapidly rearm a now-ballooning army (the Nazis’ army policy, devised in December 1933, called for a standing army of some 300,000 men, or 200 percent larger than what international treaty stipulations permitted). It was not just the army that expanded; though Germany was denied an air force by the Treaty of Versailles, the government began to invest heavily in new “passenger aircraft” for the national airline, Lufthansa. These would eventually include the Dornier 17, the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 86 – aircraft whose design was wholly unsuitable for passenger and mail flights, but perfect as medium bombers. In the sphere of naval power, rearmament increased work for shipbuilders and boosted employment figures, but the projects themselves were highly illegal. Orders were placed in 1934 for a huge number of vessels: eight battleships (when the Treaty permitted six), three aircraft carriers (none permitted), eight cruisers (six allowed), 48 destroyers (12 permitted), and no fewer than 72 U-Boats, when the Treaty of Versailles had expressly forbidden Germany from having any at all.

None of this should come as a surprise. Indeed, Hitler had long been agitating for a rejection of the “unjust” Treaty of Versailles. Moreover, he had insisted that, in order to become fully self-sufficient, Germany would have to expand, to take “living space” (Lebensraum) from the east (here meaning Poland and the USSR). This would never be agreed to by those powers, and so could only be achieved through force of arms – hence the massive programme of German rearmament. Infamously, while the Autobahnen had long been projected, the Nazis saw them principally as means to easily transport men and materiel in wartime conditions, so while scenic driving was certainly a factor in their construction, they were also a military project.

English: A Jewish shop in Berlin during the bo...

“Germans! Defend yourselves!” Crucial to Nazi ideology was the demonisation of “enemies”, of whom the Jews were the most prominent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the brutality of the regime, I wish only to say a small amount, since this analysis cannot do it justice. Yet it is ludicrous to suggest that the regime could have existed without brutality. Its emphasis on social darwinism and the “inferiority” of races, creeds and so on, lay at the very heart of the National Socialist ideology. Systematic violence against Jews, for example, had been a staple of the Party even before it came to power; Jewish shops were smashed and looted, and people identified as Jews were assaulted in the streets. Now, with access to the state apparatus of policing and security, the Party naturally intensified its campaign of terror. One Berlin square, Hausvogteiplatz, had been liberally populated with Jewish sweet shops and high street fashion, but within a few years, most of the shopowners had been driven out or arrested. This was a common theme throughout Germany. It would be several years before the “Final Solution” was formulated, several years before Jews were murdered en masse, but the origins of genocide can be seen in the organised, fanatical antisemitic campaigns and pogroms immediately launched by the Party leadership upon coming to power.

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive det...

A Gestapo telex about arranging preventive detention of an “incorrigible homosexual.” Gay people, much like Jews and the mentally ill, were targeted by the regime as an integral part of its ideological convictions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nor were the Jews the only ones to be singled out for harsh treatment. Gypsies, homosexuals, communists, and the mentally ill were also subjected to barbarous treatment. In July 1933, just half a year after assuming government, the Nazis instituted compulsory and forcible sterilisation for people judged to be “unworthy” of reproducing, including schizophrenics, epileptics, and those who were termed “imbeciles”; this policy resulted in the sterilisation of close to 400,000 German citizens.

The NSDAP came to power on a wave of popular discontent, and it managed to make itself popular by exploiting the politics of difference. For example, Jews were to blame for Germany’s economic hardships because they were disloyal, money-grubbing communists (the fact that this is a contradictory positions seems not to have occurred to the proponents of the view). The disabled were a drain on society’s resources, and were “life unworthy of life” – it should come as little surprise that the sterilisation programmes would eventually evolve to become “euthanasia” programmes, in which the mentally infirm were gassed. Domestically, brutality was a staple of the Party. Why else were the SS, Gestapo, and SD such pressing priorities upon the seizure of power? Internationally, we should be under no illusions. Hitler meant war. The cornerstones of his economic recovery policies revolved almost totally around preparing Germany for war, either in terms of providing for itself, or in order to smash its opponents. The desire for Lebensraum could be justified by Germany’s need for the space, and for the fact that the space was presently occupied by Slavic peoples – Untermenschen, or “subhumans”, according to the racialised principles of the Party. Thus, it is nonsense to conceive of Nazi Germany without brutality, without warlike tendencies, without plans for extermination, because these concepts were at the very heart of what it meant to be a Nazi.

From all this, we can come to several conclusions. Firstly, that Nazi Germany, contrary to popular belief, was actually startlingly inefficient. While it did enjoy economic recovery from the Great Depression, this recovery had already been set in motion by the preceding Weimar governments. Of the Nazi work creation policies, some, such as the Autobahn projects, were qualified successes, while others did not succeed at all. Nazi meddling in economic policy also led to some declines, to the extent that previously healthy economic sectors suffered further recession. In many cases, by the mid-1930s production and revenue had not yet returned to prewar levels, let alone the heights promised by Hitler and presumed by a good many historians.

Secondly, while we may find some redeeming qualities in the economy, in terms of bureaucracy the National Socialist regime had a profoundly chaotic impact. The once-powerful German civil service was treated as a bastard child of the Party administration, though the Party could not afford to totally dissolve it. Thus, umpteen competing bureaucracies were established, making an adequate division of work all but impossible.

Thirdly, the idea of National Socialism as being a reasonable political alternative, had the brutality of the regime been avoided, is nothing more than fiction. Far from inequality, prejudice, and violence being unfortunate, tangential characteristics, they were from the outset at the very heart of the concept of Nazism. Of the Nazis’ few economic successes, most were achieved only because they had an aggressive ulterior motive. Yes, employment increased, but only because these people were newly employed as soldiers, or else building the very weapons of war that were forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles. Aircraft carriers, battleships, and U-Boats are not defensive weapons; in fact, the orders placed for them demonstrate the bellicosity of the projected Nazi foreign policy. It is worth noting that none of these aircraft carriers were, in the event, actually built, and that of the eight projected battleships, only two were launched; one, Bismarck, managed to sink the flagship of the Royal Navy one of the greatest symbols of British naval strength, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, before being hunted down by the entire Home Fleet and sent to the bottom, while her sister ship, Tirpitz, spent much of the war holed up in a Norwegian fjord, until bombers from the Royal Air Force sank her too, in 1944. Nevertheless, the intent is clear. Furthermore, since racial “purity” and the vileness of Untermenschen was at the heart of Nazi ideology, it is impossible to strip it from that ideology. (On a side note, if we were to be clinical, it can be argued that the Holocaust itself, launched in 1942, is the ultimate, terrible expression of Nazi economic inefficiency; with a huge, captive population of potential slave labour, the Nazis resorted to extermination instead. That many of these victims were indeed forced to work before their gassing in no way alters the fact that the primary reason for the series of camps housing Jews was for their total and irremediable physical destruction as a people. Work, as the Nazis saw it, was a way to mark time while execution was prepared).

Finally, we must reach the inescapable conclusion that John Gill, fictional as he was, was a fundamentally terrible historian. In attempting to create a benevolent Nazi state, he catastrophically misunderstood the nature of Nazism. In the event, the would-be horror of an interstellar Holocaust was averted by Kirk, Spock, and the USS Enterprise, but such heroes rarely exist in real life. Star Trek saw itself as a parable for society, portraying the Federation as a liberal, anti-imperialist big government, and the extension of full rights to everyone as a necessary outcome of human development; this is, after all, the show that presented the first interracial kiss on television. If there is a lesson to be learned from this episode, it is this: to ignore, or misunderstand, our own past mistakes, is to endanger our future.

Further reading

  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich. The German Dictatorship: The Origins, Structure, and Consequences of National Socialism. Harmondsworth. Penguin. 1978.
  • Burleigh, Michael. Sacred Causes: Religion and Politics from the European Dictators to Al Qaeda. London. Harper Perennial. 2006.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. London. Allen Lane. 2003.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich in Power, 1933-1939. New York. Penguin. 2005.
  • Evans, Richard J. The Third Reich at War: How the Nazis Led Germany from Conquest to Disaster. London. Allen Lane. 2008.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1937-1945: Nemesis. New York. W.W. Norton & Company. 1999.
  • Tooze, Adam. The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy. New York. Penguin. 2006.


Filed under Ideologies