Many among us wouldn’t know Mr. Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili or Mr. Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili from blazes. More so since he stands about 5’ 5” and whose face had been horrifyingly scarred by smallpox while his left arm is shorter than his right owing to a mishap. To top it all he had webbed-toes. Appallingly, he is, as a matter of fact, one of the most calamitous murderers and dictators in human history. But change his name to Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin or Joseph Stalin then everybody’s attention is perched and perked. Stalin in Russian means steel – hence “Man of Steel”.
Born 18 December 1879 in Gori, Georgia, into very humble and deprived beginnings, his father was a chronically abusive alcoholic cobbler and his mother, a humble washerwoman. Two of his older brothers had died in infancy. Frail and beleaguered by health problems as a child, he contracted smallpox at age 7 leaving his face badly scared and bore the brunt of bullying from village kids. This was where dejection and inferiority complex first plagued him and to later on give rise to his mean and cruel streak. It also motivationally spurred him to seek greatness and respect.
Stalin was a fervently impassioned opponent to the Tsar which subsequently saw him exiled to Siberia. Altogether, he was exiled a whopping 8 times and incredibly escaping 7 times. Ironically, his devout Russian Orthodox Christian mother had wanted him to become a priest. He was awarded a scholarship to Tiflis Theological Seminary when he was 14 but just a year later in 1895, he discovered the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin through an underground Georgian independence organisation known as Messame Dassy.
He joined and worked for the Social Democratic Labour Party in 1901 and was exiled to Siberia in 1902 for organising labour strikes and wherefore he assumed the name “Stalin”. He escaped and into a life of crime to raise money for the organisation while earning notoriety for his involvement in the US$ 3.4 million Tiflis bank robbery of 1907. It was especially an astronomical sum then.
Appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922, it placed him is an advantageous position to engineer and control appointments and coalesced opportunities to build and fortify his support base. Soon nearly all the echelons of the central command were under his exertion and beholden to him. His position strengthened with Lenin’s ill-health starting from an enervating stroke in 1922.
He manoeuvred himself to be Vladimir Lenin’s heir, while his main rival in the party also seeking Lenin’s favour was the intellectual Leon Trotsky. Lenin could not purge him and after Lenin’s death in 1924 aged 53, Stalin exerted control and commandeered the party; and proceeded to purge and destroy the old party leadership. Before the decade was over he had become dictator of the Soviet Union.
An inveterate paranoia, he eliminated those he imagined were a threat to him all through this time up until his death. He removed people from power through bureaucracy, exile – including Trotsky, show-trials and branded them “enemies of the state”; and summarily executed them. This spanned party elite on to local and provincial officials. His rapid industrialisation programmes though achieving marked success came at a great cost of millions of lives and wanton damage to the environment. He introduced the 5-Year Plans in 3-stages from 1932 to 1941 which brought industry under state control with focus on heavy industries, coal, oil, iron, steel, electricity, railroad building, chemicals and finally weapons. From an agrarian and serfdom society, the U.S.S.R became a world industrial power.
He seized large swathes of land previously given to peasants by the Bolsheviks and organised them into collective farms. Such forced and badly-planned as well as ill-construed collectivisation cost millions of lives. Millions starved during ensuing famine and countless were killed in forced labour. Death toll from the famine of 1932-1933 alone claimed an estimated 5 million to 10 million lives. Comparably, the worst crop failure of 1892 under the Tsar claimed some 400,000 lives. The Holodomor famine or oft-referred Ukrainian Genocide claimed an estimated 2.2 million to 4 million lives but some estimates put it as high as 5 million.
In addition, the Great Purge or Great Terror (1934-1939) saw a great number of party and government officials; Red Army leaders and peasants executed. Millions were exiled to the gulags or slave labour camps. This intensified in the Yezhovshchina or “Yezkov Regime” (1937-1938) named after Nicholai Yezkov, Head of the NKVD or secret police and who was in-charged of the excision. It elicited the government and army to be rendered practically dysfunctional. Stalin conceived a cult of personality revolving around Lenin and him by creating magniloquent titles such as “Great Architect of Communism”, “Father of Nations” and others; naming towns and cities after them such as Leningrad and Stalingrad and in a whole comprehensiveness of renditions.
An atheist, Stalin suppressed religion indomitably and persecuted the faithful by the millions. Besides the Russian Orthodox Church, all other religions were suppressed. Indicatively, there were 54,000 parishes in 1917 but by 1939 numbers have drastically dwindled to barely a few hundreds. During the “Yezkov Regime” alone, over 100,000 priests, nuns and faithful were executed. But since the ends justified the means, Stalin supported the Illi Rebellion (1944-1949) started by Muslim Communist Uyghur fighting the anti-Communist Koumintang Republic of China; and supplied arms to the Illi and Red armies and helped establish the Second East Turkestan Republic with Islam as its official religion.
In 1939, the Soviets and Germany shocked the world, because of the polarisation of the respective ideologies, by signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression and non-alliance with other third parties. Both the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland in 1939 which sparked off WW II after Britain and France declared war against Germany. Eastern Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Finland and part of Romania came under the Soviet sphere of influence while Lithuania was ceded to the U.S.S.R. By 1940 Latvia and Estonia became part of the Soviet Union at the cost of 160,000 lives from these states. Finland opposed and fought bravely which resulted in the Soviets gaining only 10% of the country at its eastern frontier.
However, in 1941 Stalin refused to exercise vigilance when informed that German troops were massing near the Soviet border. Hitler’s renege and soon to follow blitzkrieg caught the Soviets wholly unprepared and at the cost of huge losses of lives. With the defeat of the Germans, Stalin established communist regimes in the liberated Eastern European countries and for them to dually serve as buffer or a bulwark to Western Europe which he deeply distrusts.
At the meeting with the Allies in Yalta, Crimea in early 1945, Stalin had agreed to join the war against Japan once the Germans were defeated. Berlin fell early May 1945 so the Americans in preempting any Soviet involvement in post-war Japan, hastened the atomic-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and timed them before Soviet troops could mobilise.
Stalin also motivated and cajoled Communist North Korea to invade South Korea and committed troops and weaponry in his support. Thinking that the West would not intervene, the deliberate absence of the Soviets in the UN meeting to sanction assistance to South Korea; and hence a foray into the war, resulted in no veto to the proposal. So the Korean War (1950-1953) began and by the time it ended, it had claimed over 1 million lives and just as many wounded and missing. Also, with his might and influence, he contended for China to not only be admitted in the UN, where it was initially excluded; but also into the Security Council as well. That decisively came into fruition.
Stalin died in 1953 after being at the helm for 30 years. By then, he was reputed to have had killed or caused the deaths of some 62 million Russians. Such incomprehensible death toll was attained through mass murder and massacres; torture and atrocities; mass imprisonment in labour camps, forced displacements, expulsions and “induced” famines. This culminated in his infamy as one of history’s most fecund mass-murderers. As a matter of fact, it was so horrific that the actual bloodbaths and numbers killed during his rule shall never be known.
Soviet Georgian historian Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev estimated that Stalin’s rule resulted in some 20 million deaths, besides the over 20 million who perished in WWII. These were rationalised as: 1 million imprisoned or exiled (1927–1929); 9-11 million peasants forced from their lands in mass collectivisation programs; 2-3 million peasants arrested or exiled; 6-7 million killed by “induced” famines in (1932-1934); 1 million exiled from Moscow and Leningrad (1935); 1 million executed during the ”Great Terror” (1937-1938); 4-6 million sent to forced labour camps; 10-12 million in forced relocation during World War II; and some 1 million arrested for “political crimes” (1946–1953).
Most historians and scholars put the death toll at 20 million to 60 million. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Prize laureate and author of numerous books on Soviet gulags, put the numbers of Stalin’s victims to as many as 60 million. Another writer I. G. Dyadkin in his book “Unnatural Deaths in the U.S.S.R: 1928-1954” places unnatural deaths numbers during that period at 56 million to 62 million – with 34 million to 49 million directly attributed to Stalin. British historian Norman Davies estimated the toll to be 50 million – excluding wartime casualties. Soviet historian and politician Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev estimated 35 million deaths.
It’s totally inconceivable how an individual can be responsible for so many deaths. 30 million, 40 million, 50 million and more? Even natural disasters of unimaginable magnitudes do not claim that many lives. Neither does the plague – while during his era, not many nations had more than 60 million people. Then too, we still have Mao and Hitler.
Mao Zedong was in essence a highly-controversial personality, yet irrefutably one of the most prominent individuals in modern history. Born to Mao Yichang and Wen Qimei in a village in Shaoshan, Hunan on Boxing Day, 26 December, 1893, his father had risen from humble beginnings to become one of the richest farmers in Shaoshan. Like his mother, young Mao was a Buddhist before he became an atheist.
When Mao went to school in Changsha in 1911, revolutionary sentiments against Emperor Puyi were ardent and advocacy of republicanism under Sun Yat-sen, fervent. Mao actually wrote an essay in school calling for Sun to be made President. Early in life, Mao tried numerous avenues with education such as enrolling into the police, soap-opera production, law and economics academies and even into the Changsha Middle School but dropped out to go into self-learning at the Changsha library. After the Russian Revolution, he was attracted to and influenced by the teachings of Marx and Lenin while working in Peking University and soon became a member of the Communist Party of China which was founded in 1921. Mao commenced the CPC Changsha branch.
The Kuomintang (KMT) forged an alliance with the Communist (CPC) in 1922 against the imperialists and the Beiyang or “warlord” government (1912-1928) which was then internationally recognized as the legitimate government of the Republic of China. Mao was elected to the Party Committee and in early-1924 was elected an alternate member of the KMT Central Executive Committee. He was also appointed to manage the KMT Peasant Movement Training Institute and proceeded to be the Director of the Propaganda Department – whence he organised the revolutionary Hunan peasants for militant activities.
In 1927, the KMT reneged on the alliance and went on a purge of the Communists which saw the CPC forming a peasant militia army. Chiang Kai-shek and his soldiers killed 5,000 Communists in Shanghai and attacked them in Wuhan and Beijing too while a fierce battle raged in Changsha. The CPC lost about 15,000 of its 25,000 members in these purges and Mao escaped with about 1,000 of his remaining troops to the Jinjiang Mountains in Jiangxi. The Chinese Civil War had been initiated.
In 1929, Mao relocated to Tonggu and Xinfeng in Jiangxi. Stalin who desired greater control of the CPC sent the “28 Bolsheviks” who were Soviet-educated Chinese Communists with two of them taking control of the Central Committee. They and Mao had disagreements and soon became rivals. He was badly affected when his second wife Yang Kaihui and son Mao Anying were captured by the KMT; where young Anying was subsequently forced to watch his mother being executed in 1930 and he himself was imprisoned.
Mao had also married a young 21-year old revolutionary named He Zizhen before Yang was even arrested and without divorcing her. Yang had borne him 6 children in a span of 7 years. That same year, he formed the Southwest Jiangxi Soviet Government. The Bolsheviks attempted to overthrow him which resulted in the Fujian Incident where 2,000 to 3,000 dissenters were executed. The CPC Central Committee then moved to Jiangxi and proclaimed it the Soviet Republic of China. Mao’s power diminished and he was also recovering from tuberculosis while Zhou Enlai controlled the Red Army.
After breaking through the KMT line to escape, the Long March started 14 October, 1934. Women, children and the sick and wounded were left behind only to be heartlessly massacred by the KMT. Known locally as Ch’ang Cheng, the march left Jianxi Soviet and headed for Shensi Soviet in Shaanxi with 87,000 soldiers and 15,000 party cadres. They crossed 24 rivers and 18 snow-capped mountain ranges in that enduring 6,000 miles or 9,000 km arduous trek. The march lasted 368 days with only 4,000 to 8,000 survivors. The rest died in famine, disease and in fierce fighting and skirmishes with the KMT, warlords and the Muslim cavalry. The Long March cemented Mao’s status as a principal figure in the party.
It was during the march that Mao’s third wife He Zizen was injured from shrapnel and moved to Moscow for treatment. In her absence, Mao divorced her and married actress Jiang Qing. With Stalin’s support, Mao became Chairman of the Politburo and de facto leader of the Red Army. In 1935 he became chairman of the Military Commission and the undisputed leader, culminating in him formally becoming party Chairman in 1943.
A year later, in a desperate strategy and the necessity to fight the Japanese, the CPC and the KMT collaborated. Chiang Kai-shek who tried to ignore Mao’s overtures, was forcibly coerced by his own general, Zhang Xueliang to forge a United Front. In 1936, the North West Anti-Japanese Red Army University was formed to train recruits. By 1937 their guerrillas had begun to conduct intermittent attacks on the Japanese.
The Japanese had controlled Shanghai and Nanking then and the Nanking Massacre soon followed. Estimates put the death toll at 250,000 to 300,000 with widespread looting and endemic rapes which some estimates put as high as 80,000. What’s perplexing was that Mao all through his years never made any mention of the ominous massacre. However, Japanese atrocities led to record numbers of Chinese joining the Red Army – swelling 10-fold from 50,000 to 500,000.
Mao authored texts for his troops. These include Philosophy of Revolution which introduced Marxist theory of knowledge, Protracted Warfare which delved into guerrilla warfare and New Democracy – touching on China’s future. In the words of writer Edwin Moise: “the CPC seemed less corrupt, more unified and more vigorous in its resistance to Japan than the KMT” which markedly impressed the Americans.
In 1940, the bitter civil war resumed only to climax with the victory of the CPC and the birth of the People’s Republic of China – 1 October 1949. According to Michael Lynch in his book The Chinese Civil War 1945-1949, casualties from the civil war was estimated at 2 million military casualties between 1928 and 1936; 1.75 million in 1948-1949 and between 1945-1949, 6 million, including civilians, perished.
Even after WWII, the Americans continued to support the KMT against the People’s Liberation Army while Stalin supported Mao. From 1943 to 1976, Mao was the Chairman of the Communist Party of China and was typically and affectionately referred to as Chairman Mao or the Great Leader Chairman Mao. The PLA took large supplies of arms left by the Japanese’s Kwangtung Army in North-East China and in October 1950, Mao sent the People’s Volunteer Army or PVA into N. Korea to fight UN forces who were being led by the Americans in the infamous Korean War.
Emulating the Soviet Union, China embarked on 5-Year plans to intensify industrial growth and socialism; and through the model of state ownership in the modern sector, to create large collective farms for agriculture; and centralised economic planning. Albeit with pitfalls and drawbacks, the First Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) was a success in terms of economic growth. Industrial production grew an average of 19% per year while the national income grew some 9% per year.
The Soviets aided in many projects and mobilised large numbers of Soviet scientists, engineers and technicians. Emphasis was placed on steel, coal and agriculture. In that period, China produced some 220% more steel than the entire period from 1900 to 1948. By 1956, no privately-owned firms remained and 67.5% of modern industrial enterprise was state-owned with the remainder being jointly public-private owned.
The 2nd. Five-Year Plan started January 1958 and was emphatically called the Great Leap Forward. Directionally, focus was on heavy industries and with agriculture collectives merged into large people’s communes. Large numbers of peasants were mobilised to work on infrastructure projects and iron and steel production; with livestock and farm implements coming under collective ownership.
In negation, many unproven and unscientific agricultural techniques were unwittingly introduced. This combined with natural disasters adversely affected crop output while for fear of being purged, the regional party hierarchy exaggerated crop output. Based on this, the State requisitioned disproportionate amounts of grain for State use in cities and urban areas and for export. Communist regimes of North Korea, North Vietnam and Albania were receiving free grain.
This along with droughts and floods in some areas caused unimaginable starvation and claimed millions of lives among the peasantry. The worst known famine – the Great Chinese Famine of 1959 to 1961 was officially called Three Years of Natural Disasters and Three Years of Difficult Period struck. Severity of the famine was needlessly aggravated by the Western economic embargo imposed on China which prevented international assistance.
Frank Dikotter, a historian who accessed Chinese archival materials, estimated the death toll to have been 45 million. Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng, on the other hand, estimated the toll to be 36 million plus another 40 million that failed to be born – to conclude that the actual toll is closer to 76 million. Many children who were left emaciated died shortly after the Great Leap Forward abruptly ended in 1962. It was claimed that many resorted to cannibalism during those starving years to stay alive. Other estimates put the death toll at 20 million to 40 million.
Steel production took on frenzied pace during the Great Leap Forward with haphazard creation of tens of thousands of backyard furnaces where everything and anything metal including housewares, furniture and crockery were thrown into them. It was a ruinous breakdown in planning and execution. Harvested grain was piling up beside roads while scores elsewhere were dying in unprecedented scales of starvation. Livestock, depleted even way before that, perished. Albeit steel quotas were met, it was instead almost entirely iron, that was being made in the countryside, owing to the lack of coal to conduct proper smelting.
In targeting and attempting to catch up with, and the possibility of overtaking Britain in 15 years, Mao used centralised Communist planning to vault China’s economy. In mass collectivisation programmes, villages were consolidated into giant communes and people lost their homes, land, belongings and livelihoods. Mao had visualised that by mobilising its labour of hundreds of millions to transform agriculture and industry, China could compete with the industrialised nations. Instead, it caused unparalleled damage to industry, agriculture, trade and transportation and brought the people to the brink and stretching the limits of human endurance.
Of casualties amassed during the Great Leap Forward, some 2.5 million people were summarily executed or tortured and killed. Inestimable numbers were deliberately starved to death, vanished or selectively killed because they were rich or do not conform to expectations as well as a result of neglect and imprudence by local cadres. Relationship with the Soviet Union also deteriorated after Stalin’s death in 1953 with Nikita Khrushchev coming to the helm. This soon saw the advent of the Sino-Soviet split which concluded with the withdrawal of all Soviet technical experts from China. Aid was stopped and tension heightened.
With the ramifications of the Great Leap Forward, Mao was concerned with the aspirations and goals of the revolution while the party leadership was accused to be moving towards an elitist ruling class rather than in the interest of the people and towards ideological purity. Moreover, Mao’s position had weakened as a result of the Great Leap Forward.
State Chairman Liu Shaoqi and General Secretary Deng Xiaoping, supported the idea to remove Mao from actual power to one of a symbolic and ceremonial role. They tried to marginalise Mao by taking control of economic policies and fortifying their political positions. In response, Mao conceived a group of radicals together with Defence Minister Lin Bao and Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, to counter the leadership and reaffirm his authority. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was then launched in August 1966.
Mao and Jiang Qing evoked and directed popular angst against members of the party leadership and Mao was aptly named the supreme commander of the army and nation. Utilising the notion that the Chinese bourgeois were threatening the socialist structure of society, groups of young students and people formed the paramilitary Red Guards which laboured assiduously against authority on all levels. Armed with the Little Red Book of quotations from Mao, they shook up the party and the so-called bourgeois, accusing many of being tacit or “closet” capitalists. They even set up their own tribunals.
Consequentially, workers turn on their managers, students on their professors, people on their rivals and even children on their parents. Basically anyone with position and authority were at risk. Schools were closed and massive youth mobilisation followed with young intellectuals sent to the countryside for re-education and rehabilitation by the peasantry. Many were sent to hard-labour and neither was the elderly spared.
Chaos reigned and a personality cult of Mao forcefully took form – reminiscent of the exploits of Lenin and Stalin decades earlier. This was a period of great stagnation and to a point reversal for China where an estimated 100 million people suffered and 1.5 million perished. It led to the obliteration of a great deal of traditional Chinese heritage and caused widespread economic chaos and social tribulations. Vast numbers were imprisoned, tortured, publicly humiliated and their property seized. The Cultural Revolution impinged on practically every aspect and part of Chinese life.
The Red Guards were allowed to kill “opponents of the state” with impunity where in just two months – August and September 1966 – over 1,700 people in Beijing alone were murdered. Factions of the Red Guards were battling for dominance and many places were on the verge of anarchy. In September 1967, Mao had troops deployed to restore order; and in 1969, Defence Minister Lin Bao was officially named Mao’s successor. However, by 1971 there was a clear divide between Mao and Lin.
Official history has it that Lin was planning an assassination attempt on Mao or a military coup. Later, the highest-ranking Soviet Bloc defector Lt. Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa claimed that Nocolae Ceausescu of Romania mentioned to him about a plot to assassinate Mao with the help of Lin Bao – organised by the KGB. In what is seen as an attempt to grab power, Lin used the excuse of border clashes with the Soviets to institute martial law. Coincidentally, Lin died in a plane crash over Mongolia purportedly while trying to flee to the Soviet Union. Zhou Enlai was accorded greater control of the government and to purge members of his military command.
With Mao’s demise The Cultural Revolution officially ended in 1976. Mao had 10 children from all his marriages except the first when he was only 14. Two of his sons were killed in war and a few of his daughters given to peasants. The youngest died in infancy and another died aged 4. His son Mao Anqing died in 2007 while daughters Li Min and Li Na are still living.
With regards to Mao’s legacy, Deng Xiaoping who helmed China for 2 decades from 1977 famously said, “Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong”. His supporters exalt him with having modernised China into a world power, providing housing, improving the status of women, education, health care and life expectancy; while China’s population almost doubled from 550 million to 900 million. During the Cultural Revolution, China had its first H-Bomb in 1967, launched a satellite in 1970, commission nuclear submarines, advanced in science and technology and improved living standards throughout.
Su Shachi, a former party official said: “he was a great historical criminal but he was also a great force for good”. Journalist Liu Bin Yan noted that Mao was “both a monster and a genius”. Jean Louis Margolin in his book The Black Book of Communism wrote: “Mao Zedong was so powerful that he was often known as the Red Emperor”. When being compared to First Emperor Qin Shi Huang with regards to burying-alive scholars, Mao retorted in a speech in 1958: “He buried 460 scholars alive; we have buried 46,000 scholars alive. You (intellectuals) revile us for being Qin Shi Huangs. You are wrong. We have surpassed Qin Shi Huang a hundred fold”.
In The Man Who Stayed Behind, Mao’s English interpreter Sidney Rittenberg wrote: “Mao was a great leader in history and a great criminal because, not that he wanted to, not that he intended to, but in fact, his wild fantasies led to the deaths of tens of millions of people”. Mao’s personal secretary Li Rui poignantly exhorts: “Mao’s way of thinking and governing was terrifying. He put no value on human life. The deaths of others meant nothing to him”.
In the case of Adolf Hitler, one needs to consider matters from various contexts. To begin with, one has to consider the number of people he exterminated while on the other, the wider implications in the casualties of the war in Europe, Soviet Union and North Africa. Hitler started the war in Europe in 1939 after he invaded Poland – which inadvertently became WWII.
The Holocaust took off in June and July 1941 with pogroms provoked by the Nazis. About 24,000 Jews were killed then but by the time the war ended, Hitler had murdered some 5.4 million Jews by condemning some 2.6 million to be shot and 2.8 million to be gassed in death-camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka, Belz’ec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Majdanek and scores of mobile gas chambers.
Hundreds of thousands more were murdered by Nazi allies. Besides these, the Holocaust victims also included 3.2 million Polish, 1 million Russians and over 100,000 Roma. Hence, reliable estimates put the Nazi Germans as to have murdered some 12 million people. Conversely, WW II resulted in some 80 million deaths by higher estimates – of which some 50 million perished in Europe and the Soviet Union. Poland as a nation, suffered the worst with some 5.8 million Poles annihilated – or nearly 17% of its entire population.
Adolf Hitler was born 20 April, 1889 to a Catholic mother and anti-clerical father. He was born in Braunau am Inn, an area in Austria-Hungary bordering Bavaria. Three of his older siblings died at infancy and Hitler was the fourth child. His father had been an illegitimate child of Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Hans Frank, a Nazi official, had suggested that his father was a result of an affair Hitler’s grandmother Anna had with Leopold Frankenberger – a 19 year old Jewish boy whose family she was working for as a maid. Historians however choose to dismiss the claim that Hitler’s grandfather was Jewish.
He became fascinated and obsessed with war when he first chanced upon a picture book on the Franco-Prussian War belonging to his father. He began to develop German nationalist ideas from a rather tender age and in 1905, moved to Vienna. There he worked as an artist and sold watercolour. It was while living in Vienna that he claimed he first became an anti-Semite. In 1913, he left Vienna for Munich because he did not want to be obligatorily enlisted into the Austro-Hungarian army – owing to its soldiers being a mix of races.
Instead, he volunteered to serve in the Bavarian Army in 1914 at the start of WW I. Injured at the Battle of Somme he was decorated with the Iron Cross Second Class in 1914 for bravery. In 1918, he was temporary blinded by mustard gas. Germany lost the war in 1918 and unavoidably signed the Treaty of Versailles. Many Germans felt the treaty was a humiliation; and where this together with the appalling social, political and economic conditions at that time, were to be opportunistically exploited by Hitler in his rise to power.
In 1919 while on duty as an intelligence agent for the Reichswehr to infiltrate the German Worker’s Party – the precursor of the NSDAP or Nazi Party; he became attracted to founder Anton Drexler’s ideology of nationalism, anti-Semitism, anti-Capitalism and anti-Marxism. Drexler too was impressed by Hitler’s oratory skills and urged him to join the party which he did in 1919. Just two years later in 1921, Hitler had mendaciously manoeuvred to become the Chairman of the NSDAP.
Adolf Hitler was a vitriolic and passionate speaker who could effectively transmit waves of emotions to the mass and whom many described as extremely hypnotic. Consequential to a failed coup d’etat known as the Beer Hall Putsch, in Munich in 1923, he was imprisoned for high treason until his release in 1924. While incarcerated, he wrote Mein Kampf and after his release, his popularity soared from then on.
The Great Depression also presented as a political opportunity for many, Hitler included. Furthermore, Germany was experiencing a political stalemate and in 1933 saw him reluctantly appointed as Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg. He transformed the Weimar Republic which was a federal republic and semi-presidential representative democracy formed in 1919 to replace the imperial government, into the Third Reich – a single party dictatorship based on the precepts of the totalitarian and autocratic ideology of Nazism.
He eventually became a dictator a year later while concurrently retaining his position as Chancellor. In 1934, he became Germany’s head of state with the glorious title of Fuhrer und Reichskanzler which equalled to “Leader and Chancellor of the Reich”.
Nazism in a crux is National Socialism which is a malevolent form of fascism incorporating biological racism and anti-Semitism. They believe in the superiority of the Aryan race and were vociferous anti-Capitalist and anti-Communist – believing that they were associated to and ingrained with Jewish materialism. They, like China, were also particularly disdainful of the Treaty of Versailles.
Nazism promoted hegemony and a people’s community; and aimed to overcome social division and the attainment of a homogenous society. They believed in territorial expansion over neighbouring nations whom they considered to be inferior and in ruthless “Germanisation”.
Hitler was looking for pretexts to invade Czechoslovakia but was thwarted by the British and French which resulted in the signing of the Munich Agreement in 1938. For that he was selected as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1938. Nevertheless he violated the treaty and ordered the invasion of Prague to proclaim Bohemia and Moravia German protectorates. The Germans invaded Western Poland 1 September 1939 and the Soviet Union followed suit 17 September by invading Eastern Poland – consequential to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed 23 August. WW II had begun!
Hitler portrayed himself as a celibate who dedicated his entire life to the people and country. Yet he had a mistress named Eva Braun while many also claimed he had a torrid love affair with his niece. She committed suicide with Hitler’s gun which rendered him overly distraught and in deep-lasting pain. Besides, he was also known to have been suffering from syphilis.
22 June, 1941 however, Hitler reneged on his non-aggression pact with Stalin and mobilised 5.5 million Axis troops in Operation Barbarossa to attack the Soviet Union. They overran and conquered Belarus, West Ukraine and the Baltic republics. Against the advice of his seasoned generals and instead of heading for Moscow, he ordered tanks and troops to Leningrad and Kiev. That was his folly and undoing because it enabled the Red Army to reinforce and that futile attempt to subjugate the Soviets and their wealth in resources ended disastrously for Hitler by December 1941.
At the closing stage of WW II, he returned to his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin on his 56th. birthday – 20 April 1945. There, he officially married Eva Braun, 29 April; and thereafter committed suicide with her the following day. She bit on a cyanide capsule while he shot himself and their bodies were unceremoniously doused with petrol and burnt in a bomb crater.
The Holocaust officially started in 1933 when Hitler came to power. “Holocaust” comes from the Greek “holokauston” which literally means “sacrifice by fire”. In 1933 the Nazis instigated the boycott of all Jewish-run businesses and by 1935, the Nuremberg laws were introduced stripping Jews off German citizenship and banning sex and inter-marriage between Germans and Jews. In 1938, the Nazis incited a pogrom called the “Kristallnacht” or “Night of Broken Glass” and Jewish synagogues were razed and businesses looted and destroyed. Jews were attacked at random and some 30,000 of them arrested and sent to concentration camps. At the start of WWII, Jews were isolated in ghettos where the largest was in Warsaw with a population of 445,000 by 1941.
By the time the war ended, Hitler had murdered some 5.4 million to 6 million Jews by condemning some 2.6 million to be shot and 2.8 million to be gassed in death-camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belz’ec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Majdanek and others as well as in scores of mobile gas chambers. Gas chambers were implemented when they realised that killing by shooting wasn’t that “effective”. It has been estimated that 1.1 million people were exterminated in Auschwitz alone and by the time war ended, two-thirds of Europe’s Jews have perished. Hundreds of thousands more were murdered by Nazi allies. Besides these, the Holocaust victims also included 3.2 million Poles, over 1 million Russians and more than 100,000 Roma.
Hence, reliable estimates put the Nazi Germans as to have murdered some 12 million people. Conversely, WWII resulted in some 80 million deaths by higher estimates – of which some 50 million perished in Europe and the Soviet Union. Poland as a nation, suffered the worst with some 5.8 million Poles annihilated – or nearly 17% of its entire Polish population.
Soon after Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Konnzentrationslager or concentration camps were a fundamental feature in the 12 years of Nazi Germany (1933-1945). Called concentration camps because those imprisoned were concentrated in one location, the SA or Sturmabteilungen or Storm Troopers and the SS or Schutzstaffel established the Oranienburg, Esterwegen, Dachau and Lichtenburg camps. In 1934, Hitler sanctioned Heinrich Himmler the Reich SS leader to formalise concentration camps as a system in his regime. Lieutenant General Theodor Eicke was chosen to head this vile task and was appointed Inspector of Concentration Camps.
By December 1934, only the SS was authorised to set up and manage concentration camps though other authorities set up forced-labour and detention camps. In 1937, there were the Sachsenhausen, Bechenwald, Dachau and Litchenburg camps. The concentration camps were used to incarcerate “enemies of the state” which included German Communists, Social Democrats, Roma or Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the disabled all regarded as asocial; and the Jews for the implementation of “The Final Solution”.
The SS Death’s Head or SS-Totenkopfverbande – signified by the crossbones and skull, were in-charged of guarding the camps. Soon, the Gestapo and Criminal Police were exclusively empowered to incarcerate people into these concentration camps. Pretexts for incarceration was “protective detention” known as Schutzhaft issued by the Gestapo and “preventative detention” or Vorbeugungshaft orders issued by the Criminal Police. By 1939, there were six large concentration camps with the inclusion of Flossenburg, Mauthausen and Ravensbruck – a camp for women and with Litchenburg discontinued.
Prisoners were forced into hard labour on SS projects which also included the expansion of these camps. The SS was into business and this was headed by SS Major General Oswald Pohl whom in 1942 was promoted to Inspector of Concentration Camps. These camps were strategically located near quarries, factories, coal mines and construction sites and also became venues where the SS could exterminate large numbers of “enemies” of Germany. Soon too, the prisoners were engaged in the production of weapons and other materials and goods to support the war.
Conditions were unimaginably hard, food scarce and protection from the elements almost non-existent so much so the camps became sites for “annihilation via work”. Raw materials and products were sold to the German Reich by the SS.
As the Germans conquered more territory, prisoners increased and new camps were opened which included Gusen, Neuengamme, Gross-Rosen, Auschwitz, Natzweiler, Stutthof and Majdanek. These were basically sites to conduct mass murder and on an epically grand scale. In an instance, hundreds of Dutch protesters were annihilated at Mauthausen within just a few days while prisoners released from jails were sent to these concentration camps under a program called Vernichtung durch Arbeit or “Annihilation Through Work”.
The Germans constructed gas chambers for rapid mass killing in camps such as Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belz’ec, Chelmno, Sobibor and Majdanek. Dachau had it too but it was reported never to have been used. Expansion was carried out between 1942 and 1944 where in just that time, hundreds of sub-camps were established for each camp in response to the need and opportunity to increase production for SS-owned companies. Prisoners at Dora-Mittelbau worked in underground facilities to produce rockets and gas chambers and other unimaginable extermination techniques were applied to kill those who were no longer able to work.
All in all, the Nazis established some 20,000 camps which imprisoned millions. These include extermination, forced-labour and transit camps. Prisoners were evacuated as the frontlines shifted to prevent them from being liberated. Inadequately clothed or food-rationed, they were marched in winter and transported in open freight cars. Those unable to keep up were shot.
Lethal macabre experiments were conducted in these camps just as in the case of Unit 731 perpetrated by the Imperial Japanese in Manchuria between the years of 1933-1945. The most infamous of these was probably Josef Mengele of Auschwitz III who conducted experiments on the conception of twins to boost German population – among others. In Dachau experiments were conducted to establish the average time air force personnel in reduced air pressure and submerged in freezing water could survive. In Sachsenhausen, experiments were conducted on biological warfare or vaccines for deadly contagious disease.
After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, German and Austrian Jews were apprehended and sent to Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen and following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, more POW or prisoners of war camps were built. Killing centres were also established in Poland where Jews and Roma were gassed in mobile gas vans. The Birkinau killing centre had 4 gas chambers and during its height of killing, some 6,000 Jews were gassed a day. The Allied forces began to liberate prisoners in 1944 and 1945. Many still died after liberation since their physical condition was beyond recovery. In 1945, the SS reported that there were an estimated 700,000 prisoners still left in concentration camps.
The Allies implemented the idea of collective guilt and collective punishment after liberating the camps and with Germany’s defeat. Scores of townsfolk were lined up for a tour of these camps to view the unspeakable horrors and piles of corpses – as well as the exhumation of Nazi mass graves. Most were overcome by what they saw.
So these are what history books tell us but do bear in mind that history is written by the victor and not the vanquished!
Both Stalin and Hitler had sibling who died at infancy. What if it had been them instead of their siblings whose lives were snatched away? Moreover, Stalin contracted smallpox – a fatal disease while Hitler was wounded in WWI. Would it simply mean that the world and countless would have been spared unspeakable horrors and misery? So can we actually say that God had willed for them to be let loose upon us?