Alexander Cockburn And Stalin

As a public service, I thought it helpful to remind readers of Alexander Cockburn’s attempt to sanitise Stalin in 1989:

A million here, a million there by Alexander Cockburn

These heady days in Moscow, Soviet intellectuals will do anything to
get their names in the papers, in a kind of bidding frenzy for the
favors of glasnost. At the start of February the tabloid Argumenti i
Fakti reported that the historian Roy Medvedev had proposed that
Stalin’s victims amounted to some 20 million. From Moscow, Bill
Keller relayed this to his editors at the New York Times, who on
February 4 ran a front-page headline announcing, “Major Soviet Paper
Says 20 Million Died As Victims of Stalin,” with the lead paragraph
reiterating Medvedev’s claim that “about 20 million died in labor
camps, forced collectivization, famine and executions.”

My immediate reservation about this was that the total figure seemed
to have an insouciant roundness and also that there seemed to be a
suspect symmetry about the number 20 million, which is the same total
normally reckoned for Soviet losses in the war against Hitler.

Looking through Medvedev’s breakdown, one may rapidly perceive that
the word “million” really means “a lot,” with no substantive
precision beyond this vague imputation of magnitude.
As relayed by
Keller these volumes are expressed as “one million imprisoned or
exiled from 1927 to 1929,” or “nine to 11 million of the more
prosperous peasants driven from their lands,” and so on. In the end
we are left with an overall figure of 40 million who, on Medvedev’s
account, had an awful or terminal time of it between 1927 and 1953,
with 20 million actually killed.

I have been interested to find that well-qualified historians of the
Soviet Union and demographers in the United States who have studied
the period and the enormously contentious numbers regard Medvedev’s
claims as absurd. Sheila Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the
University of Texas in Austin, tells me there is “no serious basis for
his calculations” and that privately some Soviet demographers and
historians find Medvedev’s calculations embarrassingly bad. She gave
a couple of examples to explain why she thought Medvedev’s numbers
were ridiculous.

Medvedev claims that 9 million to 11 million prosperous peasants were
driven from their lands and another 2 million to 3 million arrested or
exiled in the forced collectivization of the early 1930s. But
Fitzpatrick says, Medvedev makes no distinction between those who left
their villages voluntarily and those who left by force. This was the
era of industrialization, and many of Medvedev’s millions were moving
to the towns. Medvedev also bases his figures on the assumption that
the average peasant family in the late 1920s had eight members,
whereas in fact five was the normal size.

Fitzpatrick cited the famous conversation of 1942 between Churchill
and Stalin as another flimsy source often used by some to show that 10
million peasants died in collectivization. In his war memoir “The
Hinge of Fate,” Churchill describes how he raised with Stalin the topic
of collectivization:

“Tell me,” I said, “have the stresses of this war been as bad to you
personally as carrying through the policy of the Collective Farms?”

This subject immediately aroused the Marshall.

“Oh, no,” he said, “the Collective Farm policy was a terrible

“I thought you would have found it bad,” said I, “because you were not
dealing with a few score thousands of aristocrats or big landowners,
but with millions of small men.”

“Ten millions, ” he said, holding up his hands. “It was fearful. Four
years it lasted. It was absolutely necessary for Russia, if we were
to avoid periodic famines.”

It’s clear enough that Stalin was here indicating the number of
peasants he had to deal with, not the number who died. Fitzpatrick
said that in a recent issue of Pravda the Soviet Historian Victor P.
Danilov concurred with several historians in the West that
approximately 3 million to 4 million died in the famine. But where
does that leave us on the matter of the purges?

In 1946 the demographer Frank Lorimer, studying data from the Soviet
census of 1926 and of 1939 and all available information on fertility
and mortality between those dates, calculated in his renowned work
“The Population of the Soviet Union” that the ‘excess’ deaths — that
is, in Lorimer’s case, a comparison of the reported total population
in 1939 with the expected population at that date, given the counting
in 1925 and everything known about fertility, mortality and migration
between the two years — amounted to somewhere between 4.5 million and
5 million, though this total included perhaps several hundred thousand
emigrants, such as those Central Asian nomads moving into Sinkiang to
avoid collectivization. In their 1979 volume, “How the Soviet Union
is Governed,” Jerry Hough and Merle Fainsod generally supported
Lorimer’s calculations and concluded that more extreme Western
estimates “cannot be sustained.” Rather, “a smaller m– but still
horrifying — number” of “maybe some 3.5 million” emerges as the
direct or indirect result of collectivization in the early 1930s.

With respect to the purges of 1937 and 1938, Hough and Fainsod again
criticize excessive Western estimates and report that on the evidence
of extant demographic data “the number of deaths in the purge would
certainly be placed in the hundreds of thousands rather than in the
excess of a million.” Indeed, “a figure in the low hundreds of
thousands seems much more probably than one in the high hundreds of
thousands, and even George Kennan’s estimate of ‘tens of thousands’ is
quite conceivable, maybe even probable.”

At the far end of the spectrum from Hough and Fainsod is the British
chevalier de la guerre foide Robert Conquest, who has counted 20
million excess deaths under Stalin before 1939, this estimate being
cited in “The Stalin Question Since Stalin” by the limber Steven
Cohen. In this essay Cohen informs his readers that Conquest’s 20
million figure and kindred estimates are “conservative,” without
mentioning other counts by scholars which make Conquest’s figure
wildly inflated. He concludes his observation by saying, “Judging by
the number of victims, and leaving aside important differences between
the two regimes, Stalinism created a holocaust greater than Hitler’s.”

In this decade the most significant scholarly battle on the subject
has been waged between Stephen Wheatcroft and Steven Rosefielde, with
the former taking the latter to task for demographic crudities and
sensationalism. In Slavic Review for 1985 Wheatcroft wrote, “All of
these extremely large estimates ignore basic demographic changes in
Soviet society and accept inaccurate and non-comparable population
figures.” Wheatcroft reckons “these wildly unscholarly estimates
serve neither science or morality” and writes, “It is no betrayal of
them [the victims] nor an apologia for Stalin to stat4e that there is
no demographic evidence to indicate a population loss of more than six
million between 1926 and 1939 or more than 3 to 4 million in
the famine. Scholarship must be guided by reason and not by emotion.”

In an essay that has received widespread respect, Barbara Anderson and
Brian Silver supported Wheatcroft. Their “Demographic Analysis and
Population Catastrophes in the USSR,” also in Slavic Review for 1985,
dismisses Rosefielde and estimates excess deaths from 1926 to 1939, to
persons alive in 1926, as anywhere from 0.5 million to 5.5 million,
depending on high, medium or low assumptions about life expectancy,
with the medium figure at 3.5 million. They regard some estimates of
those born between 1927 and 1938 as inflated, and calculations of same
“extremely sensitive to any inaccuracy in the data.”

Conquest, now at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, told my colleague
Rich McKerrow that Medvedev’s numbers are “obviously in the right
range,” though “perhaps he’s spread them wrong” and “I’m not sure
where he gets them from.” He slighted Anderson and Silver’s work as a
product of demography rather than sovietology and derided Hough and
Fainsod’s figures as “improbably.”

From the University of Michigan, Professor Anderson told us that
Conquest “wouldn’t know a number if it bit him” and noted that her
work with Silver had won respect from Soviet demographers and also
from Danilov. Medvedev’s computations she found to be “ludicrous.”

No doubt some will be eager to conclude that the foregoing is somehow
an attempt to exonerate Stalin, dismiss the purges as got up by
Western propaganda. By way of response, the following observation of
Hough and Fainsod is salutary:

“Some persons seem instinctively to object to [our] figures on the
ground that the Great Purge was so horrible that the number of deaths
cannot have been so ‘low.’ We must not become insensitive to the
value of human life, however, what we dismiss tens of thousands of
deaths as insignificant and need to exaggerate the number by ten,
twenty, thirty forty times to touch our feelings of horror.”

The task is obviously to try to arrive at truth, but many such
estimates evidently have a regulatory ideological function, with an
exponential momentum so great that now any computation that does not
soar past 10 million is somehow taken as evidence of being soft on
Stalin. One can find an analogy in current writing on the French
Revolution, where the passionately anti-Jacobean Rene Sedillot has
produced a book addressing the matter of the Revolution’s human cost
in which he boils up, by very questionable means, a casualty figure of
400,000, far in excess of any previous estimate. Professor Charles
Tilly of The New School in New York counts total deaths in the
Revolution, including the Terror, famine and war, at no more than

The symmetry that calculations such as Medvedev’s seeks to establish
between Stalin and Hitler performs, in its service to ideology,
similar injury to history. Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews
and the gypsies, and though accuracy is important, it does not alter
the moral scale of this horror one iota to propose that in pursuit of
his design Hitler may have in reality killed a million less or a
million more than the conventional estimate. Evil though he was,
Stalin did not plan or seek to accomplish genocide, and to say that he
and Hitler had the same project in mind (or, as right-wing German
historians now argue, that Stalin somehow put Hitler up to it) is to
do disservice to history and to truth.”


Hitchens On Robert Faurisson And Defending David Irving

Whilst browsing the web I came across these two pieces from Christopher Hitchens. I think they aptly illustrate the difficulties Hichens has in dealing with David Irving.

In the first article from The Nation in October 1994, Hichens counterpoises Irving with Robert Faurisson, seemingly trying to sanitise the former by comparison to the malignant latter. Readers will remember that Faurisson is a well-known Holocaust denier and a recipient of Noam Chomsky’s support.

The second defence from the Wall Street Journal in February 2006, where Irving is characterised as merely an “eccentric Englishman”, not the propagandising neo-fascist that he really is, turns out to be even less satisfactory than the 1994 judgement.

Hitchens’ lingering defence is that, supposedly, Irving “is in fact not a “denier,” but a revisionist, and much-hated by the full-dress “denial” faction. “

Such sentiments indicate Hitchens’ naïveté, infatuation and inability to give up on his old eating companion. He is reduced to picking up Irving’s scraps, arguing that the benefit of Irving’s “research” far outweigh any negatives which is an intellectually idiotic conclusion and indicative of his shallow grasp of the issues.

I leave the articles here as a matter of public record:

Minority Report by Christopher Hitchens, The Nation, 3rd October 1994.

“R. D. Laing once wrote an essay titled “The Obvious.” The idea was suggested to him by an opinion-poll finding in the 1960s that appeared to show that millions of Americans were not aware that mainland China had a Communist government. Laing wondered aloud what one can take for granted by way of shared assumptions—not just on the part of others but of oneself. George Orwell once contrived a similar exercise, trying to imagine what he would say to prove the earth was spherical if confronted by a convinced Flat Earther. These mental challenges are useful for their own sake.

So when Professor Faurisson came through Washington to visit the Holocaust Museum, I hastened along to meet him. Probably no fact is more agreed-upon than the scope and magnitude of the Final Solution, and it’s necessary as well as interesting to hold converse with those who maintain that the whole story is a fable. Faurisson presents himself in a brisk, rationalist and Cartesian style: It is widely alleged that gas chambers—”chemical slaughterhouses”—were used to destroy European Jewry. Very well, were is there a surviving authentic model, or photograph, or diagram of the operation of one such?

My own first answer must be that I have never seen a relic of an operating gas chamber (though I have seen small-scale crematoria in camp museums in Germany). Have I studied the feasibility of asphyxiation en masse, on the scale claimed? Do I appreciate the immense difficulty, supposing the task to possible in the first place, of removing heaps of cyanide-poisoned corpses from the alleged chamber? My answers must be, again, no and no. Eh bien, we are getting somewhere. Have I understood that much anti-Nazi propaganda is just that? That there was no soap made from human fat? That the confessions of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, was extorted by coercion and in any case mentioned a total of deaths at Auschwitz that not even the Israeli experts at Yad Vashem credit? Here, my answers are yes and yes, because I know that the story in the first case, and Höss in the second, have been debunked. So, am I not ready to sign myself among the brave and persecuted, who deny the myth of the Six Million? Not at least until I can try a syllogism of my own, on a professor who evidently relishes the Socratic method.

Is it not true that the National Socialist Party’s propaganda specifically and openly cited Jews as the root of all rot and evil? Is it not the case that, before the world and before the war, Jewish persons and property were violated and vandalized in Germany? Further, once the war had begun, were the Jews of Western Europe not shipped eastward against their will? Suppose me to be credulous about “gas-chamber pornography”; if these people were not put to death, why did so few of them return?
There is something—I scarcely know what to call it—something distant about Faurisson’s response. He does not consent, as I did with his questions, to answer mine cumulatively and in order. He remains polite and he continues to discuss, but he has become bored—that’s it, bored.

I have read the debate between Faurisson and David Irving that took place under the auspices of the “Holocaust revionist” Institute for Historical Review at a conference in October 1992. Irving is infamous for his claim that no proof of a Führer-order exists, and that if there were any mass killings of Jews, they were unauthorized by the Nazi emperor. In that debate he announces that he is an anti-Semite. When Adolf Eichmann, for example, spoke of a Final Solution:

It was quite plain to him that is was only a plan to sweep all the Jews of Europe aboard boats and transport them lock, stock and barrel down to Madagascar, where they would be on an island where they couldn’t bother any of their neighbors and where none of their neighbors could bother them. I’ve always said and I say it here again—even though I risk making a few enemies—that I think that it would have been an ideal solution to a perennial world tragedy.

Irving also concedes that there were, indeed, mass murders of Jews on the eastern front, most common by firing squads. He takes very seriously the testimony of Gen. Walter Bruns, who described a massacre he witnessed near Riga as early as November 1941. And he credits other testimony as well—doubtless with regret, since such unpleasantness makes the Madagascar option look positively humane.

Faurisson disagrees with Irving about both the occurrence of the massacres and the responsibility for such deaths as did occur. This he attributes, in our discussion, to the inevitable side-effects of war. He is contemptuous of Irving as a historian and, oddly for a man with such insistence on detail, has no memory of Irving’s Madagascar statement. He insists that he himself is guided in his quest by no prejudice and no ulterior motive, merely an imperative to pursue objectives and verifiable truth.

One of his fellow revisionists sat at the same table to observe our discussion and broke in (obviously to be helpful, as he thought) to say: “Of course, we all agree that the deportation of the Jews was a very great crime. I know Robert agrees, don’t you Robert?”
“No,” replies Faurisson, “I do not.” He explains that the Nazi responsibility in the Second World War is no graver than that of many parties and regimes in modern and ancient history. So, I ask him finally, You think there was nothing unique in the Nazi system? “Nothing morally unique, no.”
Both Faurisson and Irving have been subjected to a lot of stupid censorship and harassment for their writings, and it has been known for persecution to distort judgment. Some overt neo-Nazis deny the Holocaust while openly wishing that there had been a Final Solution, or will be one soon. Faurisson, I judge, is not of this company. He just doesn’t think that Nazism was such a big deal to begin with.”

Wall Street Journal Opinion February 23, 2006. Free Speech Über Alles (Even for David Irving) by Christopher Hitchens.

“It is best not to mince words. The imprisonment of David Irving by the Austrian authorities is a disgrace. It is a state punishment for a crime — that of expression and argument and publication — that is not a legal offense in Mr. Irving’s country of birth and that could not be an offense under the First Amendment. It is to be hoped, by all those who value the right to dissent, that his appeal against both sentence and conviction will be successful.

Strictly speaking, “context” ought not to weigh in the scale when the question of unfettered expression is being decided. And obviously, the provincial police of Styria were only doing their statutory job when they detained Mr. Irving under the terms of a very broadly drawn Austrian law that criminalizes even “gross understatement” (however that might be phrased) of the Nazi campaign against European Jewry. But it is somehow unfortunate that a small European country with a very bad record from the Nazi period should be jailing an eccentric Englishman at the precise moment when a small European country with a much better record is the object of an orchestrated campaign of lies, blackmail and violence. Those who jump for joy when the embassies of European democracies are immolated in the capital cities of squalid dictatorships have decided to announce their own game of moral equivalence. What of your precious free speech, they say, when the Holocaust is immune from criticism on your own soil? Austrian bureaucracy — never at its best with this thorny question: how embarrassing that the prison library contained several Irving hardbacks — could almost have set out to try and prove the Islamist demagogues’ “point.”

I put “point” in quotes because there obviously is no such moral equivalence. Anyone should have the right to criticize or even insult and lampoon religious belief, just as anyone should have the right to try to revise or rewrite history. But the Muslim thugs are as stupid as they look, because they only assert the second right in order to obliterate the first one. They are not even trying for a trade-off (unless you think that freedom for European brownshirts would lead to the reopening of desecrated synagogues and churches in the Arab world, in which case you will lose your shirt whatever color it happens to be). But the bullies do accidentally make the point that counts to begin with: The defense of free expression is indivisible. Compared to that important principle, nothing is “sacred,” or even close to it. Perhaps you notice that, of late, the word “sacred” has become an easy anagram of “scared”?

Now may I mince a word or two? I have been writing in defense of Mr. Irving for several years. When St. Martin’s Press canceled its contract to print his edition of the Goebbels diaries, which it did out of fear of reprisal, I complained loudly and was rewarded by an honest statement from the relevant editor — Thomas Mallon — that his decision had been a “profile in prudence.” I will not take refuge in the claim that I was only defending Mr. Irving’s right to free speech. I was also defending his right to free inquiry. You may have to spend time on some grim and Gothic Web sites to find this out, but he is in fact not a “denier,” but a revisionist, and much-hated by the full-dress “denial” faction. The pages on Goebbels, as in his books on Dresden, Churchill and Hitler, contain some highly important and damning findings from his work in the archives of the Third Reich. (The Goebbels book contains final proof that the Nazis financed Sir Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in England: a claim that Mosley’s many sympathizers have long denied.)

Compared to this useful evidence, the fact that Mr. Irving was once a Mosley supporter is unimportant to me…. “