Stalin, cannibalism, and the true nature of evil

What the new book Bloodlands tells us about the nature of evil.

Ron Rosenbaum
Slate Magazine

How much should the cannibalism count? How should we factor it into the growing historical-moral-political argument over how to compare Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides, and the death tolls of communism and fascism in general. I know I had not considered it. I had really not been aware of the extent of the cannibalism that took place during the Stalinist-enforced famine in the Ukraine in 1933 until I read Yale University history professor Timothy Snyder’s shocking, unflinching depiction of it in Bloodlands, his groundbreaking new book about Hitler’s and Stalin’s near-simultaneous genocides.

For the past three decades, beginning with what was called in Germany theHistorikerstreit, or historians’ battle, continuing with the 1997 French publication of The Black Book of Communism (which put the death toll from communist regimes at close to 100 million compared with 25 million from Hitler and fascism), there has been a controversy over comparative genocide and comparative evil that has pitted Hitler’s mass murders against Stalin’s, Mao’s, and Pol Pot’s.

I had been all too vaguely aware of the role the Stalin-imposed Ukraine famine played in the argument—according to many calculations, it added more than 3 million dead to the sum of Stalin’s victims.

But I suppose that, without looking deeply into it, I had considered Stalin’s state-created famine a kind of “soft genocide” compared with the industrialized mass murder of Hitler’s death camps or even with the millions of victims of Stalin’s own purges of the late ’30s and the gulags they gave birth to.

Snyder’s book, while controversial in some respects, forces us to face the facts about the famine, and the cannibalism helps place the Ukraine famine in the forefront of debate, not as some mere agricultural misfortune, but as one of the 20th century’s deliberate mass murders.

Students of comparative evil often point out that Stalin caused a higher death toll than Hitler, even without taking the famine deaths into account; those losses were not treated the same way as his other crimes or as Hitler’s killing and gassing in death camps. Shooting or gassing is more direct and immediate than starving a whole nation.

But Snyder’s account of the Ukraine famine persuasively makes the case that Stalin in effect turned the entire Ukraine into a death camp and, rather than gassing its people, decreed death by famine…

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