Thursday, December 01, 2011

Soviet Racism Continued

I define racism as the ascription of generalized and innate negative traits to cultural groups in which membership is determined by ancestry. That is if you attribute particular behaviors to people based upon their membership in a group which they were born into, they can not leave, and their children will inherit then you are engaged in racial thinking. Race has nothing to do with categories of biological inferiority based upon genetics. It has nothing to do with skin color other than phenotypes are one possible signifier that can be used to identify groups based upon ancestry. But, it is by no means the only one. Ancestral language and religion have also frequently been used. In short I agree that ethnicity is race without the biological pseudoscience if the determination of this category is by birth and it is immutable. If you remove the aspects of voluntary association and ability to assimilate into other groups from ethnicity you have race no matter how much you insist that it is based upon culture rather than biology. I realize that a large number of very prominent academics such as Francine Hirsch and Amir Weiner completely reject this definition when it comes to the USSR. But, I still maintain they are wrong.

The Stalin regime accused whole nationalities whose membership was defined at birth on the basis of parentage of treason. That is the government claimed that each and every member of these groups which numbered over two million people in total were traitors by virtue of their ethnic heritage and ancestry. This accusation is clearly false as well as racist. Most of the deportees were women, children, the elderly, and the infirm, people who were physically incapable of militarily collaborating with the Nazis. Thousands more were loyal members of the Communist Party and tens of thousands had actively fought against the Nazis defending the USSR while serving in the Red Army. Yet, there were almost no exceptions made for loyal members of the Communist Party, Komsomolists, or Red Army soldiers. They too fell under the false charges of treason and suffered in exile or labor camps along with their ethnic kin.  Even those awarded orders and medals for their service to the Soviet Union found themselves and their families accused of treason and punished. The only criteria for the Soviet accusation of treason and punishment through mass deportation of the entire population to remote areas of the USSR and imposition of severe legal restrictions on their civil rights was their natsional'nost. In this case the word natsional' nost in Russian like the word volk in Afrikaans is indistinguishable from the word race in its political and legal functions.

The claim that this repression was not racist, but rather merely political because of the accusations of treason, the presence of the war, and Soviet security concerns is laughable. Political concerns, justifications couched in the language of security, and false claims of treachery by ethnic minorities are not in any way incompatible with racial discrimination. In fact they almost always accompany it to a greater or lesser degree. Does anybody honestly believe that the US relocation of Japanese Americans was not an act of racial discrimination because Japan attacked Pearl Harbor thus creating real security concerns for the US in the Pacific states? Yet the number of people who claim that the deportation of the Russian-Germans to Kazakhstan and Siberia was not racial discrimination, but merely political or a understandable security measure because Germany attacked the USSR is quite large. Why the double standard? Why are there so many defenders of Stalin on this particular issue? The ethnic Germans in the Soviet Union had been in the Russian Empire and USSR for nearly six generations compared to only two for the Japanese Americans. There was not even a unified German state when their ancestors arrived along the shores of the Volga and Black Sea. Ascribing a political connection between this large and diverse population and Nazi Germany based solely upon their descent from immigrants who geographically lived in areas that became Germany in 1871 was clearly racist. But, in many cases the connection was even weaker. It was based on the fact that their ancestors spoke a dialect of what the Soviet government considered to be the German language. So the descendants of immigrants from Switzerland, Holland, and other other countries also suffered deportation on the basis of being labelled "German" by the Soviet regime.  In my mind the Soviet deportations were just as racist as the US policies at the same time towards Japanese Americans.

I realize that my position is an extreme minority among academics. That people who claim that there was never any racial discrimination involved in the official treatment of groups like the Russian-Germans and Crimean Tatars by Stalin dominate the field. But, all the arguments I have seen that the deportations and special settlement restrictions were not acts of racial discrimination similar to the internment of Japanese Americans or South African apartheid fail to convince me.


Withywindle said...

But you keep on not mentioning the obvious point that the German government regarded all Germans as fellow nationals (and a not inconsiderable amount of popular sentiment), had in the past made territorial claims based on the presence of ethnic Germans, and might again in the future. Given all that, getting rid of the ethnic Germans so as to eliminate the possibility of any more German territorial ambitions is an obvious response. I think it was a correct move; you don't; but you ought to acknowledge the motivation, the chain of reasoning. Stalin didn't just wake up one day and say "oh, I don't like them Germans." Nor did the Poles, Czechs, etc. There had just been World War II, massive German conquests and killings of subject populations, etc. I won't get into the question of the extent of ethnic German collaboration with the German invaders--but you really should pay some attention to, yes, the moral claim "if we let the Ethnic Germans stay here, we risk providing Germany another excuse to attack; we have a moral duty to get rid of that possibility; we therefore must get rid of the Germans, and their possible personal innocence does not outweigh that moral imperative."

Withywindle said...

Oh, yeah, on the Japanese-Americans: it was both racially inflected and a genuine security concern. Maybe "exaggerated" security concern--maybe "misplaced" security concern--but it wasn't invented out of whole cloth.

J. Otto Pohl said...

At the time of the Soviet deportations in 1941 there had been almost no collaboration between Russian-Germans and the Nazis. They were all deported from the Volga, Caucasus, Crimea, Russia, and eastern Ukraine before there was any chance to collaborate. Only those in western Ukraine came under German rule. After the deportations there was some collaboration, but not on a scale significantly greater than many other Soviet nationalities. The German archives have not revealed any plans to use the Volga or Black Sea Germans as a fifth column against the Soviet government as the Stalin regime alleged. The Nazi regime generally distrusted the Russian-Germans as being deracinated and too sympathetic to Soviet ideas. The issue of possible military collaboration should also consider that some 20% of Russian-Germans in Ukraine were pacifist Mennonites who rejected the idea of taking up arms as part of their religious dogma. The Stalin regime treated the Mennonites even harsher than the other Russian-Germans and far, far harsher than Russians who actually collaborated with the Nazis. Vlaslovites only received a six year sentence as special settlers versus eternity for Russian-German children.

Many Russian-Germans, however, did actively take up arms to fight for the USSR against the Nazis. Over 30,000 Russian-Germans actively fought against the Nazis in the Red Army from June-August 1941 before being sent to labor battalions in the rear. They were particularly involved in the defense of Brest. After 1942 almost all of these men were sent to labor camps without trial. A very large number of them died as a result. The Soviets accused and punished an entire ethnic group of treason based solely upon a distantly (six generations) shared ancestry. Most of these people were women and children. The Soviet government preached national and racial equality and then engaged in practices of gross racial discrimination against its own loyal citizens. Indeed in 1964 the Soviet government itself admitted that the charges of treason were totally unfounded. They again admitted that the deportation of the Russian-Germans was completely unjustified in 1989.

The Stalin regime's persecution of ethnic Germans predates WWII by a number of years. In 1937-1938 there was a "German Operation" by the NKVD. This involved the mass execution of ethnic Germans including a disproportionate number of pacifist Mennonites. Many villages were left with almost no adult men as a result of this mass killing. This predates the Nazi expansion into Czechoslovakia and Poland.

It also lasted far longer than WWII. The ethnic Germans in Central Asia, again many of them pacifist Mennonites, came under special settlement restrictions after the defeat of Nazi Germany. The NKVD placed them under this punitive regime starting on 18 September 1945. The Central Asian Germans far away from the front never posed any threat to the Soviet state. Nor did the collaborate with the Nazis. Yet almost all of them, men, women, and children were punished after the war. They remained under special settlement restrictions until the end of 1955, over ten years.

I see no moral claim. The deportations took place from August to November 1941. The Nazis had already launched a full scale invasion of the USSR on 22 June 1941 and needed no excuse to attack. The Soviet ethnic cleansing of the Germans did nothing to weaken Nazi Germany and much to weaken the USSR. It did not deprive the Nazis of any excuse to continue its invasion. It was used by the Nazis as an excuse to justify parts of the Holocaust at the time. It also gave many Germans at the front a motive to get revenge against the "Jewish communists" responsible for this crime against humanity. Many of these men would have been less enthusiastic in killing Jews if the ethnic Germans in Ukraine had not been so brutally treated by Moscow.