David Brooks, the great New York Times columnist, recommends the best essays of the year every Christmas. His selection this year includes a brilliant essay by Anne Applebaum, of this parish, on Hitler, Stalin and Eastern Europe. It makes you realise quite how bloody the Eastern Front was—‘On any given day in the autumn of 1941, as many Soviet POWs died as did British and American POWs during the entire war’—and think about the effect on these societies of being caught in the middle of these two extremist ideologies.
There is always a tendency for us to discuss how the crimes of Hitler and Stalin compare. But I think Applebaum offer an appropriate counter to this way of thinking:
From a great distance in time and space, we in the West have the luxury of discussing the two systems in isolation, comparing and contrasting, judging and analyzing, engaging in theoretical arguments about which was worse. But people who lived under both of them, in Poland or in Ukraine, experienced them as part of a single historical moment. Snyder explains:
‘The Nazi and Soviet regimes were sometimes allies, as in the joint occupation of Poland [from 1939–1941]. They sometimes held compatible goals as foes: as when Stalin chose not to aid the rebels in Warsaw in 1944 [during the Warsaw uprising], thereby allowing the Germans to kill people who would later have resisted communist rule…. Often the Germans and the Soviets goaded each other into escalations that cost more lives than the policies of either state by itself would have.’
The whole essay is well worth reading, it is an example of the review essay at its best.