And so we have concluded the “Crime” portion of this story, for now. We saw that the Germans had a rather sophisticated method for recruiting local collaborators to help them keep “order” and kill Jewish civilians in the occupied regions of Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltics. We identified the criminals, members of the Schutzmannschaft units. If the Germans had won the war, then these men would not have been criminals, they would have been local heroes. But the Germans lost the war, and hence they are criminals. Actually, by any civilized person’s standard they would be criminals, since they murdered unarmed civilians, unarmed women and children, and that’s always a no-no, even in ancient times.
Now we have this piece, posted just last week on Sean’s Russia blog. This one was a real eye-opener for me, since I have often expressed the opinion that the Soviet government was not too keen about going after collaborators, post-war. Apparently I was misinformed. I also used to think that Casablanca was a beach resort.
Sean’s post is a partial transcript of a podcast interview with Professor Jared McBride, PhD, who teaches Eastern European and Russian History at UCLA. Professor McBride wrote his dissertation on “mass violence and genocide, the Holocaust, inter-ethnic conflict, and war crimes prosecution” in the Russian borderlands, and is currently writing a full-length book based on his thesis. He will never have to worry about “Publish or Perish”, since there is a mountain of material out there.
McBride picked his main topic already as an undergraduate, when his adviser took him on a trip to the Russian archives in Moscow. Their research was based on a collection called the Extraordinary State Commission (ChGK). McBride: “This was a massive collection of testimonies, among other things, collected immediately after the Red Army pushed the Nazis out of Eastern Europe and Russia. This commission was sent in to record the damage and what had happened during the Second World War.”
Recall our Russian historian from yesterday’s post, Alexander Diukov, and how his American wiki criticizes him for just trustingly taking Russian archives at face value. I can’t help with wonder if McBride takes similar criticism from the usual suspects… After all, real historians are not supposed to believe anything that is written down in Russian archives. It’s all just a pack of lies! Right?
McBride: “They did everything from counting how many chickens were lost in the entire Soviet Union to the Nazis as well as recording the very macabre history of violence during the war.” Well, they probably lied about the chickens too.
In spite of which, McBride became fascinated with the themes of what was actually going on at the local level in these occupied regions, and thus picked this “highly politicized” topic as, first his senior thesis, then his PhD thesis, and now his upcoming book.
An Even-Handed Approach
Joking aside, I personally very much like Professor McBride’s approach to these highly emotional issues. He is even-handed, and gives logical explanations why the two sides in the Cold War (Soviets vs Westies) each treated this material in the way they did. Each side one-sided, each in their own way. McBride doesn’t discount the role of Nazi ideology, but also looks at how completely ordinary people, not even driven by ideology, are recruited into collaborationist type organizations. And it is actually very logical, when you see how people behave in any organizational scheme that is set up, you even see such behaviors as conformism and bullying in day-to-day office politics, although it doesn’t normally reach the level of violent pogroms.
McBride: “We’ve begun to move away from that in how we look at violence at the local level. Now we ask regular social science questions about peer pressure, economic motivations, and other social dynamics at the local level that are also playing into why local collaborators, or just the local population becomes implicated in violence.”
This is a sensible approach and helps drive humanity forward to a better era: How can we set up systems of checks and balances which ensure that illegal and criminal structures cannot flourish, even in times of stress? How can we set up norms of international law that protect ordinary people, even in war time?
Taking The Bull By the Horns
Not shying away from the big question posed by his interlocutor thusly:
Your work is highly reliant on using Soviet police archives, particularly from Ukraine because the Ukrainians have opened the access to them. Talk about these archives, the access to them, and the types of information they contain that is relevant for your work.
[By the way, I would personally hazard here that the Ukrainian Nationalists opened their archives in error, perhaps believing their own simplistic propaganda that Soviet archives could contain only a series of horrific “crimes of Stalinism” and whitewash the other side. Perhaps not realizing how damning the truth is to their own side.]
McBride does not hesitate to engage on this issue, and I am sure he has been challenged a million times by the professional Cold Warriors who continue to dominate Pindosian Academia:
“They [the Soviet ChGK archives] provide a very nuanced, detailed look into what happened during the occupation. After 1991, this has been a source for a lot of historians who wanted to tell a much more detailed account of the Second World War.
“The police archives [of the type the Ukrainian opened] are like the Extraordinary State Commission times a million. The Extraordinary State Commission would often give lists of local collaborators or people who worked with the Nazi regime to the secret police. They also got these lists from other sources as well. The secret police, the NKVD at the time, and later the KGB, would arrest individuals for crimes that they committed during the occupation, interview other locals or witnesses for what they had done, and then often sentence them to very, very steep sentences. Oftentimes up to 25 years in Siberia.”
Another eye-opened for me is that Professor McBride found, in these archives, very explicit discussions about the Holocaust and inter-ethnic violence within the Soviet occupied regions. I myself had always believed (and been raised to believe) that the Soviets were not at all keen to air this dirty laundry. Which is actually the point that poet Yevtushenko was trying to make in his famous poem about Babiy Yar. But perhaps there is also a way to square this circle: Namely, discretion for the public at large, but all secrets bared in the archives.
And that is actually a common methodology in many human endeavors, but especially such emotional matters as religion and history. Wherein only partial truths are revealed to the rubes, but the full monte for the inducted priesthood. For example, I have been told that American schoolchildren learn a very watered-down version of their own history; many do not even know about the native genocides, about the true nature of African slavery, or even about segregation and Jim Crow. And yet these facts are out there for those who seek them, and not exactly hidden behind seven veils.
In regard to the Soviet Union, it has been said (with some justification) that all regular citizens, including grown-ups, were treated (by the state) like children and spared from certain unpleasant truths. And yet the truths were there for real grown-ups to know, hidden in archives behind lock and key!
Next: A crucial distinction between High Stalinism and Later Stalinism…
[to be continued]