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Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: the Wars of History [1]

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Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

If you are going for a pleasant stroll through a public park some warm September evening and two skinheads violently attack you with steel pipes, and you have two friends within earshot armed with pistols who can hear your calls for help but do nothing, assuming that you survive, whom are you going to be the most angry with: your "friends," who should have come to your aid, or the skinheads?

It is difficult to measure or develop a framework for comparing levels of evil. How can one assign a value to reprehensible acts? Can one justify killing a small number of people today on the basis of saving a greater number tomorrow? How can one be certain that the committed act will immediately achieve its objective?

There is no debate that Stalin arranged for or permitted his subordinates to kill more people than Hitler. Is one worse than the other? Should we take into account the context in which these killings occurred, or is this a meaningless and perhaps obscene exercise?

Without a doubt, millions of Germans during the Nazi era and millions of Soviets during the time of Stalin's rule were guilty of "crimes against humanity." There is a lot of blame to assign both countries had "willing executioners." Yes, Hitler and Stalin were both products of their time, yet the extent of their crimes could have been reduced or largely avoided.

The Western democracies have no right to be smug. The British and French leaderships behaved "neutrally" during what we have come to call the Spanish Civil War; less than a year after General Francisco Franco declared that conflict over, Germany invaded Poland. The Italian and German governments provided significant support to the Fascist forces.

While the behavior of Britain and France was understandable such a short time after the carnage of World War I, was their refusal to come to the aid of the Spanish Republic justifiable by the principle of non-interference in a "civil war"?

It is highly unlikely that Hitler would have held onto power if the French deployed their army to drive the Germans out of the Rhineland in 1936.

Was it either moral or good judgment for the British and French to permit the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia? Would it have been less reprehensible if the "Western allies" had used this time to strengthen their armed forces, so that they would have been able to deter or rapidly defeat the Germans in 1940? Had the Soviet Union not been excluded from the Munich Conference, would things have turned out otherwise?

Indeed few countries have any right to brag about their conduct during this period (but we should not forget the courage and humanity of many individuals). Many Poles have a selective memory when discussing their countrys anti-Semitic laws in the 1930s.

At the same time, there are more Poles who earned the status of "Righteous Gentile" at Yad Veshem than citizens of other countries. Many Poles fought courageously along with the Allied forces on the "Eastern Front," in North Africa, and at Normandy.

What does a leader owe his people? At the top of the list is their physical protection. Both Hitler and Stalin failed in this respect. Hitler cost millions of civilian and German lives fighting a war that could not be won. Stalin acted against the peoples of the Soviet Union (Balts, Chechens, Jews, Kalmyks, Ukrainians, etc.) from 1928 until his death. Were the Finns the only people who conducted themselves with integrity? Was the Finnish nation "tainted" by its acceptance of support from Germany?

The fact that many Ukrainians and Balts greeted the Nazis as liberators from Soviet oppression is understandable, and the fact that some of them participated in atrocities is indefensible. Were the many Dutch and Frenchmen who served in units willing to fight alongside Germany against the Soviet Union simply opportunists?

There were but a handful of countries willing to accept Jewish survivors/refugees in any large number both before the outbreak of the war as well as afterward. It is hard to put a positive spin on the refusal of Britain and the United States to bomb the railroads to Auschwitz when their aircraft were attacking other targets in the vicinity.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty should have gained the Soviet Union time and space in the event of a German invasion, but Stalin's purges of the Soviet officer corps and his refusal to prepare for the impending invasion allowed the Nazis to reach Minsk in two weeks.


[1] Published with permission of Russia Profile.

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The Wars of History


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