Nikolai Yezhov was apparently quite the man at parties, and a hit with the ladies, despite being something of a dwarf. He was also a homicidal maniac, and rose quickly through the ranks in the early Soviet Union until he became head of the NKVD.
The story of Yezhov tells us a lot about the mentality behind Stalin’s Great Terror, and that’s why I listened to the author of a book about him being interviewed on the New Books Network.
What I hadn’t expected was an insight into the processes that underpinned Stalinism – in particular the admiration for and rewarding of competence and hard work. There were, it seems, more good jobs than good people (although putting somebody hard working and competent in charge of the NKVD surely only exacerbated this…).
Yezhov was also favoured because he wasn’t one of the self important Old Bolsheviks, sporting a large retinue of fawning admirers, and therefore also a potential threat. He was loyal – until drink and a loose tongue led to his downfall (and consequently that of every member of his family other than an adopted daughter who now lives in Magadan).
Why does this matter? Well I’m coming to the end of Vassily Grossman’s mammoth Tolstoyan novel, Life and Fate, which deals with the period shortly after the Great Terror. The vast range of characters work their way through life (and well over 800 pages) before the German 6th Army surrenders in Stalingrad. The ghosts of the Stalinist system haunt the book – the memories of 1937, the constant threat of denunciation, and the ever present fear of the knock at the door. In memory of Bernard Black from Black Books, the book has everything short of a lens grinder from Omsk.
(Beware of spoiler…) Towards the end of the book, a fanatical Old Bolshevik finds himself in the Lubyanka, with all of his fancy theorising about Marxism, and his impecable record in The Party and At The Front, torn up and tortured away. A nuclear physicist who is a bit of a shit as well as something short of a pukka communist gets away with his misdemeanors thanks to an intervention from the Big Man himself. NB I still have a few dozen pages to go and this might all be baloney…
Again, why does this matter? For me it’s a reminder that behind every piece of history, common sense and practical measures count for a lot. Namby Pamby theorising and the deification of the self important gits at the top of most systems actually counts for far less.
Again, Why Does This Matter?
Mainly because it allows me to mention Stalin’s Great Terror and Black Books in one blog post. That’s enough reason for me, and I hope it is for you too.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: agincourt, books, history, the somme, waterloo
I’m almost finished John Keegan’s monkeysized history of the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, looking at the fighting, killing and dying from the point of view of the soldiers themselves.
The book itself is immensely good and as shocking as an up-close view of war should be (it reminds me of the excellent ‘War without Garlands’ by Robert Kershaw about Operation Barbarossa in the Second World War).
But the high point of the book is the revelation that one of the heroes of the Somme was called Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Bastard.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: aztecs, carthage, dan carlin, historical relativism, history, mongols, mussolini, punic wars
A simple way to remain monkeysized in your normal life is to remember that vast sweep of history of which you are a part (and, remember, absolutely not the final part).
To get the most out of history it’s important to bring it to a human scale against a vast panorama. Dan Carlin’s ‘Hardcore Histories’ podcasts keeps the human element at its core – reminding the listener to think about what it was actually like to be involved in, say, a battle during the Punic Wars, down to the consideration of whether you would soon be maimed or killed at close quarters, or how much the trauma of doing this to others would affect you. The BBC Witness series does something similar – lifting the human and personal out of a wider story.
Context in history is essential. Dan Carlin explained the rules of war when introducing the Punic Wars. In his view you couldn’t understand the mentality and the brutality of ancient siege operations without it. Dead right.
Here’s a more recent example from Edward Lucas’ excellent europe.view blog on the Economist, on the vexed question of Latvian and Estonian involvement in the Second World War in SS uniform. Massively controversial, and, one might say, overmanipulated for modern reasons by those such as the Russians who are trying to use history to prove a point. This is how Lucas deftly puts the reasonable middle ground:
In the middle are those that see mitigating circumstances. By this late stage in the war the “SS” label was used for all conscripted non-Germans, who were not allowed to join the Wehrmacht. The label “volunteer” was a Nazi propaganda trick: the vast majority of soldiers in these units were conscripts. Though many war criminals did join the new units, fighting in the Third Reich’s military forces was not in itself a war crime. The Soviet claim that the Estonian and Latvian SS were “traitors” is based on the idea that the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states into the Soviet Union was legal. That is not an approach that any civilised country accepted then, or believes today.
And then, finally, I have to mention something I’ve spotted twice. First, in a discussion on the BBC History magazine podcast about the Aztecs, and seconly on a How Stuff Works podcast about the Mongol hordes: in both cases these people were applauded, despite the vast human sacrifices, the militarism, the brutality, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, for their commitment and approach to gender equality.
It’s a whole new version of ‘at least Mussolini made the trains run on time’.