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PETER HITCHENS: We need museums on Stalin’s terror all over the world

It is time there was a museum of Stalin’s Terror in every major city in the world, including London

I came to this conclusion after visiting two superb new galleries in the capital’s Imperial War Museum, due to open on Wednesday, about the Second World War and the Holocaust.

This is the first time any museum has put the war and Hitler’s mass murder of Europe’s Jews under the same roof. 

The two galleries are separate but linked by a V1 rocket which hangs in the space between them – a hideous weapon of war designed by perverted science to kill the innocent and actually made by Jews enslaved by the Third Reich.

And the combination, if you see them in one visit as I did, is overpowering. I left in a sort of daze. I love museums, places of thought and learning which only a great civilisation can build. 

And the Imperial War Museum has always been one of the most potent in the world.

It is time there was a museum of Stalin’s Terror in every major city in the world, including London. I came to this conclusion after visiting two superb new galleries in the capital’s Imperial War Museum, due to open on Wednesday, about the Second World War and the Holocaust

Everyone now recognises that the Holocaust was an event of lasting historical importance with lessons for every human being. (Above, inmates at Mauthausen concentration camp)

Everyone now recognises that the Holocaust was an event of lasting historical importance with lessons for every human being. (Above, inmates at Mauthausen concentration camp)

But I was repeatedly troubled by the absence of a third gallery. Everyone now recognises that the Holocaust was an event of lasting historical importance with lessons for every human being. 

And it is rightly marked here with many moving and appalling exhibits, from tragic letters and personal possessions of the victims, to one of the great blocks of stone of the sort which enslaved prisoners were forced to carry up the steep slope of Mauthausen concentration camp, a task designed to kill those who performed it.

Film from the terrible ghetto at Theresienstadt, where doomed Jewish prisoners were forced to pretend to be happy and healthy, is especially dreadful. 

If you did not know that everyone shown in the film was destined to die within months, that they were starved and beaten and terrorised, you might so easily be taken in by the lies of the Nazi cameramen.

Well-dressed people enjoy lectures and concerts. Happy families tend gardens or sit round dinner tables. Men browse in bookshops. 

If any of the people forced to act out this ghastly celluloid lie had hinted in any tiny way at the truth, they would probably have been bludgeoned to death on the spot.

But this was not the only lie spread in that age, and the other lie was widely believed and is still, in a way, treasured by some people.

A few pictures of the joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade on September 22, 1939, in Brest-Litovsk, might fit in well at the exhibition. (Above, Panzer general Heinz Guderian, centre, with Red Army commander Semyon Krivoshein, far right, and Lieut-Gen Mauritz von Wiktorin at the parade)

A few pictures of the joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade on September 22, 1939, in Brest-Litovsk, might fit in well at the exhibition. (Above, Panzer general Heinz Guderian, centre, with Red Army commander Semyon Krivoshein, far right, and Lieut-Gen Mauritz von Wiktorin at the parade)

It has been my good luck to step off the edge of our comfortable world to travel quite widely in the eastern lands ravaged by war and murder. And to me our accepted account – so well portrayed in the museum exhibitions – lacks a key element.

The classic story of appeasement, Neville Chamberlain, the Fall of France and Dunkirk makes no sense without it. Yet it is barely mentioned and often not taught.

The Left, who dominate the teaching of history, are either ignorant of it or shifty about it.

In the exhibition on the war, you would struggle to know that the British Labour Party, including the now-sainted Clement Attlee, fiercely opposed rearmament after Hitler had come to power. In 1934, Attlee spoke against RAF expansion, saying: ‘We deny the need for increased air armaments.’

Herbert Morrison, another big beast of 1930s Labour, attacked Chamberlain for spending too much on weapons. The Daily Herald, then more or less Labour’s official newspaper, denounced a 1935 White Paper setting out plans for rearmament as an ‘affront to Germany’. 

If you are appalled by the industrial mechanism of death and hatred established by Hitler in his domains, how can you then not be equally appalled by the enslavement and murder of millions of entirely innocent people, deemed to be enemies of Stalin's Communist empire? The Gulag had no gas chambers, it is true, but it lasted much longer than Hitler's death camps and it killed without mercy. (Above, prisoners of the Vorkuta Gulag in 1945, one of the Soviet labour camps created by Stalin)

If you are appalled by the industrial mechanism of death and hatred established by Hitler in his domains, how can you then not be equally appalled by the enslavement and murder of millions of entirely innocent people, deemed to be enemies of Stalin’s Communist empire? The Gulag had no gas chambers, it is true, but it lasted much longer than Hitler’s death camps and it killed without mercy. (Above, prisoners of the Vorkuta Gulag in 1945, one of the Soviet labour camps created by Stalin)

Even Hitler’s lawless seizure of the Rhineland in March 1936 did not change Labour’s mind. Attlee, at this point in history, backed an amendment saying: ‘This House cannot agree to a policy which in fact seeks security in national armaments and intensifies the ruinous arms race between the nations, inevitably leading to war.’

Why was this? Beyond doubt, many on the British Left claimed to believe at the time that British weapons might be used against the Soviet Union, which many of them admired.

The official Opposition did not fully back preparations for war until 1939, literally at the last minute. 

These days the British Left pretend that they opposed appeasement but quite how you could really have opposed appeasement with a few decaying biplanes, a tiny, ill-equipped Army and an antique Navy, I am not sure.

As for the Communists, fortunately a small minority in Britain, they actively opposed Britain’s war effort for the first two years of the fighting, thanks to Stalin’s 1939 pact with the Nazis.

During the celebrations to mark the signing of this diabolical treaty, the Soviet tyrant, a vicious anti-Semite, merrily toasted his new friend, the Fuhrer. 

The exhibition mentions this momentous event but, in my view, it would benefit by giving a good deal more space and time to it.

A few pictures of the joint Nazi-Soviet victory parade on September 22, 1939, in Brest-Litovsk, might fit in well. Many are available, showing Red Army and Wehrmacht officers jointly taking the salute in the conquered Polish town.

I would also like to see a mention of one of the most shocking events ever to have taken place anywhere: this was the negotiation in Paris between the French Communist Party and the German occupation authorities in the summer of 1940. 

The French Stalinists sought permission to resume publication of their daily newspaper L’Humanité (Humanity), which had been banned by France’s democratic government on the outbreak of war. The talks, though they ended in failure, were quite serious and lasted from June 22 to August 27.

Museums and film-makers have a problem with it, one that I agree is hard to solve. Few photographs or films exists of any aspect of the Gulag. (Above, the Vorkuta Gulag)

Museums and film-makers have a problem with it, one that I agree is hard to solve. Few photographs or films exists of any aspect of the Gulag. (Above, the Vorkuta Gulag)

Yes, when Hitler invaded the USSR, the Soviet people fought like tigers against the Nazis and turned the course of the war in Europe, a merciless struggle conducted outside the rules of the Geneva Convention and too often forgotten here. 

The exhibition justifiably gives it plenty of space, as it should. But I could do with much, much more on the whole nature of the Stalin regime, before and after 1940.

If we are to think carefully about the most terrible war in human history; if we are to mark as we should the mass murder of Jews in actual extermination camps, and the revival of slavery in the heart of Europe; we must, in my view, go further.

The victory of 1945 was not the clean, simple thing we sometimes think it is. Beyond doubt it spelled the end of racial nationalism such as Hitler’s, for his hideous Aryan utopia was created and we all know what it looked like. But there are other illusions it left untouched or at least nothing like as damaged as they ought to be.

One of them is the Left’s foolish opposition to strong defences, which we still endure to this day and which was much in evidence throughout the Cold War.

But the fact that British Jews (apart from those in the Channel Islands) were never rounded up and sent eastwards to unspeakable deaths in some Polish swampland is largely because the despised Neville Chamberlain built up a strong RAF, supported the development of radar, and renewed the Royal Navy. And it is no thanks to the British Left of the time. 

Another illusion is the idea that 1945 was the start of a new sunlit era of freedom and democracy.

The fact that British Jews (apart from those in the Channel Islands) were never rounded up and sent eastwards to unspeakable deaths in some Polish swampland is largely because the despised Neville Chamberlain (above, with Hitler in 1938) built up a strong RAF, supported the development of radar, and renewed the Royal Navy

The fact that British Jews (apart from those in the Channel Islands) were never rounded up and sent eastwards to unspeakable deaths in some Polish swampland is largely because the despised Neville Chamberlain (above, with Hitler in 1938) built up a strong RAF, supported the development of radar, and renewed the Royal Navy

Because, for more than 50 years afterwards, half of Europe lay under the rule of monsters.

And if you are appalled by the industrial mechanism of death and hatred established by Hitler in his domains, how can you then not be equally appalled by the enslavement and murder of millions of entirely innocent people, deemed to be enemies of Stalin’s Communist empire? 

The Gulag had no gas chambers, it is true, but it lasted much longer than Hitler’s death camps and it killed without mercy.

Museums and film-makers have a problem with it, one that I agree is hard to solve. Few photographs or films exists of any aspect of the Gulag. 

The regime which created it survived long enough to get rid of much of the evidence of their crimes. But, even so, there are records and personal memories. And let us also not forget that the USSR remained a violent oppressive dictatorship for many years after 1945.

There are plenty of films and photographs of its disgraceful crushing of the human spirit in the streets of Berlin in 1953, of Budapest in 1956 and Prague in 1968.

I don’t offer this suggestion as any kind of criticism of the Imperial War Museum exhibitions. Everyone should see them. Nobody could be unmoved by them and all will benefit.

I just think the story they tell is not complete and it needs finishing. Think again of the terrible film of the Theresienstadt ghetto.

Without knowledge and explanation, you would not know just what a frightful and terrifying lie it was. It is, alas, not the only untruth that still needs to be exposed and defeated.

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