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Putin’s crimes are extraordinary but not inexplicable. We must learn from them - Telegraph -11.08.23

A new book by Daniel Finkelstein shows the fearful symmetry of the Nazi and Communist regimes. Its lessons are urgent says Lord Charles Moore.


I have just caught up with Daniel Finkelstein’s newish book Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad. Its chirpy title makes it sound like Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall by the late Spike Milligan. Do not be misled. Although Finkelstein writes with humour and clarity, his tale is about as grim as could be. You could not call it an August “beach read”. Nevertheless, I could barely put it down. I urge readers to pick it up. It is a good book to read at any time, but also a book for right now.


“Mum and Dad” were Daniel Finkelstein’s parents. Both were Jewish, born in between the two World Wars. Mum (Mirjam Wiener) was born in Germany. Dad (Ludwik Finkelstein) was born in Lwow (now Lviv), then in Poland, now in Ukraine. They ended up in Hendon, married; but before that, they had quite separate, quite unspeakable experiences caused by war, totalitarianism and race/class hatred.


I shall not reproduce here the gripping family story the book tells, but I want to draw attention to its “fearful symmetry”. Mirjam suffered from Hitler. Ludwik suffered from Stalin. The parallels are so close they feel too bad to be true. Yet they are true; and they bring home in direct, human form something we in free countries find so difficult to understand.


In the first chapter of his underrated Sword of Honour trilogy, Evelyn Waugh describes the “secret jubilation” of the book’s hero, Guy Crouchback, on hearing of the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Guy, living in Italy, returns to England to fight for King and country.


The tragedy the trilogy describes is that Waugh’s “Modern Age” sort of wins. Yes, the Nazis are defeated, but only with the help of a totalitarianism exactly as brutal and more enduring than theirs, that of Soviet Communism.


And whereas Guy Crouchback could return from war to his home country independent and free, roughly half of Europe could not. Finkelstein’s grandfather, Dolu, had been, until 1939, a leading industrialist, “the Iron King of Lwow”. But the Nazi-Soviet pact gave Stalin the freedom to occupy Poland and – among millions of other horrors inflicted on millions of other people – to arrest, rob, interrogate and torture him, exile his wife Lusia and son (Ludwik) to near-starvation on the borders of Siberia, and send him as a political prisoner more than 2,000 miles to the edge of the Arctic Circle. There he laboured, barely clothed, in temperatures as low as minus-45C, brutally supervised by common criminals who were themselves prisoners.


By an irony of history, Hitler’s breaking of the Nazi-Soviet pact by invading the Soviet Union in 1941 saved Dolu. He was a soldier in General Anders’s Polish army whose fight against the Germans Stalin now assisted. This gave him some protection. Eventually, he, Lusia and Ludwik got to Tehran, reaching Britain in 1947. He never saw Poland or Lwow again, however, and died a few years later, broken in physical and mental health.


In parallel, and by the good fortune of having obtained false passports to Paraguay, Mirjam Wiener, her two sisters and their mother Grete, were let out of the Nazi concentration camp, Belsen, in January 1945. The day they crossed the border to safety in Switzerland, Grete died of the illness and hunger caused by her Belsen ordeal, never reunited with her husband.


To a frightening degree, people forget or ignore the lessons of the Holocaust. There is a fashion, especially among Islamists and on the far-Left, to deny the Holocaust’s special place in the history of collective evil. But it can at least be said that the vast amount of information about it is well curated and readily available. No important institution has a continuing interest in concealing the story.


This is much less true of Stalin’s persecutions. They may not often be directly denied nowadays, but they remain obscured. Everyone knows the Nazis killed six million Jews. How many know about the Holomodor – the starvation of roughly 3.9 million Ukrainians which Stalin deliberately caused in the early 1930s, or about his forcible transfer of more than three million people, of whom huge percentages died, to the far reaches of the Soviet Union in the 1940s?


Dolu’s close friend, Major Ignacy Schrage, was murdered, along with several thousand fellow Polish officers, in the Katyn massacres of 1940. These crimes were committed on the orders of Stalin, who wanted the entire Polish officer class dead. But until the Cold War ended 50 years later, the Soviets continued to deny them absolutely.


This was highly effective. When Margaret Thatcher became prime minister, she wanted the government to be represented at the annual commemoration of the Katyn victims in London. The Foreign Office counselled against. It would annoy the Soviets, they said. They gave the Soviet propaganda line that the Germans had murdered the officers. Such caution, 40 years on from the deed, is testimony to the power of a repeated lie.


Hitler, thank goodness, had no real political heirs. Stalin, unfortunately, had plenty. The West had to deal with them. There were all sorts of diplomatic reasons for pulling our punches. The Soviet people themselves were deceived by the lies. Indeed, they knew much less than we did.


This did not end with the Cold War. Stalin’s latest heir is Vladimir Putin. His lies about Russia’s territorial claims over Ukraine resemble Hitler’s lies about Germany’s right to “living space” in the East. His actions in the current war in Ukraine – notably the eastward deportation of people, including unaccompanied children – resemble Stalin’s. His atrocities against civilians and his attempt to flatten whole cities resemble those of both dictators. It is not easy for the Russian people to distinguish his fictions from fact.


This is where Finkelstein’s book becomes urgent. In a country like Britain, we tend to see the crimes of Hitler and Stalin then, and of Putin now, as extraordinary, inexplicable aberrations. Extraordinary they are, but not inexplicable. They are what can happen when politics goes wrong.


“Politics,” writes Finkelstein, “had murdered my grandmother and dozens of other members of my family. Politics had exiled my grandfather … Politics had almost starved my mother to death …” The evil dormant in most people will certainly find expression if people are evilly led. Then it acquires its own warped logic.


The “final solution” was so called by its Nazi perpetrators because they thought they had identified a political “problem” – the Jews – which they had at last found a way of “solving”. Stalin thought that the triumph of socialism could come about only if all class enemies were destroyed. Putin thinks Russia’s civilisational destiny can be fulfilled only if Ukraine’s “drug-crazed neo-Nazis” are overthrown.


All of them thought – or think – “Press on! The more we kill, the greater the victory.” They rely on us being too feeble, frightened or short in attention span to resist. This is how Putin tests the West today.


Once settled in England, Daniel Finkelstein’s grandmother Lusia used to say: “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we are safe in Hendon central.” No doubt she was partly expressing personal admiration for the late Elizabeth II. But she was really talking about the wise and kindly way of life which good politics can, though with difficulty, protect and bad politics can most certainly destroy.



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Putin’s crimes are extraordinary but not inexplicable
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