I have recently re-read a bunch of stories about the Cold War where the blame for the repressive nature of the Soviet state was placed firmly on the Communist regime. Fair enough you might think, and certainly for most of the 20th century, the former Russian Empire was an extremely repressive regime whilst the Communists were in charge.
Certainly the secret policemen of the Soviets were well known – the GRU, KGB, NKVD, Cheka (where the label “chekist” comes from and all Russian secret police are labelled “chekists”), and others. But the persistent use of Russian secret policemen continues after the collapse of the Communist regime – the GRU is just as strong as they ever were, and there is also the SVR, the FSB, etc. And they’re just as active as ever – including the Salisbury poisonings and similar activities.
What is less well known is that the Russian intelligence services started well before the Communists acquired power in 1917 – the Okhrana. Whilst their headquarters were burned by the revolutionaries, there are persistent left-wing rumours that Okhrana operatives were recruited by the Cheka for their expertise. It is something that is never likely to be proved – these organisations are secret after all, and it did occur over 100 years ago, but the Cheka did become effective surprisingly quickly.
It is easy to blame the communists for their repressive regime, and they certainly deserve plenty of blame but is it really communism that is to blame here? That’s an all too easy assumption to jump on – particularly given the antipathy certain parties (old school European aristocrats and capitalists) have for anything that smacks of depriving them of their ill-gotten gains.
Communism certainly isn’t to blame for the secret police before and after their regime, so wouldn’t it be more accurate to say Russia has a chekist culture that survived two regime changes? Particularly seeing as the current president is a former KGB officer.
Does it matter?
Well for a start, Russia is currently a rogue state using intelligence services in an activist way to kill off critics of their current dictator. And it isn’t communist.
And not all communists are authoritarian communists; they may very well be wrong or misguided but they are not all authoritarians.
Well they were bad of course – you can’t invade someone’s land and call it good. At best it might be justified – such as when the Allies invaded occupied Europe and Germany to kick out the Nazis, but that is the best case scenario and the crusades were a long way from that.
But they did not happen in a vacuum – the islamic world had previous contact with the christian world, and that contact wasn’t always harmonious and it wasn’t always the intolerance of christians to blame.
First of all, which crusades are we talking about? Because despite the popular notion that the crusades were all christians trying to kick muslims out of the “holy land”, it wasn’t actually the case. There is some disagreement about whether the other crusades actually count or not – such as the Reconquista or the crusades against the pagans of eastern europe.
But as we’re not looking at those, we can ignore that little argument except to make one point about the Reconquista – this was (overly simplistic) the christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsular after the islamic conquest of starting in 711. And whilst it’s childish to say “but they did it first” (and doesn’t justify the Crusades), it is actually true.
The other aspect contributing towards the first crusade was the actions of the so-called “Mad Caliph” – Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah who reversed a previously agreed policy of toleration to christians (including pilgrims to Jerusalem) and jews. Plus the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Now this may have been exaggerated, but whatever truth lies behind the “Mad Caliph”, the effect on christian europe has more to do with the information (or propaganda) going around europe at the time. Although the first crusade was nearly 100 years later, the destruction of churches was mentioned by Pope Urban in his speech at the Council of Clermont.
We can still condemn the crusades without implying that it was an entirely unprovoked attack on the islamic world.
Every so often I encounter some statement online which perpetuates some slavery myth or other. Those myths are not entirely unreasonable – they’re very often applicable to the largest group of descendents of victims of one of the most recent episodes of the slave trade.
But they’re still myths and they distort the history of slavery.
1. Slavery is History
Nope. Estimates of the number of people held as slaves today vary from 25 million to 43 million.
And whilst legal slavery has been abolished world-wide, the last country with legal slavery (Mauritania) didn’t abolish it until 1981, and it wasn’t criminalised until 2007. There are supposedly more anti-slavery activists in prison than slave owners.
2. Only Africa
Slavery has existed throughout history and in every part of the world. For example, the Domesday book (1086) documented that 10% of England’s population were slaves. Indeed the port of Bristol owes its success to the salve trade, but not the one involving African slaves, but Anglo-Saxon slaves – 1,000 years earlier.
3. Slave Traders Weren’t All White
When white dudes rocked up at African ports (yes really) and asked if there were any slaves for sale, the slave trade was already centuries old. It’s hard to ascertain just how many free people were enslaved by each group, but what we know of African history makes it plain that many if not most of the slaves shipped to the Americas were sold to slave traders by other slave traders; native slave traders.
For an example look at the history of Dahomey (and this was not an isolated example).
4. Not All Slaves Were Black
In the early modern period the overwhelming majority of slaves traded were African, but the slave trade (even during this period) did include white folk.
For example, the Barbary coast pirates enslaved up to a million Europeans by seizing ship’s crews and raiding coastal settlements (mostly Spain and Italy but England and Ireland weren’t immune). Despite punitive military expeditions from all over Europe (and the US), the slave trade wasn’t finished off until the French invaded.
And that ignores the amount of slaves captured by the Ottoman Empire in Eastern Europe.
5. It Wasn’t Just The Atlantic Slave Trade
As you can see from the previous map, the trade in African slaves doesn’t just predate the Atlantic slave trade (and predates it by a long time), but it continued even after the Atlantic slave trade. Numbers are understandably somewhat vague, but it seems likely that the Arabian slave trade was at least half of the Atlantic slave trade (~12 million) and some estimates put it at parity.
6. Britain’s Industrial Revolution was Funded By The Slave Trade
This is still open to argument, and there are serious historians on both sides of the debate. It is common to argue that the profits from the slave trade were used to fund the industrial revolution.
There are not unreasonable arguments to show that the profits from the slave trade were never enough to fully fund the industrial revolution. Some did for sure, but the aristocratic landlords would have far more money to invest.
Those making money from the slave trade would have been more interested in investing in property than a riskier industrial venture. Social advancement in England/Britain (or any European country at the time) was through agricultural land ownership and in the long term it was profitable too.
The other thing that is overlooked is that considerable profits were made by African slave traders; that money didn’t go towards investment in Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
7. Britain Only Opposed The Slave Trade When It Become Economically Redundant
So Britain only started combatting the slave trade when slavery was no longer profitable for the British? Any number of slave traders (including African slave traders) would have begged to disagree – slavery (or at least the slave trade) remains profitable today or it wouldn’t exist.
And Britain didn’t just oppose the slave trade with words; it put its money where its mouth was and funded the West Africa Squadron. Some say it was the most expensive international moral crusade in modern history.
Slavery is repugnant to every decent human being well deserved of its status as a crime against humanity. And there is plenty of blame to go around – Britain should have banned the Atlantic slave trade when it began not several centuries later; so should the Portuguese (who shipped twice as many slaves). Hell, why were African kingdoms fighting wars just to capture slaves not also condemned?
This is not supposed to be a political narrative – specifically this isn’t supposed to support “white supremacy”. The only statement I would say on that kind of subject is that evil-doers can be found amongst all ethnic groups.
Of course this is from the perspective of the whole-world, and more geographically localised slavery may well be different in nature.
But the more you learn of history, the less easy it becomes to simply classify any nationality as the villains. Sure people did bad things, but a whole nationality? That isn’t so certain.
Take the English-Scottish rivalry for example. It is easy to see it as a simple grab for land; particularly if you’ve watched that Braveheart film and thought it was anything more than simple entertainment. But it turns out to be not quite as simple as that.
Where is the border between England and Scotland anyway? Hadrian’s wall? Or the Antonine wall? Because the border hasn’t always been where it currently is; in fact people have been having rowdy discussions on which bit belongs to whom since before either country existed (and not infrequently using the excuse to make off with each other’s livestock).
In 1018, Malcolm II invaded the northern part of Northumbria, and hung onto it unlike later attempts at a land grab which failed. But was he grabbing land on behalf of Scotland, for his own personal enrichment, or to grant lands to his followers to keep them loyal?
The later was particularly likely as Scotland was not a simple unified nation at the time, and Malcolm II was a high king with several sub-kings giving allegiance.
But were those Northumbrians in the region captured by Malcolm English or Scottish? Did they suddenly become Scottish or did they stay English? Or were they Northumbrian? Or did they think of themselves as Bernicians? Or people of the Hen Ogledd? Because they had been all those within the span of a few hundred years.
But rather than concentrating on destroying the notion of nations created by states for their own convenience, let us switch to something else.
When Malcolm II invaded Northumbria, did he give all his soldiers any choice in the matter? Of course he didn’t; some of his nobles could well have had some say, but the ordinary soldier didn’t. And the same applies for pretty much everything the “English” were responsible for.
Blaming the nation for the crimes of the ruling classes is collective guilt; one step on the way to collective punishment (a war crime). Blame those responsible by all means (and there’s plenty to blame), but don’t condemn a whole country for the crimes of a few.
All figures within this blog posting are based on the relevant Wikipedia articles. These are not 100% accurate because no figures are – there are academics who spend their whole career improving estimates of how many were killed.
I have a bit of a bee in the bonnet about this – and it has come up recently because :-
I’d encountered a Jew who questioned that the overall total was over double the 6 million Jews killed.
In association with a Twitter thread about the comparison between the ICE forced sterilisation of immigrants and the Nazis, I made a comment mentioning the other victims of the Nazis and neglected to include the Poles.
On another Twitter thread, there was a discussion on US children not being aware that six million Jews had been killed in the holocaust; I don’t see not knowing the exact number (although six million isn’t the exact number either) as being that much of the problem (“millions” is close enough) but denying that Jews were killed in the millions is definitely problematic. But interestingly no mention was made of the other Nazi victims!
But let us get one thing out of the way first. This is not intended to devalue the murder of 6 million Jews – if they were the only victims of the Nazis, it would still be well worth going to war to scrub the Nazi stain from the Earth. And I’m not in general in favour of war.
But the same applies to the other categories of Nazi victims, and it seems they are often forgotten – people make a big deal about how the Nazis killed six million Jews (and it is a big deal) but totally neglect to mention the others.
The first concentration camps were created in 1933 during the Nazis rise to power as a means of controlling political opponents. As the Nazi grip on power solidified, the advantages of a means of holding inconvenient people outside the control of the German judicial system became apparent and the slow decline of the concentration camps was reversed and the number of inmates began to rise again.
The number of political opponents who were killed by the Nazis during this period is not known, but a very rough estimate could be 25,000. Although other religious opponents can be included in that 25,000, Jehovah Witnesses deserve a special mention because almost unanimously they opposed Nazi mandates (including refusing to serve in the military). Approximately 1,400 were killed.
In addition to political opponents, Nazis incarcerated (and frequently killed) criminals and “asocials” (the homeless, alcoholics, unemployed, lesbians, …). At least 70,000 were killed.
Homosexuals (gay men) were also violently repressed and many ended up in the concentration camps. The number killed is unknown – Wikipedia claims “hundreds” but another estimate claims that up to 60% of the 5,000-15,000 sent to concentration camps were killed (for the purposes of the pie chart, I’m going to estimate 6,000). Many of those who survived the camps were re-imprisoned at the end of the war – being gay was still a ‘crime’.
Whilst lesbians were sometimes categorized as “asocials” and could end up in the camps for that reason, but they were not repressed quite as much as gay men.
The Jews and The Shoah
Although this blog article is about the other victims of the Nazis, it is unconscionable to talk about the holocaust without mentioning the Jewish victims. The Wikipedia figure for Jewish deaths is unusually precise – 5,896,577 or a touch under 6 million.
A bit of a distraction from the main topic – the word “holocaust” is Greek in origin and was used before World War II; usually in reference to the genocide of Armenians. “The Holocaust” is of course only used in reference to the Nazi programme of exterminating “sub-humans” which all too commonly is assumed to be only the Jews.
The specific word for the programme of exterminating the Jews is “The Shoah”.
I believe it is helpful to have two distinct (actually more – other groups also have terms) terms to distinguish between the Jews specifically (The Shoah) and the killing of everyone the Nazis considered “sub-human” (The Holocaust). There are those who object to this but given that at least one Jewish camp survivor (Elie Weisel) was of the same opinion it can hardly be legitimately called disrespectful.
Another reason for distinguishing the Jews from the pre-war category is that whilst Jews were harrassed mercilessly, ghettoised, and yes murdered before the war, the systematic killings did not begin until after the war began.
This is also the place to go into some of the issues relating to counting and categorising the victims. Was a Jewish Socialist killed because she was a Jew or because she was a Socialist? If she was picked up in 1934, it seems likely to be the later; if she was picked up in 1942 it would have been the former. And was she counted in both categories?
Do we count those killed outside the extermination camps as victims of the holocaust? If (for example) we exclude the handicapped because they weren’t in the camps, then we must also exclude up to a million Jews killed by the Einsatzgruppen.
During The War
The Roma (or Gypsies although the later is regarded as an insulting term by many) come first because they are the closest to the Jews in terms of the level of hatred shown by the Nazis. Hated just because of whom they are rather than what they did.
Determining just how many Roma were killed is particularly difficult for a wide variety of reasons. The Wikipedia estimate of 220,000 killed is almost certainly a massive under-estimate – modern researchers have consistently increased the estimate up to a high of 1.5 million (75% of the total pre-war Roma population). I’ll go with an estimate of 1 million.
The Slavs (Poles in particular)
The third main racial group that the Nazis categorised as “subhuman” were the Slavs of Eastern Europe – Poles, Lithuanians, Czechs, etc. The Nazi attitude to the Slavs various widely – from expressing the desire to exterminate the entire race, to ‘accepting’ (with caveats) those Slavs who collaborated, and the wish to use Slavs as slave labour.
I suspect in the long term – if the Nazis had won – the Slavs would have followed the Jews into the ovens.
The Slavs will get sub-divided for various reasons – including to keep the Jews as the single largest group, but they could be categorized as one.
The first sub-group are the Poles. It is clear from the words and actions of the Nazis during the invasion that they intended to exterminate nearly all of the Poles – both Jews and non-Jews.
There is a myth that the Poles enthusiastically welcomed the extermination of the Jews – whilst there were undoubtedly some Poles who hated the Jews, it is also true that Poles represent the single largest group honoured as Righteous Amongst The Nations; yet it is believed that the nearly 7,000 Poles listed is a vast under-estimate of the total who could be listed – the true figure could be 50 times higher.
And many thousands of the 1.8 million Poles killed by the Nazis were killed for helping Jews.
Now we move onto the category of the Soviet Slavs – which comprises many different nationalities which I would be happy to individually identify but accurate figures for each are difficult to find.
First we find that Soviet prisoners of war – 2.95 million were killed (I’ve subtracted the figure of 50,000 Jewish soldiers because they were probably included in the Jewish total and to make this figure consistent with the other non-Jewish casualty figures).
Added to that we have 5.7 million Soviet civilians killed.
To this we should add 300,000 Serbs killed; not by the Nazis themselves but by a client state.
And the handicapped. They were not typically thrown into concentration camps, but “involuntarily euthanized” in or near their care facility. Up to 250,000 were killed.
The pie chart above visually represents the total of each group killed; from this we can see in purely numerical terms that there were many other groups included in The Holocaust. Any one of which would be a crime against humanity.
For those that doubt the figures … and especially that the “others” added up to more than the Jews, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states “… murdered during the Holocaust at 17 million: 6 million Jews and 11 million others.”
There is currently an issue regarding the education of the young about the Holocaust with surveys reporting that some haven’t heard of it and many others do not know how many Jews were killed.
Not knowing the exact figure is forgivable – as we have seen the usually quoted figure of 6 million isn’t itself accurate – “many millions” is accurate enough for casual knowledge. And I’m a devotee of accurate figures, but when you come down to it, that’s what computers are for.
Not knowing about it at all is not just disrespectful to victims, but dangerous because we see warning signs of something similar happening today. But we need to remember that most teenagers have very little interest in the dry bones of history, and perhaps we need to make it an interesting horror story.