Why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin?

I’m telling my children about Hitler. But how do I teach them about Stalin?

Looking back to when I was at primary school, I was appallingly ignorant about the Holocaust.

I don’t want my children to be as in the dark.

Sure, I grew up when the Nazis and World War Two were fresher memories. We played war. We watched war films. Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Richard Burton and David Niven were blowing up the Guns of Navarone or going Where Eagles Dare. We read Battle, War, Commando and Warlord comics.

So it wasn’t as though we didn’t mention “the war”. We did all the time. But not the holocaust.

Steinach, The Great Escape - baddie

And the Germans were not automatically “the baddies” in our imaginations. We were aware of a fuzzy distinction between Germans and Nazis in the films. The Nazis were the guys in trenchcoats who machine gunned down the Great Escapers. They looked pinch-faced or toad-faced.

But there were good Germans too – James Mason as Rommel, Michael Caine in The Eagle Has Landed (with his IRA assistant Donald Sutherland) or U-boat commander Jürgen Prochnow in Das Boot.

It used to irritate us that the sharp-looking Germans were portrayed as evil geniuses who could never shoot straight. We supported the Indians in Cowboy films too. They couldn’t shoot straight either.

It wasn’t that we were against the Allies – more that the Germans were cool – and the underdogs. We knew they’d be forced to lose and look stupid. (If they were pitted against the French resistance, we switched sides to the new underdog.)

Royal Anglian Regiment, Derry, 1971 - Don McCullin

I don’t remember when very young making a conscious link from the British soldiers in World War Two films to the British soldiers barricading streets in the Belfast of my childhood, but perhaps that also muddied the water when it came to distinguishing between movie goodies and baddies. (More on snapper Don McCullin here.)

The only reference to the extermination of Jews, Gypsies and gay people was something my Granny used to say. If I was looking insufficiently fed -in need of third helpings – she might exclaim that I looked like I’d just come from Belsen. (Clearly I didn’t.)

But it wasn’t till much later that the fact and the enormity and the horror of the Nazi holocaust hit home. That embarrasses and appalls me. But since then I’ve caught up – and so has popular literature and  film – writers Primo Levi, Bernhard Schlink‘s book The Reader  (and film), Schindler’s Ark, his List  and, well, his original list – and especially The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – book and film.

And that carries on to more modern genocide. Definitely worth watching Terry George‘s Hotel Rwanda, or reading Philip Gourevitch‘s award winning We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. (Not just a title as long as a Welsh village, but also a compelling read.)

When I made my first proper trip to  Germany, I visited Dachau concentration camp, near Munich in Bavaria. As experiences go it was enlightening, drab and moving.

A few weeks ago, when I took my own 11-year-old to Germany – a great, friendly, fascinating place to visit – I made sure we visited Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. A trip through an Arbeit Macht Frei gate is the sort of thing he needs to know about and to really appreciate. The same goes for any well-rounded properly educated person.

Berlin's Holocaust Memorial - an abstract version of a Jewish braveyard in Prague.

Wandering round Berlin, the Germans seem to have the balance right between sombre remembrance and not inadvertently creating shrines for neo-Nazis.

I’m not sure the rest of the country is as relaxed about dealing with the Nazi legacy. Bus drivers on the route between Oranienburg railway station and Sachsenhausen appear to resent the people visiting the concentration camp – even when – or perhaps especially when they make up 99% of the passengers. Don’t be surprised if they try to avoid bringing you to the correct destination. It’s an ongoing problem according to staff at the concentration camp visitor centre.

And there’s an odd phrase – concentration camp visitor centre.

But – as so often – I digress.

So – we all agree the Nazis were bad. Hitler was evil.

But when it comes to Stalin, there’s plenty of scope for people to accentuate the positive. Ah well, he defeated Hitler, they say. Dragged the Soviet Union into the industrial age. Omelets and breaking eggs may be mentioned. (Though as Romanian writer Panait Istrati, “the Gorky of the Balkans”, said of the USSR, he “saw the broken eggs but couldn’t see the omelette.”)

And who dwells much on Pol Pot‘s killing fields, the Vietnamese boat people, or Mao‘s Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward famine and slaughter?

It's hard to find an image of Che you have not seen before. But I think I've cracked it.

Especially when you have the competing romance of Che Guevara‘s martyred superman, the South African Communist Party‘s struggle against the racist government, the Cubans stopping the apartheid regime tanks at Cuito Cuanavale, the doomed No Pasaran against the fascist coup in Spain, the Nicaraguan Sandinistas inspiring students and musicians in the 80s or Salvador Allende‘s last stand on Chile’s 9/11 (1973). Even the men in black pyjamas in their once seemingly endless fight against John Wayne, the Japanese, the French, the Americans. the Chinese and the Khmer Rouge.

It’s on my mind because I’m reading Donald Rayfield‘s book Stalin and his Hangmen.

According to Oleg Gordievsky, Britain’s former double agent within the KGB, the book is “probably the most detailed and precise knowledge of Stalin’s thinking and deeds, and that of his most important butchers.” (Often think the emotive use of the word butcher is unfair on meat traders. We have a lovely butcher in our village.) The book is not a bundle of laughs, but it’s very readable – if you don’t mind those long Russian and Polish names.

Here’s a relevant extract which deals with Stalin’s 1928 and 1929 campaigns against peasants in Russia and the Bolshevik empire.

Arrests, deportations and killings escalated, into a holocaust unmatched in Europe between the Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century and Hitler. Stalin’s attack on the peasantry ravaged Russian agriculture and the Russian peasant to such an extent that for perhaps a century Russia would be incapable of feeding itself. It introduced irrational and unquestioned rule by fear and turned people back into beasts of burden. (p148)

But somehow it doesn’t catch our imagination the way other historical atrocities do. Try comparing it to another past evil – the Atlantic slave trade.

The suffering that ensued has few parallels in human history; it can only be compared in can only be compared in its scale and its monstrosity with the African slave trade. But whereas the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese took 200 years to transport some ten million souls into slavery, and kill about two million of them, Stalin matched this figure in a matter of four years.

And how did the world react back then?

This was an act of unprecedented monstrosity, and the almost total silence and indifference of Europe and America to the fate of the Russian peasantry suggests that the rest of the world, like Lenin, Stalin and Menzhinsky, considered the Russian peasant hardly human. The Nazi persecution of the Jews began as Stalin completed his genocide of the Russian peasant. We are still shocked today by Europe’s connivance at Nazi racism but, compared with Europe’s indifference to the introduction of slave labour in Russia and the eradication of the Russian peasant, its murmurs about Nazi atrocities seem like an outcry.

We’ve had the Killing Fields film, but where’s the Schindler’s List for the Soviet Union? Or the Boy in the Gulag Pyjamas? I’ve read most of Solzhenitsyn‘s Gulag Archipelago, but the sheer interminable length of it eventually defeated me somewhere during the second thick volume. Colin Farrell starred in a recent movie about Siberian Gulag escapers, The Way Back. But it’s low profile. I haven’t seen it myself.

One film I have seen and that I’d highly recommend is the the excellent The Lives of Others, set in fairly modern communist East Germany. It conveys some of the perniciousness of the regime, but not the magnitude nor the sheer horrific sweep of Stalin’s empire.

When it comes to the Nazis we have Auschwitz and all the rest.

But where do I take my 11-year-old to really see and feel the reality of Stalin’s legacy?

Suggestions anyone?



Filed under history

19 responses to “Why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin?

  1. Hitler was a fanatic nut whose goal was to destroy, but Stalin was a cunning ruthless monster whose intent was to save the USSR. Apologists for Stalin propose he was certainly Machiavellian but was able to make the hard decisions as brutal as they were to save the motherland. Everyone was expendable for the survival of the state. Lenin shuddered at the thought that Stalin would probably replace him. Stalin probably killed more than 35 million of his own people. An awakening in revealing his horrors may come in Europe but not in Russia. They are used to totalitarianism. Americans don’t even know their own history so the revelations will not come from the US.

    • Interesting post, Paul. There are certainly more tangible, and accessible examples of the evil Hitler unleashed. Perhaps there is an element of guilt, owing to the alliance between the US, France, and Briton with the USSR during WWII, which has prevented a more rigorous examination, and exposure, of Stalin.

      As for Americans not knowing their own history, sadly it is all too true. There is something wrong, and incredibly sad, when history is gleaned from Hollywood, rather than through critical study and thinking. I fear too many of my fellow citizens have allowed themselves to simply repeat the last phrase they hear, and neglected any real examination of facts. How else to explain the popularity of some potential candidates to replace Barack Obama.

  2. I am glad that you found me and through that I found your blog.

    My child is 40 years old now. I can’t teach him anything! I depend on him to teach me to be adequate with the computer related activities.

    Your post is thought provoking. Yes, where can one take a child to learn about Stalin? In India, there are people who consider Stalin as a hero. One famous politician is even named after him. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._K._Stalin) India still has a sizable section of communists and perhaps this is where you can learn about Stalin! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_India) and (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Communist_Party_of_India_%28Marxist%29)

    I shall be happy to host you if you ever decide to undertake some research here.

    I envy your 11 year old son.

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks for the offer.Coincidentally, I’m taking out two visitors from India next month who found me through this blog.

  3. I can’t recommend any teaching aids on Stalin, but I suppose the point is that he had all the typical traits of the endless parade of dictators the world has been subjected to. Ruthless suppression and slaughter, restrictions on personal freedom, self-glorification etc. Perhaps the destructive nature of dictatorships and why people tolerate them is the place to start.

    • blackwatertown

      Yes – I like that approach.
      However – I was hoping to find a particular place that would have meaning.

  4. cheerfulmonk

    That’s an easy one. I just sent my daughter Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow I had been looking for more details about Stalin’s reign of terror, and this set (in either DVD or VHS) has it. As the product description says,

    “There has never been as vivid or terrifying an account of the Soviet people’s ordeal.” -Newsday

    Russia’s War is an important and in-depth account of the nation’s history throughout the period of Joseph Stalin’s rule (1924-53). Told in ten parts, this astonishing documentary reveals eyewitness stories, archival photography, documents and footage, and gives a remarkable insight what led to the death of sixty-five million Soviets during Stalin’s reign of terror.

  5. There was a superb TV movie many years ago, called Red Monarch, with Colin Blakeley as Stalin and David Suchet as his henchman Beria. It was a dark black comedy, which really punched home the horror of the events depicted, and it was the first time I really understood how terrifying it must have been to live under Stalin’s rule. (I knew the dry facts, because I was studying 20th century Europe at school at the time, but there’s a difference between knowing and understanding.)

    I don’t know if it’s available on DVD, but coupled with a brief factual outline of what was going on at the time, it would be a great explainer of the man and his times.

  6. Paul – This post (and the incredible number of links you shared) has been a tremendous source of food for thought. Thank you. And thank you again.

  7. roblorinov

    There are many memorials to Stalin’s victims. One is located in the Bykivnya Forest new Kiev, Ukraine. About a year ago Ukrainian authorities determined the identities of about 14,000 people who were killed on Stalin’s orders and who were buried in the forest. Under the Soviet regime Bykivnya was heavily guarded. Many executions were carried out in Kiev itself but the dead were buried in mass graves in the Bykivnya Forest during the middle of the night. There are about18 places in Ukraine where Stalin’s monsters executed thousands that have been identified so far. Most are mass graves. Some are used as parks, some have department stores built on top of them or other buildings, and other serve as city cemeteries. Along the way to the memorial you will see homemade signs on the trees where people have written the names of their relatives on them in memory. Wikipedia under “Bykivnia” has pictures of the monument

    There is also Levashovo Memorial Cemetery which is a memorial to Estonian vicitms of Stalin near Minsk. This cemetary was kept secret until 1989 and is maintained in almost perfect condition. The guard building and barn are preserved there. At this site you can also see the tracks left by the trucks in the earth as the Stalinists hauled their victims to the mass graves. There is now a memorial stone there, a cross, ribbons left on trees by relatives with photos and inscriptions, etc. It also has a bell tower put up by cemetary workers. This cemetary is now operatred by the City of St Petersburg. St Petersburg is full of Russian Tsarist history. It is beutiful in the spring or summer. Winters are very cold and snowy. The following site has many pics of the cemetary:


    There is also a memorial in the City of Kiev itself in Ukraine that was completed in 2008. It is the National Museum Memorial of the Famines Victims in Ukraine.

    Now why cemetaries? Because you wish to teach your child the reality of Stalin’s legacy. And his legacy is death! Oh yes, in the times of Stalin it is said that most Russians loved him. Some did. Some did not. MOST pretended to love him out of fear of execution.

    I do not know how much you travel but if you go to Russia or Ukraine these are some of the better sites that I have suggested above. Both are worth visiting. There are also a few sites/memorials around and in Moscow as well.

    So why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin? There is a sort of fascination in the West with Hitler and his Nazis I believe. Besides, they make for good Hollywood movies as you mention. But when it comes to Russia it has always been on the back burner in the West. When Russian Tsar Peter the Great went on his “Great Embassy” to Europe prior to his arrival the Europeans thought Russians were part bear, man-beasts. They were shocked to discover Russians were people too! LOL how I love it when reality sets in!! One of your commentators above says “65 million? I had no idea the number was that high. What a monster.” Yes a MONSTER indeed and so were his henchmen especially his little Dwarf Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov.

    Thank you for asking me for my suggestions on my blog. I appreciate it very much.

    Rob Lorinov

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks Rob. This is exactly what I was looking for.
      The homemade signs on the trees on the way to Bykivnya Forest sound very eerie and evocative. Remind me a little of the pre-Christian struel or holy wells in Ireland – where people leave artefacts (spectacles, clothing) related to how they have or wish to be healed.
      But thanks very much for all that information.

  8. I had a friend in English Lit Graduate school from the Ukraine who had survivor’s guilt. She did not go to play with friends in her concentration camp one day and they all were killed by land mines. Her other great difficulty was the fact that the Allies let the Ukraine suffer during WWII and in its immediate aftermath. She was worldly and worldly wise and I miss her. She had terrible emotional problems and we drifted apart. Her husband was a famous surgeon here.

    This is a remarkable post, Roo. Your encyclopaedic powers are brilliantly on display and this is a remarkable course in Hitler and Stalin.

    I had a French teacher from Romania who I think expressed the difference between the Nazis and the Soviets rather well. She said when the Nazis occupied her country, it was bad but they left local officials in place and things struggled along. But when the Soviets came, it was like a the country was blanketed – suffocated under them. They put in their own people. She came home one afternoon and found her home divided into apartments. She said even at a friend’s funeral people refrained from greeting one another. She and her husband escaped a la Sound of Music over the mountains and ate grass to stay alive.

    We here in America have been blessed for three or four generations of bounty. Even now, we have so much. But all of us who have enjoyed living here and benefiting from the bounty know that our world is being quietly undermined as the Communists do it – slowly like a fog dropping to blanket the area. Like the Soviets, the Chinese enter into relationships with other nations and when they go to work on infrastructure in those countries to get their trade and raw materials, they utilize their own people not the native population. They have perfected Communism.

  9. Coincidentally, today’s Indian Express has an editorial/report by one of India’s most respected journalists/reporters. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/from-soviet-union-in-alimuddin-street-to-a-watch-repair-shop-in-singur/789185

    Taking out two Indians? Are you a US Navy SEAL? What did the poor fellows do? Are they from the Al Quaida?

  10. I am so grateful for this wonderful post Paul. Not only is the article filled with history, but the following comments also.

    You and your children are blessed.

  11. Pingback: Why is it easier to teach kids about Hitler than Stalin … | Light Dragoons

  12. blackwatertown

    Thanks everyone for the suggestions and links.

  13. Blaise

    Great article and comments.

  14. Thanks for a great post. Interesting content and to think about history in this way.

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