Stalin: Bad, very bad. No, even worse than that …

gulag railroad

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. His demise did not end the Soviet internal reign of terror that had gripped the nation for decades, but it would eventually bring a lessening of the effects of the murderous regime.

A commonly accepted figure for the number of individuals Stalin murdered while in power is 20 million.

However, as Rudolph J. Rummel, the late professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, wrote a decade ago, that figure woeful undercounts the number of Soviets and foreigners who met their demise as a result of Stalin’s rule.

According to Rummel, the 20 million figure comes from a 1968 book by Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties.

“In his appendix on casualty figures, (Conquest) reviews a number of estimates of those that were killed under Stalin, and calculates that the number of executions 1936 to 1938 was probably about 1,000,000; that from 1936 to 1950 about 12,000,000 died in the camps; and 3,500,000 died in the 1930-1936 collectivization. Overall, (Conquest) concludes: ‘Thus we get a figure of 20 million dead, which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so, as the debit balance of the Stalin regime for twenty-three years.’”

Part of the problem is that Conquest’s qualification adding another 10 million lives to Stalin’s total is rarely mentioned, although over the past 10 years this has happened a little more often.

In addition, Rummel, who spent his career assembling data on collective violence and war with a view toward helping their resolution or elimination, wrote that Conquest’s estimate was incomplete:

Conquest did not include labor camp deaths from 1922 to 1936 and between 1950 to 1953, executions between 1939 and 1953; the vast deportation of the people of captive nations into the camps, and their deaths 1939-1953; the massive deportation within the Soviet Union of minorities 1941-1944; and their deaths; and those the Soviet Red Army and secret police executed throughout Eastern Europe after their conquest during 1944-1945 is omitted. Moreover, omitted is the deadly Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, Stalin purposely imposed on the region that claimed killed 5 million in 1932-1934.

Rummel estimated Stalin murdered about 43 million citizens and foreigners.

Hitler, by comparison, usually gets credit for about 30 million deaths, while Mao Zedong is said to have murdered 60 million.

Other well-known historical bad dudes include King Leopold II of Belgian, who was responsible for the deaths of approximately 8 million Congolese; Hideki Tojo of Japan, 5 million; Pol Pot of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million; Saddam Hussein, approximately 600,000; and Idi Amin of Uganda, as many as 500,000.

Consider that Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reviled as a murderous despot, is said to be responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths, making him a mere piker by the standards of those listed above. That is, of course, small consolation to the families of those he made “disappear.”

And mere numbers, no matter how large, are an abstraction. For anyone wanting to get a fuller idea of the Soviet death machine in action, consider picking up The Gulag Archipelago; The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s; Stalin’s Genocides; and Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor.

(Top: A rail line being built through snow by Gulag prisoners, possibly from the Solovki prison camp, on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea .)

Mussolini’s bid to recreate empire had fateful results for Italy

March_on_Rome

Of the three most infamous dictators from World War II, Benito Mussolini definitely takes a backseat to his more merciless fellow despots, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.

Mussolini, in fact, comes across like a bit of a buffoon, given his fateful decision to side with the Nazis, his nation’s performance during the conflict and his ultimate fate (captured trying to escape to Switzerland, executed by firing squad and then hung upside down in a town square where his body was pelted with stones by his fellow Italians).

Il Duce dreamed of recreating a Roman empire reminiscent of the great Caesars, to the point of enacting ancient laws totally out of step with the 20th century.

He went so far as to revive the Code of Diocletian, writes Rebecca West in her masterful 1941 work Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, which recounts her travels through Yugoslavia in the late 1930s.

“(Mussolini) retrieved, whether from the half-comprehended talk of a clever comrade or by skimming a volume in the threepenny box outside the bookshop, the Code of Diocletian; and being either unaware or careless that Diocletian had perished of despair in his palace at Split, because he had failed to check the descent of ruin on the Roman earth, he enforced that Code on his country,” West writes. “This was a comical venture.”

She adds that Diocletian had “some excuse for seeking to stabilize by edict the institutions of an empire that had lasted for over a thousand years,” but it was idiotic for Mussolini “to attempt to fix the forms of a country that had been unified for less than a century and was deeply involved in a world economic system which was no older than the industrial revolution.”

Ultimately, Mussolini’s reign would be an even greater failure than Diocletian’s (284-305 AD).

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Happy New Year; the blessings of being alive in today’s world

German_soldiers_in_a_railroad_car_on_the_way_to_the_front_during_early_World_War_I,_taken_in_1914__Taken_from_greatwar_nl_site

To those crusaders of the keyboard who take the time to visit this site – whether by chance or on purpose (Hi, Mom!) – we here at the Cotton Boll Conspiracy would like to wish you a Happy New Year.

Regular readers – all six of you – may have noted this blog’s fascination with history. As much as today’s media would like us to stay glued to our television sets, Twitter feeds, and anything else through which they can pour out bad news or, more often, dress up mediocre news so that it looks really, really scary and thereby keeps us in a fear-induced trance, the world today is perhaps safer than it’s ever been.

No, it’s not perfectly safe and never will be. Anyone who expects that is a fool.

However, consider what was going on 100 years ago today, on Jan. 1, 1915:

Most of the world’s great powers were a few months into what would become one of the worst wars in history.

At this point a century ago, more than a million men had already died in what would eventually be known as World War I, and another 10 million or so would lose their lives before the fighting ended in November 1918.

However, even with the end of the Great War, other conflicts spurred by WWI would continue across Eastern Europe into the 1920s, costing millions more lives.

World War I also magnified one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, the 1918 flu pandemic that claimed between 50 million and 100 million lives worldwide.

It sparked the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to the rise of Lenin and Stalin, and claimed tens of millions of more lives, not to mention decades of misery for hundreds of millions.

It led to the rise of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, the subsequent collapse of the League of Nations and the rise of the Axis Powers. That brought World War II, the Holocaust, atomic warfare, the deaths of somewhere between 60 million and 70 million individuals, and the onset of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain.

And those are just the high points.

We’d all do well to head to the local library once in a while, check out a roll of microfilm from a 70 or 100 years ago, and see what real crises looked like.

Are there problems today? Yes. Are they anywhere near what the world face 100 years ago? No, thank goodness.

So get out there and enjoy a wonderful 2015. And thanks for stopping by.

(Top: German soldiers on the way to the front in the late summer of 1914. Many of these men would be dead by Jan. 1, 1915, and few survived World War I.)

Pinocchio Nose’s reply to those who would let dead dictators be

One of the more intriguing aspects of blogging is the comments one receives. Most posts, at least on this blog, receive no more than a handful of replies, but they tend to be thoughtful, articulate and often complimentary, for which I’m appreciative.

There is of course, the occasional anti-Semitic rant, which seems to be nothing more than boilerplate rubbish sent out on a semi-regular basis to posts that, say, identify the Nazis for what they were: A genocidal regime led by a ruthless tyrant and an array of sycophants. These mindless rants are easy enough to identify and delete, however.

Sometimes, though, one gets a comment that is both odd and intriguing.

I recently received a comment on a story that I posted back in November 2011 regarding then-ongoing debate about what Spain should do regarding the resting place of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.

At the time, there was discussion about whether Franco’s body should be removed from Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen, a sensitive historical site near Madrid, and reburied elsewhere.

The Valley of the Fallen is a Catholic basilica and memorial conceived to honor those who fell during the Spanish Civil War. It contains the remains of nearly 34,000 individuals.

Despite the fact that my post contained no commentary either way on whether Franco, who died in 1975, nearly 40 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, should be buried among the victims of the brutal conflict, someone, albeit rather late, took umbrage with the fact that I deigned to touch on the controversy.

“Mind your own business and we shall mind ours; don’t poke your Pinocchio nose into everything,” they wrote, although I did take the liberty of cleaning up the comment to make it easier on the eyes. (The original can be seen in the comments section here.)

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Italian cataclysm forged on Pact of Steel

pact of steel photo

The three main Axis powers of World War II made for an improbable combination. Imperial Japan seemed an unlikely partner for Nazi Germany, considering the latter’s focus on racial purity and the “master race.”

Both nations, however, were militaristic and bent on expansion, and both were at opposite ends from a common foe – the Soviet Union – so there was much in the union that made sense.

Germany’s alliance with Italy, however, was much less logical, at least from the Italian point of view.

Outside of being led by a pair of dictators who embraced fascism, there was actually a great deal of difference between Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany when the Pact of Steel uniting the two countries was signed 75 years ago this month.

The two nations had fought on different sides in World War I, with Italy being a member of the victorious allies that laid down what Germans saw as the draconian terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. And while Germany lost the First World War, it acquitted itself well while Italy’s performance was seen by many as less than spectacular.

Despite having invaded and captured Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia) in the mid-1930s, assisted Franco in the Spanish Civil War and taken over Albania in 1939, Mussolini knew his country suffered from a number of military shortcomings.

It had relatively few tanks and those it did have were of poor quality; its artillery was of World War I variety; and the nation’s primary fighter was a biplane that was obsolete compared to monoplanes used by the other major countries. Also, while the Italian navy did have several modern battleships, it had no aircraft carriers.

Italy recognized its military inadequacies. Under terms of the Pact of Steel it was stipulated that neither country was to make war without the other earlier than 1943.

But recognizing his military was ill-prepared Mussolini declined to get involved when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939.

Italy finally joined the conflict on June 10, 1940, mostly because Mussolini, having seen the lightning speed with which Germany was dispatching its European foes, was afraid he’d get none of the spoils.

On June 17, 1940, the day France sought surrender terms from Germany, Mussolini ordered an Italian invasion of southern France.

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Italian author, survivor of Russian Front, dies

italian prisoners of war on the eastern front

From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.

The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.

But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.

Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Italian, Hungarian and Romanian soldiers, for example, perished in miserable conditions on the Eastern Front alongside their German partners.

One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.

Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.

But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.

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Flemish altarpiece undergoes major restoration

Adoration of the mystic lamb ghent

An elaborate Renaissance altarpiece that has transfixed churchgoers and art lovers alike for centuries is undergoing its most ambitious restoration in its nearly 600-year history.

Flemish masterpiece “The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, is the work of masters Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. A $1.6 million, five-year project to restore it is unusual in that it taking place in full public view at the Ghent Fine Arts Museum.

The work, designed for Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral, was completed in 1432. It is believed that Hubert Van Eyck designed it before his death in 1426 and Jan Van Eyck executed much of it.

Made of 12 oak panels painted on both sides, the 11-foot-by-15-foot work has attracted attention since its unveiling, though not all of it good.

During the Reformation, Protestants attacked Ghent in the 16th century and the altarpiece was hauled up to safety in the cathedral tower.

Following the French Revolution, the altarpiece was among a number of art works plundered in today’s Belgium and was later exhibited at the Louvre. Those panels seized by the French were returned to the church by the Duke of Wellington after his victory at Waterloo against Napoleon in 1815, according to Agence France-Presse.

Several of the painting’s wings were sold in 1816 to an English collector living in Berlin, Edward Solly. Among panels not sold was one with Adam and another with Eve, which were the first known nudes in Flemish art.

Solly’s panels were bought in 1821 by the King of Prussia, Frederick William III, and were displayed in a Berlin art museum.

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