George Orwell


Anti-Communist Propagandist, Champion of Trotskyism and State Informer

“What attracted the bourgeoisie to this third-rate writer was not his pretended support for the ideals of the October Revolution, but his real driving hated for the ideals of communism”
Refute the slanders contained in Orwell’s work, arm young people with the knowledge to defend the Soviet Union both in and out of the classroom
Presentation by Joti Brar
>> Political bias in education
>> The Orwell Myth
>> Orwell the state informer

Since the publication of Animal Farm in 1945, the work of George Orwell has had a permanent place on the school curriculum. He has been much praised as a literary genius, as one who combines talent with principles and continues the great ironic tradition of Swift and others. This is belied, however, by the boredom felt by students who come to a work like Animal Farm with no idea about the events it purports to be based on. Although it is much vaunted as a great work of art; a story that stands on its own as a fable about totalitarianism in general, examination questions all refer to the events of the Russian Revolution, and “an ability to regurgitate the equations of a Cold War wisdom is taken for granted in most exams.” (Examining Orwell: Political and Literary Values in Education, Alan Brown; Inside the Myth, ed. Christopher Norris: London, p.48)

Stephen Sedley points out that the story works only if the reader understands and agrees with the conclusions Orwell is trying to demonstrate before starting the novel:

“Orwell’s lineage from Swift is frequently spoken of. In background and personality there are similarities. . . but not in Animal Farm. It is not only that Swift has humour as well as passion, which Orwell does not. . . you cannot get into the fiction of Animal Farm at all without accepting as your starting point the very thing that Orwell has to prove – that in politics people are no better than animals: their traditional rulers may be feckless but ungovern them and a new tyranny will fill the place of the old. Naturally if you are prepared to accept that conclusion as your premise, the story follows. You can demonstrate that the earth is flat by a similar process”. (An Immodest Proposal, Stephen Sedley; Inside the Myth, ed. Christopher Norris: London, p156)

Orwell has been widely published, in fact, in spite of the lack of artistic merit in his work, precisely because he fulfils such a useful political purpose for imperialism. Following Trotsky’s model of pretending to defend the October Revolution, Orwell protests at the corruption of communism’s ideals in the Soviet Union by Stalin. Thus millions of people around the world remain ignorant of the actual developments in the USSR, since

“Having read anti-communist trash such as Animal Farm, they feel sufficiently well-equipped to become experts on the former USSR and to pontificate about the degeneration of the ideals of the Russian Revolution from every platform, and through every medium provided to them courtesy of the imperialist bourgeoisie”. (Lalkar, September/October 1996)

Political Bias In Education

Many study guides have been written with the intention of showing students exactly what it is they are supposed to think about the story, and consequently how to write model answers in their exams. These guides are far more candid than Orwell himself was about the anti-communist content of his work.

Contained in the latest edition of York Notes on Animal Farm is a succinct, bullet-pointed history of the Soviet Union, written without any untidy reference to the real thing and designed to fit neatly with Orwell’s version of events, as presented in Animal Farm. It is interesting to note that in 1997, the anti-communist nature of Orwell’s work is stressed over all else, far more than was the case 20 years ago. Older study guides are more apologetic, asking the reader not to take too literally the parallels with Soviet history. Obviously embarrassed by the blatant lies and unfounded allegations, they ask the reader to read the story as a fable about dictatorships ‘in general’. In part, this may be due to the fact that the generation who lived through the War has become far remote from the classroom, but in the main, we can attribute this to the fact that, whatever the claims of the bourgeoisie, Cold War or no Cold War, the threat to imperialism that communism poses is greater than ever.

It is worth examining the text of this latest study guide, since it makes no bones about the real purpose of Orwell’s novel, and the warped version of history that he wanted to spread among the workers:

“Communism was strongly influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx who believed that life could be explained in economic and social terms. The rich capitalist class exploited the lower proletariat. . . and this situation could only be reversed by revolution. Many of Marx’s ideas lie behind Major’s speech in Chapter I”. (York Notes, Animal Farm, Wanda Opalinska: 1997, London, p.12)

The slant in the writing leaves no room for question. The science of Marxism is described as an ‘idea’, ie. something fabricated out of Marx’s head with no particular reference to, or proof from, the concrete world. It is noticeable that the use of the past tense is designed to give the impression that capitalism no longer acts in this way.

“The Communist Party under the leadership of Lenin rose and took power.

“After the Revolution, Trotsky and Lenin established a communist society in the Soviet Union. . . All property, wealth and work was meant to be divided equally between all individuals” (ibid., p.12).

Having said that Lenin led the Revolution, Opalinska is quick to bring Trotsky onto the scene as an equal partner in leadership. This serves a triple purpose:

  1. the names of Trotsky and Lenin are linked in a casual and natural way, as if they were of one mind and purpose – a linkage which is repeated at every opportunity throughout the bourgeois press and the education system, so that it becomes inculcated in the minds of all without the necessity of ever having to find out from a reliable source;
  2. it leads quite naturally to the belief that Trotsky must have been the ‘next in line’ to the leadership of the Bolshevik party – the idea of ‘succession’ coming far easier to most bourgeois students than that of proletarian democracy;
  3. by omitting his name, it denies Stalin any role in the Revolution or its immediate aftermath. By leaving out Lenin from the events of the Russian Revolution, Orwell is able to give credit for all Lenin’s achievements and leadership to Trotsky, adding credence to the idea that it is Trotsky, rather than Stalin, who is the defender of Leninism.

Along with this is the statement that a communist society was established straight after the Revolution. Any cursory study of Marxism will show that Communism, which can be defined according to the maxim, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’, is not possible until the lower stage of Socialism has first been accomplished, in which the state administers the bourgeois right ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his work’. The Soviet Union succeeded in building the lower stage, but even this did not begin to take place until after 1928, when the New Economic Policy was abolished, and with it hostile, exploiting classes within society. Opalinska casts aspersions on the quality of this “communism” by then asserting that “property was meant to be divided”, an insidious phrase, directed at nothing in particular, since no Communist would ever aver that “communism was established” overnight, or that property was divided equally the day after the Revolution. Nor is it the aim of communism to divide property. The Revolution’s aim is to establish common ownership of the whole, not individual ownership of tiny parts. The reader, however, is supposed to glean from this that communism was established, but it was already quite rotten, since although property and work were supposed to be divided, in fact, they were not. “After Lenin’s death a struggle for power took place between Trotsky and Stalin. Trotsky, although favoured by Lenin, was ousted by Stalin who tried to remove all trace of him – even removing Trotsky’s image from certain photographs”. (ibid., p.12)

One is no longer surprised at the lack of substantiation offered for this staggering assertion, but it is interesting to note the continued stress on the idea of succession over democracy, no mention being made of the facts that:

1) Lenin and Trotsky were in bitterest opposition for almost their entire careers, not only before, but also after, the Revolution. After 1917, Trotsky and Lenin were in constant conflict over the question of the prospects for socialist construction, the question of trade unions, the question of war and peace and questions of party unity and discipline, all with their grave implications on the maintenance of the proletarian dictatorship in the USSR. The only change came after Lenin’s death. At that time, Trotsky chose to renew his old attack on Leninism under the guise of defending Leninism (really Trotskyism) against ‘Stalinism’;

2) even if Lenin had ever expressed some kind of preference for Trotsky over Stalin, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union should surely not be chosen on such a basis. It is a fact detested, and therefore ignored, by all Trotskyists, that Stalin was elected to the position he held on several occasions and that he continued throughout his life to have the popular support of the Party and the people of the Soviet Union. Note also the inference of Stalin’s “mad paranoia” in the allegations (again unsubstantiated) that he (probably personally!) went around trying to remove all traces of Trotsky’s existence. It might be fairer to say that Trotsky blamed Stalin for the failure of all his predictions; the failure of the Soviet Union to collapse as soon as the World Revolution failed to materialise, the failure of the Soviet people to be duped by Trotsky’s politics, the failure of the USSR to lose the war with Nazi Germany, and many more.

“The Soviet Union endured several famines as the result of Stalin’s economic policies. (ibid., p.13)

“Stalin’s power increased so that he had a complete control over the Soviet Union. Napoleon uses a similar combination of terror and propaganda to become dictator.

“Anyone who was a threat to Stalin was executed or sentenced to hard labour in Siberia, often following a ‘show trial’.

“Stalin insisted that all farms come under state control (ie. be collectivised). He also tried to modernise Soviet industry. . . Napoleon instructs the hens to sell their eggs, but they smash them rather than let him sell them, in the same way that the peasants opposed collectivisation”. (ibid., p.13)

It is impossible to go into a detailed discussion of events so easily summarised by Opalinska. Suffice it to say that, whereas Trotsky was of the opinion that collectivisation should be forced on the peasantry as early as possible, the Soviet government in fact pursued a very successful policy of voluntary collectivisation. The wrecking and sabotage of the kulaks is presented as a perfectly natural response to such a vile infringement of their right to exploit. The use of language here is again interesting. The CPSU and the government are always ignored, only Stalin has any say over anything. Apparently, he only “tried” to modernise Soviet industry, but no example is given of how the USSR failed to modernise its industry. Orwell’s symbolism of the hens and their eggs is more than an illustration of the kulaks’ rebellion – it is designed to reinforce images of Stalin as some kind of barbaric baby-killer.

“In an effort to protect the Soviet Union from attack, Stalin negotiated with both Britain and Germany. His treaty with Germany was seen as worthless when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941”. (ibid., p.13)

Rather than acknowledge the fact that the USSR’s ability to prepare itself for the attack it knew to be coming was the decisive factor in the outcome of the war, the inference seems to be that Stalin was both a coward and an idiot. It is a nice touch that the author also insinuates that Britain would never have done such a thing as go back on a treaty.

“At the Tehran conference in 1943, the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States of America presented themselves as allies. Within a few years, the Cold War had begun which placed the Soviet Union against the West. The pigs and men have dinner together but their friendship is destroyed when both sides are discovered to have cheated at cards”. (ibid., p.13)

Apart from seeming to blame Stalin for the Cold War, this whole paragraph, along with Orwell’s symbolism, is very muddled. At the time Animal Farm was written, the Second World War was still going, so it was impossible for Orwell to have been referring to the Cold War that followed. The image of both sides cheating at cards serves several purposes. For a start, it means to imply that the Soviet Government is no better than our own, but it is also the ultimate symbol for one brought up as an English gentleman of dishonourable conduct – Orwell’s inference being that it was somehow dishonourable of Stalin to enter into an alliance with any Imperialist powers, even if it was the only way to defeat fascism.

Opalinska’s description of “The Soviet Union Under Stalin” deserves quoting in full, since it contains in a nutshell all the hysterical, ridiculous and contradictory abuses which both bourgeois and Trotskyite critics continue to hurl at Stalin ad nauseam, seeming to feel that repetition will make up for the lack of either substance or sense. Certainly, the overall effect is very strong, as long as one does not examine any of the parts too closely.

“Trotsky had been the strategist behind the Red Army’s success in the Civil War and was seen as a brilliant speaker. He believed that for the Soviet Union to be safe, the revolution had to be spread throughout the world in a `Permanent Revolution’. Stalin was far more reticent and had built up a network of support through his patronage of other posts and presented himself as a moderate. In opposition to Trotsky, he felt that the country’s security lay in building up her defences, ‘Socialism in one Country’. Stalin worked hard to undermine Trotsky and in 1927 the latter was forced to leave the Soviet Union. . . Stalin continually blamed him for any problems the country suffered. He was said to be working with the Soviet Union’s enemies to overthrow the government.

“By 1928, Stalin dominated the government, building up a cult of personality. His rule seemed to have little in common with the ideas proposed by either Lenin or Marx. In addition, his own views and policies seemed inconsistent. In 1921 he had opposed Trotsky’s plans  to industrialise the country – only to do exactly that (with the Five Year Plans) when Trotsky was exiled. These Five Year Plans were extremely unpopular and set unrealistically high targets of production. Another policy to collectivise the farms met with equally strong opposition especially with the kulaks. Many burned their land and killed their animals rather than let the government take them. However, by the end of the late 1930s the Soviet Union emerged as a major industrial power – but the terms in human suffering was huge. In addition, Stalin frequently reinvented his history and that of the Soviet people. Past enemies were presented to the people as allies and vice versa. Propaganda was a frequently used tool which further emphasised the control Stalin had on Soviet life.

“Any opposition to Stalin was ruthlessly and brutally crushed. Those who were thought to oppose him were exiled or executed. In many cases ‘show trials’ were staged in which people confessed to ‘crimes’ that they had not committed. These purges decimated Soviet society and created a climate of fear.

“Stalin felt that the communist state was isolated and at risk from other powers. The Soviet Union joined the League of Nations in 1934 and tried to join an alliance against Hitler. This was unsuccessful and Stalin then signed a treaty with the German leader in 1939. The Nazi-Soviet pact gave the Soviet Union a chance to build up her defences, even though it seemed to go against all that Lenin and Trotsky had said. In 1941, the Germans invaded and the Russian people again suffered terribly. Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met at the Tehran conference in 1943. It seemed that the Soviet Union, America and Britain were now allies”. (ibid., pp.10-11)

What is noticeable from this is the inherent contradiction contained in so many of Opalinska’s (and Orwell’s) allegations. In rejecting Trotsky’s plans to industrialise at the expense of all else and far too early, Stalin was stupid and short-sighted. In industrialising later, Stalin was stealing Trotsky’s idea (having none of his own, of course) and acting against the wishes of the people. Stalin merely “tried” to industrialise the USSR, his policies all met with opposition and caused great suffering, yet somehow the Soviet Union rose, as a result of these failed policies, from a war-torn, impoverished economy to a major world power in the space of less than 20 years. No explanation is given as to how this might have happened. No mention made of the popular support for industrialisation and collectivisation, the daily heroism of the workers or the soundness of economic policy on which the USSR’s successes rested.

Anyone familiar with the history of the Civil War in Russia will be well aware that Trotsky, far from masterminding the successes of the Red Army, had to be removed from each front in succession after his strategies had proved to be detrimental to the army’s success there. Only Trotsky was of the opinion that he was some kind of military genius. It was he, rather than Stalin, who was guilty of rewriting Soviet history. Opalinska maintains that Stalin rewrote Soviet history, but we are not told how; the Soviet people were controlled by propaganda, but no demonstration is given as to how this was accomplished; all opposition was brutally crushed and the people lived in a climate of fear, but no substantiation of these ‘facts’ is thought necessary. No reasons are found for the lack of resistance to such barbarism.

Finally, we have the generous, selfless and perfectly neutral bourgeois concern that Stalin was guilty of betraying “Lenin and Trotsky’s” proletarian Revolution in signing the Nazi-Soviet pact. It is inferred that Stalin was to be blamed not only for signing this pact, but also for the suffering that ensued when Germany finally did invade; that somehow Stalin was to be blamed for the evil and devastation wrought by fascism. One cannot help wondering why the Soviet people fought at all to protect such a terrible monster and uphold such a feared and hated regime.

In case any student should still be unclear on the issue of Stalin versus Trotsky, we are provided with a drawing [see below] of the main characters and a list of key words associated with each. Napoleon is depicted as a massive, ugly boar, with a bullying expression and described as follows: tyrant, cunning, ruthless, vain, hypocrite, aloof, Stalin. Snowball is shown as a younger, earnest-looking pig, with an alert expression and the following attributes: articulate, innovative, brilliant, strategist, moderniser, idealist, Trotsky. Can any doubt remain as to the political bias with which young people are forced to study even such seemingly innocuous subjects as English Literature? Can any doubt remain as to the bankruptcy of the Trotskyite fraternity who have applauded this ‘artist’ with such consistency for the last 50 years?

The Orwell Myth

Much space, in study guides and in examination papers, is devoted to Orwell himself. His credentials “to act as the voice of an entire generation”, as Alan Brown puts it, are carefully established.

“Orwell was sociable and home-loving, believing in family life. . . Orwell was selfless, naturally mild and gentle. . . Orwell loved animals. . . Exaggeratedly perhaps, but significantly, one of his friends called him a ‘saint’”. (Brodie Notes, Animal Farm: Suffolk, 1978 pp. 12-13)

“His idea of himself [was] as the exposer of painful truths, which people for various reasons do not wish to look at; and. . . as a representative of the English moral conscience. . . He was an observer, keeping as fair-minded as possible about what he saw, remaining responsible to objective truth. . . Orwell always put great faith in objective truth. . . The writer, as Orwell sees him, especially the prose writer, is the guardian of simplicity, objectivity and straightforward fact, and so, in our age, he becomes the protector of the human spirit”. (York Notes, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Robert Welch: Beirut, 1980, pp.7-8)

“In short, throughout his adult life and work, George Orwell remained a fiercely honest man, even with himself”. (Cole Notes, Animal Farm: Toronto, 1982, p.5)

In his article on Orwell in Examinations, Alan Brown makes the following observations about the way that the Orwell myth is intricately bound up in the teaching of Orwell’s texts;

“The ‘Orwell’ myth involves a type of canonisation. A version of the individual as embodiment of human values leads inevitably to his status as a ‘trustworthy guide’. It is a curious rhetorical mixture: moral values of ‘bravery’, ‘honesty’, ‘sympathy’ are linked directly to criteria of ‘objectivity’ and ‘straightforward fact’”. (Examining Orwell, p.43)

The point of all this is that any hint that events are merely Orwell’s point of view is taken out of the equation. By telling the reader that Orwell is neutral, a political point can be made:

“Basing his argument on personal experience and commonsense, but mostly on observed fact, Orwell comes to the conclusion that the socialism of his time was mostly unrealistic and irrelevant”. (York Notes, Animal Farm, p.8)

As Brown says,

“Who can contradict ‘commonsense’, ‘fact’, ‘experience’? . . . The total absence of doubt or qualification must incline [students] to swallow opinion and even bigotry as acceptable truth. . . the ‘eternal’ role of the artist as truth-teller is harnessed to a political function. Experience, common sense, realism and honesty are each facets of a total and manufactured personality. Taken together, they provide a platform from which political attitudes can be put across in education without suspicion of bias or indoctrination. Putting ‘Orwell’s’ point of view (that of reason and decency) is not really putting a point of view at all. It is a way of seeing behind the transience of political conflict to the more basic truths of human nature and morality. . . Orwell as the representative voice of an age is shown to contain the differing and contradictory strands of his time. The conflicting elements achieve a precarious harmony in the ‘Orwell’ persona: socialist/critic of socialism, idealist/realist, subjective participant/objective observer. It is left to the figure of ‘Orwell’, finally, to resolve the great debates between left and right, to assert a middle way between ideologies and conflicting forces. . . Having dissolved the contradictions between ‘communism’ and ‘fascism’ in either a historical or theoretical form, the way is open for a socialism itself devoid of content. Orwell’s socialism can be reduced to a Victorian value of ‘concern’ and charity towards others, to a moral subjectivism which calls for no more than a sentimental response. . . Socialism as moral piety is perfectly acceptable. . . but any attempt to conceive of society and subjectivity as susceptible to organised change must be perceived solely as ‘threat’. Socialism is assimilated to fascism. . . the art of the satire, of common sense, of the `Orwell’ industry is to remind us of what we know already and to resign us to its inevitability. If political change is an illusion, we must derive our comfort from an aesthetics of constancy and inertia”. (Examining Orwell, pp.46-7)

Turning to the book itself, one can see that the study guide is not a patch on the real thing. Orwell tries to back up some kind of bizarre theory based on a mixture of Trotskyism and the ‘human nature’ argument to show us why Revolutions in general and the Russian Revolution in particular, cannot work. Major, the pig who is supposed to represent Marx, has a dream which he passes on to the animals as his dying manifesto:

“Man is the only real enemy we have. Remove man from the scene, and the root cause of hunger and overwork is abolished for ever. . . No argument must lead you astray. Never listen when they tell you that Man and the animals have a common interest, and that the prosperity of one is the prosperity of the others. It is all lies”. (Animal Farm, George Orwell: Harmondsworth, 1989, pp4-5)

No-one in their right mind could equate the theories of Marx with this babble. Of course man and animals have a common interest. Orwell deliberately sets out to put Marxism in an absurd light by equating it with Major’s nonsense. Marxism is presented as a theory of naive idealism, which in practice leads to cynical tyranny. The main tenet of Animal Farm, though, seems to be that humans are no better than animals; that ‘human nature’ decides all. Some people are born to rule and others to be taken advantage of; all efforts to change the system will only lead to something worse, so we should be grateful for what we have. Unfortunately for Orwell, there is a blindingly obvious flaw in the plan. He uses different species to represent the different classes, but while it may be true that some animals are cleverer, quicker, stronger than others, and naturally inclined to prey on those that are weaker, the class structure of our society is a reflection of no such natural difference. Mankind is one species. Any attempt to justify the class divisions of society by saying that the ruling class rule because they are more intelligent and better suited to it, whilst the poor are simply stupid or lazy, is the worst kind of reactionary garbage, worthy of any Nazi. Stephen Sedley remarks that,

“Orwell’s argument is pitched at a different level: it is that socialism in whatever form offers the common people no more hope than capitalism; that it will be first betrayed and then held to ransom by those forces which human beings have in common with beasts; and that the inefficient and occasionally benign rule of capitalism, which at least keeps the beasts in check, is a lesser evil. That proposition is Orwell’s alpha and his omega”. (An Immodest Proposal: ‘Animal Farm’, Stephen Sedley; Inside The Myth, p158)

What neither Orwell or Sedley seem to remember is that it is not merely capitalism which we are dealing with, but imperialism. If it appears to Orwell that capitalism in Britain is occasionally benign, this is because a certain section of the workers in this country have been provided for from the super-profits extracted so brutally from the oppressed nations. He himself worked for the imperial police in Burma and must have known exactly how ‘benign’ British rule was to the colonial peoples.

Much is made by Trotskyites and bourgeois press alike of Orwell’s self-proclaimed socialism. Where, though, is the evidence for any such thing? Can one become a socialist without ever having read or understood any of the basic tenets of socialism? The characteristic that shows most plainly in Orwell’s work is his arrogance. Knowing nothing of what was going on in Spain, Orwell had no hesitation in pronouncing on military and political matters there. Knowing nothing about socialism, Orwell felt no bar on criticising all who ‘betrayed’ that socialism. Having admitted, “I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers” (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 3: Harmondsworth, 1970, p.457), he went on to write Animal Farm with all the conviction of one fully versant in all the details of the Revolution. In his preface to the Ukrainian edition, Orwell draws a picture of English political life in the late 40s which not only exposes his ignorance and lack of experience in matters of politics, but also his astounding, truly upper-class, public school arrogance. Having blamed the naive notions of the British public on the relative liberality of English political life, he goes on to say:

Yet one must remember that England is not completely democratic. It is also a capitalist country with great class privileges and (even now, after a war that has tended to equalise everybody) with great differences in wealth. But nevertheless it is a country in which people have lived together for several hundred years without knowing civil war, in which the laws are relatively just and official news and statistics can almost invariably be believed, and, last but not least, in which to hold and to voice minority views does not involve any mortal danger. In such an atmosphere the man in the street has no real understanding of things like concentration camps, mass deportations, arrests without trial, press censorship etc. Everything he reads about a country like the USSR is automatically translated into English terms, and he quite innocently accepts the lies of totalitarian propaganda”. (The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, p. 458)

Orwell quite clearly felt that the British public were too stupid to understand about Russia what he  was qualified to pronounce on only from his reading of the bourgeois press! This from a man who obviously had no understanding of the society he himself lived in and certainly no understanding of the basic principles of Marxism-Leninism, which he pretended to defend.

It is worth noting here that Orwell’s understanding of fascism and the threat it posed during the 30s was entirely negligible, as is pointed out by Bill Alexander in his article George Orwell and Spain:

“Orwell went to Spain largely ignorant of the background, situation and the forces involved. He admits ‘when I came to Spain I was not only uninterested in the political situation but unaware of it.’ Unlike many European intellectuals he had not understood the essential clash between liberty and fascism. Hitler’s brutal destruction of democracy in Germany and even Mosley’s violence against opponents in Britain in 1934 must have passed him by. Crick, his biographer, could write that before March 1936, when Orwell saw Mosley’s blackshirts beating up questioners at a Barnsley meeting, `there is no indication before this incident of any great concern in Orwell with the nature and spread of fascism.

“Orwell had no understanding of the world-wide significance of the struggle in Spain,  he knew little  of the national efforts of the Popular Front government to achieve a united front against fascism,  he had  never seen  the Republican flag,  he did not agree with the actions  of  the  POUM   –   he took a rifle in the role of an outsider, a journalist looking for experiences to figure in a future book. . .

“His aloofness from the common spirit of Popular Front Spain is strikingly exposed in his cynical dismissal of the fact that wounded soldiers demanded to return to the front. It happened! Without this spirit the Republican forces, outnumbered and outgunned, could not have fought on for eighteen more months after Orwell had gone home. Resistance to Franco would not have persisted despite forty years of terror and repression following his victory. . .

“The fundamental reason for Orwell’s attitude to the war – on top of his British upper-class arrogance and overriding personal objective to write a book – was his lack of understanding of anti-fascist feeling. He had visited, with an eye to a future book, the down-and-outs in London. Commissioned to write a book, he had briefly visited the distressed industrial areas of the North of England. But there was no sense of identification with the men and women caught in the capitalist crisis – no sense of ‘there but for my family background go I’. The horrors of fascism in Italy and Germany do not appear to have made him angry, emotionally concerned to do something. This lack of deep feeling, almost one of neutrality, shows itself throughout his writing. . . Orwell feels no anger at the man who wounds him – indeed wishes to congratulate him on his good shooting. He is certainly not concerned at his own absence from the battle line. Orwell saw the war as a game, material for a book”. (Inside The Myth, ed. Christopher Norris: London, 1984, pp.85-97)

Orwell’s lack of understanding of politics, combined with his rabid anti-communism, meant that he was trying to get Animal Farm published in 1943, just as the future of humanity was being decided and the USSR was sacrificing all at Stalingrad. Publisher after publisher rejected it, until the war ended and the book’s usefulness as a tool in the coming Cold War was recognised. Writing in The Guardian in August 1995, Stuart Jeffries says that although “many of those who read the book were right-wingers eager for a novel which appeared to show an ex-socialist recanting his beliefs. . . the book was chiefly aimed at the faithful, those who believed that the Soviet Union was the way and the truth”. (An Arable Parable, Stuart Jeffries: The Guardian, 9 August 1995)

Orwell the State Informer

As if more proof were needed of Orwell’s anti-communist credentials, it was revealed in 1996 that in 1949, Orwell offered to provide a secret Foreign Office Propaganda Unit linked to the intelligence services with the names of writers who could be trusted to write anti-communist propaganda, and also with the names of writers and journalists whom he regarded as being ‘crypto-communist’ and ‘fellow-travellers’. This unit had been set up by the Attlee government in response to the “developing communist threat to the whole fabric of Western civilisation”. Well-known writers, such as Bertrand Russell, Stephen Spender and Arthur Koestler were employed to disseminate misinformation about the USSR, the East European Peoples’ Democracies and the communist Parties of Western Europe. Papers release also show that the IRD (Information Research Department) actively promoted the foreign language publication of Animal Farm in places such as Saudi Arabia, where anti-imperialist activity was threatening the oil revenues of imperialism. Thus we can see that

“What attracted the bourgeoisie to this third-rate writer was not his pretended support for the ideals of the October Revolution, but his real driving hatred for the ideals of communism. Had Orwell’s characterisation of Stalin, and the CPSU that he led, corresponded to the truth, that would have made Stalin the darling of the imperialist bourgeoisie; had there been a steady erosion of revolutionary principles and had the dictatorship really collapsed into the dictatorship of a cynical few, Stalin’s Russia would have been warmly embraced to the point of suffocation by imperialism”. (Lalkar, September/October 1996)

It was precisely because Stalin’s USSR did not conform to the picture painted by Orwell that it posed such a threat to imperialism, and this in turn explains the bourgeoisie’s joyful embrace of Orwell’s tawdry novels and their continued place as compulsory reading for students the world over. It is the duty of all Marxist-Leninists to refute the slanders contained in Orwell’s work and to arm our young people with the knowledge they need to defend the Soviet Union both in and out of the classroom. Continuing in the vein pioneered by Trotsky of attacking the Revolution from the Left, showing the same all-pervading contempt for ordinary people and demonstrating the same lack of faith in the ability of the working class to free itself, Orwell has served imperialism just as well as many more openly reactionary writers, and has more than earned the honours that have been heaped upon him.

Presentation made to the Stalin Society in February 1998

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The purges of the CPSU in the 1930s

Extracted and edited from
The class struggle during the thirties in the Soviet Union
by Mário Sousa
Presented to the Stalin Society by Ella Rule

The purges of, or expulsions from, the Soviet Communist Party during the 1930s is favourite topic for bourgeois propagandists. This issue is brought up time and time again in bourgeois mass media which give the public a completely untruthful and false account of the purges, the political trials and the Soviet Union of the period. Their purpose is to defame socialism and the Soviet Union in order to discourage people from listening to communists so that they will accept capitalism as eternal. This is why it is important to propagate the truth about this chapter in the history of the Soviet Union in order both to counter bourgeois lies as well as to understand the difficulties which the Bolsheviks faced during the period of revolutionary transition.

Facts about the 1930s

Let us begin by providing to the reader a picture of the Soviet Union in the 1930s, a decisive decade in its history. Among other things, it was during the 1930s that the first and second five-year plans were realised and the collectivisation of agriculture took place. National income rose from 29 million rubles in 1929 to 105 million by 1938 – an increase of 360 per cent in ten years, an achievement unique in the history of industrialisation!

During the 1930s, production in the Soviet Union grew at an unprecedented rate. At the beginning of 1930 the total value of industrial production was 21 million rubles. Eight years later, however, this had risen above 100 million rubles (both these figures are based on 1926-27 prices). The country’s industrial production had increased almost five-fold in eight years! At the beginning of 1930, the area sown with crops of various kinds was 118 million hectares. By 1938 it was 136.9 million hectares. At the same time, collectivisation of agriculture had been completed, in the course of which gigantic problems connected with collectivisation and modernisation had been overcome. At the beginning of 1930 the Soviet Union had 34,900 tractors but by 1938 it had 483,500. The number of tractors had increased almost fourteen-fold in eight years. During the same period the number of combine-harvesters increased from 1,700 to 153,500 and the number of harvesters from 4,300 to 130,800.

In the 1930s the Soviet Union’s cultural development also advanced by leaps and bounds. The number of students in all schools in 1929 was approximately 14 million. By 1938 the number had increased to approximately 34 million, and at that time students in all kinds of courses, including part timers, numbered more than 47 million. Almost a third of all citizens were involved in the school system. At the beginning of the 1930s, illiteracy in the Soviet Union still stood at 33 per cent (as compared to 67 per cent in 1913). By 1938 illiteracy had long been totally eradicated. During this period the number of students in higher of education almost tripled – from 207,000 to 601,000. The number of libraries in 1938 was 70,000 as compared to 40,000 in 1933. The number of books in these libraries had by 1938 reached the impressive figure of 126 million, as compared to the 86 million they had held in 1933. During the thirties another measure, demonstrating the Soviet Union’s ideological and material strength as well as its commitment to the equality of all its citizens, was implemented, namely, the introduction of the requirement that all elementary school education should be in the languages of the different nationalities. This required a colossal amount of work on the cultural front, with a great number of new books, text books and other teaching materials being produced in languages some of which had previously hardly even existed in written form. Literature was published for several nationalities in their own languages for the first time. It is against this background that the class struggle in the Soviet Union during the 1930s was carried out and this should be borne in mind when reading this pamphlet.

The development of the Communist Party

In the 1930s millions of new members entered the CPSU(b) and took part in the struggle for production and social development. The great influx of people and the huge increase in production which took place did, however, have their downside. The Party was obliged to evaluate the Party and social work of old and new members and expel or purge those whose performance did not match what is required of communists.

At this period, the external threat against the Soviet Union increased. Besides the blockade, acts of sabotage and the threat of aggression from capitalist countries, a new enemy emerged whose aim was the crushing of the socialist Soviet Union and the annihilation the Slavs as a people. Nazism came to power in Germany in January 1933 having promised, among other things, to crush communism, conquer new colonies in the East and to use the people there as slave labour in the German economy.

The rise of the Soviet Union during the 1930s, then, was vital. It was the very basis for the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II. The struggle against inadequacies within the Communist Party and the purges was essential for the purpose of achieving successes in the development of production and securing the country’s defences. Bourgeois historians rarely mention this.

According to bourgeois mythology, the purges were a bloody persecution of those who criticised the regime; they were the means whereby a power-hungry bureaucracy made use of an extensive administrative structure and the apparatus of state violence, along with excessive cruelty, literally to kill off a progressive opposition, yes even an opposition harbouring – according to such historians – “genuine” socialists and communists. The hand guiding this persecution was of course that of Stalin, who is depicted as exhibiting paranoid behaviour. According to the bourgeoisie, Stalin had a long-term plan of killing all opponents and all old Bolsheviks in order to secure absolute power for himself. We shall see to what extent this myth has been exposed by honest bourgeois historians with access to Soviet archive material.

The Smolensk archives

Long before Gorbachev opened the Soviet archives, extensive archive material was in 1945 already in the hands of the West and the US. When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, it reached as far as the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad. German troops had occupied the Western oblast – the Western region, which had as its centre the city of Smolensk – from 1941 onwards. In Smolensk the Germans found the Western region’s archives, which for some reason had not been destroyed by the retreating Soviet troops. These archives were forwarded to Germany that same year. At the end of the war in 1945 the Smolensk archives came to land in the American occupation zone of Germany. Although they belonged to the Soviet Union, an ally of the United States at the time, the American generals who had possession of them naturally, in the interests of capitalism, forwarded them to the USA. These Smolensk archives are today to be found in the United States National Archives.

The Smolensk archives are very large. With a few exceptions all the important doings of the Communist Party of the Western region are collected there, from membership registers and political directives at all levels to excerpts from discussions and debates at meetings, including those of the leading institution of the area, namely, the Organisation Bureau. All aspects of political life are included, from agricultural policies and industrial strategies to the planning of workers’ annual holidays. Documents concerning Party purges in the Western region are kept there. The Smolensk archives should be a gold mine for all those who seek an insight into the functioning of Soviet society. Yet, the Smolensk archives have been very little used.

New facts supporting new conclusions

It was not until 1985 that a book was published that was based on genuine examination of the Smolensk archives. This book bears the name Origins of the Great Purges – The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933 – 1938, by the American history professor J. Arch Getty (Origins of the Great Purges – The Soviet Communist Party Reconsidered, 1933 – 1938, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985). It provides us with statistics and other documents of great value for the study of the history of the Soviet Union.

Getty himself is a bourgeois author having limited ability to understand the conditions of the class struggle the Soviet Union. In a later book, The Road to Terror, which is supposed to show that the Bolsheviks exterminated themselves during the 1930s as a result of in-fighting, there is for instance not a word on the greatest social developments by far in the history of mankind which had taken place in the Soviet Union during the 1930s. Not a word about that!

Yet throughout most of the thirties the Soviet Union was struggling against the clock to prepare the country’s defences in the face of the threat of invasion from Nazi Germany. If one does not accord due importance to this fact, one will, of course, inevitably draw wrong conclusions. If the Bolsheviks had exterminated each other instead of developing the country as much as possible and building up its defences, the Nazis would have won the war and eradicated the Soviet Union and the Slav people.

Arch Getty does at least, however, contradict an earlier historian, his fellow American Merle Fainsod, who also had access to the Smolensk archives but who claimed in his book Smolensk under Soviet Rule that “The assassination of Kirov in December 1934 touched off a new round of almost continuous purges which spread out in ever-widening circles and rose to a smashing crescendo in the virtual destruction of the oblast Party leadership in 1937”.

Getty’s research totally contradicts this finding.

A brief history prior to the 1920’s purges

After the victory of the revolution, when the Communist Party had become the ruling party, the Party leadership and Lenin were obliged to acknowledge that some unwelcome elements had penetrated the Party and state apparatus. These were people who wanted to make a career via membership of the Party. At the Eighth Party Conference in December of 1919, Lenin brought up this problem. According to Lenin it was “natural, on the one hand, that all the worst elements should cling to the ruling party merely because it is the ruling party”. For that reason it was important to evaluate the contribution of Party members. On the proposal of Lenin, the Party carried out a re-registration of all Party members. Every member had to answer for his actions before a member collective – those who were considered unreliable were excluded. That was the first purification of the Party apparatus. This method – to strengthen the Party by purging the opportunistic elements – was to characterise the Communist Party for many years to come.

The behaviour that justified the purging of Party members included corruption, passivity, breaches of Party discipline, alcoholism, criminality and anti-Semitism. For bourgeois individuals and kulaks who hid their class origin, expulsion was certain – unlike those who when accepted into the Party had admitted their class background. Former tsarist officers who hid their past were also inevitably expelled. All those who had been expelled could in their turn appeal to the Central Control Commission, and their cases were then reviewed at a higher level.

As we shall see later, a relatively high number were re-admitted. Decisions at general meetings of hundreds of members were, as a rule, stricter than those taken at the Party centre. The Central Committee of the Party, which had initiated the purges and decided their form, tried to encourage members at the grass roots level to speak out with a view to clamping down on corrupt functionaries and their associates.

This turned out to be difficult work. Corrupt bureaucrats knew thousands of tricks to escape criticism and tricky situations. Instead, the majority of those expelled were ordinary members who often could not defend themselves against accusations of passivity, political ignorance or bad drinking habits brought by Party Secretaries.

The 1920’s purges

After the re-registration of 1919, Lenin and the Party leadership found that there were still considerable shortcomings in the Party. The re-registration had not achieved its aim. A great number of new members continued to be drawn into the Party without regard for the directive that only workers and reliable elements from other classes be elected. New purges took place in 1921, 1928 and 1929.

In Table 1 we can see the percentage of members who were expelled on these occasions. In other years the rate of expulsion of Party members varied between three and five per cent.

Table 1:
Great party purges during the 1920s [Getty: Origins of the Great Purges]

Year Reason for purge Per cent expelled *
1919 Re-registration 10 – 15
1921 Purge 25
1928 “Screening” (7 regions only) 13
1929 Purges 11
* This represents the percentage expelled of those undergoing the operation, which was not always the entire membership.

In relation to the purges of 1929, Table 2 gives a detailed description of the causes. It does in fact provide good information and does away with at least the myth that the purges were a way of eliminating opposition within the Party. In 1929, 1.53 million Party members went through the purge process. Of these approximately 170,000, or 11 per cent, were expelled. When they appealed to the Central Control Commission, 37,000 were re-admitted (22 per cent of those expelled). In Smolensk, as many as 43 per cent of those expelled were re-admitted. On further examination, it turns out that the great majority were ordinary working class members, who had been expelled by local Party functionaries for passivity. No regard had been had for the living conditions which made it more difficult for these members to take part in Party activities.

Table 2:
The Party purge of 1929 [Getty: Origins of the Great Purges]

Reasons for expulsion percentage
Defects in personal conduct 22
Alien elements or connection thereto 17
Passivity 17
Criminal offences 12
Violations of Party discipline 10
Other 22
Total 100

According to Getty, those expelled for political reasons – “factional” or opposition activity – were included among the 10% expelled for “violation of Party discipline”. The former constitute 10 per cent of these 10 per cent. Thus, expulsions for political reasons were not more than one per cent of all expulsions effected during the purges of 1929. Compare this to the prevailing myth about the “Stalinists eliminating all those in opposition”. Moreover, the bourgeoisie always alleges that those expelled subsequently either met certain death in the work camps of the Gulag or just disappeared. The reality is otherwise. Of those expelled, only those who had committed criminal acts – theft, embezzlement, blackmail, sabotage or similar – and who were tried in court received any punishment. For others who were expelled, life continued as usual – without the obligations which accompanied membership but also without the support which membership gave.

The purges in the CPSU(B) during the 1930s

Robert Conquest has played a pivotal role in the defaming of socialism and the Soviet Union throughout the post war period. Conquest is a dis-informer trained in one of the oldest and biggest secret services of the world, that of the British. Conquest became their foremost disinformation specialist on the question of the Soviet Union. He is a master of the manipulation of information and of changing black to white. Towards the end of the 50’s, Conquest suddenly quit the British secret service. Next time we hear of him he is in the USA, where the CIA is publishing his books and writings! One assumes that he was offered better pay by the CIA than he was receiving from the British and for that reason he moved to the USA. In addition, the CIA provided him with a decent disguise, a research post at a university. Conquest’s stories have been disseminated for decades by the CIA in capitalist mass media all over the world, and unfortunately they are assumed to be true by many people.

Conquest’s best known work, The Great Terror – Stalin’s Purges of the Thirties, was published in 1968 and has been one of the bourgeoisie’s foremost weapons against socialism. The book is partly based on material generated during Conquest’s time with the British secret service. His sources are dubious in the extreme – Nazi collaborators, defectors and terrorists.

The purges of 1933

During the 1930s the Party underwent three great purges, i.e., those of 1933, 1935 and 1937-1938.

The first purge, that of 1933, took place in a climate of great enthusiasm, with agricultural cooperatives spreading all over the Soviet Union at an astonishing pace, and industrial production attaining completely unprecedented results. The Party had opened its doors to all those who wanted to fight for socialism, and hundreds of thousands of new members were elected during the first three years of the 1930s. Because of this great onslaught, the Party leadership considered it essential to make an evaluation of all new Party members. It sought out opportunists, corrupt bureaucrats, criminals, anti-Semites, alcoholics and members who were in violation of Party discipline.

Party directives made it clear that all purges should be effected in a comradely atmosphere and that there should not be excessive intrusion into people’s private lives. Moreover, the Party leadership encouraged ordinary members openly to criticise local bureaucrats and warned local Party leaderships against expelling such members on the grounds of passivity or political ignorance. The mistakes of 1929 were not to be repeated. Attention was to be paid to members´ general development and it was provided that Party members could be demoted to the status of candidates or sympathisers until such time as they had improved their political understanding or increased their participation in Party activities, as the case may be. Expulsion was to be avoided as far as possible.

In spite of these directives, the purge of 1933 turned out differently from what the Central Committee had intended. In a country as vast as the Soviet Union, local Party secretaries had great power, and this sometimes proved disastrous. Facts show that local Party Secretaries did their best to avoid criticism aimed at themselves or those close to them. Purely to prove their obedience to the call for a purge, some local Secretaries expelled many ordinary members, workers and farmers, even when they were loyal members and precisely the ones who should not have been expelled. The majority of those expelled were people who had joined the Party between 1930 and 1933, who had not had time to gain full knowledge of all Party issues. Many had not been able to study the Party programme in depth or Marxism-Leninism in general, and they were therefore regarded as ignorant by Party Secretaries. Others were people who had difficulty in participating fully in Party life because of their situation at work or because of family problems. In the purge of 1933, 18.5 per cent of Party members and candidates were expelled, circa 792,000.

The purge of 1933, which was terminated in mid 1934, revealed a serious contradiction within the Party. The Central Committee had intended to throw out thieves and corrupt bureaucrats, but the biggest group expelled – comprising almost a quarter of the total – were expelled for passivity [see Table 3]. Passivity, however, did not figure in the Party directives as a criterion for expulsion. By the use of bureaucratic methods or in abuse of authority gained as a result of earlier merit, local Party leaders did whatever they wanted without paying attention to the import of the Central Committee´s directives. The deepening of contradictions is reflected by the fact that a quarter of those expelled were expelled on the grounds of passivity. The Central Committee had to do something about local Party leaders´ contravention of Party directives, but, as the future was to show, this was not an easy task. This became very pertinent during the years to come, when the Soviet Union was forced to increase the pace of economic development in order to survive.

Table 3:
The expulsions of 1933 [Getty: Origins of the Great Purges]

Reason for expulsion Percentage of expulsions
Moral corruption, careerist, bureaucrat 17.5
Alien elements / hiding alien elements 16.5
Violation of Party discipline 20.9
Passivity 23.2
Other 17.9
Not mentioned in Origins of the Great Purges 4.0

Another aspect of the statistics uncovered by Getty concerns the allegation by Conquest and other rightists that the purge of 1933 was organised to throw out old Bolsheviks – old Party cadres from the days of Lenin – who had come to oppose Stalin. According to Getty, it is improbable that this allegation is true. The overwhelming majority of those expelled, two-thirds in fact, had entered the Party after 1928 and were therefore relatively new Party members. The distribution of those expelled – 23 per cent agricultural workers/farmers, 14.6 per cent civil servants and approximately 62 per cent workers – shows that the overwhelming majority, 85 per cent, were ordinary working men rather than Party cadres from Lenin’s time. In The Great Terror, Robert Conquest touches upon the purge of 1933 and hints that over a million members were expelled for political reasons. To anyone with knowledge of the history of the purges, it is evident that Conquest’s allegation is a lie.

Proverka” – verification of Party documents in 1935

The purge of 1933 revealed that throughout the country there were very serious problems in the Party. The membership list bore no relation to reality. In many parts of the country the number of members did not tally with the number listed. Many members had moved, left the Party, or had been expelled or had died without this having been reflected in the membership lists. Local Party Secretaries were overwhelmed by economic work, i.e., with the fulfilment of the five year plan and with collectivisation. For that reason, or simply as a result of negligence or lack of interest, membership lists were not being kept up to date. As a consequence of this the Party’s financial records were also in disarray. When this was discovered, and the Party centre came to know of the disastrous situation prevailing in the area of membership records, it became clear that it was essential to verify all Party documents.

In October 1934, the Central Committee decided that the whole Party would undergo a process of membership re-registration. The Central Committee sent representatives to all Party Regions, both to examine the state of Party records and also, if possible, to implement a solution, while at the same time assisting with the work of re-registration.

Comrade Ostrovsky was sent to the City Committee (gorraikom) of Smolensk. He started by requiring it to take some straightforward decisions such as to appoint a person to take charge of maintaining local Party records, who should see to it that Party documentation was kept in a locked facility or safe. He also demanded that no new Party cards be distributed to people who had lost theirs unless first a careful investigation had been conducted. Ostrovsky also demanded that a new list of members be drawn up with effect from January 1935 and that all Party committees under the City Committee undergo the same procedure.

As it soon turned out, the problems were too great for Ostrovsky to handle. Central Committee representatives in many parts of the country had the same experience. Towards the end of April 1935, very little progress had been made in re-registration. A report from the City Committee of Smolensk showed that “in the process of investigation of Party documents, there was revealed a series of massive deficiencies, demanding especially careful analysis and verification”.

The Communist Party at the beginning of the 1930s

Readers of this pamphlet this may find all this hard to believe. The bourgeois media have brought up most people in the western world to believe that a totally blind discipline reigned in the Soviet Communist Party, whereby everything and everybody was subject to registration and careful control, and everything was recorded – preferably several times over on long lists – with nobody being free of this all pervasive, allegedly continuous, control – a control, incidentally, which would have been extremely expensive to maintain – while investing Party bureaucrats with extensive powers.

This picture is entirely false. As a matter of fact, one comes much closer to the truth by turning all these allegations upside down. Absorbed as they were in the struggle for production, and intoxicated by the incredible achievements in production which had set repeated world records, many local Party Secretaries ignored other Party matters. They considered increased production to be the most important thing – capable of solving all problems, while everything else was trivial. Even a question of fundamental importance for any party – and especially a party in power – namely that only Party members should own a Party card – was considered by many to be a question of only secondary importance. Party cards were, as a rule, kept in an ordinary writing desk or a readily-accessible cupboard in the Party’s premises, and all over the country they were wont to disappear in their thousands. In the same irresponsible manner, Party cards were handed out to all who said they had lost theirs. For the most part no investigation was carried out to ascertain what had become of the lost card. Even members who had been expelled retained their Party cards without anybody demanding their return . When it came to deceased members, the families did not, as a rule, return the card to the Party, which often resulted in the card of the deceased person being misused. Production was growing to such an overwhelming extent that local Party leaders became convinced that soon there would be surpluses such as would sweep away all difficulties.

Two hundred thousand Party cards astray

At the beginning of 1935 the Central Committee was forced to conclude that over 200,000 Party cards had gone astray! Most had been given to people who had lost their Party cards or had had them stolen. More than 1,000 new, unused cards had been stolen from Party offices and 47,000 Party cards had been given people who had not had time to get themselves registered as Party members. The Party card was an important document. A person with a Party card could, among other things, enter all Party premises anywhere in the country, i.e., places where important documents were kept and important meetings took place. For that reason, Party cards were much sought after by enemies, spies, opposition elements and foreign agents. It was therefore a major problem that, as it turned out, these people had little difficulty in acquiring a Communist Party card, which they could use to facilitate their activities aimed at undermining the Party’s work. Such was the situation in 1935 that one could never be certain that a holder of a Party card was indeed a faithful and loyal Party member. That person could in fact just as easily be an enemy, a spy or a saboteur.

On 13 May, 1935 the Central Committee decided to implement a new, nationwide verification of Party documents – proverka. The campaign to implement verification of Party documents was led centrally by a commission of the Secretariat of the Central Committee led by Ezhov and his deputy, Malenkov. Verification necessitated each Party member being interrogated by the local Party Secretary in their locality or place of work as to their life, history, work and other things. These facts were then used to update Party records. If there was any irregularity, a closer scrutiny of the person concerned was carried out, and in the meantime the Party card was revoked. Those who could not confirm their Party membership were expelled and their Party cards were taken back. All those who had been expelled had, according to the Party Constitution, the right to appeal to a higher body, which was in turn required to carry out a new investigation and make its decision within two weeks.

Bolshevik order

It was time to “to introduce Bolshevik order into our own Party house”. The Central Committee addressed itself especially to local Party leaders, who were responsible for the disorder: “the Central Committee warned leaders of Party organisations at all levels that if they did not provide … leadership for this important task … and immediately restore order in this important business, then the Central Committee of the CPSU(B) would take strict punitive measures up to and including expulsion of offenders from the Party”.

Unlike the situation in earlier purges, in the 1935 campaign to verify Party documentation, social and political questions were not in issue as far as expulsion was concerned.

What was the result of the campaign to control Party cards?

It turned out that many of the local Party Secretaries who were responsible for implementing the control did not take the task very seriously. They did not accord to the task the priority which the Central Committee had demanded. Reports started to flow in to the Central Committee showing that there was a general tendency to carry out a quick control andto have done with it. Often, local Party Secretaries’ commitment to the task was practically zero. The problems of the western region were very apparent. The region’s deputy Party Secretary, A.L. Shil’man. and the local head of the control commission, Kiselev, were subjected to severe public criticism by the Central Committee and put up as an example of how card control should not be done. The Party Secretary, Stepanov, leader of a district in the western region, was expelled from the Party. In his verification exercise he had devoted at most five minutes per member to the investigation of their authenticity. The Central Committee demanded personal commitment in implementing this very important exercise, but this Party Secretary was only concerned with showing the high percentage of members whose status he had reviewed and the number of false members he had detected. The Central Committee objected to this bureaucratic way of dealing with the task. They wanted thorough investigations so that they could be sure that the members on the list were real members.

A further Party document verification exercise

The Central Committee was forced to conclude that the Party document verification exercise was at risk of failure. On 27 June 1935 the Central Committee decided on a second round of verification, to be carried out this time at general membership meetings. All members were now given the opportunity to make pronouncements against those whom they did not consider worthy to be Party members. This changed matters completely. The Central Committee had been publicly criticising the Party Secretaries for a job badly done. This encouraged members to demand criticism and self-criticism at the meetings, which thus turned into enormous arenas of debate. Those Party Secretaries who had something to hide got frightened, as such ongoing control could reveal faults in the local Party leadership. Some tried to check the urge to debate by claiming that the campaign was for the verification of Party documentation, not a purge. It was still not possible to stifle members’ criticism completely. Getty in Origins of the Great Purges gives us an interesting insight into the accusations made at a membership meeting of the Smolensk town committee in July 1935. At the meeting 616 accusations were raised.

Table 4:
The accusations during the Proverka in Smolensk in July 1935 [Getty: Origins of the Great Purges]

Kulaks, traders, families 226
Degenerates, drunks, womanizers, violators of discipline 143
ROfficial malfeasance, theft, embezzlement 106
Lost or dubious Party cards 62
Trotskyists, Mensheviks, etc. 28
White Army officers, Tsarist police 41/td>
Anti-Semites 10
Total 616

As can be seen in Table 4, more than a third of the accusations concerned kulaks and men who had enriched themselves during the NEP (the new economic policy). Another third and more of the accusations pointed to people who had committed severe moral and economic crimes. Only a small number of the accusations, hardly five per cent, had to do with political opposition. Simultaneously, one in six accusations (circa 17 per cent) related to criminal activities on the part of leading cadres and political civil servants. At the national level, the Party card control exercise resulted in the expulsion of 170,000 members out of the 1.8 million investigated, i.e. 9.1 per cent.

Party meetings during July 1935 became arenas in the campaign against arrogant Party functionaries and other bullies. In spite of the fact that criticism and self-criticism were Party policy, it was far from certain that this was in fact being applied at grass roots level. But now, at least for a time, these circumstances changed radically in favour of ordinary members. Stalin pronounced himself on the need for criticism and self-criticism and pointed out that a lack of criticism was a fatal mistake, which “destroyed cadres” by not bringing up their faults for discussion. The 1935 Party documents verification exercise also highlighted another very serious shortcoming in the Party: the fact that it was easy to forge Party cards, and that they were not therefore a reliable guide to membership. The need for new Party cards was an issue demanding immediate attention.

The campaign of lies of the bourgeoisie and the reality

Let us now for a moment discuss some of the lies being spread in the capitalist mass media about the 1935 verification exercise. As we can see from the examples given of the membership meetings in Smolensk, open debates dealt a hard blow to bourgeois elements who had sneaked into the Party, people out for economic and social advantage. These included kulaks and merchants, thieves, former white army officers and tsarist policemen. Contrary to the falsifiers’ version of history, the opposition was hardly affected at all. What happened during the Party card verification exercise was, above all, that Party workers threw out bourgeois elements who had been smuggled in. This is what really infuriates the falsifiers of Soviet history. They are people who are used to having special rights in society while workers are ‘the mob’, to be kept on a short leash, and they totally freak out when forced to recognise that it is the workers who are in command in the workers’ party so that the uncovering of inimical, bourgeois values led to expulsion. The opportunities for the bourgeoisie to regain some power after years of careful sabotage were annihilated.

Another lie is that the Party card verification exercise was undertaken by the Party leadership – i.e., by Stalin – as an act of revenge for the assassination of Kirov. Kirov, a member of the Central Committee and Chairman of the Party in Leningrad, was assassinated on December 1st 1934 in the city’s Party headquarters – the murderer, Nikolayev, had entered the Party headquarters by using an old, invalid, Party card. This allegation of revenge being taken of a horrible and bloody nature, with a huge number of executions, originates with the police agent Robert Conquest. Anybody unfamiliar with these historical issues who reads his book, The Great Terror, will have difficulty in seeing through his deceit. But for those who have made it their business to acquire genuine knowledge of the history of this period, this allegation of revenge is nothing short of nonsensical. The 1935 Party card verification exercise was simply a consequence of a Central Committee decision concerning membership re-registration taken in October 1934. As a matter of fact, Kirov took part in this decision, which was made two months prior to his assassination! Are we to believe that Kirov participated in a decision to take revenge for his own assassination, which was to take place two months later?!

1936 – exchange of Party documents

After the 1935 Party documentation verification exercise, and as a consequence of it, the Central Committee decided to exchange all Party documents. There were efforts to have the Party cards as far as possible distributed to genuine members only, devoted Communists who really did honour to their membership. The directives of the Central Committee were very precise and full of details which nobody was entitled to bypass. Firstly, none of the new Party cards could be distributed in any given area until its 1935 verification exercise was concluded. Secondly, Party Secretaries alone were entitled to issue the new cards. Moreover, the exchange of new cards for the old could only take place in the building where the Party Secretary had his office, and there only in the presence of the member concerned and the Party Secretary of the cell to which the member belonged. The member was then requested to fill out a form in duplicate and to provide the necessary personal data. He was asked to sign the new Party card and the two forms, witnessed by the Party Secretary. The District Secretary did likewise and then stamped the new card. Every card had to bear a picture of the member, otherwise it was invalid. The new cards were sent to the regional Party Secretaries only and that by the NKVD mail, and they could be filled out only with a special ink sent by the Central Committee. The signatures of all Party Secretaries (i.e., those who had been authorised to issue Party cards) were kept in a special archive at the Party central office. The exchange of the Party cards of millions of members was a major exercise by the Party central organ aimed at establishing effective documentation for proving of membership which would be very difficult to falsify.

The purpose of changing Party cards was not to discover and expel further Party enemies in a new purge. The Central Committee’s purpose was just the opposite as expressed in its directive concerning the exchange of Party cards: “If, in the proverka, Party organisations paid special attention to the uncovering of hidden penetration of the Party by enemies, rogues, and swindlers, then, in the exchange, they must turn their principal attention toward freeing themselves of passive members not deserving the high title of member of the Party; of people who accidentally find themselves in the CPSU(b).”.

Merely two per cent expulsions

The exchange of Party documents was scheduled to take place from February to April 1936, but in some places it was completed as late as November 1936. There are no national statistics as to the number of members expelled during that period, but the figures from Smolensk indicate that these were relatively few. In the Smolensk Party organisation, 4,348 Party cards were issued and 97 persons were expelled, circa 2.1 per cent. Approximately the same percentages are found in other districts in the western region. Unfortunately, the great majority of those expelled were ordinary working-class members expelled for ‘passivity’.

The exchange of Party documents in 1936 is also used by Robert Conquest and other falsifiers of history in their dirty war against socialism. Conquest claims that there were massive purges undertaken during the exchange, and that the number of members purged was higher than in any previous Party purges. All this was, according Conquest, provoked by Stalin as a manoeuvre to ignite public opinion against the opposition who were awaiting the trials 19-24 August 1936. These trials were of the Trotsky-Zinoviev centre led by Zinoviev, Kamenev and Smirnov who were accused of having taken part in a conspiracy led from abroad by Trotsky to kill Soviet government leaders and to grab power. Conquest’s allegations about mass expulsions in 1936 have for many years stood uncontradicted. The figures brought to light by Getty’s research in the Smolensk archives prove that Conquest’s statements are complete lies. In fact, the numbers purged in 1936 were the lowest in the history of the Party, i.e., between two and three per cent of the members.

The political trials of 1936 – 1938 in the Soviet Union

The political trials [2] and the purges in the Communist Party were two separate things and they did not directly have anything to do with each other. The Party members who were expelled and tried at court for having been involved in criminal or counter revolutionary activities were a small minority of all those expelled.

The 1937 Party purge and the fight against bureaucracy

In 1937 it became clear that two major problems had to be confronted and a solution to them found if the building of Socialism was to continue to go forward in the Soviet Union. One of these problems had been brought to light by the Zinoviev-Kamenev and Pyatakov-Radek treason trials. These proved that the old opposition had not laid down its arms. Earlier self-criticisms had merely been an exercise in playing to the gallery, a way to secure for those who made them a return to the important positions they had previously held. The opposition’s underground activities had been continuing without interruption ever since the beginning of the 1930s; and the number of those involved was unknown. The other problem was the fight against bureaucracy, corruption and opportunism within the Party. It related especially to the local and regional potentates whom the grass-roots members could not, or did not dare to, denounce and who therefore held stable and secure positions in the local and regional leaderships.

The Central Committee convened a meeting in February 1937 in order to deal with these two principal questions. This meeting turned out to be the starting point of a Party struggle which raged between 1937 and 1938. At the beginning of the meeting Bukharin and Rykov, members of the Central Committee, were present. They were accused of having collaborated with the enemies of the Party and also of having been, with Trotsky, part of a counter revolutionary organisation whose aim was to overthrow the government of the Soviet Union. The accusations were based on material that had come to light during the investigations of the recently-concluded Pyatakov-Radek trial. The allegations against Bukharin and Rykov were presented by Pyatakov and Radek during the trial itself. Bukharin and Rykov tried to defend themselves but they were branded traitors by the Central Committee and evicted from the Party. Their case was handed over to the appropriate authorities for investigation and prosecution. We shall return later to the trial of Bukharin, Rykov and the others in their organisation.

Stalin’s speech

During the meeting of the Central Committee Stalin gave a very important speech entitled Defects in Party work and measures for liquidating Trotskyites and other double-dealers. In his speech, Stalin turned to the other comrades of the Central Committee to ask how it was possible for foreign agents, Trotskyists and their political allies, to penetrate the economic and administrative organisations of the Soviet state, as well as Party organisations, and to carry out sabotage, espionage and wrecking. Furthermore, Stalin asked how it had come about that these alien elements had managed to acquire responsible positions, and even help from certain leading comrades in securing these positions.

Stalin went on to present a list of acts of sabotage and espionage during the preceding years and after referring to the warning letter of the Central Committee to the Party organisations, he continued:

“The facts show that our comrades reacted to these signals and warnings very slowly. This is eloquently shown by all the known facts that have emerged from the campaign of verifying and exchanging Party documents. How are we to explain the fact that these warnings and signals did not have the required effect? … Perhaps our Party comrades have deteriorated, have become less class-conscious and less disciplined? No, of course not! Perhaps they have begun to degenerate? Again, of course not! There are no grounds whatever for such an assumption. What is the matter then? Whence this heedlessness, carelessness, complacency, blindness? The matter is that our comrades, carried away by economic campaigns and by colossal successes on the front of economic construction, simply forgot about certain very important facts which Bolsheviks have no right to forget. They forgot about the main fact in the international position of the U.S.S.R. … They forgot that the Soviet power is victorious only on one-sixth of the globe … there are, besides, many other countries, bourgeois countries, which continue to lead the capitalist mode of life and which surround the Soviet Union, waiting for an opportunity to attack her, to crush her, or, at all events, to undermine her might and weaken her”.

Spies from the capitalist countries

Stalin then went on to refer to the relationships between the capitalist countries:

”It has been proved as definitely as twice two are four that the bourgeois states send to each other spies, wreckers, diversionists, and sometimes also assassins, instruct them to penetrate into the institutions and enterprises of these states, set up their agencies and ‘in case of necessity’ disrupt their rear, in order to weaken them and to undermine their strength. … Today France and England are swarming with German spies and diversionists, and, on the other hand, Anglo-French spies and diversionists are busy in Germany; America is swarming with Japanese spies and diversionists, and Japan is swarming with American spies and diversionists. Such is the law of the relations between bourgeois states. The question arises, why should the bourgeois states treat the Soviet socialist state more gently and in a more neighbourly manner than treat bourgeois states of their own type? Why should they send to the Soviet Union fewer spies, wreckers, diversionists and assassins than they send to their kindred bourgeois states? Why should you think so? Would it not be more correct from the point of view of Marxism to assume that the bourgeois states would send twice and three times as many wreckers, spies, diversionists and assassins to the Soviet Union as they send to any bourgeois state? Is it not clear that as long as the capitalist encirclement exists we shall have wreckers, spies, diversionists and assassins sent to us by agents of foreign states?”.

These were, according to Stalin important circumstances which leading comrades had forgotten, and that was the reason why the sabotage and espionage had been unexpected for many of them. The economic achievements explained the laxity and carelessness. The really great steps forward in socialist construction had resulted in a tendency to boast, a tendency to overestimate the power on one’s own side and to underestimate that of the enemy. The great successes had given rise to an ”atmosphere of success – success after success, achievement after achievement, overfulfilment of plan after overfulfilment of plan – gives rise to carelessness and self-satisfaction, creates an atmosphere of showy triumphs and mutual congratulations, which kills the sense of proportion and dulls political intuition, takes the spring out of people and causes them to rest on their laurels”.

The capitalist encirclement

And Stalin continues ironically to present the thoughts on the subject of a local, Party functionary. ”Capitalist encirclement? Oh, that’s nothing! What does capitalist encirclement matter if we are fulfilling and overfulfilling our economic plans? The new forms of wrecking, the struggle against Trotskyism? Mere trifles! What do these trifles matter if we are fulfilling and overfulfilling our economic plans? The Party Rules, electing Party bodies, Party leaders reporting to the Party members? Is there really any need for all this? Is it worth while bothering about all these trifles if our economy is growing and the material conditions of the workers and peasants are becoming better and better? Mere trifles! The plans are being overfulfilled, our Party is not a bad one, the Central Committee of the Party is also not a bad one – what else do we need? They are some funny people sitting there in Moscow, in the Central Committee of the Party, inventing all sorts of problems, talk about wrecking, don’t sleep themselves and don’t let other people sleep…”

Party education and Leninism courses

Stalin then elaborated upon a number of errors in party work and the measures he regarded as being necessary to correct the errors that had arisen. He concluded by presenting a proposal for organised study on the part of leading Party cadres, from cell leaders to leaders in the regions and Party organisations of the Soviet republics. “For Party education and the re-training of secretaries of Party organisations (cells), four month ‘Party courses’ should be established in every Regional centre”.

“For the political re-training of first secretaries of District organisations, eight month ‘Lenin courses’ should be established in, say, ten of the most important centres in the U.S.S R..”.

“For the ideological re-training and political improvement of secretaries of city organisations, six month ‘Courses for the study of Party history and policy’ under the C.C. of the C.P.S.U.(b) should be established”.

“Finally, a six month ‘Conference on questions of internal and international policy’ under the C.C. of the C.P.S.U.(b) should be established. The First Secretaries of Regional and Territorial organisations and of Central Committees of national Communist Parties should be sent here.” Study is the right way to solve the problems and the contradictions in the Party – a line established by Stalin, Zhdanov and Kirov since January 1934.

In his Speech in reply to debate Stalin referred to some important controversies which had emerged during the debate. Among other things, Stalin pointed out that those who had once been Trotskyists or Trotsky sympathisers but who had since changed, had worked well and were loyal to the Party, were not targets in the fight against the Trotskyite wrongdoers and spies. “In this matter, as in all others, an individual, discriminate approach is required. You cannot measure everybody with the same yardstick”.

Control of Party functionaries

In his summing up, Stalin directed sharp criticism at the relationships of Party functionaries to grass-root members. Stalin did not mince his words. He started by criticising the selection of Party functionaries. “Most often, (Party) workers are chosen not for objective reasons, but for casual, subjective, philistine, petty-bourgeois reasons. Most often, so-called acquaintances, friends, fellow-townsmen, personally devoted people, masters in the art of praising their chiefs, are chosen without regard for their political and business fitness. Naturally, instead of a leading group of responsible workers we get a little family of intimate people, an artel, the members of which try to live in peace, try not to offend each other, not to wash dirty linen in public, to praise each other, and from time to time send vapid and sickening reports to the centre about successes. It is not difficult to understand that in such a family atmosphere there can be no place for criticism of defects in the work, or for self-criticism by leaders of the work. Of course, such a family atmosphere creates a favourable medium for the cultivation of toadies, of people who lack a sense of self-respect, and therefore, have nothing in common with Bolshevism.”

Further on Stalin commented on the necessity of Party functionaries being controlled not just by their superiors but, even more importantly, by grass-roots members. “Some comrades think that people can be tested only from above, when leaders test those who are led by the results of their work. That is not true. Of course, testing from above is needed as one of the effective measures for testing people and verifying the fulfilment of tasks. But testing from above far from exhausts the whole business of testing. There is another kind of test, the test from below, when the masses, when those who are led, test the leaders, draw attention to their mistakes and indicate the way in which these mistakes may be rectified. This sort or testing is one of the most effective methods of testing people.”

Applying Leninism

Stalin also criticised strongly those who were unwilling to criticise themselves in the belief that this would be taken as a sign of weakness by the enemy and be taken advantage of, and could also lead to disorganisation and enfeeblement. “That is nonsense, comrades, sheer nonsense. On the contrary, the open admission of our mistakes and their honest rectification can only strengthen our Party, raise the prestige of our Party … To spare and take care of cadres by glossing over their mistakes means killing these very cadres for certain.” Finally, Stalin urged the leaders of the Party organisations to listen to the voice of the masses, a certain way of practising correct leadership. He criticised firmly “the formal and heartlessly bureaucratic attitude of some of our Party comrades towards the fate of individual members of the Party, to the question of expelling members from the Party, or the question of reinstating expelled members of the Party.”

According to Stalin the leaders had to get to know the members, their development and way of life to be able to make a fair and individual judgement of each one. Lacking such knowledge “they usually act in a haphazard way: either they praise them wholesale, without measure, or roundly abuse them, also wholesale and without measure, and expel thousands and tens of thousands of members from the Party”. Stalin opposed all expulsions for alleged passivity or on the grounds that the members in question had not properly understood the Party programme. Only tested and theoretically advanced Marxists could fully understand the Party programme.

Stalin appealed to the leaders of the Party to apply the Leninist formula for Party membership, according to which “a member of the Party is one who accepts the programme of the Party, pays membership dues and works in one of its organisations.” No Party member should be expelled for lacking a deep knowledge of the Party programme or Party policies. Stalin called it a heartless policy and enormous bureaucratism to exclude workers for small errors like being late to Party meetings or for failing to pay Party dues. Before raising the question of expulsion, a criticism, warning or a certain time should be given to the person in question to allow him or her to improve. Party leaders were required to have a genuine concern for the members “this is exactly what some of our comrades lack”, Stalin concluded.

Party members start criticising

When Stalin’s speeches were published, they became the starting point for public debate, as did other speeches by Molotov, Zhdanov and Ezhov. The main topics were Stalin’s Speech in reply to debate and Zhdanov’s proposal for secret votes in Party elections, which had been accepted by the Central Committee. Thus, the questions which aroused the greatest interest concerned the power of the Party leaders and their actions, as well as Party democracy. The Bukharin-Rykov trial and the necessity to be vigilant against spies and saboteurs was also discussed as well as the criticism of members’ failures vis-à-vis Party discipline. But the main question remained omnipotence and corruption among local Party leaders.

Throughout the 1930s the Central Committee had urged Party members to initiate criticism of leaders and to denounce corrupt and uncommitted Party secretaries. Now, at last, the discussion got underway! Party meetings were organised everywhere in consequence of the February meeting of the Central Committee. Meetings that had only recently been conducted in a routine and bureaucratic fashion in an aura of cronyism, all of a sudden had to be recalled in response to overwhelming demands on the part of the membership. The Smolensk archives provide plenty of instances of meetings where local leaders were literally put up against the wall and forced to criticise themselves in front of the members. The masses of members were not indulgent. At many meetings in District Committees and in workplace or local cells, the Party leaders were not only thoroughly unmasked but were also deprived of their positions on the spot, with new leaders having the confidence of the members being immediately elected. These elections were not part of the Central Committee plan for new secret ballots in Party leadership elections. At that time this plan was only at the preparation stage. But nothing could prevent the members from replacing corrupt bureaucrats.

Example in the district of Belyi

A typical example of the atmosphere in the working class after the Central Committee meeting of February 1937 is as follows. In the Belyi district (Belyi Raion), a meeting took place to analyse Party activities. This meeting lasted four days. Minutes of the meeting are available in the Smolensk archives. Grass-root members who had seldom spoken at meetings, or who had been labelled passive, took to the floor on this occasion and ‘regardless of person’ did not mince their words. 220 of the 240 members were present at the meeting of the Belyi district committee (Belyi Raion). Seventy-seven spoke at the meeting and raised harsh criticisms of the district Secretary Kovalev. He was accused of having become a bureaucrat without consideration for the members. He had falsified reports about political education and closed study halls with the excuse that they were not needed. His methods were dictatorial, biased and brutal. Members who were for any reason summoned to the district office had always felt uneasy, knowing that they would be kept waiting for long periods or return without completing the business in hand.

The NKVD head in Belyi, Vinogradov, came to Kovalev’s help. He asked the Party members not to discuss Party work. According to him, the directives from the February meeting of the Central Committee meant that the members were to discuss the spring sowing campaign. Kovalev, on his part, tried to turn the criticism onto lower levels of the Party, the Party cells. According to him, that was where the errors were to be sought, not in the district. Even Golovashenko, the representative of the obkom (the regional Committee) came to Kovalev’s aid. He tried to calm the debate and attacked the members who had been severely criticising Kovalev. But nothing could help Kovalev. The members’ criticism continued without interruption throughout the meeting and the list of accusations grew longer and longer. The meeting ended by the members then and there giving Kovalev the boot and electing Karpovsky First Secretary of the Party district.

Stalin’s Speech in reply to debate — a tool in the struggle

The story does not end here. The local NKVD head had tried to help Kovalev and so had the regional representative. A decision by the regional Secretariat annulled the appointment of district Secretary, Karpovsky, and proposed instead another member, Boradulin, for the position. Another large membership meeting took place during which Boradulin was declared even more incompetent than Kovalev and at which the members once again elected Karpovsky to be district Secretary. This occurred in spite of Karpovsky himself urging members to accept the proposal of the regional Secretariat.

That was the atmosphere following the February meeting of the Central Committee. With Stalin’s Speech in reply to debate in their hands, grass-roots members immediately started to throw out careerists and corrupt bureaucrats and electing their own leaders, irrespective of the wishes of higher authorities. It was a spontaneous struggle, as is clearly shown by the reports in the Smolensk archives, and it was shortly to have far-reaching consequences. At the same time corrupt bureaucrats in positions of power continued to protect each other. Kovalev, for instance, was given a good job in the region’s personnel department. The struggle, however, had only just begun.

The 1937 Party elections

One of the important resolutions passed at the February meeting of the Central Committee was a to hold general Party elections on the basis of secret ballots. On 20th March 1937, two weeks after the Central Committee meeting, a decree was issued by the Central Committee concerning Elections to Party Organisation and this started a debate in the press about the necessity for self-criticism, Party democracy and control of leading Party functionaries. The central leadership did its best to prevent corrupt Party leaders from manipulating the election meetings.

The elections took place during April 1937. The local leaderships were widely criticised during the election meetings. Previously, Party meetings for discussion and criticism had always been a forum for criticism of grass-roots members for lack of Party discipline or bad conduct. Now, the situation was reversed. This time, the local leaderships were the focus of criticism. As a rule, many members were nominated to the Party boards at these meetings. The discussions were long and carefully minuted. The secret elections came last. There are many documents in the Smolensk archives concerning the Party elections, including the ballot papers.

Old leaderships exchanged

The national results of the Party elections were later reported in the press. Of the 54,000 Party organisations whose election results were known in May 1937, the old leadership had been exchanged in 55 per cent of them. This was an incredible result. First of all it showed that the lack of confidence in the old leaderships had been very widespread, and secondly that the grass-roots members in practice had the collective strength needed to throw out politicians who were incompetent or abused their power. Evidently, the Central Committee meeting had given voice to an established cause for dissatisfaction.

The Party elections, however, also had another aspect. Most of the Party leaders expelled operated on local level, in the districts and cells, the level where ordinary members could easily decide what was right and wrong and discover corruption, abuse of power or sabotage. Higher up in the municipal and regional Committees, the Party elections did not give similar results. The regional Party leaderships showed a great facility for surviving criticism. There were several cases at regional level of corrupt politicians, known to be prone to behaving like little kings, nevertheless managing to secure a vote in their favour. Ordinary members did not have the same opportunity to evaluate the work of these leaders as they had in the case of local ones. There was yet another factor operating against ordinary members: corrupt and incompetent regional and municipal Secretaries always surrounded themselves with a group who supported them no matter what. It was not easy for the ordinary members to overcome all this in their quest for truth.

Regional leaderships exchanged

Nevertheless the struggle against the bureaucracy and corruption within the Communist Party was also persevered with at the higher levels. At the beginning of June, the annual regional Party Conferences started as usual. These Conferences were not accorded any particular importance, for they usually simply discussed reports concerning the work of the regional leaderships. This time, however, something new occurred. Even at regional Conferences, Party leaders were criticised. The Party leadership knew that it would be much more difficult for ordinary members to make their voices heard at the regional level. Therefore, this time round the central leadership decided to send representatives from the Central Committee to the regional Conferences. These representatives came, sometimes totally unannounced, took a seat and participated in the discussions. This had the effect of tipping the scales at several regional Conferences to the disadvantage of the regional Party leaders. Among the twenty-five regional Conferences reported in the press, four ended by the Party leadership having to stand down. Nevertheless in many areas the regional satraps continued in power doing as they wished without regard for the Party directives.

The military trial against the generals

It was at the time of the regional Party Conferences when an event decisive for the future of Soviet society took place. On June 11, 1937, Pravda announced that Marshal Tukhachevskii and Generals Putna, Iakir, Uborevich, Feldman, Kork, Primakov and Eideman had been arrested and charged with treason. These generals had been arrested on 26th May, 1937, charged with “habitual and base betrayal of military secrets to a certain hostile Fascist power, and working as spies to encompass the downfall of the Soviet state and to restore capitalism.” over a long period of time.

The conspiracy of the Generals was the military part of the struggle of the opposition against the Soviet government. The Pyatakov-Radek treason trial had dealt a severe blow to the opposition, but the Generals had not cancelled their plans for a coup d’état. On the contrary, they realised that any delay would be to their disadvantage. Their plans had been finalised and it was time to act. Following the trial of Pyatakov and the denuciation of the Bukharin-Rykov group, now under arrest, the military conspirators increased their efforts. Towards the end of March 1937, they decided on the timing of the coup. It was to take place within six weeks, or by March 15th at the latest.

The return of the political commissars

Once it came to know of the plans for a coup, the Soviet government acted swiftly. On May 8th an important resolution was passed: political commissars were reinstated at all levels in the army. The system of political commissars supervising the officers and military decisions had been abandoned ten years earlier, on 13th May 1927, at the behest of Frunze, an old Bolshevik and highly-placed Party cadre who had become one of the leading officers in the army. He abolished the political commissars and reinstated the power of the officers. On 11th May 1937, Marshal Tukhachevskii was demoted from his post as deputy war commissar and sent on a lesser mission in the Volga area. General Gamarnik, one of the conspirators (who subsequently committed suicide), was demoted on the same day as the deputy war commissar. Generals Iakir and Uborevich were also downgraded, while Generals Kork and Eideman were arrested, accused of spying for Nazi Germany. The conspirators thereby lost the practical means of directing a military coup.

Socialist society defends itself

The Soviet government’s quick intervention averted the attempted coup d’état against the Socialist Soviet Union, but it was not known how widespread was the hold of the conspirators within civilian society and the army.

The regional Party meetings and the struggle against counter-revolution

In June 1937 the situation in Soviet Union was extremely tense. Nobody knew exactly the size of the military conspiracy, but there were many indications that it was larger than the group that had been discovered. The Central Committee decided to start a comprehensive investigation. The military conspiracy came from the top and its roots in civilian society were to be sought among people with leading posts. A number of extraordinary membership meetings were arranged in the regions to evaluate the work of the regional Party leaderships and to find out the size of the conspiracy. The relevant western region meeting took place over three days between June 19th and 21st, 1937. Kaganovich took part in the meeting as the representative of the Central Committee. The central question was the evaluation of the regional Party secretary Rumiantsev and his close associates.

Rumiantsev subjected to criticism

Ivan Petrovich Rumiantsev was an ‘old Bolshevik’ who had joined the Party as early as 1905. In 1929 he was named by the Central Committee First secretary of Smolensk, and Rumiantsev took with him to the post a number of his old comrades to be installed in several of the leading posts of the region. This nepotistic procedure was stamped anti-Marxist by Stalin at the February meeting of the Central Committee, but this did not bother Rumiantsev. In June 1937, Rumiantsev was 61 and was a member of the Central Committee with a strong standing in the western region, where several companies and factories had been named after him. In practice, Rumiantsev was immune to criticism. The ‘old Bolshevik’ Rumiantsev had over the years turned into a pompous bureaucrat mostly interested in his own welfare. The dissatisfaction with Rumiantsev in the western region was obvious, but the opportunities for removing him were slight.

Conditions had, however, changed radically prior to the meeting of June 19-21, 1937. This was not only because of the presence of Kaganovich and his support of the critical voices. Even more important a factor in causing members to be so outspoken was that one of the conspiring and condemned generals, Uborevich, was a member of the regional Committee, and had collaborated closely with Rumiantsev. There were suspicions that Rumiantsev was one of the high Party functionaries involved in the military conspiracy. Old injustices committed by Rumiantsev and his group against individual members were mercilessly brought to light.

The situation for the western region leadership became increasingly dismal. Among other issues, the dismissal of Party secretary Kovalev was raised. Kovalev had been removed by the Party members at the Belyi district membership meeting, but he had been given a comfortable job for his retirement by … Rumiantsev. The members now brought up what had happened and they were of the opinion that it was Rumiantsev who had caused Kovalev to act contrary to the will of Party members. It had been he who was behind the transgressions and abuses of power that had taken place in the district of Belyi. By resort to cronyism and patronage, Rumiantsev had “suppressed criticism and self-criticism, creating a circle of ‘his own people’”. The list of accusations of corruption and omnipotence against the leadership of the western region grew ever longer. As a consequence, the whole leadership was dismissed at the meeting. Following subsequent investigations, Rumiantsev and his group were arrested on charges of corruption and abuse of power.

The Central Committee launches a vast counter attack

By July 1937 the Central Committee had collected sufficient evidence to show that the military conspiracy had been part of a scheme involving many high Party functionaries. The situation was extremely serious. Even in the Central Committee itself there were corrupt members involved in the conspiracy. The building of Socialism was accompanied by consequences which some old Bolsheviks and newer high Party functionaries could not accept. The distant and somewhat romantic picture of workers’ power during the days of the 1917 revolution had now been realised in practice in the Soviet Union and it was now actually ruled by workers. This was a scary development for some people who had been privileged and living comfortably. They chose the road of counter- revolution. They found their indispensable allies in their struggle to halt Socialist development outside the Soviet Union. The Central Committee decided to fight this white terror and treachery in a determined manner.

The task of following up the clues thrown up by the traitors’ attempted coup was handled by the security police, the NKVD, under the leadership of Ezhov. All over the country people who were known to have had connections with the conspirators in the Pyatakov group or with the Generals were investigated. Many were arrested. The political situation was insecure and it was still unclear which had been the foreign links of the conspirators. The Generals had divulged secrets about the defence of the Soviet Union and it was unclear to what extent this had weakened the country.

The purges hit the highest ranks

The purges in the Party gained momentum after the Central Committee had questioned the loyalty of the regional Party leaders to Socialism. The Party meetings were strongly influenced by the general tense situation, and ordinary members turned more and more vociferous against corrupted and inefficient functionaries. People who considered themselves totally immune all of a sudden found themselves thrown out from leadership positions by the Party masses. Some were directly delivered to justice for their crimes. Bourgeois history in the West talks of terror against leading functionaries and company administrators, people who were more affluent than the average. ‘Nobody could sleep safe in their beds’, say the bourgeois historians.

But why should one not question individuals who had traded public property ‘under the table’, who had used state funds to finance their own businesses and who had liberally handed out presents and bribes to friends and acquaintances? Why should one be particularly considerate to Party leaders who used power to oppress ordinary members and mistreat them? Why should one not persecute generals and other high ranking officers who had betrayed the country’s secrets and collaborated with the enemy? Why should they go free or be treated better than other criminals?

The expulsions and ‘the old Bolsheviks’

Research also shows that most of those expelled during this time were people from the leading circles of the Party. Let us give a concrete example from the Party district of Belyi. Out of 244 members and candidates in the Party organisation of Belyi, 36 were expelled during 1937. 29 of those expelled were in leading positions – two First Party Secretaries of district committees, and two Deputy Chairmen of the district Soviet Executive Committee, one Komsomol District Secretary, the District Prosecutor, the chief of the district NKVD and one of his fellow officers, the directors of the three largest schools in the district, the head of the district land office, the director of the Belyi Machine and Tractor Station, four heads of industrial undertakings, two heads of trade organisations, five collective-farm chairmen and five chairmen of rural Soviets.

The myth of the 1937 expulsions

The myth about the terrible year 1937 which the bourgeoisie has made one of its top items, not surprisingly through the police agent Robert Conquest and CIA / MI5, the true fathers of the myth are unmasked by the statistics about the purges during the whole of the 1930s.

Table 5:
Party expulsions by year

Operation Number expelled from Party Percent of party
1929 170,000 11.0
1933 792,000 18.5
1935 170,000 9.0
1937 100,000 5.0
1938 70,000 2.0
Note: There are no national statistics for 1936. In Smolensk two/three per cent of the members were expelled that year.

Analysing the statistics one can perceive the magnitude of the bourgeois lies. In fact, 1937 was one of the years in which the lowest numbers of people were expelled, i.e., not more than five per cent! How come the bourgeoisie and its lackeys have transformed 1937 into ‘Stalin’s incredible year of 1937’ with “millions of false accusations, millions deported, millions murdered”, as Swedish author Per Englund likes to claim. Which are the interests behind this? We understand that in such a mass movement of criticism and self-criticism involving millions of people, some wrong decisions will have been made and innocent people affected. But such things occurred in earlier purges also. Tens of thousands of Party members had been expelled for wrong reasons but these were reinstated after simply appealing to the Party centre. The injustices which affected ordinary workers more than others are of no interest to the West. How to explain the interest shown in the 1937 expulsions? Why precisely is 1937 taken as the worst to befall the Soviet Union?

The class question gives the answer

The explanation is related to class. The great difference between the purges of 1937 and other Party purges is that during the latter it was mainly grass-roots members, ordinary workers, who were expelled – they constituted up to 80 per cent of all those expelled. The relationship was just the opposite in 1937. Of all those expelled, around 80 per cent were corrupt Party bigwigs and high level army officers. These were people who, having acquired privileges and financial advantages, were prepared even to collaborate with Nazi Germany in order to keep them. These were people who did not mind trampling on ordinary members and who readily threw out those who did not accept their transgressions. In 1937, Party functionaries and officers with inclinations to the West and bourgeois thinking were kicked out. They lost their positions of power, were thrown out from the Party and brought to trial. We can understand the hatred of the bourgeoisie for the Soviet year, 1937.

The policy of the Party & difficulties of mass struggle

The aim of the purges was to throw out corrupt bureaucrats and traitors from the Party and army. Such a far-reaching struggle, involving millions of Party members, could not be carried out without mistakes. Old personal contradictions could lead to unfair decisions. Strong mistrust could arise of all Party cadres and could easily spread when a highly-placed Party functionary proved to be corrupt bureaucrat. The Central Committee was aware of these difficulties and warned from the outset against exaggerations.

In some quarters this principle was difficult to apply. Party members who, for instance, had white collar jobs and had not shown a genuine interest in Party life could easily be expelled in spite of their loyalty to Socialism, as demonstrated by their work. The Central Committee opposed this and corrected the injustices when they heard the appeals of those who had been expelled. In October 1937, during a reception for technical cadres from the Donbas, Stalin personally criticised those who questioned all leading cadres. According to Stalin the new (white-collar) technicians and economists of the Soviet Union came from the proletariat and deserved the respect of the people.


What clearly emerges from all the above is that the purges were part of a struggle aimed at bureaucracy and treason and not at leading Party cadres in general, ‘old Bolsheviks’, or even people who simply found themselves in a minority on political questions, unless this led them to criminal and treasonable activity.

Mário Sousa, 2001,
Edited by Ella Rule 2005

The Katyn Massacre

Presentation made to the Stalin Society by Ella Rule

At the end of the First World War, the boundary between Russia and Poland was settled as being along a line which became known as the Curzon line – Lord Curzon being the British statesman who had proposed it.

This demarcation line was not to the liking of the Poles, who soon went to war against the Soviet Union in order to push their borders further eastward. The Soviet Union counter-attacked and were prepared not only to defend themselves but, against Stalin’s advice, to liberate the whole of Poland. Stalin considered such an aim to be doomed to failure because, he said, Polish nationalism had not yet run its course. The Poles were determined NOT to be liberated so there was no point in trying. Hence the Poles put up fierce resistance to Soviet advances. Ultimately the Soviet Union was forced to retreat and even cede territory to the east of the Curzon line to Poland. The areas in question were Western Byelorussia and the western Ukraine – areas populated overwhelmingly by Byelorussians and Ukrainians respectively rather than by Poles. The whole incident could not but exacerbate the mutual dislike of the Poles and the Russians.

On 1 September 1939, Nazi German invaded Poland. On 17 September, the Soviet Union moved to reoccupy those parts of Poland that lay east of the Curzon line. Having taken over those areas, the Soviet Union set about distributing land to the peasants and bringing about the kind of democratic reforms so popular with the people and so unpopular with the exploiters. During the battle to retake the areas east of the Curzon line, the Soviet Union captured some 10,000 Polish officers, who became prisoners of war. These prisoners were then held in camps in the disputed area and put to work road building, etc.

Two years later, on 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union by surprise. The Red Army was forced hurriedly to retreat and the Ukraine was taken over by the Germans. During this hurried retreat it was not possible to evacuate to the Soviet interior the Polish prisoners of war. The chief of camp no. 1, Major Vetoshnikov gave evidence that he had applied to the chief of traffic of the Smolensk section of the Western Railway to be provided with railway cars for the evacuation of the Polish prisoners but was told it was unlikely to be possible. Engineer Ivanov, who had been the Chief of Traffic in the region at the time, confirmed there had been no railway cars to spare. “Besides, ” he said, “we could not send cars to the Gussino line, where the majority of the Polish prisoners were, since that line was already under fire“. The result was that, following the Soviet retreat from the area, the Polish prisoners became prisoners of the Germans.

In April 1943, the Hitlerites announced that the Germans had found several mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, containing the bodies of thousands of Polish officers allegedly murdered by the Russians.

This announcement was designed to further undermine the co-operation efforts of Poles and Soviets to defeat the Germans. The Russo-Polish alliance was always difficult because the Polish government in exile, based in London, was obviously a government of the exploiting classes. They had to oppose the Germans because of the latter’s cynical takeover of their country for lebensraum. The Soviet Union’s position was that so long as the Soviet Union could retain the land east of the Curzon line, they had no problem with the re-establishment of a bourgeois government in Poland. But the alliance was already in difficulties because the Polish government in exile, headed by General Sikorski, based in London, would not agree to the return of that land. This is in spite of the fact that in 1941 after Hitler invaded Poland, the Soviet Union and the Polish government in exile had not only established diplomatic relations but had also agreed that the Soviet Union would finance “under the orders of a chief appointed by the Polish government-in-exile but approved by the Soviet government ” the formation of a Polish army – this chief being, in the event, the thoroughly anti-Soviet General Anders (a prisoner of the Soviets from 1939). By 25 October 1941 this Army had 41,000 men including 2,630 officers. General Anders, however, eventually refused to fight on the Soviet-German front because of the border dispute between the Soviet Union and Poland, and the Polish army had to be sent elsewhere to fight – i.e., Iran.

Nevertheless, despite the hostility of the Polish government in exile, there was a significant section of Poles resident in the Soviet Union who were not anti-Soviet and did accept the Soviet claim to the territories east of the Curzon line. Many of them were Jewish. These people formed the Union of Polish Patriots which put together the backbone of an alternative Polish government in exile.

The Nazi propaganda relating to the Katyn massacres was designed to make it impossible for the Soviets to have any dealings with the Poles at all. General Sikorski took up the Nazi propaganda with a vengeance, claiming to Churchill that he had a “wealth of evidence“. How he had obtained this “evidence” simultaneously with the German announcement of this supposed Soviet atrocity is not clear, although it speaks loudly of secret collaboration between Sikorski and the Nazis. The Germans had made public their allegations on 13 April. On 16 April the Soviet government issued an official communiqué denying “the slanderous fabrications about the alleged mass shootings by Soviet organs in the Smolensk area in the spring of 1940“. It added:

The German statement leaves no doubt about the tragic fate of the former Polish prisoners of war who, in 1941, were engaged in building jobs in areas west of Smolensk and who, together with many Soviet people, fell into the hands of the German hangmen after the withdrawal of Soviet troops“.

The Germans had in fabricating their story decided to embellish it with an anti-Semitic twist by claiming to be able to name Soviet officials in charge of the massacre, all of whom had Jewish names. On 19 April Pravda responded:

Feeling the indignation of the whole of progressive humanity over their massacre of peaceful citizens and particularly of Jews, the Germans are now trying to arouse the anger of gullible people against the Jews. For this reason they have invented a whole collection of ‘Jewish commissars’ who, they say, took part in the murder of the 10,000 Polish officers. For such experienced fakers it was not difficult to invent a few names of people who never existed – Lev Rybak, Avraam Brodninsky, Chaim Fineberg. No such persons ever existed either in the ‘Smolensk section of the OGPU’ or in any other department of the NLVD…

The insistence of Sikorski in endorsing the German propaganda led to the complete breakdown in relations between the London Polish government in exile and the Soviet government – as to which Goebbels commented in his diary:

This break represents a one-hundred-per-cent victory for German propaganda and especially for me personally … we have been able to convert the Katyn incident into a highly political question.

At the time the British press condemned Sikorski for his intransigence:

The Times of 28 April 1943 wrote: “Surprise as well as regret will be felt by those who have had so much cause to understand the perfidy and ingenuity of the Goebbels propaganda machine should themselves have fallen into the trap laid by it. Poles will hardly have forgotten a volume widely circulated in the first winter of the war which described with every detail of circumstantial evidence, including that of photography, alleged Polish atrocities against the peaceful German inhabitants of Poland.

What lay at the basis of Sikorski’s insistence that the massacre had been carried out by the Soviets rather than the Germans was the dispute over the territory east of the Curzon line. Sikorski was trying to use the German propaganda to mobilise western imperialism behind Poland’s claim to that territory, to try to force them out of the position, as he saw it, of taking the Soviet Union’s side on the issue of this border dispute.

If one reads bourgeois sources today, they all assert that the Soviet Union was responsible for the Katyn massacre, and they do so with such assurance and consistency that in trying to argue the contrary one feels like a Nazi revisionist trying to deny Hitler’s slaughter of Jews. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Gorbachov was even enrolled on this disinformation campaign and produced material allegedly from the Soviet archives which ‘proved’ that the Soviets committed the atrocity and, of course, that they did so on Stalin’s orders. Well, we know the interest that the Gorbachovs of this world have in demonising Stalin. Their target is not so much Stalin as socialism. Their purpose in denigrating socialism is to restore capitalism and bring lives of luxurious parasitism to themselves and their hangers-on at the cost of mass suffering among the Soviet peoples. Their cynicism matches that of the German Nazis and it is hardly surprising to find them singing from the same hymn sheet.

Bourgeois sources blithely claim that Soviet evidence in support of blaming the Germans for the atrocity was either totally absent or based purely on hearsay evidence of terrorised inhabitants of the region. They don’t mention one piece of evidence which even Goebbels had to admit was a bit of a bummer from his point of view. He wrote in his diary on 8 May 1943, “Unfortunately, German ammunition has been found in the graves at Katyn … It is essential that this incident remains a top secret. If it were to come to the knowledge of the enemy the whole Katyn affair would have to be dropped.

In 1971 there was correspondence in The Times suggesting the Katyn massacres could not have been done by the Germans since they went in for machine gunning and gas chambers rather than despatching prisoners in the way the Katyn victims had been killed, i.e., by a shot in the back of the head. A former German solider then living in Godalming, Surrey, intervened in this correspondence:

As a German soldier, at that time convinced of the righteousness of our cause, I have taken part in many battles and actions during the Russian campaign. I have not been to Katyn nor to the forest nearby. But I well remember the hullabaloo when the news broke in 1943 about the discovery of the ghastly mass grave near Katyn, which area was then threatened by the Red Army.

“Josef Goebbels, as the historic records show, has fooled many people. After all, that was his job and few would dispute his almost complete mastery of it. What is surprising indeed, however, is that it still shows evidence in the pages of The Times thirty odd years later. Writing from experience I do not think that at that late time of the war Goebbels managed to fool many German soldiers in Russia on the Katyn issue … German soldiers knew about the shot in the back of the head all right … we German soldiers knew that the Polish officers were despatched by none other than our own.

Moreover, very many witnesses came forward to attest to the presence of Polish prisoners in the region after the Germans had taken it over.

Maria Alexandrovna Sashneva, a local primary school teacher, gave evidence to a Special commission set up by the Soviet Union in September 1943, immediately after the area was liberated from the Germans, to the effect that in August 1941, two months after Soviet withdrawal, she had hidden a Polish war prisoner in her house. His name had been Juzeph Lock, and he had spoken to her of ill-treatment suffered by Polish prisoners under the Germans:

When the Germans arrived they seized the Polish camp and instituted a strict regime in it. The Germans did not regard the Poles as human beings. They oppressed and outraged them in every way. On some occasions Poles were shot without any reason at all. He decided to escape…

Several other witnesses gave evidence that they had seen the Poles during August and September 1941 working on the roads.

Moreover, witnesses also testified to round-ups by the Germans of escaped Polish prisoners in the autumn of 1941. Danilenko, a local peasant, was among several witnesses who testified to this.

Special round ups were held in our place to catch Polish war prisoners who had escaped. Some searches took place in my house 2 or 3 times. After one such search I asked the headman .. whom they were looking for in our village. [He] said that an order had been received from the German Kommandatur according to which searches were to be made in all houses without exception, since Polish war prisoners who had escaped from the camp were hiding in our village.

Obviously the Germans did not shoot the Poles in full sight of local witnesses, but there is nonetheless significant evidence from local people as to what was happening. One witness was Alexeyeva who had been detailed by the headman of her village to serve the German personnel at a country house in the section of the Katyn Forest known as Kozy Gory, which had been the rest home of the Smolensk administration of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs. This house was situated some 700 metres from where the mass graves were found. Alexeyeva said:

At the close of August and during most of September 1941 several trucks used to come practically every day to the Kozy Gory country house. At first I paid no attention to that, but later I noticed that each time these trucks arrived at the grounds of the country house they stopped for half an hour, and sometimes for a whole hour, somewhere on the country road connecting the country house with the highway. I drew this conclusion because some time after these trucks reached the grounds of the country house the noise they made would cease.

“Simultaneously with the noise stopping single shots would be heard. The shots followed each other at short but approximately even intervals. Then the shooting would die down and the trucks would drive right up to the country house. German soldiers and NCOs came out of the trucks. Talking noisily they went to wash in the bathhouse, after which they engaged in drunken orgies.

“On days when the trucks arrived more soldiers from some German military units used to arrive at the country house. Special beds were put up for them… Shortly before the trucks reached the country house armed soldiers went to the forest evidently to the spot where the trucks stopped because in half an hour they returned in these trucks, together with the soldiers who lived permanently in the country house.

“…On several occasions I noticed stains of fresh blood on the clothes of two Lance Corporals. From all this I inferred that the Germans brought people in the truck to the country house and shot them.

Alexeyeva also discovered that the people being shot were Polish prisoners.

Once I stayed at the country house somewhat later than usual… Before I finished the work which had kept me there, a soldier suddenly entered and told me I could go … He … accompanied me to the highway.

“Standing on the highway 150 or 200 metres from where the road branches off to the country house I saw a group of about 30 Polish war prisoners marching along the highway under heavy German escort… I halted near the roadside to see where they were being led, and I saw that they turned towards our country house at Kozy Gory.

“Since by that time I had begun to watch closely everything going on at the country house, I became interested. I went back some distance along the highway, hid in bushes near the roadside, and waited. In some 20 or 30 minutes I heard the familiar single shots.

The other two requisitioned maids at the country house, Mikhailova and Konakhovskaya, gave supporting evidence. Other residents of the area gave similar evidence.

Basilevsky, director of the Smolensk observatory, was appointed deputy burgomeister to Menshagin, a Nazi collaborator. Basilevsky was trying to secure the release from German custody of a teacher, Zhiglinsky, and persuaded Menshagin to speak to the German commander of the region, Von Schwetz, about this matter. Menshagin did so but reported back it was impossible to secure this release because “instructions had been received from Berlin prescribing the strictest regime be maintained.

Basilevsky then recounted his conversation with Menshagin:

I involuntarily retorted ‘Can anything else be stricter than the regime existing at the camp?’ Menshagin looked at me in a strange way and bending to my ear, answered in a low voice: yes, there can be! The Russians can at least be left to die off, but as to the Polish war prisoners, the orders say they are to be simply exterminated.

After liberation Menshagin’s notebook was found written in his own handwriting, as confirmed by expert graphologists. Page 10, dated 15 August 1941, notes:

All fugitive war prisoners are to be detained and delivered to the commandant’s office.

This in itself proves the Polish prisoners were still alive at that time. On page 15, which is undated, the entry appears: “Are there any rumours among the population concerning the shooting of Polish war prisoners in Kozy Gory (for Umnov) ” (Umnov was the Chief of the Russian police).

A number of witnesses gave evidence that they had been pressured in 1942-43 by the Germans to give false testimony as to the shooting of the Poles by the Russians.

Parfem Gavrilovich Kisselev, a resident of the village closest to Kozy Gory, testified that he had been summonsed in autumn of 1942 to the Gestapo where he was interviewed by a German officer:

The officer stated that, according to information at the disposal of the Gestapo, in 1940, in the area of Kozy Gory in the Katyn Forest, staff members of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs shot Polish officers, and he asked me what testimony I could give on this score. I answered that I had never heard of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs shooting people at Kozy Gory, and that anyhow it was impossible, I explained to the officer, since Kozy Gory is an absolutely open and much frequented place, and if shootings had gone on there the entire population of the neighbouring villages would have known …

“…The interpreter, however, would not listen to me, but took a handwritten document from the desk and read it to me. It said that I, Kisselev, resident of a hamlet in the Kozy Gory area, personally witnessed the shooting of Polish officers by staff members of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1940.

“Having read the document, the interpreter told me to sign it. I refused to do so… Finally he shouted ‘Either you sign it at once or we shall destroy you. Make your choice.’

“Frightened by these threats, I signed the document and thought that would be the end of the matter.

But it wasn’t the end of the matter, because the Germans expected Kisselev to give parol evidence of what he had ‘witnessed’ to groups of ‘delegates’ invited by the Germans to come to the area to witness the evidence of supposed Soviet atrocities.

Soon after the German authorities had announced the existence of the mass graves to the world in April 1943, “the Gestapo interpreter came to my house and took me to the forest in the Kozy Gory area.

“When we had left the house and were alone together, the interpreter warned me that I must tell the people present in the forest everything exactly as I had written it down in the document I had signed at the Gestapo.

“When I came to the forest I saw the open graves and a group of strangers. The interpreter told me that these were Polish delegates who had arrived to inspect the graves. When we approached the graves the delegates started asking me various questions in Russian in connection with the shooting of the Poles, but as more than a month had passed since I had been summoned to the Gestapo I forgot everything that was in the document I had signed, got mixed up, and finally said I didn’t know anything about the shooting of Polish officers.

“The German officer got very angry. The interpreter roughly dragged me away from the ‘delegation’ and chased me off. Next morning a car with a Gestapo officer drove up to my house. He found me in the yard, told me that I was under arrest, put me into the car and took me to Smolensk Prison …

“After my arrest I was interrogated many times, but they beat me more than they questioned me. The first time they summoned me they beat me up heavily and abused me, complaining that I had let them down, and then sent me back to the cell. During the next summons they told me I must state publicly that I had witnessed the shooting of Polish officers by the Bolsheviks, and that until the Gestapo was satisfied I would do this in good faith, I would not be released from prison. I told the officer that I would rather sit in prison than tell people lies to their faces. After that I was badly beaten up.

“There were several such interrogations accompanied by beatings, and as a result I lost all my strength, my hearing became poor and I could not move my right arm. About one month after my arrest a German officer summoned me and said: ‘You see the consequences of your obstinacy, Kisselev. We have decided to execute you. In the morning we shall take you to Katyn Forest and hang you.’ I asked the officer not to do this, and started pleading with them that I was not fit for the part of ‘eye-witness’ of the shooting as I did not know how to tell lies and therefore I would mix everything up again.

“The officer continued to insist. Several minutes later soldiers came into the room and started beating me with rubber clubs. Being unable to stand the beatings and torture, I agreed to appear publicly with a fallacious tale about shooting of Poles by Bolsheviks. After that I was released from prison, on conditions that on the first demand of the Germans I would speak before ‘delegations’ in Katyn Forest…

“On every occasion, before leading me to the graves in the forest, the interpreter used to come to my house, call me out into the yard, take me aside to make sure that no one would hear, and for half an hour make me memorise by heart everything I would have to say about the alleged shooting of Polish officers by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs in 1940.

“I recall that the interpreter told me something like this: ‘I live in a cottage in ‘Kozy Gory’ area not far from the country house of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs. In spring 1940 I saw Poles taken on various nights to the forest and shot there’. And then it was imperative that I must state literally that ‘this was the doing of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs.’ After I had memorised what the interpreter told me he would take me to the open graves in the forest and compel me to repeat all this in the presence of ‘delegations’ which came there.

“My statements were strictly supervised and directed by the Gestapo interpreter. Once when I spoke before some ‘delegation’, I was asked the question: ‘Did you see these Poles personally before they were shot by the Bolsheviks?’ I was not prepared for such a question and answered the way it was in fact, i.e., that I saw Polish war prisoners before the war, as they walked on the roads. Then the interpreter roughly dragged me aside and drove me home.

“Please believe me when I say that all the time I felt pangs of conscience, as I knew that in reality the Polish officers had been shot by the Germans in 1941. I had no other choice, as I was constantly threatened with the repetition of my arrest and torture.

Numerous people corroborated Kisselev’s testimony, and a medical examination corroborated his story of having been tortured by the Germans.

Pressure was also brought on Ivanov, employed at the local railway station (Gnezdovo) to bear false witness:

The officer inquired whether I knew that in spring 1940 large parties of captured Polish officers had arrived at Gnezdovo station in several trains. I said that I knew about this. The officer then asked me whether I knew that in the same spring 1940, soon after the arrival of the Polish officers, the Bolsheviks had shot them all in the Katyn Forest. I answered that I did not know anything about that, and that it could not be so, as in the course of 1940-41 up to the occupation of Smolensk by the Germans, I had met captured Polish officers who had arrived in spring 1940 at Gnezdovo station, and who were engaged in road construction work.

“The officer told me that if a German officer said the Poles had been shot by the Bolsheviks it meant that this was a fact. ‘Therefore’, the officer continued, ‘you need not fear anything, and you can sign with a clear conscience a protocol saying that the captured Polish officers were shot by the Bolsheviks and that you witnessed it’.

“I replied that I was already an old man, that I was 61 years old, and did not want to commit a sin in my old age. I could only testify that the captured Poles really arrived at Gnezdovo station in spring 1940. The German officer began to persuade me to give the required testimony promising that if I agreed he would promote me from the position of watchman on a railway crossing to that of stationmaster of Gnezdovo station, which I had held under the Soviet Government, and also to provide for my material needs.

“The interpreter emphasised that my testimony as a former railway official at Gnezdovo station, the nearest station to Katyn Forest, was extremely important for the German Command, and that I would not regret it if I gave such testimony. I understood that I had landed in an extremely difficult situation, and that a sad fate awaited me. However, I again refused to give false testimony to the German officer. He started shouting at me, threatened me with a beating and shooting, and said I did not understand what was good for me. However, I stood my ground. The interpreter then drew up a short protocol in German on one page, and gave me a free translation of its contents. This protocol recorded, as the interpreter told me, only the fact of the arrival of the Polish war prisoners at Gnezdovo station. When I asked that my testimony be recorded not only in German but also in Russian, the officer finally went beside himself with fury, beat me up with a rubber club and drove me off the premises…“.

Savvateyev was another person pressurised by the Germans to give false testimony. He told the Soviet Commission of Inquiry:

In the Gestapo I testified that in spring 1940 Polish war prisoners arrived at the station of Gnezdovo in several trains and proceeded further in trucks, and I did not know where they went. I also added that I repeatedly met those Poles later on the Moscow-Minsk highway, where they were working on repairs in small groups. The officer told me I was mixing things up, that I could not have met the Poles on the highway, as they had been shot by the Bolsheviks, and demanded that I testify to this.

“I refused. After threatening and cajoling me for a long time, the officer consulted with the interpreter about something in German, and then the interpreter wrote a short protocol and gave it to me to sign. He explained that it was a record of my testimony. I asked the interpreter to let me read the protocol myself, but he interrupted me with abuse, ordering me to sign it immediately and get out. I hesitated a minute. The interpreter seized a rubber club hanging on the wall and made to strike me. After that I signed the protocol shoved at me. The interpreter told me to get out and go home, and not to talk to anyone or I would be shot…

Others gave similar testimony.

Evidence was also given as to how the Germans ‘doctored’ the graves of the victims to try to eliminate evidence that the massacre took place not in the autumn of 1941 but in the spring of 1940 shortly after the Poles first arrived in the area. Alexandra Mikhailovna had worked during the German occupation in the kitchen of a German military unit. In March 1943 she found a Russian war prisoner hiding in her shed:

From conversation with him I learned that his name was Nikolai Yegorov, a native of Leningrad. Since the end of 1941 he had been in the German camp No. 126 for war prisoners in the town of Smolensk. At the beginning of March 1943, he was sent with a column of several hundred war prisoners from the camp to Katyn Forest. There they, including Yegorov, were compelled to dig up graves containing bodies in the uniforms of Polish officers, drag these bodies out of the graves and take out of their pockets documents, letters, photographs and all other articles.

“The Germans gave the strictest orders that nothing be left in the pockets on the bodies. Two war prisoners were shot because after they had searched some of the bodies, a German officer discovered some papers on these bodies. Articles, documents and letters extracted from the clothing on the bodies were examined by the German officers, who then compelled the prisoners to put part of the papers back into the pockets on the bodies, while the rest was flung on a heap of articles and documents they had extracted, and later burned.

“Besides this, the Germans made the prisoners put in the pockets of the Polish officers some papers which they took from the cases or suitcases (I don’t remember exactly) which they had brought along. All the war prisoners lived in Katyn Forest in dreadful conditions under the open sky, and were extremely strongly guarded… At the beginning of April 1943, all the work planned by the Germans was apparently completed, as for three days not one of the war prisoners had to do any work…

“Suddenly at night all of them without exception were awakened and led somewhere. The guard was strengthened. Yegorov sensed something was wrong and began to watch very closely everything that was happening. They marched for three or four hours in an unknown direction. They stopped in the forest at a pit in a clearing. He saw how a group of war prisoners were separated from the rest and driven towards the pit and then shot. The war prisoners grew agitated, restless and noisy. Not far from Yegorov several war prisoners attacked the guards. Other guards ran towards the place. Yegorov took advantage of the confusion and ran away into the dark forest, hearing shouts and firing.

“After hearing this terrible story, which is engraved on my memory for the rest of my life, I became very sorry for Yegorov, and told him to come to my room, get warm and hide at my place until he had regained his strength. But Yegorov refused… He said no matter what happened he was going away that very night, and intended to try to get through the front line to the Red Army. In the morning, when I went to make sure whether Yegorov had gone, he was still in the shed. It appeared that in the night he had attempted to set out, but had only taken about 50 steps when he felt so weak that he was forced to return. This exhaustion was caused by the long imprisonment at the camp and the starvation of the last days. We decided he should remain at my place several days longer to regain his strength. After feeding Yegorov I went to work. When I returned home in the evening my neighbours Branova, Mariya Ivanovna, Kabanovskaya, Yekaterina Viktorovna told me that in the afternoon, during a search by the German police, the Red Army war prisoner had been found, and taken away.

Further corroboration was given by an engineer mechanic called Sukhachev who had worked under the Germans as a mechanic in the Smolensk city mill:

I was working at the mill in the second half of March, 1943. There I spoke to a German chauffeur who spoke a little Russian, and since he was carrying flour to Savenki village for the troops, and was returning on the next day to Smolensk, I asked him to take me along so that I could buy some fats in the village. My idea was that making the trip in a German truck would get over the risk of being held up at the control stations. The German agreed to take me, at a price.

“On the same day at 10 p.m. we drove on to the Somolensk-Vitebsk highway, just myself and the German driver in the machine. The night was light, and only a low mist over the road reduced the visibility. Approximately 22 or 23 kilometres from Smolensk at a demolished bridge on the highway there is a rather deep descent at the by-pass. We began to go down from the highway, when suddenly a truck appeared out of the fog coming towards us. Either because our brakes were out of order, or because the driver was inexperienced, we were unable to bring our truck to a halt, and since the passage was quite narrow we collided with the truck coming towards us. The impact was not very violent, as the driver of the other truck swerved to the side, as a result of which the trucks bumped and slid alongside each other.

“The right wheel of the other truck, however, landed in the ditch, and the truck fell over on the slope. Our truck remained upright. The driver and I immediately jumped out of the cabin and ran up to the truck which had fallen down. We were met by a heavy stench of putrefying flesh coming evidently from the truck.

“On coming nearer, I saw that the truck was carrying a load covered with a tarpaulin and tied up with ropes. The ropes had snapped with the impact, and part of the load had fallen out on the slope. This was a horrible load – human bodies dressed in military uniforms. As far as I can remember there were some six or seven men near the truck: one German driver, two Germans armed with tommy-guns – the rest were Russian war prisoners, as they spoke Russian and were dressed accordingly.

“The Germans began to abuse my driver and then made some attempts to right the truck. In about two minutes time two more trucks drove up to the place of the accident and pulled up. A group of Germans and Russian war prisoners, about ten men in all, came up to us from these trucks. … By joint efforts we began to raise the truck. Taking advantage of an opportune moment I asked one of the Russian war prisoners in a low voice: ‘What is it?’ He answered very quietly: ‘For many nights already we have been carrying bodies to Katyn Forest’.

“Before the overturned truck had been raised a German NCO came up to me and my driver and ordered us to proceed immediately. As no serious damage had been done to our truck the driver steered it a little to one side and got on to the highway, and we went on. When we were passing the two covered trucks which had come up later I again smelled the horrible stench of dead bodies“.

Various other people also gave testimony of having seen the trucks loaded with dead bodies.

One Zhukhov, a pathologist who actually visited graves in April 1943 at the invitation of the Germans, also gave evidence:

The clothing of the bodies, particularly the greatcoats, boots and belts, were in a good state of preservation. The metal parts of the clothing – belt buckles, button hooks and spikes on shoe soles, etc. – were not heavily rusted, and in some cases the metal still retained its polish. Sections of the skin of the bodies which could be seen – faces, necks, arms – were chiefly a dirty green colour, and in some cases dirty brown, but there was no complete disintegration of the tissues, no putrefaction. In some cases bared tendons of whitish colour and parts of muscles could be seen.

“While I was at the excavations people were at work sorting and extracting bodies at the bottom of a big pit. For this purpose they used spades and other tools, and also took hold of bodies with their hands and dragged them from place to place by the arms, the legs or the clothing. I did not see a single case of bodies falling apart or any member being torn off.

“Considering all the above, I arrived at the conclusion that the bodies had remained in the earth not three years, as the Germans affirmed, but much less. Knowing that in mass graves, and especially without coffins, putrefaction of bodies progresses more quickly than in single graves, I concluded that the mass shooting of the Poles had taken place about a year and a half ago, and could have occurred in autumn 1941 or in spring 1942. As a result of my visit to the excavation site I became firmly convinced that a monstrous crime had been committed by the Germans.

Several other people who visited the graves at the time gave like testimony.

Moreover, pathologists who examined the bodies in 1943 concluded that they could not have been dead longer than two years. Furthermore, documents were found on some of the bodies which had obviously been missed by the Germans when they doctored the evidence. These included a letter dated September 1940, a postcard dated 12 November 1940, a pawn ticket receipted 14 March 1941 and another receipted 25 March 1941. Receipts dated 6 April 1941, 5 May 1941, 15 May 1941 and an unmailed postcard in Polish dated 20 June 1941. Although all these dates pre-date Soviet withdrawal, they all postdate the time of the alleged murder of the prisoners by the Soviet authorities in the spring of 1940, the time given as the date of the supposed massacre by all those whom the Germans were able to bully into giving false testimony. If, as is claimed by bourgeois propagandists, these documents are forgeries, it would have been the easiest thing to forge documents which postdated the Soviet departure, but his was not done – and it was not done because the documents found were undoubtedly genuine.


Presentation made to the Stalin Society on July 2002

A personal account of experiences in the German Panzers at the Battle of Stalingrad

60 years after the Soviet victory at Stalingrad
– the turning point in the war against Nazi fascism

Speech by Henry Metelmann

The Stalin Society was honoured by Henry Metelmann speaking at its Annual General Meeting on 23 February 2003, chaired by Ella Rule, with Iris Cremer, Secretary. He gave a memorable account of his life as a youngster in Germany in the Hitler Youth, prior to his being involved in the German army at Stalingrad. He drew strong parallels between Nazi German expansionism and present-day Anglo-American imperialism’s aggression against Iraq. The following version of his speech was compiled from extensive notes taken at the meeting.


I was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until it broke up in 1991.

I would like to say that I do not consider myself a historian. I come from a poor working-class family in Germany. I only had a state education, and I am not today speaking my mother tongue.

When Harpal Brar rang me after I spoke at the Imperial War Museum, I didn’t realise there was a Stalin Society. I did not know it existed. I am glad to have learnt something. I am glad to be here. It is a great honour.

The main line of my talk will be to guide you through the process of how I, a boy from Schleswig Holstein, ended up in the Napoleonic retreat at Stalingrad. I sometimes wonder why we have not learnt from history. Napoleon in 1812 invaded Russia. He started off with 650,000 from East Prussia and advanced towards Smolensk and Moscow, but had to retreat. The Russian army harassed the retreat and when the army returned to Paris, Napoleon arrived with only 1,400 soldiers. Of course, the original 650,000 had not all been soldiers, and only half of them were French anyway – others were Germans and Poles. For many illiterate peasants it seemed a good idea to join Napoleon’s army. We thought when we invaded the Soviet Union in the campaign codenamed Barbarossa that we were the strongest and the most intelligent – and we now know what became of that!

I was born in 1922 in Schleswig Holstein. My father was an unskilled labourer. Up to 1866 Schleswig Holstein had belonged to Denmark. The Bismarck and the Prussian Army started a war with Denmark, after which Schleswig Holstein became German. When I was a soldier in Russia the temperature on the coldest day was -54 degrees. I wished the Danes had won that war since I would not then have been a German in Russia suffering from the terrible cold of 1942. In the end, whatever our nationality, we all belong to one big family, which I realise now, but obviously did not at that time.

The 1930s in Germany

Up to the age of 10 (from 1922 to 1932) I lived in the Weimar Republic, which came into existence after the Kaiser was thrown out in 1919. I experienced all that as a small boy. Obviously I didn’t understand anything of what was happening. My parents were very loving and did everything possible for me, but I remember a tumultuous situation – strikes, shootings, recession, 7 million unemployed, blood in the streets. I lived in a working-class quarter outside Hamburg where the people were suffering great hardship. There were demonstrations where red flags were carried, women carrying children and pushing pushchairs, shouting ‘Give us bread, give us work’, workers shouting ‘Revolution’ and ‘Lenin’.

My father was very left-thinking and explained many things. The ruling class of Germany was very frightened by this situation and decided to do something about it. I witnessed street fighting that I had to run away from, and thought this was all part of life.

On Christmas Day 1932 I was 10 years old. Shortly afterwards, on 30 January 1933, a bomb exploded at the Reichstag. That was when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. My mother kept asking how Hindenberg could allow this to happen, because we all knew the Nazis were thugs. We knew they were just a racist party who talked about revenge and beating people up.

I thought it all interesting and exciting, even though my mother told me they were gangsters. I would see brown-shirted storm troopers marching through town and I thought they were very glamorous. As young boys we tried to sing their songs and proudly marched behind them. In the last three columns, at the end of the marches, came the sweepers and if people on the pavement didn’t salute the flag, the sweepers would force them to do it. Later I was in the Hitler Youth and was ashamed for my mother to see me.

Hitler appointed to quell working-class rebellion

Hitler was Reichschancellor. Yet 10 years earlier nobody knew him. The Nazi name (standing for Nationalist Socialist German Workers’ Party) attracted quite a few people disillusioned with the traditional parties. Some were sincere socialists prepared to give Hitler a chance on the basis he couldn’t be worse than the parties that had preceded him. When Hitler and his representatives spoke it was always about making Germany great again, attacking Jews and the lower orders as people we must do something about. It was the God given duty of the German people to sort the world out in the German way, even if they didn’t like it.

There were no elections. Hitler was appointed overnight. Elections were abolished in order to put Hitler in power. Why? The Nazis had no tradition. So who put them in power? Hindenberg was a spokesperson for the German ruling classes, the military, the arms producers, the Ruhr barons, the bankers, the Church and the aristocratic landowners. My father said that when Hitler came to power he was a servant of the rich. Now I know my father was right. They had put Hitler there in order to quell the rebellion of working-class people against bad living standards. Hitler was not even a German national. He had been a corporal in the army, a vagabond in Vienna. He had had no education, he was just shouting for revenge. How can it be possible in a highly developed country like Germany, which is very cultured, for someone like him to become Head of the German state and supreme military commander? It would not have been possible for him on his own. His party was nothing. It was his paymasters who made it, wanting to prevent a repetition of the Russian revolution.

Hitler had executive power but was not a dictator. He was just a front man. He was not clever enough to run a machine like the German state.

The Nazis set up concentration camps. My father had always said we workers must struggle for our rights because the bastards only employ us if they can make a profit and that they were only afraid of rebellion that could lead to revolution. One day some brownshirts came in 2 cars at 3 a.m. and collected one of our neighbours who was a union secretary. He was taken to a concentration camp. My mother told me about this, and from then on my father instructed me to keep quiet about what he said about the Nazis as otherwise he could be sent to a concentration camp too. Taking one person from our area was a clever way of frightening and threatening all the families. I was 11 or 12 at the time and I thought he was an idiot and that I knew it all. My father thought nothing could be done and he had no choice but to keep quiet. The communists were the first ones to be taken away to concentration camps and then even progressive church people and anyone who spoke against the regime. You went if you dared open your mouth. Fear and terror was the basis of Nazi power.

In the Hitler Youth

I was in the Hitler Youth. A law had been passed saying that there could only be one youth movement and my church youth group was taken over by the Hitler Youth. I liked it. All my friends were in it. My father said I had better stay in it because under the prevailing conditions it would be bad for him, and for me, were I to leave.

When I left school at 15, my father, a railwayman, got me a locksmith’s apprenticeship on the railway. The first question on the application form for that apprenticeship was: “When did you join the Hitler Youth?” You probably didn’t get the job if you had never been a member – there was indirect pressure (not a law) to persuade youngsters to join the Hitler Youth. But I admit I loved it. We were poor and I had few clothes, sewn by my mother. But in the Hitler Youth I was given a brown shirt. My father would not buy it for me because he could not afford it, but at the next meeting I was given a parcel to take home. It contained two brown shirts. My father hated it and had to watch me wearing it. He understood what it meant. We Hitler Youth marched with drums and swastikas and I was so proud, accompanied by fanfares. It was a very disciplined environment.

I loved the camps which took place in lovely surroundings, such as a castle in Türingen. All of us young children had the chance to play plenty of sport. When we wanted to play football in our poor streets, nobody could afford a ball, but in the Hitler Youth all was provided. Where did the money come from? It probably came from the contributions of arms manufacturers. Hitler was put into power in order to prepare for a war which could save Germany from economic collapse.

I remember when there were 7 million unemployed. Within 18 months of Hitler coming to power there were very few unemployed left. The docks started building warships – the Bismarck, the Eugene, the Uboats. Germany was actually becoming short of workers. People thought that was wonderful, but my father said that if you can only get work by preparing for war something was very wrong.

In the Hitler Youth we learnt to shoot and throw hand grenades, occupy and attack trenches. We played great war games. We were being taught round big bonfires where we sang Nazi songs:”If Jewish blood drips off our knife”, and suchlike. My parents were horrified that we were going back to barbarism. But I didn’t question it. We were being prepared for fighting a war.

A few years after that Germans had occupied vast areas 4 or 5 times the size of the UK. These areas could be held down because German youth had been prepared for it in the Hitler Youth. I believed that we Germans would sort out the mess the world was in.

In the Panzer Division

At 18 I was called up and commandeered to a Panzer division. I was so proud that at such a young age I was chosen to be a member of the Panzers. The training was very hard. I came home wearing my uniform and thought the whole thing was great. Our trainers told us they would drive out our individualism and rebuild us in the Nazi socialist spirit. They succeeded. When I came to Stalingrad I still believed it.

Our officer class in the Wehrmacht was almost all of an aristocratic landowning background, the ‘Vons’. War propaganda intensified the whole time. We heard ‘we’ would have to do something about Poland or they would attack us, to defend the freedom of the world. History is now repeating itself with Bush and Blair. We attacked Poland on 1 September 1939. When bomb blew up in Berlin, we were told this was terrorism being conducted against us peace loving people. It is the same today as we are being prepared for war. It is the same atmosphere here now – lies and misinformation.

I was called up in 1941 when Operation Barbarossa was put into action on 22 June. I was being trained at that time. When the war on the Soviet Union started the Panzers were in France. In the beginning the German army and its discipline were very superior, from a military position, to those of other nations. Our troops entered the Soviet Union relatively easily. My 22nd Panzers weren’t sent there until the winter of 1941, by train. In France the weather had been OK and the first part of the journey was quite pleasant even though it was winter. It was colder in Germany, and in Poland it was snowing. In the Soviet Union everything was white.

We believed then it would be an honour to die fighting for the fatherland. We came through a town in the Soviet Union called Tanenburg. A battle had taken place there earlier, involving tanks. We looked at the scene for which we 18-year olds were unprepared. We did not know what to expect, just knew we had to obey orders. I began to wonder, for although most burnt out tanks were Russian, one of them was a German tank just like mine, and I couldn’t help wondering how the driver got out, for it must have been quite difficult. And then I realised he could not have got out, but must have died there.

For the first time I realised that I did not want to die. It is great to talk about big battles, but what is the reality? My national socialist spirit can’t control the flight of bullets. That is how I came to have my first doubts.

We went to Crimea as part of Mannestein’s 11th Army. In late winter / early spring our attack started. I fought my first battle. We won. But when I was driving my tank one day a sobering incident occurred. I had been told never to stop the tank. Stop and you’re dead. I approached a narrow bridge which I had to cross. While I approached, three Russian soldiers carrying a wounded companion were being escorted by German guards. When they saw me they dropped the wounded man. I stopped in order to avoid running over him. My commander ordered me to go on. I had to run over the injured man and kill him. I became a murderer. I thought it was OK to kill in battle, but not a defenceless person. This too gave me misgivings. But it drives you mad if you keep thinking about it. After the battle we were all given medals. That was wonderful. We cleaned up Crimea. It was exciting to take villages, to conquer an army. Then we were taken back by train to the mainland where we joined General Paulus. That was in the spring of 1942. I took part in the drive to the River Volga. We beat Timoshenko. I took part in lots of battles. Then we approached Stalingrad.

On the way we had political commissars calling us together from time to time for a situation report. Our commissar was a major in our unit. We sat on the grass around him. He told us there was no need to stand in his presence. He said “Why do you think you are in Russia?” I wondered what the catch was. Someone said: “To defend the honour of the fatherland”. The major said this was Goebbels rubbish, and that you didn’t fight a war over slogans but over real things. When we have destroyed the proletarian rubbish army, he told us, the fighting in the south would be over. Where would we go then? The answer was to the Caucasian and Caspian oil fields, 800 km from Stalingrad. What then? We had no idea. Well, if we went 700 km south, we would get to Iraq. At the same time Rommel, then fighting in the Nile Delta, would go east, and would also arrive in Iraq. Without getting our hands on these major oil resources, he told us, Germany could not become a major power. And now I look at the situation today – it is also all about oil.

“Disturbing experiences” talking to a communist prisoner

At one point I was slightly wounded. I was taken to hospital where I was declared unfit for the front line.

I will now quote from my book, Through Hell for Hitler (Spellmount, Staplehurst, 1990, p.77-81), of which a new edition is about to be published:

“A short train transport on straw in covered wagons took us back to a Lazarett in a town called Stalino. Though an infection set in, I had a great time there. A few weeks rest from the front was worth a pot of gold.

“Most of the hospital staff, including senior surgeons, were Russian. The treatment was efficient under tough war conditions, and when I was ready to leave, a Russian doctor said to me with a sly grin: ‘Go east again, young man, after all, that is what you have come here for!’ I was not sure whether I liked his remark, or indeed, whether I had any great wish to go east. After all I was not yet twenty years old, I wanted to live, not die.

“Though I was fit enough to leave the Lazarett, I was not yet in a condition to rejoin my Division, which was then battling its way towards Rostov. I was sent to join a unit which was guarding a prison camp somewhere between the Donetz and the Dniepr. In flat country the large camp had been set up in the open. Kitchen, stores etc. were under canvas, while the uncounted thousands of prisoners were left with nothing to cover themselves with but what they could lay their hands on. Their rations were very meagre, and so, though not quite as bad, were ours. However, the summer weather was fine and the Russians, used to living rough were able to withstand the conditions. The whole camp was bounded by a large circular trench, which the prisoners were not allowed to approach. Within the camp, at one side, was a Kolchose consisting of a number of buildings. The entire Kolchose was ringed by rolls of barbed wire and had only one entrance which was guarded. Together with about a dozen other semi-fit invalids. I was assigned to guard this inner compound.

“Guard duty generally was considered by most active soldiers as a mind-killing exercise and a punishment. Above all it was boring, and the goings on in the Kolchose compound were a decidedly strange affair. The clue, I suppose, was to be found in Hitler’s infamous “Kommissar Befehl’, according to which all political prisoners, Politruks (Political Army officers) and other members of the Communist Party were to be shot. For the Communists, the ‘Kommissar Befehl’ was what the ‘Final Solution’ was to the Jews. I suppose that at that time most of us accepted that Communism was a crime, that Communists were criminals, and that there was no legal necessity to prove any further individual guilt. It dawned on me that I was now guarding a camp which had been set up to erase the evil of Communism.

“Of all the prisoners who walked into the Kolchose compound, none walked out again. Whether they knew this would be their fate, I am not sure. Quite a number of them had been given away by their fellow prisoners in the large outer camp, and even in doubtful cases, when they claimed that they had never belonged to the Party or were Communists at all – or even that they were anti-Communists – they still did not walk out again. We being only the guards, the compound was run by a small detachment of the Sicherheits Dienst, the SD which was under the command of the SS equivalent of a Major. In each case there was a vague investigation, after which the execution was carried out, always at the same place against a wall of a burnt-out cottage, which could not be seen from anywhere outside. The burial place, consisting of a few large trenches, was further to the rear.

“Having soaked up a full Nazi ‘education’ at school and in the Hitler Youth, this first experience of direct contact with Communists in the flesh was very baffling. The prisoners who were daily brought into our compound, either alone or in small groups, were very different types of person from what I had expected. Indeed, they were different from the masses of the prisoners outside who on the whole looked and behaved like typical East European peasants. What struck me most about these Politruks and Party members was their intelligence and pride. I never, or hardly ever, noticed any of them whining or complaining, and they never asked for anything for themselves. When their time for execution came, and I saw many go, they did so with their heads held high. Almost all of them impressed me as persons whom one could trust, and I was sure, had we been living under peaceful conditions, that I would have liked some of them to be my friends.

“Our daily routine was monotonous. One either stood at the gate with some­one else for a couple of hours, or walked about the compound alone, the heavy loaded rifle always hanging ready over one’s shoulder. Usually there were about a dozen to twenty ‘patients’ under our care. Their ‘home’ was a cleaned-out pigsty, which was itself surrounded, within the compound, by barbed wire. It was a prison within a prison within a prison. Our system of guarding them gave them virtually no chance to escape and on the whole we had little trouble with them. Since we were amongst them during all hours of the day and the night, we came to know them all by sight and often by name, and of course, we were the ones who handed them over for ‘investigation’ and delivered them for their last walk to the firing squad.

“One of the prisoners had a fair knowledge of German, which he had learnt at school. I have forgotten his family name but his first name was Boris. As I spoke Russian fairly well in a pidgin fashion we had no difficulty conversing on most subjects. Boris was a Lieutenant, a Politruk, and about two years older than me. We discovered that we had both learnt the trade of locksmith, he in Gorlovka-Artemovsk Region in a large engineering complex, and I at the Railway workshops in Hamburg. On our advance I had passed through his town. He was blond, about six feet tall and had laughing blue eyes which even in this desperate situation had not lost their friendly twinkle. Often, especially at nights, I felt drawn to chat with him. As I called him Boris anyway, he had asked me if he could call me by my first name and I think that it surprised us both to find how easily we could get on with each other. We mostly talked about our families, our homes, our school and apprentice days. I knew the names of his brothers and sisters, how old they were, what his parents did for a living, and even some of their personal habits. He naturally was very worried about how they were faring under German occupation, and I was in no position to console him. He even gave me their address and asked me, that if ever I was going their way, to look them up and tell them. ‘But tell them what?’, I thought, and we both knew that I would never go, and that therefore his family would never find out what had happened to their Boris. In turn he learned all about my family and all the things which were close to my heart. I told him how in a harmless way I had had a girlfriend for whom I had felt much love. He smiled understandingly and told me that he too had had a girl-friend who had been a student. We felt very close at moments like this – until we suddenly then both realized what a gulf there was between us, that I was standing there with a rifle on my shoulder and that he was my prisoner. I knew, of course, that he would never hold a girl in his arms again, but was not quite sure whether he was aware of that. I knew that his only crime had been that he was a soldier and a Politruk, and my instinct told me all right that there was something very wrong somewhere.

“Surprisingly, we talked very little about life in the army, and as regards politics we found we had no bridge of common understanding, not even a common denominator from where together we could analyse. So close in so many human ways, we both realized that in that we were a world apart.

“Then came Boris’s last night. I had found out from the SD that it was his turn to be shot in the morning. He had been to ‘investigation’ in the afternoon, and I could see that he had been beaten and hit in the face. He had also been injured in his side, but he said nothing – and neither did I – for what was the point? I am not sure whether he was aware that he was to be shot at sun-rise, and I certainly did not tell him. But being an intelligent man, he must have come to some conclusion on why his fellow prisoners were led away after investigation and never returned.

“I was on night duty from two to four, and the night was beautifully warm and quiet. The air was full of the music of nature, with the frogs in the nearby pond croaking as if in concert. Boris was sitting on the straw outside in the pigsty, with his back leaning against the wall playing, very quietly on his small mouth-organ, which fitted unseen in his hands. It was his only possession left, every thing else had been taken from him. The tune he played when I arrived was beautiful, a typical Russian melancholic one, something about the wide steppe and love. But then there were shouts from some of his fellow prisoners inside, telling him to shut up, and he looked at me, should he ignore it and go on playing? When I shrugged my shoulder, he knocked the mouth-organ in the palm of his hand and said: ‘Nitchevo, let’s talk instead!’ I rested my elbow on the wall and looked down on him. There was a deep tension in me, and I did not quite know what to talk about. I was sad, wanted to be friendly and perhaps help – and did not know how. Why it happened, I do not really know, but somehow he looked in a challenging way at me and for the first time our conversation turned to politics. Perhaps deep down I wanted an explanation from him at this late hour, wanted to know what it was he so fervently believed in – or at least admit to me that he had been wrong in his belief all along.

“‘And what about your World Revolution?’ I said ‘it is all over now, is it not, and it has been a criminal nonsense – a conspiracy against freedom and peace from the very beginning…?’ At that time, let us remember, it looked very much as if Germany would triumph over Russia. He kept quiet for a while, just sitting there on his heap of straw, still fiddling with his mouth-organ. I would have been satisfied, had he shown me some anger. And when he raised himself very slowly and came to the wall to look me straight into my eyes, I could see that he was very agitated indeed. His voice was calm, though with a shade of sadness and disappointment, but not for himself – but for me. ‘Genry!’, he said: ‘You told me all about your life, you come as I do from the poor, the working people. You are friendly enough and not stupid – but on the other hand you are very stupid because you have learnt nothing from your life. I can clearly see that your brainwashers have done a very successful job on you for you have swallowed so totally the propaganda fed into your mind. What is so very tragic is that you are supporting ideas which by their very nature are directed against your own fundamental interests and which have made you a willing, sad tool in their evil hands. The World Revolution is ongoing history. Even if you win the war, which I don’t think you will, the World Revolution will not and cannot be stopped by military means. Your very powerful army can do much harm to us, can kill many of our people – but it cannot kill ideas! Its movement might seem dormant to you at the moment, but it is there and will come to the fore again out of the awakening of the poor, the downtrodden ordinary people the world over in Africa, the Americas, in Asia and Europe too. People in their masses will one day understand that it is the power of capital over them which not only oppresses and robs them, but stifles their human potential, which either uses or discards them as mere pawns to make monetary profits out of them. Once the people grasp that idea, it will mature into an almost material force in popular uprisings like spreading wildfires and will do what has to be done in the name of humanity. It will not be Russia who will do it for them, although the Russian working people were the first who have broken the chains. The people of the world will do it for themselves in their own countries, against their own oppressors, in their own ways and in their own time!’

“His outburst gave me no chance to interrupt and it allowed no argument. Even though he had spoken quietly, it shook me to the core. Nobody had ever touched a chord of understanding in me that way and I felt naked and defenceless. And to give me the final knock, he pointed to my rifle, saying that ‘that thing’ could do nothing against his ideas. ‘And if you think that you have the intellectual capacity to respond to me meaningfully’, he concluded, ‘please don’t use any of your silly slogans about country, freedom and God!’

“Anger, almost suffocatingly, welled up in me. My natural reaction was to put him in his place. But then I thought better of it, I remembered that within a few hours he would be dead, and that perhaps this had been his way to take a last swipe at me. My guard duty was now up. And not wanting to make a final show of saying ‘Do Swydanya’ or ‘Auf Wiedersehn to him, I gave him one last look, perhaps with a mixture of anger and sadness in which he might have detected a glimmer of almost lost humanism, turned on my heel and slowly walked over to the stables which were our quarters. Boris did not move at all, not one sound came from him and I did not turn once in my stride. But I knew for sure, I felt it, that he was watching me intently as I trotted away from him with my ridiculous rifle.

“And in the horizon there rose the first light of the coming morning.

“We guards also bedded down on straw, and I always loved my first sleep after coming in from duty. But this morning I could not sleep. I did not even undress, just lay there and watched dawn creeping up. I twisted and turned, felt sorry for Boris – and also for myself. There was so much I simply could not understand. And then, with the sun already up, I heard the shots, a short salvo, that was all.

“I got up at once and walked over to the place where I knew the graves were ready. Morning had arrived in all its pristine beauty and the birds were singing as if nothing had happened. I met the firing squad coming back with their rifles, looking bored. They just nodded at me, obviously wondering why I was going in that direction. There were two or three prisoners already shovelling earth over the bodies. Beside Boris there were three others, already partially covered. I could still recognize him, his tunic looked crumpled and his boots had been taken off but he still wore his leather belt, and I could see blood on it. The diggers looked at me, obviously wondering what I was doing there. Their expression was sullen, but I could also see fear and hatred in their eyes. I wanted to ask them what had happened to Boris’s mouth-organ, had they taken it or was it still in his pocket? But then I changed my mind, thinking that they might suspect me of wanting to steal from the dead, and I walked away from it all, back to my stable, and I tried to get some sleep.

“I was much relieved when shortly afterwards I was certified ‘fit for frontline service’ again, and set off to rejoin my Division, which was hammering at so many gates. There, at least, things were straight-forward. Hard and tough as life was, there were no disturbing experiences to deceive one’s mind and conscience.

“The lads were glad to see me back. With the Volga now so close, the Russians were fighting fiercely and showing what their army was made of. Several in my company, all close friends, had fallen. Our CO, Oberleutnant Steffan, had been shot in the head. As much as it hurt me, I could understand all that. But the execution of Boris – why? It seemed like putting Jesus on the cross all over again.”

Approaching Stalingrad

We thought 1942 would be a great summer for us. We tried to catch the Red Army in pincers but they always withdrew. We thought they were cowards, but it was not so.

In the Don Bas region we came to a town where there were lots of factories. The Soviets had stripped it bare and moved all the machinery east of the Urals. That is where they mass-produced the T34 tank – the most successful tank in the history of the world. The production of the T34 turned our hope of victory into defeat.

Along with our army we had some economics officers, they wore green uniforms. They went into these factories and I saw their faces drop as they saw they had been stripped. They had counted on seizing that machinery.

I had not been to Stalingrad before. We could not capture Russian soldiers for they had melted away to form partisan groups. We had foreign troops on our side, such as the Romanians. We used these foreigners to protect our flanks behind Stalingrad, but our allies were not as well disciplined or as well armed as we were, so they got attacked. Our division pulled back behind the Romanian army, and we fought when the Russians broke through the Romanian ranks. It was November 1942. We felt something strange going on while we were on guard duty. The Russian T34 was the best tank of the second world war, and I knew the sound of its diesel engine, and thought I heard a lot of them in the distance. We told our officers that tanks were moving. The officers, however, told us that the Russians were finished and that we were frightened for nothing.

As we got into position for battle, we knew it was an overture to the opera. The real thing was to come. The artillery stopped for a moment and we heard the tanks revving up. They came early in the morning with their headlights on, shooting. They came for us. I thought of the officer who said I had only heard one tank being driven back and forth, not the hundreds now advancing. In front of us was a ravine. The Russian tanks dived into it and when they came up I knew it was over. I jumped into an earth bunker like a coward, shivering with fear, and I got into a corner where it would be less easy for the tanks to crush me. They just drove through us. There was a great deal of shouting – Russian voices, some Romanian. I did not dare move. It was 6 a.m. At 8-8.30 a.m. quiet descended. One of my comrades, Fritz, had been killed. There were the agonised shouts of the wounded. The Russian dead and injured were taken away, but the Germans and Romanians were still lying there. I was 20 years old, and I didn’t know what to do.

The wounded wanted my help. I had no medical knowledge or supplies and could see they had no hope. I just walked away from them. There were about 15-20 of them there. One German called out that I was a swine. I realised, however, that I could do nothing for them, and that I had to get away and concentrate totally on that. I went to my bunker where there was a stove. It was warm and there was straw and blankets. I went out to get some chopped wood. I heard an engine revving in the ravine. It was a broken down Russian jeep and there was I with an armful of wood. Two officers came to me and I stepped back. They must have thought I was a Russian soldier in a German coat. I saluted. He gestured that he had a sore arse. I made my fire and I slept the day away. I was frightened to wake up. What now?

I intended to walk in the dark. We had learnt orientation in the Hitler Youth and could find the way by the North Star. I started walking west. I did not know what had happened, or that Stalingrad had been taken by the Russians, or that the German 6th Army had surrendered. I was walking in the exact place where the breakthrough had happened.

I was not quite 20. I had to throw my blankets away – very reluctantly. Snow was covering the wounded. I took things from my dead mates – the best rifle, the best pistol, as much food as I could carry without overloading myself. I didn’t know how far I would have to walk to reach the German lines. I ate as much as I could and started walking. For 3 days I slept in barns and ate snow.

One day I saw someone and he saw me. I went down on my knees, with my gun, and just waited. I was wearing a Romanian fur cap. He shouted. He asked whether I was Romanian, and I said I was German. He said he was German too. We walked together another two days. We almost got killed when we crossed the German lines as they thought I must be a deserter since I did not know what had happened to my unit.

I belonged to battle group Lindemann. There were no more divisions or regiments. We had lost everything. We put Hitler’s scorched earth policy into effect. When we came across a hamlet one day of some 6-8 cottages, Lindemann told us to take possession of the cottages and burn them down. They were very poor, without a floor or anything. I opened the door of one of them. It was full of women and children and the elderly. It smelt of poverty. It smelt of cabbage. The people were sitting on the ground leaning against the wall. I ordered them out, and they started saying that they would all die without shelter. A woman with a baby asked me whether I, German soldier, had a mother. There was an old man there with a child by his side. I grabbed the child and pointed my pistol at him, and said I would shoot the child if the people did not leave the cottage. The old man asked me to shoot him instead. Lindemann ordered me to burn the house anyway, even if they didn’t get out. I did as I was told. Then the people opened the door and came out screaming. I am sure we killed them.

We ordinary German soldiers, conscripts, suffered too. The Russians had attacked us. There were others, even younger than me, walking through the snow hoping to rejoin our units. Russian Stormovik planes came out of the sunlight as we walked through the snow, saw our footprints and came after us. We could see their pilots. They circled and came back to shell us. One of us was hit and torn open – Willi. He was a good friend. His situation was hopeless. We could not carry him or leave him. As the oldest I had to decide. I went on my knees, stroked his head, covered him with snow. Again, I was a murderer, but what could we do?

I was wounded again (three times altogether). I was captured once and escaped. They took me to a German hospital in Westphalia in 1944. Early in 1945 I had to join a unit on the western front to fight the Americans. It was better than fighting the Russians. Because of the crimes we had committed in Russia, the Russians really hated us, and we therefore had to fight like mad to avoid being captured.

I was sent to defend the Rhine after D-Day. Patton’s army was moving in on Paris. After surrender, on 17 March 1945 I was taken to Cherbourg by train. They put us in open coal wagons – hundreds of German soldiers. They would not let us out even to go to the toilet, but we had plenty of food. When we needed to relieve ourselves we filled tins. When the French at a level crossing started abusing us, we threw our tins at them. We arrived at Cherbourg.

I saw the horror of devastation from east to west. What had we done! I saw catastrophic devastation. 50 million people had died! We wanted land, besides which Russia had some 50% of the world’s raw materials, including oil. That’s what it was about.

Now looking back, I salute the Red Army and what they did in saving the world from Hitler. They lost more casualties than we did. Nine-tenths of the German soldiers who died in the Second World War died in Russia. They asked me to come to a Memorial near the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I gave a short speech in which I paid tribute to the Red Army. It was because of this I had to go on the March against war on Iraq last Saturday. That was an uplifting experience.

We Germans thought we were the strongest military force on earth, but look what happened to us – the Americans should remember that. There will be revolution all over the world, even if it does not come in the same way as Boris said it would. There will be a new awakening.

Presentation made to the Stalin Society AGM, February 2003