Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Joe Stalin, the man of steel

I just love David Reynolds, the histortian. I have read his Summits: Six Meetings That Shaped the Twentieth Century, and greatly enjoyed it because he has the wonderful ability of a real story teller to bring the people he writes about alive. You feel that you got to know Stalin, Roosevelt, Churching, Kennedy and Khrushchev, Nixon, Kissinger and Brezhnev, Carter, Sadat and Begin, and Reagan and Gorbachev. Then I watched on television his series The Long Shadow, and last night he talked about Stalin and how he confronted the German attack. Stalin was a monster. There is no question about it. He had no empathy with people, he had a sadistic streak in him, he enjoyed the suffering of others, although unlike his mate, Beria, he probably did not personally inflict such physical suffering. He was a gangster, a bank robber, but he committed his crimes for a cause. And as Reynolds presented him, he was always single-mindedly driven by the cause, the cause of bringing Russia into the twentieth century, enabling the country to catch up, economically, technologically, with the advanced countries of the West. If in the pursuit of this cause he had to sacrifice, murder, eliminate millions, that was the price he had to pay for it as he saw it. He was not a leader with charisma, like Hitler, or even Mussolini, and certainly Churchill. His skill was listening, saying little but hearing much. His role in the Party, as Reynolds described it, was that of the keeper of the index cards. But he was cunning, he could outmanoeuvre colleagues who appeared to have much more going for them, smarter, more assertive, more popular. And in the end, his supreme achievement, he could win the war and defeat with horrendous sacrifice the German invaders. When I was about fourteen, fifteen, perhaps even sixteen, I was a communist at heart, a Stalinist. Even later, in my twenties, I would have thought of myself as a socialist. I grew up in a world of lies. Nothing I believed in was true. But the opposite of my beliefs was not true either. The entire world was befogged by deception. And I am not convinced that things are much better now. How will my granddaughter, Susie, be able to choose between right and wrong if everything presented to her is untrue. Eric Hobsbawm, British Marxist historian, who died two years ago at the age of 95, never learned. He died a true believer, a Marxist, a follower of the cause. How could an intelligent, highly educated man not see what everyone else could see, not learn, like I did, that the cause he believed in is false, built on lies? Perhaps the answer is that he was born in 1917 in Egypt, in Alexandria, son of a Jewish merchant of Polish descent, from the East End of London. He grew up in Germany, and moved to England as a teenager when Hitler came to power. Truth then seemed different to him, Marxism then seemed to him to be the saviour of the world, and like many true believers, he stayed with the faith, forever unshakable.