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13 August 2004

A Historian's View of Stalin: The Aftermath Lives On

Heidelberg historian Prof. Dr. Heinz-Dietrich Löwe presents an extremely precise account of the multi-faceted Stalin phenomenon based on broad research foundations

Russia is still labouring under the effects of the Stalin regime. In many regions the rural population lives in conditions that have seen little change since before the First World War. At the same time large sectors of the heavy industry so one-sidedly promoted in the past are disintegrating. In addition, coercive collectivisation and the "Great Terror" cost the country millions of lives. Despite all this, the adulation for Stalin has by no means died out. This intriguing phenomenon has been closely observed by the Department of Eastern European History of the University of Heidelberg and is also enlarged upon in the new biography published by the director of the Institute, Professor Heinz-Dietrich Löwe.

Joseph Stalin is certainly one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century. Although he subjected his country to upheavals that could hardly have been more devastating and brutal, many Russians still regard him as one of the most significant personalities their country has ever produced. Today, 50 years after his death, committed Stalinists are a vociferous group in Russia. Though their claims are more conspicuous for their vehemence than for their substance, their slogans do not fall on deaf ears.

"Talk to people in Russia today," says Professor Heinz-Dietrich Löwe, "and you'll still find them calling for a new strong man to lead the country. Though today's Stalinists are hardly any more than a minority movement, they do make themselves heard and the idea that Russian society can only be managed by an unassailable autocrat is still there. In Russia, political thinking centres around personalities. The structures connected with the personality cult built up around Stalin have by no means withered away."

This adulation for the man at the helm was so unconditional that even citizens persecuted and imprisoned by Stalin's power apparatus mourned in their prison cells when they heard of his death in 1953. "The news of Stalin's death on the radio came as a tremendous shock to the people of Russia. Many of them sincerely bewailed his passing, even those who had suffered immeasurably under his regime. The personality cult had firmly established him as the wise and irreplaceable leader of the nation. He was the father figure on whom everything depended. Accordingly, the masses felt bereft of all guidance and lapsed into a state of the most profound despondency. The number of citizens thronging to attend the funeral ceremony exceeded all expectations and the security forces were completely overtaxed. As a result hundreds of people were squeezed or trampled to death." Thus Heinz-Dietrich Löwe in his outstanding new biography.

Bound up with this was a highly interesting phenomenon. Stalin was generally considered as a colossal father figure whose actions transcended the category of forgiveness. He was the one who forgave. "This development began in the 1930s," Löwe explains, "when Stalin consciously established himself in the line of great symbolic figures like Ivan the Terrible, whose image in the minds of the common people was that of a harsh but just protector." This did not prevent Stalin from levelling criticism at his great predecessor for being too half-hearted in the fight against his enemies. Here we find one of the central features of the all-powerful ruler: he was capable not only of a virtuoso command of his apparatus but also of a completely amoral ruthlessness. Thus it is entirely fitting that a biography of Josif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili should be titled "The Untrammelled Revolutionary" for it was Stalin himself who drove his paladins on to increasingly extreme forms of Bolshevist terror.

In sum, Heinz-Dietrich Löwe has succeeded in drawing a very precise portrait of the multi-faceted Stalin phenomenon based on broad research foundations. An important feature is his focus on the young Stalin and his role in the run-up to the October Revolution. This provides the reader with interesting insights on the formation of the later dictator's character. The details from this part of his career make his sometimes grotesque behaviour in later years more readily comprehensible, including his paranoid fear of potential traitors in his own party or his predilection for the dazzlingly white uniform with which the religiously educated Stalin underscored his role as the redeemer of the Russian people. "We also find this in his rhetoric," adds Professor Löwe, "which is highly reminiscent of a catechism."

Löwe's concern is not however limited to Stalin alone, though his profoundly researched and highly readable biography might suggest such a conclusion. In the last few years the director of the Department of Eastern European History and head of the externally funded Centre for Research on the History and Culture of the Germans in Russia has published a number of books providing insights into what is still largely an unknown world. Their subjects are anti-Semitism in Tsarist Russia, the situation of the farmers there between 1860 and 1910 and Tsarist policy vis-à-vis the Jewish population. Other research interests include Russian nationality policy, the revolutionary movement and the Russian intelligentsia, popular uprisings in Russia since the 17th century, Russian economic history and the Jews in medieval and early modern Polish society. "We are also running a project funded by the German Research Council on the influence of the cinema on early 20th century urban society," says Löwe. "It is based on a comparison between London, Berlin and St. Petersburg."

Heinz-Dietrich Löwe has been the director of the Department since 1992. Though it was established in 1964 no major anniversary celebrations are planned. "Instead we are working on a volume about Russian uprisings and revolutions between the early 17th century and 1920," he says. "You could say that this is our anniversary gift to ourselves." From 1997 to 1999 Professor Löwe was vice-Rector of the University of Heidelberg with special responsibility for international relations, the humanities and teaching.

Recently, however, there was another occasion for anniversary celebrations at the Department — the 60th birthday of its director, who received a festschrift from his colleagues to mark this significant date. "I was honestly bowled over," says Löwe, "and it made the present even more of a joy. Actually, the whole thing is symptomatic of the excellent working atmosphere here at the Department. Even though we spend a lot of our time studying such horrifying subjects as Stalin's terror regime, we don't want that to detract from the pleasure we take in our work." Readers of Löwe's Stalin biography will certainly concur. Though the career of one of the 20th century's most controversial figures is disfigured by violence and inhumanity, it is still fascinating to be given such a complete account of it. In short, "Stalin — The Untrammelled Revolutionary" is a must for all those interested in the subject.

The two-volume book is published (in German) by the Muster-Schmidt Verlag (Göttingen) and costs 28.50 euros. ISBN 3-7881-0153-9
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Prof. Dr. Heinz-Dietrich Löwe
Department of Eastern European History
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542474

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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