Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust, by Miron Dolot. New York: W. W. Norton & Co. 231 pp. $16.95. It's a debate that can never be settled, yet it will continue to engage historians for many years. It is whether Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin was the man responsible for the greatest amount of human suffering in history.
The difficulty in resolving this question lies in the fact that each man's crimes are so similar. Each set out deliberately to murder millions of innocent men, women, and children; showed himself utterly devoid of any touch of kindliness or mercy; and combined unspeakable cruelty with the most revolting hypocrisy. Hitler was portrayed as the unselfed, tireless warden of his people's welfare; Stalin was the kindly, pipe-smoking ``Uncle Joe.''
Hitler's millionfold murders are well known, not least because of the present West German government's readiness to have them publicized. Stalin's equally large sowing of death among Ukrainian peasants and others has received far less publicity, because of the Soviet government's continuing refusal to admit to the horrors of its own past. Nor are these deeds of Stalin without tragic relevance to the present: The enforced collectivization that in the single year of 1932-1933 starved to death 6 million to
8 million individuals still governs a bumbling Soviet agriculture.
This stupendous tragedy was due in part to the extreme reluctance Soviet Marxists show toward learning from experience. Only a few years earlier, Stalin had sought to squeeze the peasants, but was forced to retreat before their stubborn resistance and sabotage. Yet ideology was too strong for common sense, and the Russian leader imposed even more drastic measures. The result was not only a land littered with the bodies of millions of dead (that same year the Soviet Union exported 1.5 million tons of gr ain, more than enough to have saved the lives of all who starved), but the reduction of Russian agricultural production to a level markedly below what had prevailed under the excoriated czars.
With measures that were at many points a foretaste of those the Nazi regime would employ in those same Russian regions, millions were forced from their homes and villages to tramp the roads without food or shelter. Kangaroo courts were set up to condemn to death sufficient numbers of people to cow the rest. Gangs of young criminals emerged from the cities to terrorize the countryside. Anyone showing the slightest resistance or disapproval met the same fate later meted out by Hitler's extermination squad s. It is small wonder that a few years later the German leader would express admiration for Stalin's methods and that Hitler was apparently the only foreign leader Stalin truly admired.
Miron Dolot (a pen name) grew up in a Ukrainian village and, from 1929 to 1933, lived through the imposition of collectivization, the seizure of peasant land, the expropriation of the food supplies upon which the peasantry lived, the expulsion of enormous numbers of helpless individuals, and the terrible months of famine that followed. The Ukraine, once called the ``breadbasket of Europe,'' became desolate, even the tallest trees stripped of their leaves by the starving people.
Were there also, as Dolot suggests, still other reasons besides Marxist collectivization behind this gruesome Soviet policy? Was Stalin suspicious of what he thought was Ukrainian nationalism? Were other parts of the USSR to be weakened (there were similar policies in force in some of the Asian Soviet republics) so as to strengthen the central position of the Great Russian majority? Or, indeed, was this primarily a display of that pathological cruelty Stalin had increasingly exhibited? Perhaps all of th ese factors were at play in this exhibition of ruthlessness, which the Soviet government has yet to condemn adequately.
This book, like those detailing Hitler's Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's purposeful extermination of a considerable part of the Cambodian population, or the Turks' genocidal slaughter of Armenians early in the century, is a tale of unrelieved horror. It boggles the mind that such deeds could have been the official policy of a modern nation. Yet such records must be brought to mankind's attention so long as any possibility of their repetition remains. Dolot concludes: ``We could no longer cry. We had lived through so much sorrow, and had suffered so many tragic losses that we were left numb.'' We must not be.
Joseph Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.