Episode Five – The Holodomor versus World War I

Today, we start a new bracket known as Historical Events. Our first pairing brings us two very tragic events in the human journey, the Holodomor and World War I.

Holodomor in Kiev
Holodomor in Kiev

When I did my Russian Rulers podcast, one of the episodes, number 167, dealt with the numerous famines in Russian and Soviet history. The last one I covered was the Holodomor that occurred in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933. The Holodomor was a systematic, government sanctioned and run, starvation of millions and millions of people. It is also a hugely controversial event, as some claim it was just a part of the collectivization period of the Soviet Union while others, myself included, claim that it was a planned event caused by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin‘s orders to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Either way, it is estimated that between 1.5 and 12 million people died of hunger in just two brief years.  

The word Holodomor, translated from Ukrainian, means “death by hunger.” In a book by Vyacheslav Busel, he redefines the word thus, the “Artificial famine organized on a vast scale by criminal authorities against the population of their own country.” This is a better definition of the Holodomor.

The reasons for the famine are sometimes hotly debated. Some claim it was due strictly to the imposition of something known as collectivization of the farms which started in 1928 by order of Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin. 

Peasants were no longer allowed to have private farms. Instead, they were put into collective farms known as kolkhozy or sovkhozy. These were state-owned and directed by the government. They were told what crops to grow even when the farmers knew the soil or the climate was unsuitable for the selected produce. 

This order brought with it a lot of resentment from the farming peasant who was never really behind the whole Soviet – Communist program. Not only did the state own the land, but they also took the livestock, buildings, and equipment as well. The response by many people was to kill their animals and leave their property barren. This was the setup to the impending famine.

This part of the Holodomor is not debated by historians. The debate is on who to blame. Some, notably Soviet historians and Stalinists, claim that it was the farmers own fault. If they had worked the farms as they were asked to, none of the future tragedies would have occurred. This is, in my opinion, a simplistic and very dishonest argument. The peasants were stunned by the orders, and the Soviet government failed to pay them fairly for their production. Between 1929 and 1953, the year Stalin died, the USSR paid less to the collectives than the cost of production. They charged 50 times more to the consumer than they paid to the farmers. That is nothing short of theft. They did this to pay for the growing military budget. 

Ukraine has long been thought of as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and before that Imperial Russia. In 1931, the harvest pulled in about 7.2 million tons of grain and produce. This created a shortage which in turn led to rationing. Stalin believed, and rightfully so that the farmers were hoarding food and holding back from the authorities. The following year, 1932, the harvest only netted 4.3 million tons.

By 1932, food theft and any hoarding whatsoever could be punishable by death or a trip to the gulag in Siberia. The people who were punished were known as kulaks and counterrevolutionaries. The government used them as scapegoats and turned up the propaganda machine against them.

Stalin also wanted to do away with nationalism, as he saw this as a real threat to the Soviet Union. This nationalistic fervor was most active in Ukraine. He saw the poor harvests and hoarding as a tool to punish and squash Ukrainian nationalism.

Rationing went down to such small levels that they were unsustainable for human life. Farmers had all of their production taken by the government. Any resistance was met with summary executions. The total production of food from Ukraine was to be dispersed in the rest of the Soviet Union. No aide was allowed to alleviate the famine. Cannibalism was rampant. Those unwilling to go there died in their homes and the streets.

What is striking when looking at the Holodomor was the response by some Western journalists such as Walter Duranty, who wrote for the New York Times as their Moscow bureau chief. He won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1932 even though he wrote a series of articles claiming that there was no government-caused famine occurring in Ukraine. Duranty has thus been called Stalin’s apologist by many.

Whoever is at fault, it is undeniable that the famine in Ukraine during those two horrible years caused massive losses of life. The numbers of whether it was 2 or 12 million can be argued all you want, but that is just academic deliberations meant for the classroom not here. The Holodomor was a state-sponsored genocide that must never be forgotten.

Time for our “Put in Into Perspective” segment.

The film Dracula with Bela Lugosi was released. The Castellammarese War between American Mafia gangs ends. Chicago gangster Al Capone is sentenced to 11 years in prison for tax evasion. In 1932, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was published. The Winter Olympics opens in Lake Placid, New York, and Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected President of the United States, defeating Herbert Hoover.

Next up is World War I. 

World War I
World War I

I’m not going to tackle the entirety of the war as this is not the place for that. If you want to listen to a podcast about it, try the World War I podcast by MacArthur Memorial. Instead, I want to cover this tragedy and rank it versus the Holodomor briefly.

World War I was, in its time, known as the Great War or the War to End All Wars, with the later being incorrect. It cost the lives of an estimated 16 million people, seven million civilians and nine million actual combatants. On one side we have the French, British, Serbians, Belgium, Greece, Japan and for the first few years, Russia along with other smaller contingents. Their opponents included Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria.

The total number of men involved in the fighting were 43 million for the Allies, and 25 million for the Central Powers as they were known.

The casualties of the war were primarily due to the obstinate old generals who dug trenches and made men charge out to their deaths over and over again despite gaining little or no ground. What bothers me, in particular, is that this type of warfare was shown to be insane during a previous multi-national conflict, the Crimean War in 1853 – 1856. 

The human suffering coming from trench warfare is almost indescribable. There are numerous documentaries out there showing the conditions that the men had to endure. What we now know as PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, was showing up on both sides.

Here is a quote from “To End All Wars: a story of loyalty and rebellion, 1914-1918” by Adam Hochschild when he describes his visit to a cemetery where British soldiers are buried due to their deaths at the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. “The comments in the cemetery’s visitors’ book are almost all from England: Bournemouth, London, Hampshire, Devon. ‘Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk.’ Sleep on, boys.’ ‘Lest we forget.’ ‘Thanks, lads.’ ‘Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace.’ Why does it bring a lump to the throat to see words like sleep, rest, sacrifice, when my reason for being here is the belief that this war was needless folly and madness? Only one visitor strikes a different note: ‘Never again.’ On a few pages, the ink of the names and remarks have been smeared by raindrops – or was it tears?”

He next goes on to tell us that there are four hundred cemeteries where the bodies of British soldiers are buried due to the battles around the Somme in France. This is a 20-mile-long piece of land. This is duplicated throughout Europe where World War I was fought. Many of the men were machine-gunned down running towards the enemy knowing they would die. Their generals sent them with full knowledge that these young men were going to die as well. We may need to look at these older men as murderers, pre-meditated murderers. If this doesn’t make one emotional and develop a deep hatred for war then nothing will.

When looking at the impact of World War I, we see the dissolution of some countries two of which would profoundly change their people’s lives. The first is the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was a remnant of the Holy Roman Empire. The other is the Ottoman Empire which had at one-time threatened Europe with an Islamic tidal wave but by now, was considered the sick man of Europe. Both would split apart creating new countries.

On the other side, we have the enormous impact of the war on Russia which caused the fall of the Romanov dynasty leading to the Bolsheviks taking over and creating the USSR. The communist wave that took over a number of countries would dominate geopolitics until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Another, even more, the critical impact was the fact that the war didn’t settle anything it led to more significant discord between the players leading to the real mother of all wars to date, World War II.

The aftermath of the war and the Treaty of Versailles was, in hindsight another tragedy that led to tens of millions of more people losing their lives. Versailles not only put onerous reparations on Germany, which is in part the reason for the rise in the Nazi party and Adolph Hitler, but it also caused the Japanese to distrust the west because of them being slighted even though they were part of the winning side. 

Typically, this is where I begin to give out points for each of the categories where the battles are judged on. Today, I will deviate from that standard. Because of the emotional aspect and human suffering involved in both the Holodomor and World War I, I will forgo that and declare the event that will move on to the second round which will be World War I.

This is in no way a means to diminish the millions of lives lost to the man-made genocide of the Holodomor; it is intended to allow us to better understand the incredible horror of war and the effect World War I had on humankind. The Holodomor likely would not have occurred had it not been for the War to End All Wars. The Romanov’s probably would have collapsed anyway, but the chances that the fringe group known as the Bolshevik’s and their leaders, Lenin and Joseph Stalin would have ever come to power is greatly diminished.

Also, without this terrible conflict, it is likely that World War II, the rise of the Nazi’s and Adolph Hitler, would also have likely not occurred. Could there have been something worse? Of course, but that is for a different podcast. What happened, happened. What we can only hope for is that the lesson of these two events is never forgotten.

World War I will pit itself in the next round against the winner of development of the Printing Press versus the Industrial Revolution.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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