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The Soviet Holocaust : Stalin’s Purges In the 1930s

By Jim Griess
Author’s Note: This article outlines the political environment in Stalin’s Soviet Union during the 1930s. A portion of  the article  is excerpted from the book, The German Russians: Those Who Came to Sutton by Jim Griess, Henderson: Service Press, 2008. The last part of the article examines the summary executions of the German Russian population by the Stalinist regime at the close of the decade (1930s).
See Soviet propaganda poster. Stalin assumes the spirit of Lenin.  Source: Wikimedia
The Political and Economic Climate of the Stalinist Regime in the 1930s.
The year was 1928. Stalin had recently emerged as the absolute dictator of the Soviet Union following an internal party struggle after the death of Lenin in 1924. Old line Bolsheviks who had been loyal supporters of Lenin were expelled from the party. This included Leon Trotsky. The Bolshevik Revolution was in its eleventh year.
For a time after Stalin became the Premier of the Soviet Union, he retained Lenin’s New Economic Policy. However, bureaucrats within the Communist Party were divided on how Russia’s economy should function in the future. One faction believed that the New Economic Policy provided sufficient control over the economy to accomplish the economic goals the party wished to achieve. Others argued that it smacked too much of capitalism and advocated greater control and a more rapid expansion of industrialization. In 1928, Stalin chose the latter course of action.
 Under Stalin’s leadership, the Soviets adopted a series of “Five-Year Plans” designed to enhance Soviet industrialization. Each Five-year Plan dealt with all aspects of economic development: capital goods (those used to produce other goods, like coal, iron, and machinery), consumer goods (e.g. chairs, carpets, and irons), agriculture production, transportation, communications, health, education, and welfare. The emphasis varied from plan to plan; generally, the emphasis was on power (electricity), capital goods, and agriculture. Each plan included a set of production goals. Efforts were made, especially in the third plan, to move industry east of the Ural Mountains in an effort to make it safer from attack in the event of a war with Germany. Stalin introduced the first Five-year Plan in 1928.
The Soviets never forgot the Allied invasion of Russia at the end of World War I, and those events colored Soviet-Western relations throughout the period leading up to World War II. In 1931, his industrial managers asked him why it was necessary to push industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture so rapidly. Stalin explained his reasoning. Slackening the tempo of the Five-Year Plan would mean falling behind.
 “... Those who fall behind get beaten,” Stalin said. “We refuse to be beaten! One feature of the history of old Russia was these continual beatings. She suffered because of her backwardness. She was beaten by the Mongols, the Turks, the Swedes, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the British, French, and Japanese. All beat her because of her backwardness, military backwardness, cultural backwardness, political backwardness, industrial backwardness, and agricultural backwardness.”[1]
The first Five-Year Plan emphasized heavy industries to lay the foundations for future industrial growth. Despite the targets being unbelievably high, Russia achieved remarkable results. For example, coal and iron production was doubled, electric power production almost tripled, and 1,500 new industrial plants were built. As a result, the welfare of the working class in Russia was significantly improved.[2]
Because of the success of the first plan, the government went ahead with the second Five Year Plan in 1932, although the official start-date for the plan was 1933. The second Five-Year Plan gave heavy industry top priority, although transportation, especially railways, became important to link cities and industrial centers. New industries, such as chemicals and metallurgy, grew enormously. It also brought a spectacular rise in steel production, more than 17 million tons, placing the Soviet Union not far behind Germany as one of the major steel-producing countries of the world.
The third Five-Year Plan ran for only three years, until 1941, when Russia entered World War II. As war approached, more resources were put into developing armaments, tanks, and weapons. The 12% to 13% rate of annual industrial growth attained in the Soviet Union during the 1930s has few parallels in the economic history of other countries. Since Russia's economy had always lagged behind the rest of Europe, these increases appeared all the more dramatic. [3] What these figures failed to take into account was the terrible loss of life that was associated with the collectivization of agriculture. Stalin began the collectivization process as part of the first Five-Year Plan in 1928.Henceforth; agricultural production would be managed like a factory. All the means of production- land, draft animals, livestock, seed etc. - would become the property of the state. The peasants and the German colonists living north of the Black Sea, along the Volga, in the Caucuses and elsewhere within the Soviet Empire would work together, eat together, and survive economically together. As one source reports, “Even the words me and mine were abolished, [and were] replaced with us and ours; even the butchering of an animal required permission from the regime.”[4]
According to Communist dogma, the collective farms would help to guarantee a “worker’s paradise” by ensuring that the industrial workers and Red Army had the necessary foodstuffs and raw materials needed to grow the Soviet economy. The production of the collective would be managed by a professional whose responsibility was to see that production goals were met. The products of the collective were sold to the state, which handled the distribution through a wholesaler’s network, and any surplus was sold on the world market to provide the Soviet government with needed revenue to operate the government and to fund accelerated industrialization.
Members of the collective were to be paid from the profits of the collectives, but the system was flawed from the outset. First, the elimination of individual profit destroyed initiative. Second, the production quotas often exceeded realistic production capabilities, particularly during years of drought. Third, peasant farmers and German Colonists resisted the idea of turning over all their livestock to the collectives, and instead, slaughtered and ate the livestock, resulting in significant loss of animal numbers.
At the outset, collectivization was to have been voluntary, but when the peasants and German Colonists resisted, the government became more “persuasive.”[5]Russian peasants had always been the most conservative element within Russian society and they actively resisted joining the collectives. To facilitate collectivization, and to overcome resistance by the peasants, the government recruited nearly 27,000 factory workers and minor Communist officials. This “collectivization task force” left their jobs in the north and like a swarm of locusts, descended upon the black soil regions of the Ukraine, the Volga, and other agricultural areas in order to “teach” the peasants about the “benefits” of collectivization. See Soviet Collectivization Propaganda Poster. Source: Wikimedia
The Communist bosses arrived in the German village of Hoffnungstal, Ukraine in late 1928. The villagers were called together to meet in the church sanctuary and were notified about the new arrangements. When the German colonists and the Ukrainian peasants were slow to “volunteer” to join the collective, Stalin issued an order that collectivization would be completed by 1930. Soviet agents began to round up the dissidents. According to Soviet dogma, they were labeled “kulaks,” that is, since they had profited from the sweat of others, (they had hired others to perform labor) they became “enemies of the people.” The “kulaks” were to be eliminated as parasites. In Hoffnugstal, they were rounded up and taken to a long whitewashed barn where they were interrogated and beaten. Their fate was totally in the hands of the Soviet agents. Some were summarily sentenced to death, sent to a prison in Odessa, and eventually shot to death. The more “fortunate” were sent to slave labor camps, gulags, in the North or East, which usually meant the sub-arctic region, Siberia, or one of the other Asiatic Soviet republics.[6]
In 1932–33, Stalin resorted to new tactics. The quota for agricultural production far exceeded the actual production capabilities. When villages failed to produce the expected quotas of grain, Soviet agents came into the Ukrainian villages, including the German colonies, and seized all the commodities. Soviet police then set up roadblocks to prevent the peasants from leaving their villages. The result was mass starvation. About 25% of the Ukrainian population starved to death. Ukrainians were dying at the rate of 17 per minute, 1,000 per hour, and 25,000 per day. All the while, the Soviet government was selling 1.7 million tons of grain in Western markets to acquire capital to invest in industrialization. The famine was not limited to the Ukraine; other areas of the Soviet Union suffered as well. There is evidence that people resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. [7]
“If a black flag appeared waving in the air above a Ukrainian village in 1933, Ukrainians knew that every single resident was dead, their starving bodies waiting to be collected.”[8]
Beginning in 1935, Stalin's drive for total control, and his pressing need for convict labor to fuel rapid industrialization, next spawned the series of immense internal purges. This round of arrests sent millions of party members and ordinary individuals to their deaths, either through summary executions or as the result of the atrocious conditions of the “gulags” (the series of slave labor camps that dotted every region of the Soviet Union).
The Chief Directorate [or Administration] of Corrective Labor Camps’ was the branch of the Soviet internal police and security service that operated the penal system of forced labor camps and associated detention and transit camps and prisons. While these camps housed criminals of all types, the Gulag system [was]… primarily known as a place for political prisoners and as a mechanism for repressing political opposition to the Soviet state. Though it imprisoned millions, the name became familiar in the West only with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's 1973, The Gulag Archipelago, which likened the scattered camps to a chain of islands.”[9] A Ukrainian child suffering from malnutrition. Source: Wikimedia
As noted earlier, the purges were not confined to the German villages in Russia. Stalin had many other “enemies of the people” in mind. Claiming that he had evidence of a planned military coup d’état, Stalin carried out a purge of the Red Army, removing as many as 70,000 men in the officers’ corps. He turned his secret police loose on a number of members of the Communist Party, resulting in the elimination of nearly 850,000 members. He terrorized Russia with massive numbers of arrests and executions as well as show trials. All of this was designed to instill in the people of Russia an absolute terror of the police and recognition of his absolute power.
A second wave of arrests and relocations occurred in 1936–1938. “These were the years of the destruction of the Intelligentsia: clergyman, teachers, higher political officers, etc.” [10] By the time World War II began, not one in four German Russian families had a head of household. The husbands had been rounded up and sent to slave labor camps and most were never heard from again.
“The campaigns were further fueled by the ‘denunciation quotas’ established under the authority of Nikolai HOV, who took over as head of the Soviet Secret Police (NKVD) . 12“Sometimes almost all adult males among a given population were rounded up for mass arrest and probable death. Writes Robert W. Thurston; ‘According to some reports, entire groups of men were taken in one swoop by the NKVD.’ ‘Almost all the male inhabitants of the little Greek community where I lived [in the lower Ukraine] had been arrested,’ recalled one émigré. Another reported that the NKVD took all males between the ages of seventeen and seventy from his village of German-Russians…The police clearly knew they were arresting innocent people.”[13]
“As the Soviet economy became more and more dependent on slave labor, the government actually set arrest quotas for its police and paramilitary units. For example, an order reportedly arrived in Tashkent to ‘Send 200 [prisoners]!’ The local NKVD was at its wits’ end about whom else to arrest, having exhausted all the obvious possibilities, until it learned that a band of ‘gypsies’ (Romany) had just camped in town. Police surrounded them and charged every male from seventeen to sixty with sabotage.”[14]
Slave laborers working on the Belomorkanal -1930. Tons of dirt and rock were moved using pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow. The backbreaking work often led to death from malnutrition, exhaustion, and disease. Source: Wikimedia Commons; in the public domain.
Ron Vossler describes how this second purge was carried out in the Black Sea German village of Hoffnungstal located about 70 miles northwest of Odessa. “This time, however, the mass operations, at least the German order, weren’t primarily based on actual events, but grew from the imagined conspiracies against Soviet power, as well as Stalin’s homicidal distrust of foreigners, and, also, the Soviets’ assumptions that if war broke out with Germany, German Colonists would side with the country with which they shared language and culture. (Such distrust persisted in the regime, despite the fact that ethnic German villagers, such as the Hoffnugstallers, who’d lost at least 50 sons in WWI, with many returning with wounds, fought bravely for their homeland of Czarist Russia.” [15]


 “Eyewitness accounts vary; but with the impetus of the mass operations, and at intervals, various militia units, Communist youth from nearby villages, (and) internal NKVD troops…, all descended upon the area around the white house and long barn.” From there they “spanned out in the village, to make their arrests, starting sometime in July of 1937, for the ‘anti-kulak’ mass operation, continuing sporadically over the rest of that year; and with the ‘anti-German’ operation more confined to 1938.”[16]

“Together, the two mass operations swept in their wake former prisoners of war; people who’d had contacts with the West, with friends, relatives, and relief organizations in Germany and the United States during the earlier decades (the famine in 1921-22) as much-needed food relief, in the form of packages and money, saved many of the ethnic German villagers from starvation. . . .” [17]
The NKVD conducted interrogations of those rounded up, nearly 300 men, in a couple of small rooms in the long barn. “The NKVD used fists, belts, hammers, wooden or rubber batons, as well as other paraphernalia and techniques, including the normal methods, like the ‘conveyor belt’: when a succession of interrogators broke prisoners to hasten confessions, or holding victims fingers in the hinge area, where door edges touches jamb, as the door was slowly closed.”[18]
Such methods were extremely effective! Prisoners confessed to being agents or saboteurs or spies for the German military, of being in contact with the Gestapo, or to being Trotskyites or agents of either German or Japanese counterintelligence. When Stalin came to power, even Trotsky, one of Lenin’s faithful companions and a co founder of the Soviet state, became an “enemy of the people.”
How many died? In the original version of his book The Great Terror, Robert Conquest gave the following estimates of those arrested, executed, and incarcerated during the height of the Purge: “Arrests, 1937-1938 - about 7 million. Executed - about 1 million. Died in camps - about 2 million. In prison, late 1938 - about 1 million. In camps, late 1938 - about 8 million.” Conquest concluded; “not more than 10 percent of those then in camp survived. He updated his figures in the late 1980s based on then released archival sources; he increased the number of ‘arrests’ to 8 million.”[19] The resulting data set the number of people killed during the purges at ten million. About 98 percent of the dead were male.
 “In a fascinating addendum to the original edition of his work on the Purge period, The Great Terror, and using the 1959 Soviet census, Robert Conquest illustrated the loss of males on the Soviet population numbers...” He then unveils a striking table indicating that whereas age cohorts up to 25-29 displayed the usual 51-to-49 percent split of women to men, for the 30-34 age group the gap widened to 55 to 45 percent. Thereafter, the disparity became massive, reflecting the generations of males caught up in the purges and the Great Patriotic War. From 35-39, women outnumbered men by 61 to 39 percent; from 40-54, the figure was 62 to 38 percent; in the 55-59 age group, 67 to 33 percent; from 60-69 years of age, 65 percent women  to 35 percent men; and 70 or older, 68 to 32 percent.”[20]
The impetus of the purge waned at the end of 1938, by which time “the snowball system [of accusations] had reached a stage where half the urban population was down on the NKVD lists,” and the proportion of the entire Soviet population arrested had reached one in every twenty. “One can virtually say that every other family in the country on average must have had one of its members in jail.” Proportions were far higher among the educated classes. “Even from Stalin's point of view, the whole thing had become impossible. ... To have gone on would have been impossible economically, politically, and even physically, in that interrogators, prisons, and camps, already grotesquely overloaded, could not have managed it. Meanwhile, the work of the mass Purge had been done. The country was crushed.” Stalin now eased the pressure, dismissing Yezhov, head of the secret police’ from his post (he would subsequently be executed) and declared that “grave mistakes” had occurred, though on balance the results of the Purge “were beneficial.” [21]Nonetheless, slave labor camps remained a reality throughout Stalin’s regime.[22]
The Summary Execution of Perceived “Enemies of the People.”
From 1935 – 1937, the relocation and outright murder of the German Russian population and other Soviet citizens reached a fevered pitch. The assassination of a well-known communist leader in Leningrad served as the excuse for wholesale arrests and executions. This was in spite of the fact that there is strong evidence that it was Stalin himself who had this leader assassinated. The new purges were targeted at political leaders both within and outside the Communist Party, intellectuals, teachers, pastors, and technocrats. The atrocities were not confined to the German Russian population. Claiming that he had discovered a plot to assassinate him, Stalin directed his attention to many of his former political enemies, many who had been loyal to Lenin. He purged the ranks of the Army and the officers’ corps. This included field marshals, theater commanders, and nearly 1,800 high-level officers. Once again, they were accused of being “enemies of the people.” Stalin’s goal was to invoke absolute terror in the Russian population, founded on the premise that this would create absolute obedience and conformity to the demands of his regime. 
John Phillips who lived through these purges was born in Landau in the Beresan District of South Russia (the Ukraine). He is personally familiar with these events and how they played out among the German Russian villages of that region. He reports that 13 clergy, including individuals from Karlsruhe, Landau, Sulz, Rastadt, Muenchen, Schonfeld, Speyer, Worms, Rohrbach, and Waterloo, were arrested, tried, and sent into exile in Siberia or Kazakhstan. By 1934, all churches in the German villages of the Ukraine were closed and their buildings converted to secular uses.[23]
 A specific example of the impact of these purges on German Russian families is illustrated by the story of Willhelm Klundt, a resident of Rohrbach. He was born there in 1886. His parents were Heinrich and Katherine Reichert Klundt. Willhelm was married to Pauline Schock. The Klundts had acquired considerable land and wealth through hard work and sound farm management. As a result, Willhem was considered a kulak. When the time came  for the second round up of the kulaks, a Ukrainian friend named Smirtny, who was also the local administrator for the new system, told Klundt, “you are on the pressure – emigrants – list, make your farm small, sell everything you can and just move away.” The farm was of considerable size, so Willhelm brought his parents to Gueldendorf near Odessa and relocated his wife and three daughters to his sister’s home in Wasserowka, about 30 km from Brauncutter, Poland. Then he began to dispose of his property. He sold some of the property outright and gave some to his daughters.
 During the period 1932-1937,   Willhelm concealed his identity, thereby avoiding placement as a laborer on a collective farm. He traveled around Russia, according to his relatives, even going to Moscow. When he was at “home,” he lived with his daughter and son-in-law, Emma and Gustav Knell. During the day, he worked as a livestock broker, buying, and selling cows, horses, and pigs. At night, he would return to his son-in-law’s home and to avoid detection by Communist authorities, he constructed a small cave underneath the Russian oven in the yard. These were large, brick ovens that stood some distance from the home to avoid the potential for fire, but even his secret cave did not help. His neighbors eventually denounced him. On April 9, 1937, Wilhelm was arrested and tried. He was placed before a firing squad on August 10, and was shot to death. Because he harbored his father-in-law, “an enemy of the people,” Gustav Knell was arrested, tried, and executed on November 22, 1937. Willhelm’s story was repeated many times over throughout the Soviet, “workers’ paradise.”[24]
What happened in the Beresan villages is also instructive as to what occurred in many parts of Russia during this time period. Beginning in 1808, 11 German colonies were established about 90 versts north of the Black Sea port of Odessa, although Colonists did not arrive until 1809 or later. Seven of the villages were Catholic and four were Protestant. The Protestant colonies, a mix of both the German Reformed and German Lutheran faiths, included Rohrbach (1809), Worms (1809), Johannestal (1810), and Waterloo (1819). The Catholic colonies included Speyer, (1808), Landau (1909), Sulz (1909), Rastadt (1809), Muenchen (1809), Karlsruhe 1810), and Katharinental (1817).
The map to the right identifies the German villages in the Region of Odessa on the Black Sea. Group deportations and executions were widespread throughout the Soviet Union during the last half of the 1930s and increased with intensity as Stalin realized that war with Germany was eminent. Most of the executions occurred in 1937-38. In the Beresan District, in the village of Landau, 62 German colonists were arrested, 40 were shot outright, and 22, including seven women, were sentenced to labor camps. In Speyer, 55 colonists were arrested, 36 execute, and 18 sentenced to labor camps. In the village of Sulz, 52 were arrested, 23 executed, and 29 sentenced to the labor camps. Karlsruhe saw 51 of its citizens arrested, 38 executed, and 13 sentenced to labor camps. Those arrested in Katharinental included 45 of its citizens, with 27 executed, and the remainder sent to labor camps. Thirty-six citizens were arrested in Johannestal, 22 were executed, and 14 sent to the camps. In Waterloo 32 were arrested, 22 were executed, and 12 sentenced to the camps. Rohrbach had the largest number of its citizens affected by the purges in the Beresan District; 89 were arrested, 65 executed and 26 sent to the camps. Though the data is unclear, it appears that Worms had 20 arrests, 11 were executed, and nine sent to the camps. Rastadt lost 69 of its citizens, 55 were executed, and 14 sent to the camps. Forty Muenchen citizens were arrested, 27 were executed, and 13 sent to the camps. The list goes on and on.[25]
For those sentenced to the camps, mortality rates ran at 90 percent. In reality, being sent to the camps amounted to a death sentence, but by a slower means than being shot to death. Those summarily executed may have received the better deal. People starved to death, froze to death, or simply collapsed under the weight of the labor expected of them in the forests, mines, and water projects where they were sent to perform the duties required of the Stalinist regime.
The German colonies, which remained following these purges, were to experience additional trials and tribulations following the outbreak of World War II. Entire villages were relocated to Siberia and Kazakhstan on a moment’s notice. There they remained until the 1950s when Nikita Khrushchev became Premiere of the Soviet Union. In a secret address to the Communist Congress, Khrushchev denounced the excesses of the Stalinist regime and began to disassemble the slave labor camps that had provided Stalin with expendable labor. More than ten million ordinary people including “Unsere Leute,” “Our People,” are known to have perished in what may be the worst holocaust of the twentieth century.
When one considers the barbarity and inhumane treatment of our relatives and friends in Stalin’s Soviet Union, one must give thanks that for many of us, our ancestors chose to emigrate to the West prior to the events associated with the Bolshevik Revolution. It is for us the living to give honor to those who lost their lives during this wholesale genocide and to be awestruck at the human will and determination to survive such inhumane conditions. Let us never forget.




[1] Joseph V. Stalin, On the Industrialization of Russia, http// .
[2] Five-Year Plan (USSR). (2008, March 6). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:21, March 10, 2008, from
[3] Wikipedia contributors, "First Five-Year Plan," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 1, 2008).
[4]   Ron Vossler, “To the Long Barn,” Heritage Review, (Bismarck, North Dakota: Germans from Russian Heritage Society, March 2008.) p. 26.
[5] Wikipedia contributors, "First Five-Year Plan," Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, (accessed March 1, 2008).
[6] Vossler, op. cit., p.27.
[7]Russian Nationalism Animated by Atheism: Holodomor – Genocide
[9]Wikimedia Commons contributors, "ГУЛАГ," Wikimedia Commons, (accessed July 22, 2009).
[10]   Stumpp, op. cit., p.52.
[11]Soviet secret police from 1934 to 1946.
14 Ibid.
[15] Vossler, op. cit., p.27.
[16] Vossler, op. cit., p.27.
[17] Ibid.
[21] Conquest, Robert The Great Terror: A Reassessment, pp. 289-290, 440
[23]Phillips, John, About Myself and Repression of the Germans in South Ukraine, Germans from Russian Heritage Collection: Fargo, ND




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