Lessons of Leningrad

German Fuhrer Adolph Hitler doing a Nazi salute (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
German Fuhrer Adolph Hitler doing a Nazi salute
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
I have recently spent a substantial amount of time reading about the Battle of Leningrad in World War II. Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa began in June 1941. It was a massive offensive maneuver that sought to reach Moscow before the deadly Russian winter. Hitler’s strategy was to divide his 4.2 million-strong military and strike three different critical targets. One of them was the city of Leningrad.
For three years, the Nazis held Leningrad by siege – no food coming in, no food coming out. Nine out of 10 buildings were shelled to near destruction, and cannibalism was abundant. The siege had reached a point in which more than 100,000 people were dying each month at the hands of Nazi artillery and the Luftwaffe.
The most interesting part of this chapter in history was the persistence of Stalin’s secret police. Commanded by Stalin himself, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, continued to persecute civilians and military personnel in Leningrad who were caught espousing anything that could be deemed dissent against the Communist regime. No criticism of Stalin or his methods of warfare that left over 26 million Russians dead was tolerated.
But the NKVD did not have the resources or the manpower to cover Russia’s cultural center. Leningrad was one of the largest cities in Russia, and the NKVD would depend on “loyal” citizens to report any and all sorts of activities by neighbors, friends and family members who might be deemed critical of the Stalinist government. With food rations drastically dwindling and long winters without shelter or electricity, can we really judge those who came forward with accusations in order to be “rewarded” by the state?
This is not only a common characteristic of Communist regimes, but of fascism, too. Knowing that the Russians and Americans were nearing the Reichstag in Berlin, Hitler rushed the execution of civilians and military personnel who were also deemed enemies of the National Socialist Party. Predictably, the SS also relied heavily on civilian informants and made sure to set the bar low enough so that most, if not all, criticism of Hitler’s Nazi Party constituted traitorous behavior.
I FOUND myself reading about the conditions that German citizens faced as the war came to an end, and as Russians were virtually gasping for air during the siege of Leningrad. What amazed me the most was the need to characterize politics into two camps – a binary analysis that would uplift some while damning others to exile or execution. One criticism of Stalin was enough to send you or a family member to Siberia. If you were in Berlin, one criticism of Hitler was enough to have you publicly executed.
I read this in disbelief, not because I fail to believe that Stalin or Hitler were capable of such horrific policies, but because I see many parallels between the political culture of war-torn Berlin and Leningrad and the political climate in within the Jewish-American community and Israel today.
Of course, there is no comparison between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes and the incumbent administration in the US.
There is no comparison between the circumstances that Russian civilians faced in Leningrad or that Germans faced in Berlin to the circumstances of everyday Israelis in 2019.
There is, however, a noteworthy similarity between how individuals characterized one another in Leningrad and how many individuals characterize one another during modern-day political arguments in Israel and within the Jewish American community.
Whether it is in regard to domestic policies or international affairs, whether it is from analysts or ordinary residents in the US or Israel, it seems virtually impossible to engage in a political discussion that is not poisoned by un-nuanced, anti-intellectual binary frameworks. Those who criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are instantly labeled traitorous “left-wingers.” By the same token, it is virtually impossible to applaud the prime minister and not be categorized as religious or a right-wing fanatic.
We are not living in the ruins of Berlin, and our livelihood does not depend on ideological conformity or blind allegiance to a party.
We are not in Leningrad and not constantly burdened by the fear that every word we utter will result in persecution by the state’s secret police.
Whether a Russian or German reported his neighbor to the secret police to feed his or her family in times of despair is irrelevant because we are not in that position.
We have the luxury of legalized dissent and the privilege of a marketplace of ideas that encourages intellectual nuance. We have come too far in history and have paid too high a price to confine ourselves to binary chambers.
The writer is a former IDF Paratrooper and has an MA in diplomacy and international security from IDC Herzliya. He is an Israel advocate, public speaker and Middle East analyst. Twitter: @jmich019.