Chapter 17 The West Between the Wars 1919-1939
The Rise of Dictators
A New Era in the Soviet Union
On the occasion of Stalin’s sixtieth birthday, the Communist party newspaper, Pravda, or “Truth,” printed this praise of Stalin:
“There is no similar name on the planet like the name of Stalin. It shines like a bright torch of freedom, it flies like a battle standard for millions of laborers around the world. . . . Stalin is today’s Lenin! Stalin is the brain and heart of the party! Stalin is the banner of millions of people in their fight for a better life.”
Far from helping people fight for a better life, Stalin’s ruthless policies brought suffering and death to millions of Soviets.
In January 1924, tens of thousands of people lined up in Moscow’s historic Red Square. They had come to view the body of Lenin, who had died a few days earlier. Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, wanted to bury him simply next to his mother. Communist party officials—including Joseph Stalin—wanted to preserve Lenin’s body and put it on permanent display. In the end, Lenin’s body was displayed in Red Square for more than 65 years. By preserving Lenin’s body, Stalin wanted to show that he would carry on the goals of the revolution. However, in the years that followed, he used ruthless measures to control the Soviet Union and its people.
Lenin's New Economic Policy
Under Lenin’s New Economic Plan (NEP), peasants had held on to small plots of land. Many had prospered.
Yet, Karl Marx had predicted that under communism the state would eventually wither away. Under first Lenin, and thereafter Stalin, the opposite occurred. He turned the Soviet Union into a totalitarian state controlled by a powerful and complex bureaucracy.
Once in power, Stalin imposed government control over the Soviet Union’s economy. In the past, said Stalin, Russia had suffered because of its economic backwardness. In 1928, he proposed the first of several “five-year plans” aimed at building heavy industry, improving transportation, and increasing farm output. He brought all economic activity under government control. The government owned all businesses and distributed all resources. The Soviet Union developed a command economy, in which government officials made all basic economic decisions. By contrast, in a capitalist system, the free market determines most economic decisions. Privately owned businesses compete to win the consumer’s choice. This competition regulates the price and quality of goods.
Soviet animated propaganda 1924 (Lenin's Kino Pravda), 4:54
Two short early Soviet propaganda films.
#1- Our answer to the gloating capitalist world
About the continued growth of the Communist Party and the accomplishments of the USSR.
Short advocating the formation of collective farms and discouraging patronage of private shops. This film must have certainly appeared during the NEP era and signaled that its continuation was certain.
Stalin’s five-year plans set high production goals, especially for heavy industry and transportation. The government pushed workers and managers to meet these goals by giving bonuses to those who succeeded—and by punishing those who did not. Between 1928 and 1939, large factories, hydroelectric power stations, and huge industrial complexes rose across the Soviet Union. Oil, coal, and steel production grew. Mining expanded, and new railroads were built.
Despite the impressive progress in some areas, Soviet workers had little to show for their efforts. Some former peasants did become skilled factory workers or managers. Overall, though, the standard of living remained low. Central planning was often inefficient, causing shortages in some areas and surpluses in others. Many managers, concerned only with meeting production quotas, turned out large quantities of low-quality goods. Consumer products such as clothing, cars, and refrigerators were scarce. Wages were low and workers were forbidden to strike. The party restricted workers’ movements.
Stalin also brought agriculture under government control, but at a horrendous cost. The government wanted farmers to produce more grain to feed workers in the cities. It also hoped to sell grain abroad to earn money.
Under Lenin’s New Economic Plan (NEP), peasants had held on to small plots of land. Many had prospered. Stalin saw that system as being inefficient and a threat to state power. Stalin wanted all peasants to farm on either state-owned farms or collectives, large farms owned and operated by peasants as a group. On collectives, the government would provide tractors, fertilizers, and better seed, and peasants would learn modern farm methods. Peasants would be permitted to keep their houses and personal belongings, but all farm animals and implements were to be turned over to the collective. The state set all prices and controlled access to farm supplies.
Some peasants did not want to give up their land and sell their crops at the state’s low prices. They resisted collectivization by killing farm animals, destroying tools, and burning crops. Stalin was furious. He believed that kulaks, or wealthy farmers, were behind the resistance. He responded with brutal force. In 1929, Stalin declared his intention to “liquidate the kulaks as a class.” To this end, the government confiscated kulaks’ land and sent them to labor camps. Thousands were killed or died from overwork.
Even after the “de-kulakization,” angry peasants resisted by growing just enough to feed themselves. In response, the government seized all of their grain to meet industrial goals, purposely leaving the peasants to starve. In 1932, this ruthless policy, combined with poor harvests, led to a terrible famine. Later called the Terror Famine, it caused between five and eight million people to die of starvation in the Ukraine alone.
Although collectivization increased Stalin’s control of the peasantry, it did not improve farm output. During the 1930s, grain production inched upward, but meat, vegetables, and fruits remained in short supply. Feeding the population would remain a major problem in the Soviet Union.
The Rise of Stalin
Josef Stalin and Vladimir Lenin, 1:57
In addition to tactics like the Terror Famine, Stalin’s Communist party used secret police, torture, and violent purges to ensure obedience. Stalin tightened his grasp on every aspect of Soviet life, even stamping out any signs of dissent within the Communist elites.
Stalin ruthlessly used terror as a weapon against his own people. He perpetrated crimes against humanity and systematically violated his people’s individual rights. Police spies did not hesitate to open private letters or plant listening devices. Nothing appeared in print without official approval. There was no free press, and no safe method of voicing protest. Grumblers or critics were rounded up and sent to the Gulag, a system of brutal labor camps, where many died.
People in History
Stalin (trailer), 1:29
Stalin's rise from obscure revolutionary to feared leader of Russia is documented in vivid detail in this outstanding, critically acclaimed docudrama.
The first Five Year Plan was launched in 1928, the second in 1932 and the third in 1937. Each plan laid out targets for industrial production. Targets were set for each factory in the USSR, every shift of workers and even for every individual worker.
The plans aimed at producing a surplus. Production targets were set very high to give the workers something to aim for. If workers did not achieve their targets, they were punished. Desperate factory managers fiddled the books or committed suicide as the pressure to produce more and more became too great. If the workers succeeded in reaching targets, they might be rewarded with increased wages. But usually their targets were increased as well.
Each year Stalin's government produced a report on progress. These reports were made available for foreign governments to see how successful communism was. Stalin was careful not to publicize any failures to the rest of the world. The picture that emerged from the USSR during the 1930s was one of success.
It is clear that production greatly increased and new factories, dams, railways and roads were built. However, there were problems with wastage and inefficiency in the plans. Official figures were exaggerated or gave only a partial picture of the targets met, so it is difficult to know the extent to which production increased.
Costs of Stalin's Programs
Even though Stalin’s power was absolute, he still feared that rival party leaders were plotting against him. In 1934, he launched the Great Purge. During this reign of terror, Stalin and his secret police cracked down especially on Old Bolsheviks, or party activists from the early days of the revolution. His net soon widened to target army heroes, industrial managers, writers, and ordinary citizens. They were charged with a wide range of crimes, from counterrevolutionary plots to failure to meet production quotas.
Between 1936 and 1938, Stalin staged a series of spectacular public “show trials” in Moscow. Former Communist leaders confessed to all kinds of crimes after officials tortured them or threatened their families or friends. Many of the purged party members were never tried but were sent straight to the Gulag. Secret police files reveal that at least four million people were purged during the Stalin years. Some historians estimate the toll to be much greater.
The purges increased Stalin’s power. All Soviet citizens were now well aware of the consequences of disloyalty. However, Stalin’s government also paid a price. Among the purged were experts in industry, economics, and engineering, and many of the Soviet Union’s most talented writers and thinkers. The victims included most of the nation’s military leaders and about half of its military officers, a loss that would weigh heavily on Stalin in 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
What was Lenin's New Economic Policy?
Authoritarian States in the West
How did Czechoslovakia maintain its political democracy?
Ch. 17 References
The Great Depression
Photo Essay on the Great Depression
Diaries of people who lived during the Depression
People and events of the Dust Bowl
Original photographs from the times
Cf. Click on links to view original documents from Mussolini's life and times.
Click on "Germany Image Gallery" for the slideshow.
Read a detailed account of the life of Hitler
Test yourself on how Hitler came to power
Nazi propaganda posters: Election, Sower of peace, 'One People, One Nation, One Leader,' Saving for a Volkswagen, Jews, Anti-Bolshevism.
Stalin and Industrialization of the USSR
See original documents and learn more about Stalin's methods.
View Soviet posters
Review Stalin's takeover of power from the BBC:
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