Monday, November 2, 2009

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Nov. 9 marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Noel D. Cary, professor of German and European history, shares his thoughts on this historical event.

The Berlin Wall fell during my first semester of teaching at Holy Cross. During my job interview the previous spring, the dynamic chair of the history department, Professor William Green, asked what appeared to be an over-the-top question: What did I think the West Germans would do if Gorbachev offered to tear down the Wall in exchange for Germany abandoning the Western alliance? Some maneuver of that sort was just about the extent of what was even imaginable at the time.

What many people no longer remember is what a huge surprise all these events were. Nowadays, many students are inclined to think that the fall of communism was inevitable. That’s not at all how these events felt at the time. I remember driving home after a long day of teaching my first classes that autumn and hearing on the radio that the entire East German Politburo had just resigned. This was an absolutely electrifying event, an event that no one expected. 1989 was a year filled with such events, each one more surprising than the one before.

The speed of communism’s collapse sometimes misleads young people into thinking that the Cold War was not about anything real. The dogmatic ideological militancy of the communist movement, and the heavy price in human rights that it demanded from the human beings it affected, should warn us to think twice before accepting such a view. The death toll from self-consciously executed communist policies numbers conservatively in the tens of millions. Nevertheless, the anticommunist excesses that sometimes marked the Cold War seem to be better known among today’s students than do the far greater excesses of the communists. Most students know much more about McCarthyism than they do about the Cultural Revolution. Some confuse liberalism’s imperfections with communism’s norms. Knowing too that the infamous dominoes eventually fell in reverse, many people read the outcome back into the events and conclude by debunking the concerns of the contemporaries.

Historians, however, must always contextualize. When they do, what emerges is the combination of policies and people that made the fall of the Wall possible. It is a complex and contested story — far too complex and contested to be summarized here. Among its clearest lessons, however, is this one: Far from being inevitable, the fall of communism was a profile in the courage of those men and women who dared, in the words of the Czech dissident playwright and statesman Vaclav Havel, to deploy “the power of the powerless.”

Source: Holy Cross

Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin - Mass Murderer

Vasili Mikhailovich Blokhin (1895 – February 1955) was a Soviet Major-General who served as the chief executioner of the Stalinist NKVD under the administrations of Genrikh Yagoda, Nikolai Yezhov and Lavrenty Beria. Hand-picked for the position by Joseph Stalin in 1926, Blokhin led a company of executioners that performed the majority of executions carried out during Stalin's reign (most during the Great Purge). Claims by the Soviet government put the number of NKVD official executions at 828,000 during Stalin's reign,[1] and Blokhin is recorded as having personally executed tens of thousands of prisoners by his own hand over a 26-year period—including 7,000 condemned Polish POWs in one protracted mass execution[1][2]—making him ostensibly the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.[1] He was awarded both the Order of the Badge of Honor (1937) and the Order of the Red Banner (1941).

Blokhin, born into a Russian peasant family, had served in the Tsarist army of World War I, and had joined the Cheka in March 1921. Though records are slim, he was evidently noted for both his pugnaciousness and his mastery of what Stalin termed "black work"; assassinations, torture, intimidation, and execution conducted clandestinely. Once he caught Stalin's eye, he was quickly promoted and within six years was appointed the head of the purpose-created Kommandatura Branch of the Administrative Executive Department of the NKVD. This branch was a company-sized element created by Stalin specifically for "black work" missions. Headquartered at the Lubyanka in Moscow, they were all approved by Stalin and took their orders directly from his hand, a fact that ensured the unit's longevity despite three bloody purges of the NKVD. As senior executioner,[4] Blokhin's official title was that of Commandant of the internal prison at the Lubyanka, which allowed him to perform his true job with a minimum of scrutiny and no official paperwork.

Although most common executions were delegated to local Chekists or subordinate executioners from his unit, Blokhin personally performed all of the high-profile executions conducted in the Soviet Union during his tenure, including those of the Old Bolsheviks condemned at the Moscow Show Trials and two of the three fallen NKVD Chiefs (Yagoda in 1938 and Yezhov in 1940) he had once served under.[5] He was awarded the Badge of Honor for his service in 1937.[6]

Blokhin's most notable performance was the April 1940 mass execution by shooting of 7,000 Polish officers, captured following the Soviet invasion of Poland, from the Ostashkov POW camp, during the Katyn massacre.[7] Based on the 4 April secret order from Stalin to NKVD Chief Lavrenti Beria (as well as NKVD Order № 00485, which still applied), the executions were carried out in 28 consecutive nights at the specially-constructed basement execution chamber at the NKVD headquarters in Kalinin (now Tver), and were assigned, by name, directly to Blokhin, making him the official executioner of the NKVD.[8]

Blokhin initially decided on an ambitious quota of 300 executions per night, and engineered an efficient system in which the prisoners were individually led to a small antechamber—which had been painted red and was known as the "Leninist room"—for a brief and cursory positive identification, before being handcuffed and led into the execution room next door. The room was specially designed with padded walls for soundproofing, a sloping concrete floor with a drain and hose, and a log wall for the prisoners to stand against. Blokhin—outfitted in a leather butcher's apron, cap, and shoulder-length gloves to protect his uniform[9]—then pushed the prisoner against the log wall and shot him once in the base of the skull with a German Walther Model 2 .25 ACP pistol.[10] He had brought a briefcase full of his own Walther pistols, since he did not trust the reliability of the standard-issue Soviet TT-30 for the frequent, heavy use he intended.[9][11] The use of a German pocket pistol, which was commonly carried by Nazi intelligence agents, also provided plausible deniability of the executions if the bodies were discovered later.

Between 20 to 30 local NKVD agents, guards and drivers were pressed into service to escort prisoners to the basement, confirm identification, then remove the bodies and hose down the blood after each execution. Although some of the executions were carried out by Senior Lieutenant of State Security Andrei M. Rubanov, Blokhin was the primary executioner and, true to his reputation, liked to work continuously and rapidly without interruption.[9] In keeping with NKVD policy and the overall "black" nature of the operation, the executions were conducted at night, starting at dark and continuing until just prior to dawn. The initial quota of 300 was lowered by Blokhin to 250 after the first night, when it was decided that all further executions should take place in total darkness.[5] The bodies were continuously loaded onto covered flat-bed trucks through a back door in the execution chamber and trucked, twice a night, to Mednoye, where Blokhin had arranged for a bulldozer and two NKVD drivers to dispose of bodies at an unfenced site. Each night, 24 to 25 trenches, measuring eight to ten meters total, were dug to hold the night's corpses, and each trench was covered up before dawn.[12] Blokhin and his team worked without pause for ten hours each night, with Blokhin executing an average of one prisoner every three minutes.[2] At the end of the night, Blokhin provided vodka to all his men.[13]

On 27 April 1940, Blokhin secretly received the Order of the Red Banner and a modest monthly pay premium as a reward from Joseph Stalin for his "skill and organization in the effective carrying out of special tasks".[14][15] His count of 7,000 shot in 28 days remains one of the most organized and protracted mass murders by a single individual on record.[6]

Blokhin was forcibly retired following Stalin's death, although his "irreproachable service" was publicly noted by Lavrenty Beria at the time of his departure.[6] After Beria's fall from power (June 1953), Blokhin's rank was eventually stripped from him in the de-Stalinization campaigns of Nikita Khrushchev. He reportedly sunk into alcoholism, went insane, and died in February 1955 with the official cause of death listed as "suicide".[7]