Three reasons to read (and not to read) “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski

The book “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski contains an exhaustive description of the tool set of violence used by the most successful practitioner of Communism, Iosif Stalin.

German historian Jörg Baberowski was a Communist in his youth. He learned Russian, specialized in Russian imperial history, and is now recognized as one of the leading experts on Stalinism. His approach to the issue of politically motivated violence earned him a hate on the part of German leftist groups who call him a “right-wing extremist“.

In his book Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Jörg Baberowski analyzes the preconditions and driving forces for the reign of terror installed by the Bolsheviks during the first decades of the Soviet rule.

Three reasons to READ the book

  1. The book is a true fountainhead of quotes about Communism, Russia and Soviet Union coming from a dizzying array of personalities–from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky to obscure Soviet functionaries. Many of the quotes are quite controversial. If you want to stir an epic discussion in an online forum with a lot of Russians and/or Communists, you find here much potent fuel to pour into the ideological flames.
  2. The book provides an exhaustive, albeit sometimes too verbose, description of the tool set of totalitarian violence every aspiring dictator needs in order to stay on the top of the game.
  3. Many years of anti-Stalinist research in the midst of the left-leaning European academia has taught the author to pick the words and arguments that have a lot of punch. For such a heavy subject, the book is an easy read.

Three reasons to SKIP the book

  1. Either it’s the author’s Catholic roots, or the remorse of his Communist past–either way, the text seems way too judgmental to my taste. “Stalin was a murderer who took pleasure in destruction and harm,” Baberowski writes. This moral indignation may compromise his approach if you want to look at the issue of violence from a revolutionary’s point of view.
  2. As a meticulous researcher, Baberowski find few details too small to add to his narrative.
  3. Violence in a land of a triumphant Communist revolution is a gory affair–especially in Eastern Europe. The wealth of horrendous details from the basements of Stalin’s secret service and his killing fields in the book is simply too tiring.

Quotes from the book:

People who know nothing but dictatorship develop different standards of valuation than people who were once free and then lose their freedom. After the reign of terror there were no longer any competing interpretative elites, no church as a moral institution, no emigration with a voice, no reminders of the time before communism, no Western television, no “brothers and sisters” abroad, and no occupiers to blame for the misery and oppression. There was nothing but the dictatorship, either in the present or in the past.

“Stalin is not dead. The ax outlives its master.

Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg Baberowski
Scorched Earth Stalin's Reign of Terror Jorg Baberowski
Cover of the German original of “Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror”, by Jörg Baberowski

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