F. Thunemann: Verschwörungsdenken und Machtkalkül

Verschwörungsdenken und Machtkalkül. Herrschaft in Russland, 1866–1953

Thunemann, Fabian
Ordnungssysteme. Studien zur Ideengeschichte der Neuzeit 53
Berlin 2019: de Gruyter
Anzahl Seiten
259 S.
€ 49,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Hiroaki Kuromiya, Indiana University, Bloomington

Conspiracy is part and parcel of politics, and scholars, analysts, observers, and practitioners have taken it up as an academic subject. The present book by Fabian Thunemann, a revised dissertation which was defended at Humboldt University in 2017, is a highly readable account of the relationship between conspiracy-thinking and political expediency in Russian and Soviet politics. Thunemann’s basic approach is to closely and concretely examine the changing dynamic of their relationship at critical junctures in Russian and Soviet history (such as the era of pre-revolutionary political terrorism, World War I, the Revolution and the Civil War, and much of the Stalinist era) and skillfully and effectively relate it to relevant arguments on conspiracy and politics made by eminent figures, starting with Xenophon (c. 431–354 BCE) and Niccolò Machiavelli (1465–1527), and ending with Carl Schmitt (1888–1985) and other more modern commentators. Thunemann strikes a balance between the concrete and the abstract in his argument and concludes his account with a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532): “The lesson I draw from all this is that a prince shouldn’t worry much about conspiracies against him if his people are well-disposed towards him; but if they are hostile to him and hate him, he should fear everything and everyone” (chapter 19). This quote, also printed on the back cover of the book, underlies Thunemann’s suggestion that Russian and Soviet rulers were not confident of the people’s support. Nevertheless, this is perhaps an oversimplification of his argument, which is much more subtle.

In a non-democratic body politic, rulers generally have much greater control of information. Although this control may help them to maintain power, the lack of free-flowing information can also arouse fears of conspiracy. To maintain power, rulers operate under the assumption of a constant threat of conspiracy, in which intelligence plays an inflated role. Moreover, rulers may be tempted to manipulate reality by creating fake conspiracies, in order to preemptively strike against adversaries. Here there is a danger that rulers will succumb to traps of their own making. Stalin was aware of this risk and often demanded his intelligence organs to bring him only facts and their sources instead of their analysis. Nevertheless, this approach failed miserably in June 1941, when Hitler’s attack took him by surprise. The most notable case of Stalin’s prescience comes from the Great Terror of 1937–1938, during which nearly one million people were executed, mostly Soviet citizens. Later, he and his close associates, such as V.M. Molotov and L.M. Kaganovich, admitted that they had gone too far in killing innocent people. Yet they never admitted that the operation as a whole was a mistake. On the contrary, they insisted that without it, the Soviet Union would have been defeated in the war with Nazi Germany. Was this a bluff to hide their regrets? In any case, Thunemann demonstrates that the obsession with conspiracies was genuine and deep-rooted in pre-revolutionary Russia and that it only escalated when used by Stalin for political expediency, thus obscuring the distinction between fact and fiction. Conspiracy-thinking and political expediency became symbiotic, as was evidenced by Stalin’s dealing with the assassination of S.M. Kirov in 1934 and the “Kremlin Affair” in 1935 (pp. 187 and 198). Stalin’s dictatorship was such that the mere suggestion of a possible conspiracy was enough to make it indistinguishable from reality. He had become at the same time both a driver and a slave of his own power, reflecting the predicament and contradiction of Stalin’s power itself.

Thunemann refutes the recent, unconvincing assertions made by some scholars that Stalin genuinely believed in ubiquitous conspiracies. Certainly, his assertion that Stalin had become trapped in a quandary of his own making is convincing to an extent in certain cases (such as the Great Terror and Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa).

In most cases, however, it seems to this reviewer that far from being a victim of conspiracy manipulation gone awry, Stalin in fact had a firm grasp of reality and had sharply honed his instrumental use of conspiracy. Thunemann discusses, for example, the war scare of 1927, amplified by the assassination of the Soviet Ambassador to Poland, P.L. Voikov, in June 1927 (pp. 144–145). Yet there are sufficient grounds to conclude that the war threat was merely Soviet propaganda. The Voikov assassination, too, seems to have been engineered by the Soviet secret police. Nor did the war scare of 1930 have any substance. It has also become clear that the loud Soviet propaganda concerning Japan’s threat to the Soviet Far East was just that, political propaganda. However believable it may have seemed, it was without substance. Stalin knew this, though he never admitted it, and yet he went on to kill tens of thousands of Soviet citizens as Japanese spies. Stalin also knew that those tens of thousands of Soviet citizens accused of being Trotskyites and Bukharinites were not foreign spies, while publicly insisting that they were spies and conspirators. True, Stalin and his entourage acknowledged their mistakes ex post facto, and Stalin did not resort to a Great Terror again. Likewise, it is true, as Thunemann emphasizes, that after Stalin’s death his successors sought to do away with this symbiotic spiral of conspiracy-thinking and political expediency. Yet as far as internal conspiracies were concerned, Stalin did not seem to be driven by fantasy entirely detached from reality. Indeed, although he may not have been confident that “his people are well-disposed towards him,” he was confident that his terror had intimidated them enough to not challenge his power. His modus operandi was “Excesses are better than moderation”, through which he carried out the collectivization of agriculture and the Great Terror. Stalin’s critical mistake in June 1941 did not invoke any serious challenge to his power from within.

World War II resulted in the loosening of Stalin’s grasp on the Soviet people and opened large parts of the country to the outside world. After the war, Stalin attempted to once again isolate the Soviet people from the outside world, but he could not undo what had happened to them through exposure to outside influences. The Soviet population became more vocal than before and even the Gulag itself became unruly. It is at this point that Stalin’s loss of a firm grip on power likely blurred fantasy and reality for him; he became ever more paranoid and his behavior became increasingly erratic. Thunemann’s provocative thesis, that Stalin fell in a trap of his own making, seems to apply better to the later Stalin years than the earlier periods of his rule.

Thunemann discusses L.P. Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief, as someone who wanted to continue the Stalinist course after his death (p. 216). True, he was a past master of conspiracy. In her book Beria - Le Janus du Kremlin, however, Françoise Thom presents a very different picture of Beria, someone who more than anyone else in Stalin’s entourage sought to break with the Stalinist course, albeit in a conspiratorial way.1 His rivals then removed him conspiratorially! Caveats aside, however, Thunemann has written a highly readable book and provides much food for thought.

1 Françoise Thom, Beria. Le Janus du Kremlin, Paris 2013.

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