Life under Totalitarian Regimes

War on Cancer

Robert Proctor’s study of science and medicine under National Socialism and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life under Stalinism both offer intriguing insights into what life was like under two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.  Proctor grapples with the question of whether we can see anything “good” or even “progressive” coming out of the same regime that produced Josef Mengele and state-sanctioned euthanasia programs for the sick, elderly, and handicapped.  Proctor concludes that recognition of Nazi public health campaigns against cancer does not equal an endorsement of Nazi medicine; but he asserts that we must recognize that “the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world,” even if this recognition only complicates our understanding of the Nazis’ aims (4).  Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, looks at life for “everyday” people under Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia in an effort to define normalcy.  How did men and women adjust to a life of material shortages, surveillance, and random terror? What did daily life look like for them?  Interestingly, while Fitzpatrick attempts to study the formation of a new normal life or routine, what her book ultimately highlights is the formation of a new, normal Soviet citizen under Stalinism.

In the Nazi War on Cancer, Proctor studies Nazi leaders’ public health campaigns, focusing specifically on their attempts to prevent cancer within their sphere of influence.  He reveals that Nazi Party leaders and doctors led initiatives that helped raise awareness between the connections of environmental factors (chemicals and asbestos, for instance) and the development of cancer.  They promoted new ideal diets for the Germans, encouraging healthy eating (even going so far as forcing bakeries to sell whole wheat bread) (130), the avoidance of alcohol, and even herbal remedies that were believed to lower the risk of cancer  And it was in Nazi Germany that the connection between tobacco and lung cancer was first made (176), leading to a massive anti-smoking campaign that included banning of smoking in public places as well as strict laws on advertisement for cigarettes.  Proctor deftly presents these facts and shows that the Nazis’ efforts were more focused on prevention rather than cures, but all throughout his book (and most clearly in his prologue and concluding chapter), he explicitly grapples with why he felt compelled to write the book in the first place.  Of course it was not meant to exonerate Nazi doctors for their other, more infamous acts (even though he shows that between 1950 and 1990 German women have experienced the most drastic drop of lung cancer mortalities than any other Western nation – a result he believes could possibly be tied to Nazi anti-smoking efforts, 268). Instead, Proctor argues that acknowledging these more “socially responsible” aspects of Nazi policy gives a more complex and accurate understanding of life under Nazism.  “Both elements – the monstrous and the prosaic – are key” to understanding the realities of Nazi science and medicine (277).

In complicating the picture, Proctor reminds his readers that these “progressive” campaigns must be viewed in their historical context.  Yes, the Party leadership, along with the doctors who supported them, wanted to prevent cancer in their population.  But they had a very narrow definition of who belonged in the Aryan Volk, which meant that their ideas of public health were steeped in racism.  Just as Nazis wanted to purge the Volksgemeinschaft of racial enemies like Jews, they wanted to cleanse the German body of impurities like cancer.  In this vein, Hans Auler, a Berlin professor and researcher claimed, “It is fortunate for German cancer patients, and for anyone threatened by cancer, that the Third Reich has grounded itself on the maintenance of German health” (71).  Proctor then sees Nazism as “an experiment of sorts – a vast hygienic experiment designed to bring about an exclusionist sanitary utopia” (11).  In this light, “the Nazi campaign against tobacco and the ‘whole-gran bread operation’ are, in some sense, as fascist as the yellow stars and the death camps” (278).

By bringing out these connections, Proctor reminds us that the relationship between science and politics, or between science and society is much more intricate than we may think.  Science was neither a neutral subject, removed from the effects of politics and society, nor was it simply a tool of Nazi ideologues.  The

relations between “science” and “society” are more complex than is commonly imagined. Even in the microcosm of Nazi cancer research we find very different ways that science can express politics, and vice versa…Fascists were arguing over what kinds of science should be supported, and scientists were arguing over what kinds of fascism should be supported (251-252).

Nazi ideologies set some of the directions of medicinal research and public health initiatives, just as science and medicine helped shape Nazi ideology.  “Public health initiatives were pursued not just in spite of fascism, but also in consequence of fascism” (249).  By adding these nuances to our understanding of life under the National Socialist regime, we learn that “Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible” (7).

In Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s, Sheila Fitzpatrick studies the emergence of what she calls Homo Sovieticus, a “social species” that developed in response to the transformation of everyday life under Joseph Stalin.  The term “Soviet” makes it into Fitzpatrick’s rhetorical classification because the Soviet state was a “central and ubiquitous presence” for individuals living in Russia during this period (3).  In this book, Fitzpatrick studies a vast range of everyday processes: obtaining goods, travelling, telling jokes, finding housing, marriage and divorce, voting, avoiding the secret police, and more.  Interestingly enough, she does not take working and the workplace into consideration, because that would mean that she could talk about only one section of society: men (but she also shows that almost ten million women joined the labor force in the 1930s, so one wonders why women could not be taken into consideration when studying the process of working under Stalin, 139).  Despite this absence, the rest of her material is enlightening.

The predominant characteristic of everyday life in Stalinist Russia during the 1930 was shortage.  Shortages of basic material goods such as clothing and food accompanied near complete absence of luxury goods, which were randomly dispersed among the new cultural elite.  Additionally, an influx of nearly 10 million peasants into Russia’s cities created gross housing shortages that the state seemed to overlook in lieu of its efforts to industrialize and modernize other sectors of society.  The ubiquity of shortage led to cultural shifts in Russian society.  New words and phrases entered the common vocabulary.  People no longer spoke of “buying” goods, but instead of “getting” them; men and women carried “just in case bags” for the unlikely chance that some product was being distributed while they were in town (40).

Fitzpatrick reveals how, by the 1930s, the main function of the Soviet state transitioned from the redistribution of wealth and goods to the basic distribution of all goods to its citizens (39).  In a life plagued by shortage, not money or production, but personal connections became the currency to acquire goods.  Blat (“influence” or “pull”) “subverted the meaning of Stalin’s great economic restructuring, creating a second economy based on personal contacts and patronage parallel to the first, socialist, economy based on principles of state ownership and central planning” (65). The inefficiency of the State to distribute even the most basic of goods, despite its dogmatic emphasis on rationalized central planning, forced its citizens to become risk takers.  Shopping became a survival skill and blat undermined the state’s control on distribution; corners were cut to meet unrealistic goals in the labor force.  Ultimately, the need for goods was greater than the fear of being caught on the black market.

A life of chronic shortages became the new, “normal” everyday life for Homo Sovieticus.  Fitzpatrick’s discussion of “normal” reminds me of Marion Kaplan’s discussion of normality and “catastrophic gradualism” in Between Dignity and Despair, in which she shows that people quickly become accustomed to new normals.  But while Fitzpatrick shows that new routines were established in Stalinist everyday life, she also reveals that the people themselves did not think of their life as normal.  The hardships of life they were experiencing were understood as temporary, a transition period into a life of abundance.  This mindset reveals another aspect of life under a totalitarian regime (or one could argue under any regime): the leaders’ ability to influence its citizens’ collective memories.  She describes these collective memories as “common property,” stories that help “make sense out of the scattered data of ordinary life, providing a context, imposing a pattern that shows where one has come from and where one is going” (8).  These sets of stories helped Homo Sovieticus understand their period of transitional hardship leading to a “radiant future,” position themselves in a great modernizing crusade to overthrow the backwardness of imperial Russia, and understand themselves as preparing for the final battle with capitalism.  All of these mentalities allowed Russian citizens to see normal life as something just around the corner, worth working for; but Fitzpatrick shows that life under Stalin had indeed established new, everyday routines, a new normal that would prove to be anything but temporary.

Both Proctor and Fitzpatrick urge us to reevaluate our understandings of life under National Socialism and Stalinism.  Nazism’s apparent concern for its (narrowly defined, “racially pure”) citizenry may help explain why everyday Germans were willing to follow the movement and overlook its more radicalized aspects.  According to Fitzpatrick, most people in history accept their governments simply because they perceived that there was no other choice – and Russians under Stalin were no different (225).  The omnipresent existence of state surveillance and arbitrary terror “encouraged fatalism and passivity in the population, instilling a sense that the individual was not and could not be in control of his own fate” (219).  “Us vs. them” mentalities are important in both stories, though in different ways.  Russian citizens (“us”) identified with each other in relation to – and often against – the state (“them”), a group of men calling the shots and causing shortages from their position “up there” in the government.  The Nazi state, on the other hand, sought to create an “us” that included both state and people who were meant to serve each other.  The “them” was meant to be racio-political enemies of the German Volk.  In both cases, the party-states and citizenry saw themselves as not only modernizing, but ultimately vanquishing the troubles of modernity while capitalizing on its fruits.  This process of perceived modernization helped provide a cohesion and goal for Nazism and Stalinism, both of which promised to usher in a new era for humanity.

Books under review:

Proctor, Robert. The Nazi War on Cancer. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila.  Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Life under Totalitarian Regimes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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Categories: Book Review, Modern European History, Science/Technology | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Life under Totalitarian Regimes

  1. Interesting article! If you like history, please visit and follow my recently created blog at http://publishistory.wordpress.com/ (I’ll follow you back!) It contains history articles on a variety of subjects written by myself and friends from university! :)

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