by Daniel Finkelstein

William Collins 2023

ISBN: 978 000 8483885-2

RRP: $34.99 (pb)

By Anne Henderson

It has been said that history is all too often written by the winners. While George Orwell opined that the most effective way to destroy people would be to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.

In modern times, the first notion has been overturned by the increasing voices, in recordings and publications, of those deemed to have lost in the historical struggle – from Indigenous people in post-colonial nations to the ethnic survivors of genocidal attack whether Armenians or the Tutsis in Rwanda. Meanwhile, George Orwell’s words seem to have been taken to heart by so many accounts determined not to let us forget the innocent lives lost in the turbulence of Europe after 1939. Among these latter endeavours, the stories of what happened to the countless victims of the Holocaust stand tall.

It is Daniel Finkelstein’s fine achievement in his newly released Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad to add to this, by matching the horror of the Holocaust with the brutal savagery of Stalin’s gulag, so much so that these two totalitarian dictators are left standing side by side as orchestrators of the greatest genocides of all time. In this, Finkelstein is much helped by the remarkable stories he has uncovered from his own family’s survival, under both Hitler and Stalin.

Finkelstein begins with an introduction which reflects on the generations of his family who had remade their lives in Britain – his mother and father and their respective parents, albeit one grandmother not living to see the success of the others. The peace of their lives in Britain and the ordinary suburban reality they came to live after the horrors that brought them there had become a blanket of safety and reason to forget those dark years.

Finkelstein looks back to his 50th birthday speech in 2012, remembering that he gave thanks for that, saying: “We live here in peace and we don’t stay up at night fearing we will be woken by a knock on the door … We don’t fear arrest or exile.” But then he adds that his speech, ten years later, now seems to smack of “smugness”, and that the unstable nature of world politics had “dented” his confidence. He concludes, “What happened to my parents isn’t about to happen to me. It isn’t about to happen to my children. But could it? It could. Absolutely it could.”

Finkelstein’s family spans a wide arch of European heritage within the Jewish fold. There is Alfred Weiner, his maternal grandfather, who was awarded an Iron Cross and Iron Crescent for his World War I service for Germany. Alfred, whom Finkelstein labels “an idiosyncratic mixture of the modern and the orthodox” Jew, regarded himself above all as a German.

In post WWI Germany, Alfred was employed by the very large (membership some 600,000 or three quarters of Germany’s Jews) Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith rising to become General Secretary. Soon after the Armistice in 1918, Alfred noted the rise of antisemitism in Germany and over the next decade and more tried to warn government officials of his concerns.

Alfred would be shattered by the Nazi coup of 1933 and move his family soon after to Amsterdam. His work, collecting evidence of Nazi atrocities and registers of German and other Jews, would see him take his massive collection to London, as Holland was invaded, where he continued to collect and archive, moving later to New York in the worst years of the war. Alfred would survive the war – separated from his wife and daughters until the very end of the conflict – and relocate eventually to London to assist the British government in the important work, post war, of hunting down Nazi identities.

Such is the distinctly separate but linked stories from Finkelstein’s family, that he is able to construct a simple outline of chapters under “Before”, “During” and “After” within which the individual experiences of the main characters are left to weave an insight to global history on a formidable and grotesque scale.

Alfred is the intellectual, fighting in the shadows but saved by his work. While he risked capture narrowly at times, he avoided the death camps, the gulag or the knock on the door at night followed by arrest. His wife Greta and his daughters – one of whom, Mirjam, would become Finkelstein’s mother – having delayed their chance to escape Amsterdam since they could not imagine what was to come, would spend time in Westabork and Belsen concentration camps and avoid extermination by cheating starvation and disease (barely), and by a strange twist of fate in the form of forged documents that allowed them to pass as citizens of Paraguay in a rare moment of Nazi acquiescence to allow the release of a limited number of foreigners. For all that, a very ill Greta would die within hours of reaching freedom in Switzerland.

It is on his father’s side that another World War II state sponsored extermination of ethnic groups shaped the Finkelstein history – Stalin’s attempt to eradicate Polish citizens. And it is to Finkelstein’s credit that he makes clear that this murderous undertaking began with the Molotov-Ribbentrop (Nazi Soviet) Pact of August 1939. His capture of the moment is brief but pointed describing Stalin drinking to the health of Germany’s Fuhrer around midnight on 23 August 1939 as the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Soviet Russia and Germany was signed. Finkelstein writes how the two leaders wanted their respective publics …

… to regard it as essentially a pacific alliance rather than see it for what it really was – an agreement to conquer and kill … the pact was designed to allow each party to engage in aggressive wars of occupation with the tacit acceptance of the other. … in alliance to achieve aims that were quite similar – to expand their areas of control and power and to begin these expansions with the destruction of the Polish Republic.

Finkelstein concludes: “The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was the most important political event in the lives of my parents. Nothing that followed would have occurred without it.”

In 1937, Finkelstein’s paternal grandparents, Dolu and Luisa Finkelstein were upper class inhabitants of Lwow (later Lviv) in south eastern Poland. Dolu, educated in Vienna, was the son of a wealthy industrialist and Luisa the daughter of wealthy landowners. Their time as the commercial aristocracy of Lwow, however, would be cut short with the takeover of Poland by the Germans and the Soviets. Lwow would at first be under Soviet control which in time saw Dolu arrested and sent to a prison camp in the Soviet gulag while Luisa and her young son Ludwik (Finkelstein’s father), unaware of Dolu’s real fate, were shipped to Siberia to work as slaves growing food and making cow-dung bricks in horrifically impoverished conditions.

Finkelstein’s account of all this leaves a picture of work camp as death camp. So many did not survive. Food was scarce, work hours cruelly long with mother and son scraping an existence and surviving by chance and sheer determination, assisted occasionally by Luisa’s savvy. At one stage, the shed they lived in was returned to the cows for winter leaving their group of exiles to fashion a lean-to from the cow-dung bricks to shelter them through the arctic cold winter. The aim was to work the exiles to death exploiting them as labour till that point.

When Dolu, Luisa and Ludwik eventually are reunited in a far corner of the USSR – Uzbekistan – Dolu owes his escape from the gulag to Stalin’s raising of General Anders’ army of Poles to assist Russia’s British allies in the Middle East. Dolu’s military position allows him to bring his family – miraculously found in Siberia – with him. For all that, his health is broken and he will not survive many years after relocating, post-war, to the UK. Anders’ army is a stragglers affair for, as Finkelstein rightly comments, his father and his parents along with those remnants of a once proud nation were “the victims of one of the war’s greatest crimes: Stalin’s attempt to eradicate the Polish nation by murdering its elite and scattering its entire leadership”.

As a memoir of a family, Finkelstein’s book works on two levels – the personal and individual experience and the greater spectrum of historical analysis. He does not fail to connect both sharply, laying the blame at the feet of two supposedly clashing ideologies that ended in the same outcomes. Hitler and Stalin were, as Finkelstein records, “conspirators in many of the same murders and partners in many of the same crimes, that each must take some responsibility for the offences of the other along with the offences they committed by themselves”. But it is the personal experience retold that compounds those crimes with the emotion and staggering cruelty they engendered. Take the Monday night experience of the families in Belsen concentration camp for example:

[O]n Monday night, in each barracks, the final list for deportation [to the extermination camps] was read. “The scenes that followed defy imagination,” said one eyewitness. “The piercing shriek of a mother almost demented with panic, the sobbing of children, the stricken looks of the men, the anguished cries of those whose dear ones were to be torn from them – all this sends a shudder through one’s very bones.” For others, there was a sense of relief, sometimes expressed inappropriately in dances of joy, almost always mixed with a feeling of guilt. This my mother witnessed over and over again.

Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad is a remarkable work – part memoir, part piercing political history and historical analysis. Looking back on his own family as he concludes, Finkelstein calls out the great flaw in the atonement and memory witnessed in the decades after the great destruction of people and peoples in World War II. He recalls how his mother’s history of extermination of Jews was told and retold to the eternal shame of Germany and Nazis everywhere, but on his father’s side the past was not so recorded. He writes:

… while interest in my mother’s story gradually increased and what she had experienced became better understood, none of this happened to my father. The public interest in Stalin’s crimes didn’t come. It has never come. Nobody invited Dad to tell his story in schools. Nobody spoke of the Katyn murders, hardly anyone knows of the Polish deportations. If anyone points to similarities between communism and fascism, it is regarded as a rather crude thing to do.

From this, Finkelstein argues that with the silence over the Soviet crimes, the Russians “have never been forced to see what they did as shameful”. This, Finkelstein says, has allowed Vladimir Putin to write his own version of history and justify his invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Daniel Finkelstein has written a searing memoir and a work of history never more pertinent in a world he has described as, in many places, facing collapse. And, as the world faces another version of the “final solution” inspiring the attacks on Israeli citizens by Hamas on 7 October 2023, we are in his debt.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.