Smiles on Their Faces


“They seem nice and handsome and educated. They worked. And rested. And worked again.”

This description was found in the film Ordinary Fascism by Mikhail Romm. He was describing the German soldiers who were fighting on the Eastern Front during the Great Pattriotic War. While using these descriptors, Romm inserted into his film images that alternated between these images that showed German men fitting these descriptors and the work they were doing.   Half was of these images of them at work, carrying out of the greatest moral failing of this or possibly any other century: the Holocaust. Watching this made me feel a lot of things and reminded me of a lot of things that I had learned about the Holocaust in the past, but for some reason one thing in particular stuck out to me that for some reason had never hit home as hard before. Romm’s presentation of the Holocaust helped me realize just how casual it all was. The greatest mass murder in our times was carried out by these young men who were also capable of acting their age. Looking at other sources provided also really emphasized to me the kind of lack of gravitas it appeared to be given by those involved.

While watching Romm’s film, there were numerous examples of how casual the entire event was for those who carried it out. Romm noted how soldiers carried pictures around with them of the great atrocities. Sometimes they included themselves in these photos. One image in particular that struck me was one where a German soldier was standing smiling in the foreground while in the background there was a woman dangling with a rope around her neck. The soldier’s smile, a look of innocence, disturbed me more then the body. Romm noted how the campaign to kill the Jews dehumanized its victims, but those who carried out these atrocities were as well. That soldier, whose smile seemed to not have a care in the world, was just one example of that. Another moment of note was a clip a group of German men playing in a river, obviously during of period of relaxation. One could not help but think of it as a time to relax and enjoy oneself before heading back to do the work. It made me think of them as just taking a few hours off after a long days work, enjoying time with friends, something we all enjoy having after work or school. The footage of them playing in the river made it seem as if this was everyday for them, that they would go from the camps to the river. The casualness of it all was striking. The title of Romm’s film was what really hit home. He entitled it Ordinary Fascism, pointing to how normal it was for the people involved. This normalcy, this attitude of treating these atrocities like a days work, was most disturbing of all.

The orders from Heinrich Himmler entitled “Order for the Liquidation of the Ghettos of Ostland” also emphasized to me how casual the system was. His order for sending the Jews of Ostland to the camps was not an elaborate one, but instead a simple 6 step order. He told his subordinates to destroy the ghettos, to send their residents to camps, and to not let people in the camps out of them for work for any reason. Reading it almost felt like reading an order to move troops to another city or orders for the building of a new barracks or command post. It was shocking to see human life treated with such casualness and lack of meaning, even in one as brutal as the Great Patriotic War.

Watching Ordinary Fascism and reading Himmler’s orders was a stunning reminder of how normal it was to those who carried out the Holocaust. To them, it was a job, it was something they were ordered to do. As Romm pointed out in the quote above, they seemed like nice, handsome young men who woke up every morning and went about carrying out the work they were ordered to do. They were following orders. And maybe to them, who were they to say no. To them, it was just part of the job. That is the most disturbing thing of all. They were so dehumanized, so distant from what they were doing that they were just orders from those above. It was ordinary. And they did it with a smile.

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Ordinary Fascism

Order for the Liquidation of the Ghettos of Ostland

Nationalism, Communism, and the Soviet Union


An interesting movement that slowly emerged over the course of the 1930’s and hit its peak in 1939 was the concept of nationalism in the Soviet Union. As noted in his essay entitled “The New Patriotism”, historian James von Golden noted that the later 1930’s saw a rise in the posthumous rehabilitation of figures from Russia’s past, especially military leaders (von Golden). These military leaders were treated as heroes of the Russia of the past and were emphasized as heroes to the then still relatively new Soviet state. This rehabilitation was part of the larger nationalist project that was going on in the Soviet Union. What’s interesting about this rise in nationalist feeling and its encouragement is that one would not expect such ideology to be encouraged in a communist state. Communism emphasis on the working class as a group and the center of the state would make one think that nationalism would not have a place. This is due to the fact that the working class does not have any single nationality, as it is a group defined not by where it is from, but by its experiences and its exploitation under capitalism. Sources such as “The New Military Oath”, “For the Fatherland!”, and the film Alexander Nevsky provide important insights into how the balance between communism and nationalism was found and nationalism sentiments were built during this decade.

“The New Military Oath” and “For the Fatherland!”provide important insights into how nationalism was built through the use of the military. These sources intertwine nationalism and communist ideology in ways to make them appear one in the same, part of the larger struggle. For example, one paragraph in “The New Military Oath” ended with the line, “to be faithful to the people, the Soviet Motherland, and the Workers-Peasants’ Government” (The New Military Oath). “For the Fatherland!” also included an interesting line, stating that, “The defense of the fatherland is the supreme law of life” (For the Fatherland!). The Soviet government here was trying to make the revolution, the building of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and nationalism one in the same. One point of interest in these posts was that nationalism was not used as a way of building and helping to sustain the revolution. Instead, they were treated as equal, one feeding into the other and given equal importance. For example, traitors in “For the Fatherland!” are not framed as being traitors of the working class in general. Instead, they are just traitors of the working class in the Soviet Union and the nation as whole. This insular focus on nationalism in the Soviet Union appears as a link to the policy of “Socialism in One Country” that Stalin followed. These two documents as a whole show the combined nationalism and communist ideology.

The film Alexander Nevsky showed another important focus of the building of nationalism, the rehabilitation of historical figures, and how they were used by Stalin. The film, directed by the great Soviet director Sergei Einstein, was based on the life the titular man, who played an important role in the 13th century of protecting Russia from invaders. While watching the film, it becomes clear to the viewer that Nevsky in the film was supposed to be a symbol for Stalin in terms of his leadership and guidance of the Russian (or Soviet) people. It fit into the trend of rehabilitating figures that could be used to draw easy parallels to then current Soviet leaders, to add people like Stalin to the long history of those defending the fatherland from outside influences. Interestingly enough, these figures were rehabbed even though they represented the old regime, the old way of thinking about social relations in Russia. While they didn’t represent the social revolution going on at the time, films like Alexander Nevsky represented a link to the past, that allowed the Soviet government and its leaders to link themselves to the greats of the past. They wanted to show they were continuing their legacy of protecting the fatherland and this time, protecting the workers revolution.

The relationship between nationalism and communism was an interesting one. One would think they would not be compatible, as the working class has no singular national identity, as workers are everywhere and their struggles against capitalism are the same. However, Stalin linked the two, almost as a continuation of his policy of building socialism in the Soviet Union. By encouraging nationalism, of that identity of being a citizen of the Soviet Union, he provided another way that the citizens of the nation could tie themselves to it, outside of being workers in a communist society.

This post earned a Red Star award from the editorial team


For the Fatherland!

The New Military Oath

Alexander Nevsky