In the early hours of May 2, 1945, Soviet forces captured the Reich Chancellory in Berlin which had served throughout World War II as Adolph Hitler’s headquarters. Although fighting continued for another week, this event signaled the fall of Nazi Germany at the hands of the Allied forces.
This part of the story is well-known. What is less known is the ravaging of Berlin and its citizens by the marauding Soviet forces during and after the Battle of Berlin. In the wake of the Red Army’s victory, 100,000 German women and girls, ranging in age “from eight to 80” were raped. During the battle 125,000 civilian inhabitants of Berlin died.
Soviet war crimes were not confined to Berlin. It is estimated that between 500,000 and 2.2 million citizens were killed by the Red Army in Germany, Finland, Poland, Lithuania and Estonia. Mass rapes were common with the estimated number of victims ranging from hundreds of thousands to millions.
The Allied victory and subsequent division of Germany resulted in the oppression of 18 million people by a Soviet satellite government. This government, in order to maintain power, quelled a popular uprising of citizens against the communist regime and built a wall to prevent its citizens from escaping.
Now let’s stop and ask a question. Does pointing out these atrocities and the negative features of the Soviets’ victory indicate some sort of implicit sympathy with all of the well-documented Nazi crimes? Does saying that the Soviets were wrong necessitate the approval of Adolph Hitler, the Nazis or the Holocaust? Of course not.
It amazes me, then, that anyone who suggests that there were negative features of the North’s victory in the Civil War is automatically derided as a defender of the Confederate government in general and of slavery in particular. To the people who make these charges, the ending of slavery, which Abraham Lincoln freely admitted was incidental to the war itself, allows us to ignore the sins of the Union during and after the war.
What were these sins? The intentional targeting of southern civilians, the wanton destruction of large, undefended portions of the South, 14,000 northern political prisoners and hundreds of northern newspapers shut down. There were also many instances of interference with elections, both North and South, by northern soldiers and politicians. Union soldiers fired on rioters in at least two states, New York and Missouri, killing dozens, including innocent bystanders. Lincoln paved the way for today’s imperial presidency by ignoring constitutional restrictions on his own power. Military conscription and the income tax were both instituted, unconstitutionally.
Perhaps the most heinous result of the war was the centralization of power and all of its attendant depredations of freedom. The point has been made that the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin were made possible by the wave of centralization that swept the world’s political landscape during the latter half of the 19th century.
Historian Tom Woods has noted that “people were promised that the modern (centralized) states could protect them from the oppressions of other social and political authorities….(But) it could also carry out great atrocities, of a kind the world had never before seen.” Woods continues, “Even the most powerful monarchs of centuries past could not have engaged in such destruction, since their authority was hemmed in by other social authorities that had the power to thwart them. ”
Pointing out these facts and lamenting the rise in centralized power does not indicate support for the Confederate government. Economic historian Robert Higgs writes that “Confederate authorities behaved similarly” to their Northern counterparts. Confederate President Jefferson Davis, like Lincoln, suspended habeas corpus and drafted citizens into the army. Confederate soldiers, like their Union opponents, preyed on southern citizens. Higgs states, “Confederate army officers earned the hearty hostility of the southern people by seizing property…to resupply their units….” And there is the obvious abomination of the Confederacy’s official support for slavery.
Both governments were responsible for numerous violations of human rights and, because of this, both deserve our condemnation. Illuminating the evil actions of the North and the negative effects of its victory doesn’t demand the support of slavery or cause us to fail to rejoice at its end any more than pointing out Soviet crimes in World War II requires us to sympathize with the Nazis.
But in neither case should we conflate the government of a region with the people of that region. We don’t have to believe that citizens of the South or Germany “had it coming” just because of where they lived and what their governments did. Such thoughts are perverse and ill-befitting a civilized society.
We also do not need to excuse the atrocities of one side because it helped end a great evil perpetrated by the other. We can properly rejoice for the end of one kind of evil while recognizing that another kind took place.
Discussions about the Civil War do not typically fall outside the “good guy/bad guy” narrative, but the historical reality of this period is considerably more nuanced. If we feel the need to categorize it, though, I would suggest filing it in the “bad guy/bad guy” folder since both governments were wrong and the political legacy of the war is, as abolitionist Lysander Spooner said, “That men may rightfully be compelled to submit to, and support, a government that they do not want…”
It should be abundantly clear that saying that the northern government was wrong does not imply that the southern one was right, but this obvious truth does not stop people from making that claim. Those who say this are being, intentionally or not, logically obtuse. This argument should be rejected as preposterous by anyone who believes in basic human rights and the American ideal of self-government.