In the comments under this post, Toblerone-scoffing abacab makes this remark:
And precious few know about the Soviet policy of deliberate starvation of entire regions, or of shipping thousands of people out into the tundra or the taiga in the middle of winter and leaving them there without food, shelter or tools.
The Soviets didn’t need extermination camps when they could just dump people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival. Solzhenitsyn reports an anecdote about one such group actually surviving until years later, when they were promptly rounded up again, shipped off somewhere else, and perished.
Although this is true, there is still a difference between the Soviet GULAG system and the concentration and extermination camp system run by the Nazis. I put this in a comment at Samizdata recently as an explanation as to why the horrors of the Soviets don’t resonate as much as those of the Nazis:
Every major power has massacred other people or those who they deem a political threat, and what the Soviets did was of much the same form albeit on a larger scale. Furthermore, when you read the accounts of the Soviet terror, there is a definite air of callous disregard: the camps weren’t really built to kill people, they were set up to get them out the way and put them to work. Nobody cared if they died, but nobody cared if they lived either. The Soviet system simply didn’t care about the lives of these people. Even those who were actively identified and shot were often selected simply to fulfill quotas, or killed along with a load of others “just in case”. The Soviets were not the first to do this, and are unlikely to be the last.
What made the Nazis different is they didn’t kill through callous neglect; their victims were specifically selected and the Nazis made sure there wasn’t collateral damage, i.e. they didn’t just massacre the whole village in trying to kill Jews as the Soviets would have done, they expended considerable resources finding the individuals while leaving the rest alone. They cared about the names of their victims, and took their photos, and documented their possessions, all during the process of exterminating them. The Nazis built camps specifically for the purposes of killing people (the Soviets never did) and went about it with an industrial precision. The suffering they inflicted on inmates was quite deliberate and calculated, and not just the result of callous neglect on the part of the administration (or incompetence, as it often was in the case of the Soviets). The Nazis counted their victims and took meticulous records, the Soviets never did. The Nazi administrators and guards were of a totally different class than the inmates, whereas in the Gulags the guards were considered little better than the prisoners, often sharing the same conditions and fate, and there are thousands of cases where prisoners became inmates and vice-versa. This never happened with the Nazis.
So in short, the horrors of the Soviets had been seen before and since; the Nazis, purely because of the way they went about it, inspire a unique horror. From the accounts I’ve heard of those poor individuals who experienced both, the Nazi camps were a lot worse.
When abacab mentions the Soviets dumping a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival, that would almost certainly have included the guards as well. I don’t like Anne Applebaum’s newspaper columns much, but her book Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps is excellent and there is an account in there of a few hundred unfortunates being dropped off on an island in the middle of one of Siberia’s enormous rivers. The plan was to get the prisoners to build a camp but there was no wood, so they had to stay in tents. Before they could get anything more robust set up a terrible storm blew through and everyone perished: prisoners, guards, dogs, the lot. It wasn’t so much the authorities wanted these people to die – the ones they considered really dangerous were shot out of hand, along with a whole load of others who were mostly unlucky – they simply didn’t care and were too callous and incompetent to prevent it.
Another point Applebaum makes is that most people survived the GULAG, and the harshness of the conditions varied greatly between individual camps and eras. During the war, when there were severe hardships outside the camps, life behind the wire was particularly tough but conditions improved afterwards. The general idea was to get prisoners working not to kill them off, even if the result was just that. By contrast, the conditions in the Nazi camps were kept universally harsh purely as a matter of deliberate policy, independent of incompetence and outside factors.
The other point Applebaum makes is that the numbers in the GULAG system waxed and waned. The population swelled during times of repression and decreased during periods of relative calm, and it was quite possible for a Soviet citizen to be imprisoned, released, imprisoned again, and released once more. I presume there are instances of Nazi concentration camp inmates being released, but their numbers must be few and I expect are limited to particular groups such as troublesome POWs or non-Jewish Germans. I’ve never heard of anyone being released from an extermination camp, although Soviet POWs were held at Sobibor who may have been. Most accounts of the Nazis camps come from people who were liberated, not released. It’s worth bearing in mind that the inmates of the Soviet GULAGs were never liberated, they were simply released (into exile mostly, but released all the same).
As anyone who has read Applebaum’s book or Solzhenitsyn knows, the GULAG system was abominable in its entirety and absolutely horrific in parts, but it differed from the Nazi camps in some fairly fundamental ways. It’s why a comparison of the two can only be taken so far, and it’s important to acknowledge the differences.