Cruel cousins or blood brothers?

Stalinism and Nazism
December 19, 1997

In early May 1945, just before the German capitulation, the good citizens of Prague were startled to see German-made tanks trundling through the streets bearing the inscriptions "Death to Stalin" as well as "Death to Hitler". They were manned by men of General Vlasov's anti-Soviet Russian Liberation Army, who sought to forestall the advancing Red Army and certain extinction, by staging a revolt of their own against rapidly crumbling German occupation authorities. In its crude way, the dramatic graffiti of these desperate men epitomised what was soon to become known as "totalitarianism" theory: an interpretative framework stressing the essential similarity between the Nazi and Stalinist regimes.

Intellectually, this theory was a child of the cold war: the analogy that authors such as Hannah Arendt, Zbigniew Brezinski and Carl Friedrich drew between Nazism and Soviet communism was used to discredit the latter in the postwar struggle for hegemony between the superpowers. Both regimes shared certain distinct features that seemed to set them apart from other dictatorships: one-party rule, claims to absolute physical and mental subordination, and most controversially, policies of mass murder or genocide. Yet in the 1960s and 1970s, not least because of the spread of detente, new theories began to gain currency. Some of these, such as the Sonderweg model, argued that Nazism was the result of a peculiarly German path towards (partial) modernity, and was thus sui generis. Others claimed that National Socialism was merely the German variant of the European Fascist movement: this too was a politically charged view, for it both cleared Stalinist Russia of association with Hitler, and tainted bourgeois democracies with the responsibility of creating the preconditions for the rise of Nazism.

This debate was reopened in the mid-1980s during the Historikerstreit, when some centrist and conservative German historians argued not simply that the Stalinist and Nazi crimes were broadly comparable, and that the class murder of the more prosperous Russian peasants (kulaks) mirrored the race murder of the Jews, but that Nazi policies of extermination were in some sense inspired by and in reaction to those of the Bolsheviks. Was not, Ernst Nolte asked, the Gulag Archipelago more original (ursprunglicher) than Auschwitz?

One difficulty upon which any comparative perspective invariably impaled itself before the late 1980s was the lack of detailed and reliable information on Stalin's Russia: despite the considerable changes which followed his death in 1953, the Soviet Union remained the self-conscious heir to the broader Bolshevik heritage with a strong interest in restricting archival access. In the German case, on the other hand, historians had enjoyed unrivalled access to the records of the defeated regime after 1945. Hence whereas scholarly denials of the existence and extent of the Holocaust were practically unknown, it was still possible 40 years later for academic historians to portray the great purges as no more than a high-political party spat whose victims numbered no more than a few tens of thousands. The fall of communism across Europe around 1990, however, produced a flood of revelations which often confirmed the most extreme allegations of cold warriors about the extent of Stalinist - and even Leninist - crimes. A fresh look at the comparability of Stalinism and Nazism was thus called for.

Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin's edited collection on Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison, is the eagerly awaited publication of a conference held in 1991 to do just that. It would be difficult to think of two scholars better suited to the task. Kershaw in particular is not only this country's most distinguished expert on Nazism; his various monographs and biographies already enjoy the status of classics in Germany itself. Of course, given the high degree of specialisation the enterprise had to be a collective one. On the other hand, the decision to eschew individual comparative chapters, in favour of (roughly) parallel treatment of individual themes, while understandable, is perhaps less defensible. This leaves it largely to the editors to generate surplus value from the primitive accumulation of the various specialists. A more ambitious approach has been adopted by Mathias Vetter's recent edited collection, Terroristische Diktaturen im 20 Jahrhundert. This assembles slightly less eminent authors, but by integrating treatment of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia within the various chapters, it achieves a higher degree of comparative focus. Another regrettable omission is foreign policy, which is only dealt with en passant. It would have been interesting to have had a chapter exploring the extent to which Stalinist and Hitlerite foreign policy represented a new departure or simply the continuation of old Wilhelmine and Tsarist traditions from before 1917-18.

Nevertheless, Kershaw and Lewin have mounted a very stimulating exercise in comparative history. They refute conventional objections that "historical knowledge is derived from unique, non-repeatable events I it is self-evident that only comparison allows an understanding of uniqueness". They go beyond the classic "totalitarianism" tropes of party organisation and mass murder to consider themes which have been thrown up by recent research. One of the fruitful comparisons made is between the "Hitler Myth" and that of Stalin: both "distanced themselves from the party (and officialdom)", so as the better to disassociate themselves from failure. Chillingly, both believed in the policy of Sippenhaft, that is of persecuting not merely political opponents but their families as well. Both encountered obstruction, what historians of the German resistance have termed Resistenz, from ordinary people who fought and occasionally won millions of tiny battles with the regime(s).

As one might expect, the authors often disagree. Kershaw and Lewin, for example, insist on "the uniqueness of the Holocaust - the only example which history offers to date of a deliberate policy aimed at the total physical destruction of every member of an ethnic group ... There was no equivalent of this under Stalinism." Indeed, Kershaw argues that the two systems were "in essence more unlike than like each other". Michael Mann, on the other hand, writes that "quite uniquely these two regimes enslaved, and then killed millions of their subjects ... the two regimes belong together. It is only a question of finding the correct family name." This view tends to put him in the "totalitarianism" camp. Later Mann argues that National Socialism is "only an extreme version of a whole family of early 20th-century rightist ideologies". This suggests that he is also an advocate of "fascism" theories. Similarly, R. G. Suny refers to the Soviet Great Terror as a "political holocaust", a formulation which runs contrary to Kershavian notions of the singularity of Nazi crimes.

In the end, the crux of the comparison lies in its assessment of Auschwitz, the gulag, and the second world war. Here the editors are of one mind. "Stalin's rule," Kershaw argues, "was not incompatible with a rational ordering of priorities and attainment of limited and comprehensible goals"; forced industrialisation was neither "irrational" nor "limitless". Moreover, Hitlerism was bent on world domination, whereas Stalin was chiefly interested in domestic affairs. "Stalin's strategy," Lewin claims, "was all turned inward ... (his) essential drive had nothing to do with racialism or racial superiority I with wiping out of their intelligentsia or with war". Finally, they deny any causal nexus between Bolshevik crimes and those of Hitler: "anti-Bolshevism was a later insertion into an already present virulent, latently genocidal anti-Jewish myth", which Hitler assimilated in Vienna, long before the Russian revolution.

As an analysis of Nazism, most of this is unexceptionable. There is certainly no doubt that the racial murder of the Jews was qualitatively different to the class murder of the kulaks. One might add, however, that recent studies by Christian Striefler and Kai-Uwe Merz have documented not only the extent of the Communist threat in the Weimar Republic before 1933, but also the deep sense of bourgeois fear in the face of Bolshevik policies of class murder since 1917, fears which the researches of Dimitri Volkogonov and others on Lenin have since confirmed. One might also point out that Brigitte Hamann's recent study, Hitler's Wien, tends to suggest that his radical anti-Semitism was a product of the period after 1914; this does not necessarily prove a causal nexus with the revolution, but it does make such a link seem less improbable.

But it is the relativisation of Stalinism which disturbs most. After all, by 1940, so far from being uninterested in war and expansion, Stalin had launched entirely unprovoked invasions of Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. As Bernd Bonwetsch's chapter points out in a discordant note, the Soviet economy was already on a war footing on the eve of the German invasion. Moreover, by that stage Stalin had already supervised forced famines in the Ukraine, which were also intended to break nationalist resistance to Moscow. It is not for nothing that Robert Conquest dubbed him the "breaker of nations", an appellation which has gained credibility over the years with the release of long-secret documents. Finally, the notion that Stalin's essential drive had nothing to do with the "wiping out" of intelligentsia will look odd to Poles mindful of the massacre of officers at Katyn Wood and other elitocides carried out during the Soviet occupation of 1939-40.

Brendan Simms is director of studies in history, Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison

Editor - Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin
ISBN - 0 521 56521 9
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £15.95
Pages - 369

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