Murderous leaders who won citizens' hearts

The Dictators
February 18, 2005

Two evil regimes won the consent and adulation of their people with projects of national 'belonging', finds Brendan Simms

When the Soviet interpreter Valentin Berezhkov visited Berlin in 1940, during the period of Nazi-Soviet co-operation under the Hitler-Stalin Pact, he felt more at home than he had expected. In his memoir, Berezhkov describes finding: "The same idolisation of the 'leader', the same mass rallies and parades... Very similar, ostentatious architecture, heroic themes depicted in art much like our socialist realism... massive ideological brainwashing." At the time, Berezhkov carried the comparison no further, but the idea that the two dictatorships were somehow of a piece has been much discussed in the past 70 years. It underlay the whole "totalitarianism" and "fascism" debates of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, which addressed the question of whether Nazism was closer to Stalinism, or to authoritarian and essentially capitalist regimes such as Franco's Spain.

It underlay the Historikerstreit - or "war of the historians" - of the 1980s, during which German scholars and others explored whether Hitler's crimes or those of Stalin had been more heinous, and why.

The fall of communism between 1989-91 gave this debate a new impetus.

First, because it allowed some sort of historical perspective on what remained a passionately contested but no longer politically existential issue. Secondly, because the opening of the Soviet archives allowed scholars to make more meaningful comparisons between the two systems. Alan Bullock's classic Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives appeared in 1991, before most of this material became available. An intermediate synthesis was provided by Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin's seminal, though not entirely unproblematic, collection of essays, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (1997), based on a conference held in 1991. A great deal more work has been done since then, however, and the time is ripe for a fresh look by Richard Overy in The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia , from which the striking opening quotation from Berezhkov is taken.

Overy is well qualified to undertake this enterprise. He is a world authority on the military and economic history of the Third Reich and the Second World War. Although not a Russianist as such, Overy is an expert on the Red Army and the Soviet war machine. With The Dictators , he has produced a readable, well-grounded and commendably up-to-date examination.

Bringing together so much new material in an accessible way is a considerable achievement. At one level, therefore, Overy's work can be read as a very successful synthesis. If I were asked to recommend one book on Hitler's Germany and Stalinist Russia for the general public or a university reading list, this would be it.

The Dictators is also conceptually ambitious. Unlike Bullock, Overy is not attempting a twin biography of two dictators, but of two dictatorships, a distinction that is central to the whole enterprise. Nor does he see himself as conducting a systemic political comparison in the style of the old "totalitarian" school and its critics. Rather, The Dictators attempts a broader "societal" comparison, which goes beyond the old topoi of party, state, military and ideology. In this respect, the author delivers perhaps a little less than he promises. It is true that Overy devotes more attention than usual to "the regimes' wider social, moral and cultural ambitions". This is to some extent reflected in the choice of illustrations, which stress the quotidian and cultural as much as the biographical and the dramatic. But the maps and tables tell a different story. A truly societal approach would have provided details of, say, social profile, urbanisation and literacy. What we get are charts of camps, political boundaries, party membership, economic output and so on. Societal statistics are there, but they tend to be embedded within the text.

And this is as it should be. For the compelling picture that Overy paints is of two systems bent on a political and ideological project, in which social, moral and cultural considerations played an important role but were essentially subordinate. Both regimes, as he puts it, operated a "dichotomy between belonging and exclusion". In Hitler's case, the aim was a racially pure utopia in a German-run Europe from which Jews, gypsies and many others had been exterminated. In Stalin's case, it was to be a communist paradise purged of all Kulaks or "national chauvinists" (that is, ethnic separatism) and "deviationism" (that is, dissent from the Communist Party line).

Overy is understandably reluctant to engage in polemics about which dictator was "worse". He is clear, however, that Hitler's project was theoretically and empirically the more murderous. His judicious account of the two "empires of the camps" shows that while Hitler planned the annihilation of whole categories of people, Stalin's gulags generally tried to keep prisoners alive, if only to work; the overall figures for Soviet deaths appear to be lower than many, including this reviewer, previously thought. Moreover, the author stresses the essentially defensive nature of Stalin's foreign policy. Here, Overy is perhaps a little inclined to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt. Some of the recent research by Russian historians such as Vladmir Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov has emphasised the extent to which Stalin subscribed to an expansionist "revolutionary-imperial paradigm". Certainly, the inhabitants of Finland, Poland and the Baltic states - victims of unprovoked Soviet aggression before 1941 - would have had difficulty in seeing Stalin's foreign policy in anything other than an aggressive light. But to make this point is simply to reinforce Overy's central argument that the key to understanding the two systems lies in their determination to mobilise for total war.

The domestic systems in Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia reflected these priorities. Though Overy does not quite put it this way, both states were geared towards a "primacy of foreign policy", be it for territorial expansion, in Hitler's case, or some more limited or defensive programme, in the case of Stalin. Overy argues plausibly that both were "strong" dictators who maintained a powerful grip on the decision-making when it really mattered. Both kept their societies in a state of permanent alert against internal and external enemies. Cultural and moral norms were designed to provide the necessary "social discipline". Likewise, many of Stalin's deportations, such as those of the Volga Germans during the Second World War, can be traced back directly to security concerns. And however bizarre and misdirected it may seem, Hitler saw his genocide against the Jews not as persecution of the defenceless, but as a life-and-death struggle against a mortal threat.

Finally, Overy is surely right to stress the very high level of consent in both systems. In the case of Nazi Germany, this has been well known for some time. Overy reminds us that it was also true of Stalin's Russia. When the German journalist Emil Ludwig suggested that the Soviet people were driven simply by fear, Stalin retorted: "Do you really believe that we could have retained power and have had the backing of the vast masses for 14 years by methods of intimidation and terrorisation?". That was in 1932.

Just over 20 years and millions more dead later, many Soviet citizens seemed to have been genuinely bereft at Stalin's death.

The two systems were therefore not just historical "aberrations" or "alien visitations"; the weakness of resistance in Germany and its almost total absence in Russia confirms this. Yet why so many Germans and Russians should have followed the dictators remains a puzzle. We shall perhaps never know the full answer to that question, but thanks to Overy's stimulating book, we are certainly better informed.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge University.

The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's

Author - Richard Overy
Editor - Allen Lane
Publisher - The Penguin Press
Pages - 849pp
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9309 X

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