In this book, Robert Gellately "tells the story", its jacket claims, "of the great social and political catastrophe that enveloped Europe between 1914 and 1945". This was brought about, he argues, above all by the worldwide clash between Soviet Communism and German Nazism, and it began not with Stalin and Hitler but with Lenin and the Bolshevik Revolution.
There is much to admire in this book. The arguments are clear, the style readable, the detail engrossing and often graphic. Gellately is surely right to begin with the First World War, and his argument that Stalin continued rather than perverted the policies of Lenin is powerfully and convincingly put, though it is hardly as new or as controversial as he seems to think. At the core of the book, however, is a comparison between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, and here he is less convincing.
There have been many attempts to compare Hitler and Stalin, most recently and most comprehensively by Richard Overy in The Dictators , but most of them have concentrated perhaps too much on bringing out the similarities between the two regimes. In contrast, Gellately argues that they were profoundly different. Stalin built on Lenin's doctrine of Communism as a vanguard party that would mould the working class and transform society radically from above. In the process of creating a dictatorship, Lenin created a gigantic repressive apparatus that was expanded and radicalised under Stalin until it killed millions of innocent people from all walks of society. Hitler, by contrast, came to power in a legal revolution, the Third Reich was a "dictatorship by consent", and terror within Germany was exercised, with broad public support, and against only tiny minorities consisting of the marginal and the deviant.
There is surely no disputing the fact that while Hitler directed his murderous policies of terror and extermination primarily against the Jews, Stalin's annihilatory policies were far less discriminating. Yet the contrast can be overdrawn. Both, for example, were obsessed with security considerations. For Hitler, the Jews were responsible for a supposed worldwide conspiracy to destroy Germany and had to be eliminated, along with other subversives such as homosexuals, Gypsies and Jehovah's Witnesses, as an imagined threat to the German war effort, along with millions of Soviet prisoners of war and civilians, German mental hospital patients and others who were seen as a burden on the war economy or a potential threat to Germany's military prowess in the future. For Stalin, too, the "enemy within", the wreckers, saboteurs, Trotskyites and the like, were hell-bent on undermining the Bolshevik revolution, just as ethnic minorities during the war (as Gellately shows in an excellent chapter) were brutally deported in their millions, again as a supposed security threat.
More worryingly, Gellately seriously distorts the evidence in his attempt to portray the Nazi seizure of power as a legal revolution and the Third Reich as a regime resting on popular consent. He points, for example, to the Nazi vote of 44 per cent in the elections of March 5, 1933, without mentioning the fact that campaigning by other parties was banned, the media were already orchestrated behind the Nazi campaign, and intimidation of the opposition by Nazi stormtroopers was widespread. The Enabling Law giving Hitler dictatorial legislative powers was not passed by the Reichstag later the same month in a free vote but in a debate where the chamber was surrounded by menacing brownshirt thugs, Hitler had threatened other parties with civil war should the measure not pass, and many opposition deputies, above all the Communists, were prevented from attending.
Gellately fails to say that the plebiscites that regularly delivered Hitler more than 90 per cent approval for his policies were so heavily influenced by intimidation, manipulation and falsification of the results that they were meaningless except as propaganda. His claim that the Nazis persecuted only marginal and deviant groups can be sustained only by almost completely ignoring the massive violence and intimidation vented on the Social Democrats, who with the even more severely persecuted German Communists had gained 221 seats to the Nazis' 196 in the last free elections of the Weimar Republic. He cites the small number of political prisoners in the concentration camps by the mid-1930s but fails to mention that there were more than 23,000 in state prisons, put there by a raft of repressive legislation and treason laws that get no coverage in this book.
All this suggests another weakness of this study: it concentrates, like Gellately's previous, more specialised work, on terror and repression to the exclusion of almost everything else. Gellately does not have much to say about "social catastrophe", either. As a general comparison of the two regimes, Overy's The Dictators still holds the field.
Richard J. Evans is professor of modern history, Cambridge University. He is the author of The Coming of the Third Reich (Penguin, 2003) and The Third Reich in Power (Penguin, 2005). The third volume in his trilogy on Nazi Germany, The Third Reich at War, will be published in October 2008.
Lenin, Stalin and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe
Author - Robert Gellately
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Pages - 720
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 9780224062831