Compare and contrast
Aug 9th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe
By Robert Gellately
Knopf; 720 pages; $35. To be published in Britain by Jonathan Cape in September.
IN THEIR different ways they were as bad as each other, the three monsters of 20th-century Europe. That is an oddly controversial statement. Hitler is almost universally vilified; Lenin remains entombed on Red Square as Russia's most distinguished corpse; and modern Russia is looking more kindly on Stalin's memory.
Robert Gellately elegantly scrutinises their differences and highlights their similarities. He places all three men in the context of a Europe shattered by the first world war. “Before 1914 they were marginal figures,” he writes, without “the slightest hope of entering political life.” The whirlwind of destruction that started in 1914 turned their fantasies of racial purity and class dictatorship into reality, killing people on a scale unknown in human history.
Anyone who still believes in the myth—assiduously propagated by the Soviet Union and its admirers—of the “good Lenin” will find the book uncomfortable reading. The author outlines with exemplary clarity Lenin's cruelty, his illegal and brutal seizure of power, his glee in ordering executions, the institution of mass terror as a means of political control and the construction of the first camps in what later became the gulag. “Far from perverting or undermining Lenin's legacy, as is sometimes assumed, Stalin was Lenin's logical heir,” he writes icily.
Mr Gellately busts another myth too: that Hitler seized power by fear and force. The combination of anti-Jewish and anti-Bolshevik rhetoric played well with the German public. People felt humiliated by defeat and impoverished by recession, and Hitler blamed “the Jews” for both.
Hitler looked on Soviet methods with contempt. His model was what Mr Gellately calls “consensus dictatorship”: cautious, sounding out public opinion and changing course when necessary. Unlike Stalin, Hitler did not make a habit of murdering his closest allies. The Nazi party never experienced the ritual purges that were a habitual feature of Soviet Communist Party life under Stalin. Hitler's adversaries were so demoralised by the seeming success of his regime that few offered systematic resistance. It was only as defeat loomed in the last months of the war that ordinary Germans had a taste of the official paranoia that had been their Soviet counterparts' daily fare for 25 years.
Lucid prose and vivid examples make the book admirably accessible to non-specialists. But it also engages expertly in one of the most closely fought historiographical battles of past decades, the Historikerstreit (to give it its German name). Was the bacillus of totalitarianism that infected Germany first bred in Russia? Some German historians, notably Ernst Nolte, have argued that Hitler's crimes were both a distorted copy of atrocities already committed under communism and to some extent a defensive reaction to them. To caricature the argument: Germany declared war on Jews because Jews (at least communist ones) had declared war on Germany.
Mr Gellately has no time for Mr Nolte, who he says is guilty of an “astonishing and reprehensible replication of Nazi rhetoric”. Just because many communists were Jews does not mean that there was anything remotely rational in Hitler's constant conflation of “Jewish-Bolshevism”. Nazi anti-Semitism, he insists, was “rooted in German nationalism.”
The argument about the origins of Nazism will run and run. But there is little danger of Germany rehabilitating Hitler, even in the driest and most academic corners of historical theory. In Russia, by contrast, Stalin's memory is being burnished. A new guide for history teachers describes Stalin as the Soviet Union's “most successful leader”; it admits that “political repression” took place, but says it “was used to mobilise not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite.” President Vladimir Putin, welcoming this guide, compared Stalin's Great Terror of 1937 with the allied bombing of Hiroshima. It would be interesting to hear Mr Putin's tame historians debate the Stalin era with Mr Gellately.
Mr Gellately sets a high standard for anyone writing about comparative dictatorship. But perhaps some future scholar, matching this author's knowledge of German and Soviet history but possessing equal mastery of China's communist decades, could write a more complete account of 20th-century horrors, including that missing monster, Mao Zedong.
Friday, August 10, 2007
Compare and contrast