Friday, August 10, 2007

Communism and Nazism/ Gellately book review

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.


Emil Perhinschi said...

"Unlike Stalin, Hitler did not make a habit of murdering his closest allies."

did he not ? Then what happened to the SA ?

beatroot said...

IN THEIR different ways they were as bad as each other, the three monsters of 20th-century Europe.

In a way, though, that’s a rather silly statement. It suggests that three evil bad men were born around about the same time and that the evil that followed was at their political whim.
Of course this is not so. What produced these characters was the times they were alivin. It was an age where capitalism appeared to be on its knees and the fascism/communism thing seemed to be the alternatives.
So saying these men were ‘as bad as each other’ rather misses the point. This is a kind of ‘kings and queens’ version of history, which I was subjected to at school, way back, and I never really did learn all that much.

Unknown said...

Acutally, that formulation indicates actual progress among Russophobic Brits. Some examples:

In a letter of September 10, 1939, Chamberlain himself remarked that
Anglo-German understanding still seem seemed to be a possibility in late August 1939:

"The communications with Hitler and Goering looked rather promising...that it was possible to persuade Hitler to accept a peaceful and reasonable solution of the Polish question, in order to get an Anglo-German agreement, which he continually declared to be his greatest ambition." Ian Colvin "The Chamberlain Cabinet" 1971, pg 417

And here is a senior Brit who within 6 months of writing this would be a member of Churchill's first wartime cabinet:

"For all the other acts of brutality at home and aggression without,
Herr Hitler had been able to offer an excuse, inadequate indeed,
but not fantastic. The need for order and discipline in Europe,
for strength at the centre to withstand the incessant infiltration of
false and revolutionary ideas - this is certainly no more than the
conventional excuse offered by every military dictator who has ever
suppressed the liberties of his own people or advanced the conquest
of his neighbors. Nevertheless, so long as the excuse was offered
with sincerity, and in Hitler's case the appearance of sincerity were
not lacking over a period of years, the world's judgement of the man
remained more favorable than its judgement of his actions. The faint
possibility of an ultimate settlement with Herr Hitler still, in these
circumstances, remained, however abominable his methods, however
deceitful his diplomacy, however intolerant he might show himself of the rights of other European peoples, he still claimed to stand
ultimately for something which was a common European interest, and
which therefore could conceivably provide some day a basis for
understanding with other nations equally determined not to sacrifice their traditional institutions and habits on the bloodstained altars
of the World Revolution.

The conclusion of the German-Soviet pact removed even this faint possibility of an honorable peace."

Lord Lloyd of Dolobran "The British Case" Eyre & Spottiswoode Limited. London, 1939, pgs 54-5

So we see that as late as 1939, Russophobic Brits thought Hitler better than Stalin, and were prepared to tolerate anything at all from Hitler, as long as there remained even a "faint possibility" of Hitler taking on the USSR.