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Above the Abyss

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

by Alan Bullock
Knopf, 1,081 pp., $35.00

1.

The subtitle of Alan Bullock’s new book is taken from Plutarch, that master of exemplary history, who in the tenth book of his Parallel Lives, which contained his account of the careers of Pericles and Hannibal’s stubborn antagonist Fabius Maximus, wrote that his literary work had been sustained by the belief that the public services and moral demeanor of the persons he wrote about would serve as a practical stimulus to his readers.

Virtue [he wrote], by the bare statement of its actions, can affect men’s minds so as to create at once both admiration of the things done and desire to imitate the doers of them.1

In comparison with the general run of Plutarch’s subjects, Bullock’s are devoid of virtue, and what he said of the one in his Hitler: A Study in Tyranny in 1952 applies with equal force to the other:

Remarkable powers were combined with an ugly and strident egotism, a moral and intellectual cretinism. The passions which ruled Hitler’s mind were ignoble: hatred, resentment, the lust to dominate, and, where he could not dominate, to destroy. His career did not exalt but debased the human condition, and his…dictatorship was barren of all ideas save one—the further extension of his own power and that of the nation with which he had identified himself.2

It is perhaps with a feeling that some readers may question his decision to devote almost a thousand pages of text to these monsters of criminality that Bullock cites Hegel’s view that, when one tries to judge the great movers and shakers of history,

moral claims which are irrelevant must not be brought into collision with world-historical deeds and their accomplishment. The litany of private virtues…must not be raised against them…. So mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower—crush to pieces many an object in its path.

It is, of course, possible that Hegel might not have been so sure of that if he had lived a century and a half later than he did. The enormities of the two dictators were so horrendous that during the German historical controversy (Historikerstreit) of the late 1980s, those who tried to find some kind of exculpation for Hitler were reduced to arguing that the Holocaust was less destructive of human life than Stalin’s Gulag, which had preceded it, and to that extent more excusable.3

But it would be idle to argue that every biographer should model himself upon Plutarch. Hitler and Stalin require the attention of historians because they had historical greatness, in Jacob Burckhardt’s definition of that term. They were driven by an inner force that was more than individual and represented “a mysterious coincidence” between personal egotism and mass will; they spoke both to the yearnings and to the fantasy of their age; they possessed the gift of simplification that makes complicated things seem transparent; they had the feel for power and the fine art of discriminating between its genuine forms and its counterfeits; they were utterly self-confident and walked unafraid above the abyss; and they were, above all, irreplaceable, transforming their worlds in ways that would have been inconceivable without them.4

Hitler and Stalin shared these characteristics, and it is fair to say that between them they were the makers of the world in which we have lived for the past forty-five years, and from which we are only now beginning to emerge. Without them, none of the slaughter that attended the Second World War, with the irreparable loss of forty million military and civilian lives, would have taken place; without them there would have been no divided Europe, no headlong dissolution of the European colonial empires, no cold war, no Korea and Vietnam, without them no debauching of the economies of great nations to support the burden of the nuclear arms race.5 It is easy enough to find, in the years that followed the First World War, general causes for the ills of European civilization, but its near destruction was the result of individual decisions, and the most baleful of these were made by Hitler and Stalin. One may gag at the attribution to them of historical greatness, but, whatever one calls them, it is necessary to study their careers.

In conceiving his present book Bullock became convinced that a double biography of the dictators would provide the best frame for achieving a long-held desire to write a comparative history of the Nazi and Communist revolutions. Their “careers alone,” he writes in his introduction, “brought all the different facets together, revolution, dictatorship, ideology, diplomacy, and war.” As for the structure of such a work, he decided without difficulty that, even at the cost of writing a long book, he would not sacrifice chronology to analysis. The events of 1989–1990 confirmed him in this decision. As he sat before the television watching the remarkable events that were taking place in Eastern Europe, he had the impression, he writes, of seeing the earlier history of the 1940s and 1930s, back to the revolution of 1917, unravel before his eyes.

I found that, not only to young people, but to most people under the age of fifty, the history of those years, once as remote as the French Revolution, had now become alive as something they wished to know about. It is this interplay between present and past that gives history its fascination, and the narrative I had been constructing suddenly took on more relevance. It has been this audience of general readers I have kept in mind while writing my book….

2.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Hitler and Stalin was, on the one hand, the obscurity of their origins and their lack of any conspicuous talent in their early years and, on the other, the inflated claims that they made upon the future. “To anyone who came across either of them before the age of thirty,” Bullock writes, “a suggestion that he would play a major role in twentieth-century history would have appeared incredible.” Yet even when he was a schoolboy, Hitler was convinced that he was destined one day to be the savior of the German people, and even as an obscure and much-arrested Party organizer in Caucasus, Stalin had a fixed conviction that he was a better Bolshevik than the cosmopolitan intellectuals at the top of the Party hierarchy and had pretensions to leadership that were not lost upon his comrades. It is clear that they were both narcissistic personalities in the sense that they were wholly convinced of their own superiority, and enraged and vengeful when their selfimage was wounded by others; but Bullock confesses to being at a loss to explain why narcissism would produce in these two of thousands of cases a sense of mission that was impervious to disappointment or failure, as it was to guilt or remorse. Yet this, he believes, was the cardinal fact in their careers.

The correspondences between those careers also fascinate him. Both men came into political prominence as a result of the First World War, Stalin as one of the most reliable of Lenin’s aides during the October Revolution in St. Petersburg, Hitler as a popular tribune in postwar radical politics in Munich, an orator of such compelling power and with such a loyal following that the local army, police, and political leadership sought to use him in November 1923 to spearhead a Putsch against the Weimar Republic, an enterprise that he highjacked and that, despite its failure, made his name known throughout Germany.

In the first post-Revolution years, Stalin, as general secretary of the Party, built the power base that was to enhance his stature at the expense of the Party’s Old Guard; in the first post-Putsch years, Hitler rebuilt the shattered Nazi party, established his authority as Führer, and elaborated the propaganda machine and the electoral tactics that were to have such startling results in the Depression years of 1929–1930. By the beginning of the 1930s, Stalin had outmaneuvered his rivals for Lenin’s mantle and had driven his most formidable enemy, Trotsky, from the country, while Hitler, profiting from the demoralization of the Weimar political system as the Depression deepened and from the growth of the Communist Party, had convinced the conservative establishment that he was the indispensable man and should be made leader of the government.

By 1934, each had carried out a revolution of major consequences. Stalin had been the driving force behind the Great Leap Forward, the forced collectivization of agriculture that was imposed upon the country without regard for the cost in human lives. Hitler had escaped the control of his conservative allies and, by means of emergency decrees designed to save the republic, had made a one-party state, abolished hitherto independent organization like trade unions, made effective opposition impossible by the elaboration of the secret police system, disciplined his party by the purge of the SA, the too ambitious party militia, and, when President von Hindenburg died in August, abolished his office and had all military officers and civil servants swear a solemn oath of allegiance to “Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich and German People.”

In the four years that followed the two leaders consolidated the gains that they had won. These were the years of the Great Purge of the Communist Party, which followed the murder of Stalin’s putative follower Kirov and seems, Bullock writes, to have been suggested to Stalin by Hitler’s action against Ernst Roehm and the other SA leaders in June 1934. By the time it was over, Bullock writes,

Psychologically [it had] reduced Stalin’s ever-present fear of conspiracy, overthrow, and assassination, and satisfied that desire for revenge that remained as strong as ever in a nature that showed not a trace of magnanimity or regret. Politically, it silenced dissent for good and cleared the way to an autocratic form of rule. It did this by wiping out what was left of the original Bolshevist Party.

In contrast, no more purges were needed in Germany, and Hitler withdrew from the day-by-day business of government and allowed the development of what has been called a polycratic state of competing party organizations, very different, Bullock notes, “from the outside world’s picture of a monolithic, totalitarian state run with typical German efficiency.” At the same time, however, just as these years in the Soviet Union marked a consolidation of the country under a new Party elite utterly loyal to Stalin, so in Germany did the transfer of the management of the economy from Hjalmar Schacht to Goering in October and the subordination of all armed forces to Hitler’s personal command in February 1938. This was also promoted by the Party’s effort, in which Hitler took a keen interest, to unite the German people into a genuine Volksgemeinschaft by means of propaganda and planned activities that were designed, Bullock writes, “to leave no one alone, to allow no one to contract out or escape being involved, in their leisure activities as well as at work or at home.”

The purpose of this last program, as of Goering’s Four Year Plan, was to prepare for the fulfillment of Hitler’s long-held ambition of winning Lebensraum in the east for an expanding Third Reich, and from 1934 Hitler became more active in foreign policy, making probing thrusts against the Versailles system in order to test the will of the Western allies to resist his designs. Here again an interesting correspondence is to be noted, for 1934 was the year in which Stalin brought the USSR into the League of Nations, in an attempt to discover how determined the West was to defend collective security against fascist aggression. The results of this joint examination were as encouraging for Hitler as they were cautionary for Stalin, and after the Munich Conference, in which the Western forces yielded to Germany’s demand for the western fringe of Czechoslovakia, the Soviet vice commisar for foreign affairs was to say to the French ambassador, “My poor fellow, what have you done? For us I see no other consequence but a fourth partition of Poland.”6 This was a true portent of things to come. After Munich, Stalin followed a dual policy, increasing pressure upon the West for a genuine commitment to military collaboration in the defense of Eastern Europe while sending signals to Berlin of willingness to consider an arrangement. The result was the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which triggered the Polish war.

The alliance between the dictators was not to last, and war between them came ineluctably on. In the two years that followed the pact, Soviet appeasement of Hitler in Eastern Europe was more excessive than that of the English and French before 1939, but Hitler was not to be stayed from the attempt to realize his territorial and ideological ambitions. These, indeed, seemed not incapable of fulfillment. By the end of 1942 Hitler’s New Order of Europe had assumed formidable proportions and his program for the extirpation of the Jews was well advanced. But Stalin had regained the Allies he had abandoned in 1939 and acquired the backing of the United States as well, and he not only won his war with Hitler but, thanks to the political shrewdness of his war strategy, was able, when his turn came, to try to build a New Order, to establish one that lasted well beyond his death in 1953, and showed no serious sign of internal trouble for another thirty-five years.

3.

In working his way through this story, Bullock shows an admirable ability to articulate its two main strands so that each supports the other. He has mastered the enormous amount of new material on German and Soviet history that has accumulated in the last two decades, and this gives authority to his judgments on long controverted questions, like that of who voted for Hitler before 1933 and why.7 On this, Bullock takes the view, following that of Thomas Childers,8 that while “the predominant tone of the party” in its early years “was lower middle class: …vulgar, heavily male, and beer-drinking, chauvinist, xenophobe, authoritarian, anti-Semitic, anti-intellectual, anti-emancipatory, anti-modernist,” by 1930 it had begun to transcend these origins, to win votes formerly controlled by the conservative right, and to make sizable inroads into every part of the middle-class electorate, gradually becoming, in short, a party of middle-class integration or Sammelbewegung.

This change was, of course, influenced by the disastrous economic condition of the times, but Bullock argues that the Great Depression did not create Hitler, as some have said, but rather gave him “the opportunity for the exercise of talents [developed during the long years in the wilderness] uniquely suited for its exploitation.” He also makes the interesting point that Hitler’s own deep-rooted anti-Semitism did not, from 1922 on, prove to be an electoral asset and was downpedaled, the closer he got to power, in favor of anti-Marxism and attacks on the Weimar “system.”

Bullock is very good at explaining things. He is the best of guides through the labyrinthine twistings of Stalin’s mind after the murder of Kirov, when the Party faithful were revealed one by one to be “enemies of the people,” and he is an illuminating analyst of such matters as Hermann Goering’s direction of the Four Year Plan after 1936, which one historian has described as strip-mining the German economy for the sake of rearmament. He is not above deriving amusement from the blatant cynicism of the two dictators, such as their behavior during the Spanish Civil War, when both, despite their membership on the International Non-Intervention Committee, intervened in the conflict, on opposite sides but principally on their own, since they were less interested in helping either Franco or the Republic win the war than they were in keeping it going. As Bullock writes,

Both Hitler and Stalin welcomed the diversionary effect of the war, Hitler in allowing Germany to continue with rearmament and Stalin in keeping the other European Powers divided and so allowing him to carry out the purges without anxiety about external threats. Each was able to make use of his participation for propaganda purposes—Hitler for his anti-Bolshevist crusade, Stalin for Russia’s identification with the anti-Fascist cause. Both Germans and Russians had an excellent opportunity to try out their weapons and give their officers and pilots experience of combat conditions—although the Germans made better use of the lessons they learned than the Russians. Both also benefited from shipments of Spanish raw materials.

Finally, Bullock has a flair for the dramatic and gives us a fine description of the night of June 21, 1941, when the news came to the Kremlin of German attacks along the frontiers. Stalin, having ignored numerous warnings of German intentions, was still unwilling to accept the truth and, to his soldier’s demands for orders, babbled that, if it was war, there would surely have been a formal declaration or a diplomatic note or negotiations of some kind—a rare moment in the life of the Soviet Vozhd when he was utterly unhinged.

In a long chapter, Bullock compares the character of the two leaders and concludes that in essential ways they were alike, certainly in their political skills and their tactical virtuosity, in their narcissism and paranoia, in their success in turning themselves into almost numinous presences, and, perhaps correlative to that, in their inhumanity. He writes:

Stalin and Hitler were materialists not only in their dismissal of religion, but also in their insensitivity to humanity as well. The only human beings who existed for them were themselves. The rest of the human race was seen either as instruments with which to accomplish their purposes or as obstacles to be eliminated. They regarded life solely in terms of politics and power: Everything else—human relationships and emotions, knowledge, beliefs, the arts, history, science—was of value only in so far as it could be exploited for political purposes.

In other ways they were profoundly different. In temperament, for example, Hitler was passionate, easily excited, endlessly talkative, and given to volcanic explosions of fury; while Stalin was taciturn and kept his feelings under careful control. Certainly they were different in their capacity for self-discipline and for administration; the Führer’s personal life was generally disorderly and at times characterized by an almost Bohemian Schlamperei. His interest in the work of the various chancelleries and departments was intermittent, whereas Stalin, aside from sharing Hitler’s habit of staying up to the early hours of the morning, was a hard worker who took a keen interest in administrative detail and was a great reader of dossiers.

Above all, they differed in their knowledge of when enough was enough. Hitler’s military triumphs in 1939 and 1940 set the seal on a period of national renewal and triumph without an equal in German history, and if he had been patient he might have gained a peace agreement at the time, when Britain was isolated and the Soviet Union was neutralized, that would have given him lasting hegemony over Europe. But unlike Stalin, who, Bullock points out, “recognized there were limits beyond which it would be dangerous to push one’s luck” and demonstrated this in 1944 by the relatively generous terms he granted to Finland and his decision to stay out of Greece, and again in 1949 by his retreat over Berlin, Hitler wanted more: he was hag-ridden by his obsessive desire to achieve the final solution of the Jewish question and to build the Thousand Year Reich at the expense of the Slavic peoples. Stalin once said to Anthony Eden that Hitler’s weakness was that he did not know to stop. That lack of a sense of measure boded ill, not only for his own people, but for millions of innocent people throughout all of Europe.

  1. 1

    Plutarch, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated by John Dryden and revised by Arthur Hugh Clough (Modern Library, 1932), p. 183.

  2. 2

    Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (Harper and Row, 1962), p. 806.

  3. 3

    See my article “The War of the German Historians” in The New York Review, January 15, 1987.

  4. 4

    Jacob Burckhardt, Uber das Studium der Geschichte, edited by Peter Ganz (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1982), pp. 392 ff. See also Joachim C. Fest, Hitler, eine Biographie (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1973), pp. 19 ff.

  5. 5

    See Sebastian Haffner, Anmerkungen zu Hitler (Munich: Kindler, 1978), p. 124.

  6. 6

    Robert Coulondre, De Stalin à Hitler: Souvenirs de deux ambassades, 1936–1939 (Paris: Hachette, 1950), p. 165.

  7. 7

    The most recent contribution to the debate is Jürgen W. Falter, Hitlers Wähler (Munich: C.H.Beck, 1991).

  8. 8

    Thomas Childers, The Nazi Voter: The Social Foundations of Fascism in Germany, 1919–1933 (University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

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