Above the Abyss

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

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

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.

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.

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.

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 …

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