It must have taken Laurence Rees some courage to write Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants of World War II. There are at least a dozen works in which these names appear in the title. The list includes the 1991 study by Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives, which is considered a classic. It is understandable that the literature on this subject is enormous. The outcome of the Second World War largely determined the course of the second half of the 20th century. We are all fascinated by the story of this extraordinary war, not only because of its importance, but also because it reveals a lot about our humanity. It shows us what people are capable of and how people behaved under the most extraordinary circumstances. There is no comparable event in modern western history in which people behaved so inhumanely to one another or, on the contrary, showed such great courage.
Has Mr. Rees managed to add to our knowledge? He had interviewed many survivors over the years so can add some information about how people acted in special circumstances. There aren’t many surprises. Aside from local color and individual circumstances, there is not much that we can learn from these reports. They add other examples of the suffering people have endured. Perhaps because of these examples, perhaps because of the exciting story that the author tells well and fluently, it is exciting read even for those who would find little that is surprising in a well-told story.
The author did not attempt a new interpretation of the war. He agrees with the scientific consensus that it was basically the Red Army that defeated the Wehrmacht. If we read the book, we will likely come to the conclusion that the Germans never had a chance to overcome the forces united against them. Rees agrees that there wasn’t much the Allies could have done in 1945 to save this nation from being reduced to satellite status since it was the Soviet Army that occupied Poland. Churchill and Roosevelt could have protested louder than they actually did to express their dismay at Soviet behavior, but it is unlikely that Stalin would have changed his policy. Poland’s fate was decided in 1943 when the Red Army destroyed the 6th German Army in Stalingrad.
Rees wants to describe parallel lives even more than Bullock. He tries to report what one of his antiheroes was thinking while the other was acting. He makes implicit and explicit comparisons between these tyrants. In fact, the two men were very different. We have a good understanding of Hitler. There wasn’t much secret in his thoughts and actions. He believed in a thoroughly rotten ideology that was deeply inhuman. He did not keep his thoughts or plans a secret. We can watch his “table talk” and it is not surprising to learn from them. He liked to talk, even if the silence would have served his political interests better. Hitler was not an educated man, and to say the least, not an original thinker. His views, his prejudices did not change much as circumstances changed. He believed and remained true to his repulsive ideology, which not only ranked races according to rank, but also believed that the strong had the right and even the obligation to conquer and humiliate the inferior. And in the case of the Jews, it was the duty of a superior “Caucasian race” to eliminate the “Jewish race” altogether. He acted in accordance with his ingrained beliefs.
Stalin was different. He preferred to act behind the scenes. He was more of a puppet master than an actor. Most of the time, he preferred not to shape actions that he had designed. After his death, scholars would look into his library and examine the notes he made on the edges of books. The scholars felt that Stalin was a relatively well educated and intelligent person. Of course he was paranoid. He made sure that no one would be able to endanger not only his physical safety but also his power. We know very little about what was going on in his head. He made no speeches and did not reveal himself in them. At the last party congress of his life in 1952, it was Georgy Malenkov who gave the main report on the state of the Union. Ultimately, we don’t understand why he murdered millions. We understand the great collectivization offensive and the famine that followed. It followed from his conviction that modernization was essential to the survival of the regime. He did not hesitate to pay the price of human life and suffering for the goal of modernization. But why was it necessary to sentence to death thousands of good communists who could not be considered dangerous under any circumstances?
After realizing that Stalin was a butcher responsible for the deaths of millions, Rees paid tribute to his achievement as a diplomat. Stalin knew what he could achieve, made sure he would achieve his goals, and avoided unnecessary idioms. In Rees’ view, Stalin was not only superior to Hitler in this regard, but also to Roosevelt, who talked too much and overestimated his ability to bewitch.
The average German who was “willing to participate” had little to fear. In contrast, no one was safe in the Soviet Union.
Rees could have made the fundamental difference between Hitler and Stalin as leaders of a war clearer. Hitler believed in an ideology that required war. He made a commitment that sensible people must understand could not succeed. He wanted war for war’s sake because it was an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the race. Stalin, on the other hand, was a cautious politician. He avoided unnecessary risks. He made mistakes, of course. In 1941, he deployed Soviet forces too close to the border, with dire consequences. However, he did this not because he was planning an invasion of foreign countries, but because he believed that the coming battle should not take place on Soviet territory. He feared that the Soviet people would not be able to fight for the Bolshevik regime and welcome the enemy. He incorporated the Baltic states into the Soviet Union and set up satellites in Eastern Europe because he understood that he could do so without the risk of war. They turned out to be easy to pick.
It is worth writing parallel studies of the two dictators, not because they were similar to each other. In fact, they were two very different people. It is worth making these comparisons, as they each guided a political order that can be described as totalitarian. From this fact there were similarities between them. Totalitarianism means that one party is able to suppress all conflicting political views and tear down all autonomous organizations. There had been dictatorships since the founding of the states. Totalitarianism, however, is a special form of dictatorship that can only exist in the modern world. Only in the modern world would those in power have the ability to control all aspects of human life. A totalitarian regime presupposes a single charismatic leader who is the high priest of a utopian ideology. It had to have a Hitler or a Stalin. A totalitarian state succeeds in turning its citizens into accomplices of the state. Individuals cannot know what their fellow citizens are thinking, and any genuine opinion can be dangerous. So it’s easiest to just join in. “Participating” can and often will lead to crime. In retrospect, individuals consider it necessary to justify their previous actions and can therefore feel obliged to the ideology of the totalitarian state even if the state is destroyed. Almost all Germans remained loyal to Hitler until the last hour.
The differences between the two regimes are also instructive. It turns out that there are degrees of totalitarianism. The Nazis stood for a reprehensible worldview, punished their enemies and brutally killed those they considered dangerous or inferior. Most Germans, however, had no reason to fear for their lives. “The Night of the Long Knives” in the summer of 1934 was a unique event that killed around 80-90 people. We understand the political reasons why Hitler felt it necessary to murder his comrades. There were attempts in Hitler’s life and generals who foresaw the impending catastrophe that had conspired against Hitler. There was an incipient resistance movement, “The White Rose”, ineffective, hopeless, but all the more impressive in human terms. Smart and attractive young people believed it was their moral duty to fight the evil deeds of their government. But the 1930s were rather good years for most Germans. The country was gradually recovering from the ravages of the Depression. Militarization helped the economy. The average German who was “willing to participate” had little to fear.
In contrast, nobody was safe in the Soviet Union before or during the war. The terror was merciless, indiscriminate and pointless. There was no circle in Stalin’s Russia that resembled the “White Rose” and there could not have been one. There were no factions in the Bolshevik leadership when Stalin gained full power. Those closest to him watched without a word of protest as their friends and relatives were sent to their deaths.
Reading Rees’ book is another opportunity to reflect on the nature and performance of totalitarian regimes in wartime.