Varieties of Totalitarianism

It must have taken some courage for Laurence Rees to write Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants of the Second World War. There are at least a dozen works in which those names appear in the title. The list includes the study by Alan Bullock,  Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives, published in 1991, which is regarded as a classic. It is understandable that the literature on this topic 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 history of that extraordinary war not only because of its importance, but also because it reveals a great deal about our humanity. It tells us what human beings are capable of and how people have behaved in the most extraordinary circumstances. There is no comparable event in modern Western history in which people behaved with such inhumanity toward one another, or on the contrary, demonstrated such great courage.

Has Mr. Rees succeeded in contributing to our knowledge? Through the years he had interviewed many survivors and therefore he is able to add some information about how human beings acted under special circumstances. There are not many surprises. Aside from local color and individual circumstances, there is not much new that we can learn from these accounts. They add further examples of the suffering that people had to endure. Perhaps because of these examples, perhaps because of the exciting story that the author tells well and fluently, it is an exciting read, even for those who would find little that is surprising in a much-told story.

The author did not attempt a new interpretation of the war. He agrees with the scholarly consensus that it was fundamentally the Red Army that defeated the Wehrmacht. Reading the book, we are likely to conclude that the Germans never had a chance to overcome the powers that were united against them. Rees agrees that since it was the Soviet Army that occupied Poland, there was not much the Allies could have done in 1945 to save that nation from being reduced to the status of satellite. Churchill and Roosevelt could have protested more loudly than in fact they did in order to express their dismay at Soviet behavior, but it is unlikely that Stalin would have changed his policies. The fate of Poland was decided in 1943 when The Red Army destroyed the 6th German Army at Stalingrad.

Even more than Bullock, Rees aims to describe parallel lives. He attempts to report what one of his antiheroes was thinking at the same time the other one 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 was not much mystery in his thoughts and actions. He believed in a thoroughly rotten ideology that was deeply inhumane. He did not keep his thoughts or his plans secret. We can follow his “table conversations” and there is nothing surprising to learn from them. He liked to talk even when keeping silent would have better served his political interests. Hitler was not an educated man, and to put it mildly, not an original thinker. His views, his prejudices did not much change as circumstances changed. He believed and remained faithful to his revolting ideology that not only rank-ordered races, but held that the strong had the right, indeed an obligation, to defeat, and demean the inferior. And in the case of Jews, it was the duty of a superior “Caucasian race” to eliminate “the Jewish race” altogether. He acted in accordance with his deeply held beliefs.

Stalin was different. He preferred to act behind the scene. He was more of a puppet master than an actor. Most of the time he preferred not to put his stamp on acts that he had designed. After his death scholars looked at his library and examined the notes he made on the margins of books. The scholars came away with the impression that Stalin was a relatively well-educated and intelligent person. Of course, he was paranoid. He made it certain that no one would be in a position to endanger not only his physical safety, but also his power. We know very little of what went on in his mind. He did not enjoy giving speeches and in these, he did not reveal himself. At the last Party Congress of his lifetime in 1952, it was Georgy Malenkov who gave the major report on the state of the Union. Ultimately we do not understand why he murdered millions. The great collectivization drive and the famine that followed we understand. It followed from his conviction that modernization was essential for the survival of the regime. He did not hesitate to pay the price in human lives and suffering for the goal of modernization. But why was it necessary to sentence to death thousands of good communists who under no circumstances could be regarded as dangerous?

After recognizing that Stalin was a butcher, responsible for the deaths of millions, Rees gives him credit for his performance as a diplomat. Stalin knew what he could achieve, made certain that he would realize his goals, and refrained from unnecessary verbiage. In Rees’ view, Stalin was in this respect superior not only to Hitler, but also to Roosevelt, who talked too much and overestimated his ability to charm.

The average German who was “willing to go along” had little to fear. By contrast, no one was secure in the Soviet Union.

Rees could have made clearer the fundamental difference between Hitler and Stalin as leaders in a war. Hitler believed in an ideology that necessitated war. He embarked on an undertaking that reasonable people must have understood could not succeed. He wanted war for the sake of war, because it was an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the race. Stalin, by contrast, 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 dreadful consequences. He did this, however, not because he planned an invasion of foreign lands, but because he believed that the coming struggle must not take place on Soviet territory. He feared that the Soviet people would not fight for the Bolshevik regime and might welcome the enemy. He incorporated into the Soviet Union the Baltic states and established satellites in Eastern Europe because he understood that he could do that without the danger of war. They proved to be easy picking.

It is worthwhile to write parallel studies of the two dictators not because they were similar to one another. In fact, they were two very different human beings. It is worth making these comparisons because they each headed a political order that can be described as totalitarian. Similarities between them followed from this fact. Totalitarianism means that a party is in a position to repress all conflicting political views and demolish all autonomous organizations. There had been dictatorships since states came into existence. But totalitarianism is a special form of dictatorship that can exist only in the modern world. Only in the modern world would those in the position of power have the means 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 reducing its citizens to accomplices of the state. The individual cannot know what his fellow citizens think, and any expression of genuine opinion might be dangerous. Therefore it is easiest just to go along. “Going along” can and often does result in committing crimes. In retrospect, the individual finds it necessary to justify his past actions and so may remain committed to the ideology of the totalitarian state even when the state was being destroyed. Almost all Germans remained faithful to Hitler to the last hour.

The differences between the two regimes are also revealing. It turns out that there are degrees of totalitarianism. The Nazis stood for a reprehensible world view, punished their enemies, and brutally killed those whom they considered dangerous or inferior. However, most Germans had no reason to fear for their lives. “The night of the long knives” in the summer of 1934 was a singular event that had approximately 80-90 victims. We well understand the political reasons for which Hitler considered it necessary to murder his comrades. There were attempts on Hitler’s life and generals foreseeing the coming disaster conspired against Hitler. There was an incipient resistance movement, “The White Rose,” ineffectual, hopeless, but all the more impressive in human terms. Intelligent and attractive young human beings believed that it was their moral duty to struggle against the evil acts of their government. But the 1930s were for most Germans rather good years. The country was gradually recovering from the ravages of the depression. Militarization helped the economy. The average German who was “willing to go along” had little to fear.

By contrast, no one was secure in the Soviet Union before or during the war. Terror was merciless, indiscriminate, and senseless.  There was not and there could not have been a  circle in Stalin’s Russia similar to the “White Rose.” No factions existed in the Bolshevik leadership once Stalin achieved complete power. Those closest to him, without a word of protest, watched as their friends and relatives were sent to their deaths.

Reading Rees’ book we have an opportunity once again to contemplate the nature and performance of totalitarian regimes in war time.