Comparing Two Totalitarian Monsters: Peter Kenez's Reply

It is customary to thank the editors for the opportunity to opine on such an important historical subject. And I do thank Law & Liberty’s editors, distressing though it was when, in March, Paul Hollander asked me if I would be willing to write in his stead. The world has since lost a stellar historian and a very good man. May we carry on the discussion in the forthright spirit of my friend Paul.

My sincere thanks go, as well, to Harvey KlehrRyszard Legutko, and David Pryce-Jones for their incisive responses to my Liberty Forum essay.

There is not much with which I would take issue in their comments about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its ramifications.

Reading Harvey Klehr’s response to my piece on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in which he discussed the reaction of the communist movement to the alliance of the two dictators, reminded me of a moment, many years ago. I taught a graduate seminar on Hitler and Stalin. I introduced the course by a detailed description of a historical moment. In January 1940, just a short time after signing the pact, the Soviet authorities handed over about 800 German and Austrian communist prisoners, many of them Jewish, to the Gestapo. These men and women, victims of the purges, had been suffering in camps of the Gulag. We learn from the memoirs of Alexander Weissberg, a Polish communist scientist, the details. For a few weeks the prisoners were decently fed and given new clothes. It seems even the Bolsheviks were ashamed of the physical conditions of their prisoners. When these veterans of the communist movement and Soviet prisons and camps looked presentable, they were herded over a bridge at Brest Litovsk and handed over to the Nazis. It was ironic that the communists thus returned had a better chance for survival than those who stayed behind. Statistically speaking life expectancy was better for political prisoners in Nazi than in Soviet camps. It seemed to me it was the moment of ultimate betrayal of the communist ideals and an  expression of utmost cynicism. 

One of my goals in the seminar was to convey that the two dictators were equally inhumane and were the cause of extraordinary suffering for a very large number of human beings. At the same time we have as much to learn from the differences of the two human beings, Hitler and Stalin, and the differences between the two totalitarian regimes that they had established, as we do from the similarities. A “good German” living in his homeland in the 1930s had nothing to worry about; a good communist living in the Soviet Union at the same time had every reason to fear. Hitler and Stalin were very different human beings. We know Hitler. He committed his thoughts to paper; he discussed his ideas with his companions. We have records of his “table conversations”. He was an intellectual non-entity. Stalin, by contrast, is an enigma. He did not confide. We may conclude from comments that he made on the writing of others, that he was well read. We can also follow his evolution from the 1920s when he showed himself an able politician, who had managed to convince his fellow communists that, unlike Trotsky, he stood for stability to his last years where we may conclude from his actions that he had suffered from paranoia. 

In our discussion of the Molotov Ribbentrop pact we must conclude that the personalities of the two dictators mattered. Hitler, a man of action, was ready to throw caution to the wind. He embarked on an enterprise, world conquest, that by definition was unattainable. By contrast, Stalin would never initiate an attack that he did not know how to conclude. In 1939 it was not unreasonable for him to believe that the great French army would long resist the German aggressors and thereby save the Soviet Union, and his own power, from the German threat. He was mistaken.