Two 20th-Century Tyrants and Their Times

ALAN BULLOCK traces two of the darkest social experiments of the 20th century - Hitler's fascism and Stalin's communism. He plays down none of the monstrous cruelty of this period, yet conveys a sense of humanity so profound that it embraces even the dictators.

He writes history the old-fashioned way - as literature rather than grist for social theory. Bullock's "Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives" bucks the trend among academic historians of choosing narrow time frames for analysis. If a topic as ambitious as comparing Nazi and Soviet Revolutions is attempted, it is through the optic of economic or social theory. He bypasses structural analysis in favor of insights from classical writers like Thucydides and Aristotle on tyranny.

Bullock's device of placing the lives of the dictators side by side and following them from beginning to end requires juggling complex contexts and casts of characters. But the parallels in their lives this process reveals are striking.

* Both were marginal men: Stalin, a Georgian living at the edge of a decaying Russian Empire; Hitler, an ethnic German living in Austria.

* Both were underestimated by their colleagues, a key factor in their respective rises to power.

* Both achieved power slowly but apparently legally: for Hitler, nine years of breaking into national politics and then a "revolution by installments" to secure his place at the top; for Stalin, five years eliminating rivals to his claim to rule the Communist Party after Lenin's death.

* And both left behind an unprecedented record of destruction. Besides upward of 20 million war-related deaths, as least as many more perished as a result of brutal treatment in prisons or camps or as the result of planned extermination.

Their political skills were different. While Hitler mesmerized crowds in torch-lit arenas, Stalin mastered committee meetings. Hitler played to the masses and had an intuitive grasp of their frustrations. He combined strategies of legal conquest of power at the highest levels of government with threats and terrorism at the local level.

Stalin's Communist Party already had absolute power. His problem was securing power within the ruling party. What distinguished Stalin was his "instinctive grasp of how administrative could be transmuted into political power."

Before the development of a personality cult, Stalin represented himself as a "plain man" who spoke the same practical language as the provincials he recruited into the party.

Control of party procedures, membership lists, agendas, debates, and votes came first. Forced collectivization, destruction of the Old Bolsheviks, purge of the Red Army, and the gulag would come later.

Bullock avoids speculation on general models of tyrants or totalitarian systems, a goal of early postwar scholarship about Stalin and Hitler. His intent is to emphasize the uniqueness of each man: "My purpose is not to show that they were both examples of a general category but to use comparison to illuminate the unique individual character of each.... Parallel lives, like parallel lines, do not meet or merge."

For a reader, however, tracking how both men reasoned through their political situation over time encourages new perspectives, especially at those points where the dual narratives converge.

For example, Bullock notes that Hitler and Stalin were both in Vienna in January 1913. (They never met.) For Stalin, a brash young Georgian invited by Lenin to study the "nationality problem," the visit was an opportunity to engage leading intellectuals in the Russian emigre community, figures like Trotsky and Bukharin, whom he would later murder. (The month-long visit was also Stalin's longest stay outside of Russia. The next would be his meeting with Roosevelt and Churchill in Teheran in 1943.)

Lenin approved Stalin's conclusion: It is not the business of Social Democrats, he said, to "preserve and develop the national attributes of peoples"; their job was to organize the proletariat for class struggle.

For Hitler, then a drifting, would-be artist, the thought of burying national character in some new class identity was anathema. He viewed the Eastern European newcomers streaming into the working-class quarters in which he lived as contemptuous of the Fatherland, contaminating the German race. It was a conviction he carried the rest of his life, most evident in his view of Slavs and Poles as untermenschen (subhuman).

Another perspective encouraged by these dual biographies is the influence of the Russian-German axis in key political outcomes of the period. The decision in 1928 of The Third (Communist) International, at Stalin's urging, to force German Communists to break with Social Democrats, for example, split the two working-class parties in Germany and "must have been a major factor in reducing resistance to the rise of Nazism," says Bullock.

Eventually, the parallel story lines collide as the two dictators faced off across the Eastern Front in 1941. Both assumed direct personal control of operations on that front, to the dismay of their general staffs.

For Hitler, the important war was to the East. His attack on Russia was an attempt to rule Eastern Europe and Russia as a vassal state. Hitler's insistence on prolonging the war after 1942 allowed Stalin to move the Red Army deep into Eastern Europe - and to stay long after the war ended.

Stalin won that confrontation, but his country lost. "Defeat cost the German people a terrible price, but at least it spared them - and the world - the perpetuation of the Nazi regime. Victory cost the Russians an even greater price but did not liberate them."

In characterizing the human costs of this period, Bullock consistently relates evidence of mass victimization back to individual experience. He notes that Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's writings, which dealt the first blow to Stalin's system of terror, related the individual experiences of prisoners in labor camps. "For every one of the millions, however many they were, what happened to each of them was in every case a unique individual experience."

In the final paragraphs of his book, Bullock describes a visit to Jerusalem's Holocaust Museum and its Avenue of the Righteous, every tree in which commemorates someone who risked a life to help the Jews: "This remains for me the double image of those years, the unbelievable cruelty and the courage, the callousness and the compassion - the human capacity for evil, but also the reassurance of human nobility."

Besides appreciation for the capacity of individuals to resist tyranny, he notes, there is also the capacity to heal the effects of it.

"After fifty years under first the Nazi, then the Stalinist yoke, the peoples of Czechoslovakia and Poland, as well as those of Hungary and East Germany, have emerged, despite the brainwashing, as individual men and women, not collectivized masses...."

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