BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
THE DICTATORS: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, by Richard Overy
, December 18, 2004
THE DICTATORS: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia
By Richard Overy
Penguin / Allen Lane
Hardback RRP: $59.95This is a big, heavy book. Beware of reading it in bed - if you fall asleep with it on your chest, you could risk death from peine forte et dure.
It is all about Hitler and Stalin, but it is not biographical after the form of Alan Bullock's 1991 Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives
. Nor is it a straight history of Germany 1933-45 and the USSR 1924-53; there is no mention, for example, of the Reichstag fire, or the Yalta conference.
What Overy has set out to do, to put it in crude undergraduate terms, is a "compare and contrast" of the two dictatorships, under a number of topical headings. These include Cults of Personality, States of Terror, Commanding the Economy, Total War, and Empire of the Camps.
A pair of quotes employing the language of recumbency sums up the similarities between the two regimes.
Russian novelist Isaac Babel remarked that the only privacy in the Soviet Union consisted of a whispered conversation between man and wife in bed at night with the blankets pulled over their heads. Nazi lawyer Hans Frank boasted that the Third Reich only left its citizens alone when they were asleep.
This could conveniently be summarised as totalitarianism, but Overy shares the current scepticism regarding the term. Despite the aspiration of Nazis and Communists to dominate all aspects of public life, in neither case was party control monolithic, all-inclusive and omnipotent.
On the subject of control, Overy makes the point that both dictatorships enjoyed approval and even co-operation from the bulk of their populations in the fight against alleged enemies of the Volk
(Germany) and socialism (USSR). Most citizens rarely witnessed an occasion of explicit repression such as an arrest, and lived with an attitude of prudence rather than fear.
There were other similarities. Hitler and Stalin shared a weakness for grandiose architecture, and for art which was "representational, didactic and heroic".
Paintings which the Fuhrer believed did not meet these criteria were dismissed as examples of "nigger culture" or "culture-bolshevism". The Communists exhibited classics of socialist realism such as Comrade Mikoyan at the Astrakhan Fish-Processing Plant
in galleries emblazoned with Stalin's slogan, "Life has got better, life has got jollier". Both regimes burned books.
It would be tendentious, reductionist and downright inaccurate to suggest that the two systems were Tweedledum and Tweedledee. There were many areas in which they differed, and Overy teases them out and puts them on display.
For example, despite the horrors of both camp systems, 40 per cent of Nazi prisoners finished up dead, as opposed to 14 per cent of Soviet prisoners, reflecting the different intentions behind the two systems of mass incarceration.
What is particularly interesting, however, are the similarities in areas which have been traditionally regarded as highlighting the fundamental distinctions between fascism and communism.
One such area is the economy, in which the former has been characterised as an extreme form of capitalism, and the latter as pure socialism. Both, in fact were command economies run by rabid anti-capitalists.
Hitler inherited a German economic tradition of nationalism and dirigisme, not liberalism, let alone libertarianism. Nazism never regarded private property as sacrosanct.
Stalin set up a system which exploited peasants and proletarians far worse than any mediaeval baron or 19th century plutocrat had ever done, and which encouraged ferocious, Stakhanovite competition between workers, as well as between the administrators responsible for the success of his Five-Year Plans.
Perhaps the most fundamental similarity between the two regimes was an aggressive rejection of Christianity and its replacement by a new, secular religion.
Each dictator was hailed as a messiah using the terminology of divinity. Hitler was routinely addressed as a god, and as "a new, greater and more powerful Jesus Christ". Stalin - in the tradition of those (not just Manning Clark!) who described Lenin as "Christ-like" - was also referred to as a god, and as the one "who didst give birth to man".
Both dictators promised heaven on earth for the new man, to be created by eugenics in the Nazi Reich, and by an optimum economic and social order in the Soviet Union.
Both new moral orders banned abortion because it would restrict the number of workers and soldiers at the state's disposal. Abortion was permitted only in instances of possible physical deformity, mental deficiency and, in the case of the Nazis, racial impurity. In other words, both regimes treated the unborn person as a means rather than an end.
This is a well-organised and workmanlike, but also stimulating publication, provoking an "Oh, yeah! Of course ... " reaction on almost every page. And, as I warned, it is big and heavy. I computed with a calculator and a pair of kitchen scales that it works out at a cent for every two and a half milligrammes, but I fear that the average bookshop will insist on selling it only as a complete unit.