No other men could fit this description of power and corruption more perfectly than Hitler and Stalin. Throughout history they have been both idolised and demonised leading to the overwhelming fascination the world has with them. Both successfully rose to heights of power in their own countries which was unprecedented, they were able to manipulate the public, had strong ideologies and regimes and between them they were responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent people. Although on the surface these two men were political opposites, Hitler a socialist and Stalin a communist, neither were in fact really either. Instead they used their political stance as a podium to gain power and control. Eventually they both evolved into “totalitarian dictators” with the ultimate goal of absolute power and European domination.
So perhaps Lord Acton’s theory was correct that power is the evil force which corrupts men. Both Hitler and Stalin were ambitious, power hungry men whose regimes began to turn more sinister as they gained more power and iconic status. Their barbaric acts and their ability to control a nation through propaganda have always influenced historian’s interest in them. It wasn’t until the late 20th century that historians really began delving into the amazing amount of evidence which has now become available to link the two together. The reason historical comparison only emerged some 40 years after their height of power is because evidence on the two was previously lopsided. There has always been an abundance of information on Hitler and the Third Reich but very little was known about Stalin until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After this it became clear the true extent of the crime which was committed under Stalin. As a result there was a flood of historical comparisons made of the two by leading historians such as Ernst Nolte, Allan Bullock, Ian Kershaw and Richard Overy to name but a few. They all similarly focus on key issues such as their rise to power, ideologies, propaganda, education, art and culture, terror regimes, violence and mass murder. Although there are clearly many similarities between Hitler and Stalin and their regimes, historians in more recent years have attempted to turn this view on its head by claiming that the comparison argument is misconceived because there are more dissimilarities than similarities.1 Historical studies along this scholarly line was extensive throughout the end of the 20th century and now into the 21st century proving that Hitler and Stalin are still two major figures in history that require continued exploration and investigation in order to understand why two men and regimes which were polar opposites were in fact fundamentally similar.
To evaluate and understand the historical comparisons of Hitler and Stalin awareness of the origins of this fascination is required. The earliest attempt to compare the two is believed to have originated from the work of Hannah Arendt who in 1951 wrote, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The book provided the earliest insights into what Hitler and Stalin had in common. Arendt believed that the two were in fact totalitarian dictators, meaning that they not only relied on violence and terror but more importantly on propaganda to enforce their regimes and retain control. She claimed that, “the population had been atomised and mobilised through a ubiquitous system of terror and sophisticated propaganda techniques.”2 This ability to manipulated society is fundamental in the understanding of the term totalitarianism. Arendt was able to popularise the term totalitarianism to link fascism and Nazism with communism.3 Arendt’s work over the years has been criticised by some historians who claim it to be too simplistic and flawed because of its lack of research into Stalin.
However, what needs noting upon is that she developed this concept in 1951 when there was very little evidence on Stalin therefore a true comparison to Hitler would always be flawed. What Arendt was able to do masterfully was make these controversial ideas without the hindsight historians have today on this topic. Also it was never her original intent to make a comparative work on Hitler and Stalin, the books main objective was more on the National Socialist Party and how it formed a totalitarian state. It has only later been described as the earliest example of historical comparison of the two. The book is important as it introduces the concept of totalitarianism in a way to link Hitler and Stalin. The term totalitarianism is now widely accepted and used in comparative works of two, bracketed the two under this one category. Criticism of this term has emerged because it was used openly as an, “ideological tool to service the Cold War – often distorting realty and intellectually dishonest- which disqualified it in the eyes of numerous scholars.”4 This to some extent is true, the comparative studies did arise during the Cold War therefore would have elements of propagandistic aims by comparing Stalin to Hitler. This association in some sense was seen as justification for the war because it portrayed Stalin to be as evil as Hitler.
Historical comparisons of Hitler and Stalin and their regimes remained absent after Hannah Arendt’s work till the 1980s. Ernst Nolte, a leading German historian then reopened the Hitler/Stalin debate in 1986. Nolte attempted to do a comparison with controversial affects. He famously is responsible for the “Historikerstreit,” a historical debate attempting to remove German guilt over the Nazis. His main focus was on making the public aware that Hitler and Stalinism was so similar. He argued that Nazism should not be regarded as the incomparable evil of the 20th century.5 He developed upon Arendt’s theory that communism and Nazism shared the same totalitarian form. What was so controversial about Nolte was that he claimed Nazism and the Holocaust was a “rational response” to the communist threat. This claim caused an outrage because it appeared as if Nolte was condoning the Nazi’s, but on the contrary what he was trying to do was make people aware that Stalin was as murderous and barbaric as Hitler if not worse.
He wanted to prove that they both had similarities and that communism spawned the development of Nazism. His main argument comprises of an in-depth, “analysis of the common origins and interdependence between the two systems,”6 As stated Nolte wanted to remove the German guilt that surrounded the nation after World War II, “he sought to humanise Nazism’s misdeeds by comparing them to the crimes of other nation.”7 He passionately believed that society had been misled in condemning Hitler entirely when Stalin had killed more people. Even so this topic is sensitive and resulted in historians shying away from the subject to avoid controversy. Also the issue of comparing the death toll is seen as unjustified because Stalin’s death toll does not deduct from the monstrous acts Hitler committed. Stalin up until the end of the Cold War was a difficult subject to approach because he had been our ally during World War II so there was a taboo surrounding the issue of comparing him to Hitler. No body wanted to believe that we fought on the side of Stalin against Hitler when he himself was as evil. This resulted again in the historical comparison remaining limited until the 1990s.
It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union when Historians once again began to take interest in the topic. This is due to the true extent of the crimes committed by Stalin being revealed when access to documents became public in the 1980s. In 1991 Allan Bullock released his now renowned book, “Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives,” in which he shows the striking similarities between the two men even though fascinatingly they were politically irreconcilable. Bullock’s book manages to compare the two without avoiding the obvious differences they have, although he recognises the differences he believes that both careers fed off each other even though the two never met. The main differences he encounters are their personalities, Stalin was organised, a master of bureaucracy, sly and cunning with politics whereas Hitler was more charismatic, creative, he hated paper work and was unorganised.
Bullock argues that they relied on both being extreme in order gain power throughout Europe. Bullock masterfully intertwines both of their lives throughout the book by focussing on every aspect, ranging from their childhood, early political careers, rise to power, war and terror, economy, popular support, art and culture and more importantly their regimes. He is always fully aware of the significant differences, Bullock points out that, “They came from dissimilar backgrounds, national traditions and civil loyalties,”8 But what he manages to do find common characteristics that transcend the obvious disparities in their origins and nature.9 The importance of Bullock’s book is he explains that their similarities are fundamental and is what makes them both totalitarian dictators.
Comparing Hitler and Stalin has always proving to be difficult task for historians as they were born 10 years apart in different countries and from different backgrounds. To understand how they both grew up to become the two most powerful leaders in the 20th centuries, historians such as Bullock start form their formative lives. They both grew up facing similar hardships and shared some similar character traits, they both were from lower middle class backgrounds, they were ambitious, intelligent and resented the social conditions they found themselves in.
Hitler and Stalin both found themselves in a world where they longed for a political system they agreed with. Hitler was against the Weimar Republic and democracy and Stalin turned to Communism as result of the political unrest in Russia. Both men chose extreme politics as they believed this was the future for their country. Their personalities were similar in some sense. Bullock described how neither man was particularly memorable and neither had a strong character that made people like them before they came to power, “to anyone who came across either of them before the age of thirty a suggestion that he would play a major role in 20th century history would have seemed incredible.”10 Hitler and Stalin came to power as a direct result from the period they were in. At the time both countries had suffered greatly at the hands of World War I. What they managed to do was use the period to manipulate the nation in a time of weakness. Therefore it is claimed that their extremeness arose from the difficult social conditions of the time.
Bullock’s first section of his book focuses on Hitler and Stalin separately and discusses their different backgrounds and their individual rise to power. Hitler originally was an artist who found himself thrown into politics because of his unsuccessful career, his dissatisfaction with the Weimar Republic and his hatred towards the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler became a member of the NSDAP when they were a relatively small and unknown party. He believed his oratorical skills and leadership was what developed the party. Hitler challenged the leader Drexler and become leader of the party in 1921. He gained power and notoriety and was becoming an extreme threat as the leader of the Nazi party. Hindenburg was not particularly fond of him but there was the misconception that as chancellor he could be control, “Hindenberg, shaken but still unwilling to give power to Hitler, agreed to do so when Blomberg, volunteered to be Hitler’s Minister of Defence.”
So in 1933 Hitler was made Chancellor and after Hindenberg death he declared himself Fuhrer of Germany resulting in the failure of Blomberg to control him. Stalin’s rise to power was somewhat different to Hitler’s. He had a small role in the 1917 Russian Revolution. After the revolution he was given many diminutive duties within the Bolshevik party. He was seen as dull and unimportant within the party, and was perceived as being unintelligent, although this wasn’t the case. Stalin was grossly underestimated and after becoming the General Secretary he was fighting for the place of leader against Trotsky.
The coming months prior to Lenin’s death in 1924, Lenin was becoming more concerned about Stalin’s character and wrote a number of letters asking for Trotsky’s help. Unfortunately Lenin died before any action was taken and Stalin became leader. The comparisons which historians have made about their rise to power is how they were both underestimated, how they came to power almost by accident or pure luck and how both leaders, Lenin and Hindenberg feared them coming to power. Once in power their ambition for complete control was evident. They became so powerful within the party that it was difficult to separate the man from the political system. Both parties were headed by one man and one party who had absolute control over the nation.
Politically there are differences between the two, the structure of the party and their organisational and leadership skills differed. Hitler was renowned for being lazy and unorganised and he spent most of the day in bed, Hitler was a “non interventionist dictator as far as government administration was concerned.”12 He hated paperwork and was completely non bureaucratic, “It became more and more difficult for Lammers and Meibner to get him to make decisions which he alone could make as head of state… he disliked the study of documents…he took the view that many things sorted themselves out on their own if one did not interfere.”13Stalin on the other hand relied on regulation and needed the political system to be organised. He has been described as, “a highly interventionist dictator. He chaired all important committees…his aim appears to have been a monopolisation of all decision-making.”14
The political structure of the two parties has also been an area where historians have compared the two. On the surface there are some similarities, both parties are headed by one man and one party and there was, “extreme centralisation of power in the hands of a very few pluralist democracy-fearing individuals”. Both also had a hierarchical system where those below were working towards a set ideology. However, again there are striking dissimilarities between the two structures. Hitler was the Fuhrer and he made decisions which were his ideologies. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and this was seen as being his blueprint for the Nazi regime. Stalin in contrast would justify his actions by referring to works of Lenin. The Nazi party structure was disorganised and chaotic. There is the historical argument whether or not this was intentional or whether this was due to Hitler being a weak dictator. Historians such as Jackel and Hildebrand claimed that his was intentional. They used the term ‘alleinherrschaft,’ meaning ‘sole rule’ to describe the Nazi party. They believed that Hitler was the top of the political structure and everyone was working towards Hitler and that Nazism was ultimately Hitlerism.
This structure of Hitler being at the top supports his ideology of the survival of the fittest, he wanted people to compete below him. Stalin’s party structure was also described as “feudal anarchy,” but his anarchy appeared deliberate. He intentionally wanted to destabilise the state structure in order to secure his power. Stalin wanted to eliminate all elements of party-state dualism.17It is known that he was a paranoid person who was constantly conscience of the possibility of those below him challenging his power. Hitler did not have this fear as his leadership position was structurally more safe than Stalin’s. Stalin’s paranoia ultimately led to the purges in which he killed many generals of the communist party out of fear for his own position. Hitler only committed a similar act reluctantly in the Knight of the Long Knives in 1934. Unlike Stalin, Hitler built up loyalty among those below him. Stalin never believed he had this loyalty, because Stalin wasn’t Lenin this meant he could be replaced. Hitler could not be replace because it difficult to imagine anyone who could replace him.18
One of the most significant factors which historians have focussed upon is the cult personalities they both developed and the use of propaganda to achieve this. Kershaw and Lewin argue that, “both the Stalinist and the Nazi regimes represented a new genre of political systems centred upon the artificial construct of a leadership cult- the ‘heroic myth’ of the ‘great leader.”19Hitler’s and Stalin’s power and status reach such heights that images of them infiltrated all areas of society.
People saw them on posters, photographs, art work, and cinema. They used propaganda as their tool to help them gain support and further their regimes. One form of propaganda they both used was photographs and posters promoting their ‘caring’ personalities. There is an abundance of images showing Stalin holding a child or a photograph of Hitler portrayed as a heroic man. These images increased their appeal to the masses. Hitler’s most successfully propaganda technique was his powerful speeches. In his speeches he was able to captivate the audience and whip everyone into a frenzy-like state. However not all historians would agree with cult personalities as being a comparison. Thatcher argues that the cult status for Stalin could not be compared with Hitler because Hitler and Nazism were synonymous, Hitler was Nazism but Stalin was not soviet communism. Lenin was soviet communism and Stalin came to power to pay homage to him. Unlike in Nazi Germany there was no one was greater the Hitler.20
The most recognised similarities between the Hitler and Stalin and their regimes are the violence and terror they both brought. As stated earlier both regimes killed millions of their own citizens through concentration camps and gulags. The Black Book of Communism published in 1997 by Stephane Courtois focuses on this issue of the death toll and terror that Communism brought. This book was highly controversial as it compares the Nazi terror regime with communism. This is suggested in the title as it was derived from the black book of Nazi crimes which was produced at the Nuremberg trials. Courtois links the two by saying that communism sought to exterminate the class based enemies whereas the Nazis focussed on the race based enemies. What the book tries to do is show that there is “no moral distinction between the barbarities of right and left.”
Stephen Wheatcroft has argued that there important quantitative and qualitative differences in the way the two murdered their own citizens. Hitler sought to eliminate a race through the Holocaust and there is no evidence to suggest any mercy for his actions. In contrast, there have been cases reported where communist authorities released people from the gulags. Stalin believed that the death orders he was putting forth were valid because he was punishing them for their crimes. The biggest difference is Nazism promised no end to violence where as communism did. Both Stalin and Hitler had spies, the Gestapo in Germany and the NKVD in Russia, their duty was to spy on supposed enemies of the state. The Gestapo and the NKVD, “were brutal and participated in state sponsored violence.”22 Terror was fundamental within both regimes and was used as a method of controlling the nation. In the 1930s both regimes prioritised war economy but the difference was that the Nazi party glorified war as it developed on the Darwinism view adopted by Hitler of, “the survival of the fittest.” In the Soviet Union there was no glorification of war, it was seen as a regrettable stage in the path of complete liberation for all.23
One of the most recent historical comparisons of Hitler and Stalin has been Richard Overy’s, “The Dictators, Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russian.” What Overy’s book tries to establish is what exactly the two had in common and also whether the differences out way the similarities. As with other historians Overy focussed on areas such as, “the nature of the power they exercised, the ‘cults of personality’ that surrounded them, the role of the party, the use of terror, the complicity they created but also the opposition they, their economic policies, and finally the war and the death camps.” Overy’s book is a fresh approach to the historical debate as he avoids the term totalitarianism as he feels it was used too liberally to describe dictatorships of the 1930s.
Overy insists that there was no ‘equivalence’ between the two regimes. He manages to use points of similarities which had already been focussed on and develop on them further. He admits there are similarities such as their henchmen, ‘Strasser was Bukharin to Hitler’s Stalin’, while Bormann was Hitler’s Posksebyshev.” Overy does not conclude whether or not the similarities out way their differences but he does tend to focus on the difference more. He states that the regimes are different, that the gulags weren’t as deadly as the German concentration camps and that power for Stalin, “seems to have been power to preserve and enlarge the revolution and the state that represented it”, whereas Hitler’s new order was to be based on a racial hierarchy and the cultural superiority of the Germans. “Soviet communism was intended to be an instrument for human progress, whereas National Socialism was from its very nature an instrument for the progress of a particular people.” This is certainly true, the basis of the two regimes are different but as Bullock concluded the differences although perhaps larger are not as significant as the fundamental similarities that made them totalitarian dictators.
The historical comparisons which have been made over the years of Hitler and Stalin and their regimes are ultimately a difficult task. It is all a matter of personal perspectives on the issue. There are historians such as Michael Mann who will argue that Stalin and Nazi regimes, “belong together” whilst there are others such as Ian Thatcher who openly disputes the claims that the two were “evil twins,” as he concludes that comparisons of the two reveal more dissimilarities than similarities, He believed that “fascism and communism were opposite extremes, not the joint off spring of a single totalitarian family.”
Then there are historians such as Allan Bullock and Ian Kershaw who do not want to conclude whether or not they are similar or dissimilar but instead want to bring all issues to light. There is such an interest in the two and this is mainly due to the amazing similarities of opposing political people. There are certainly areas of their regimes and ideologies which are surprisingly alike, the way in which they both developed their countries through the use of propaganda, how their regimes both turned extreme and how they used terror and violence in the end to maintain complete control of the state. Ultimately Nazism and Communism are irreconcilable but in avoiding the meaningless differences the conclusion is that they both “share the soul of the beast within.”29 Above all historians conclude that Hitler and Stalin can be compared because fundamentally they were totalitarians dictators and no other men have come close to the levels of power and devastation they brought to the world in the 20th Century.
1 M Bennett, Nazism and Stalinism, (History Review, issue 45, march 2003)
2 D Welch, The Third Reich, Politics and Propaganda, (Routledge, London 1993) p 3
3 I Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship, 3rd Ed. (Edward Arnold, London 1993) p 20
4 I Kershaw & M Lewin (edited by) Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in Comparisons (Cambridge University Press, 1997) p 3
7 E Nolte, Martin Heidegger Politik und Geschichte im Leben un Denken (The American Historical Review vol 98 no 4 1993) pp 1277-1278
8 T. S Hamerow, Reviewed work, Hitler and Stalin Parallel lives, by Allan Bullock, (The Journal of Modern History, Vol 67, No 1 March 1995) p124
10 A Bullock, Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives, (Harpers Collins 1991) p349
11 E Wiskemann, Europe of the Dictators, 1919-1945 (The Phillips Park Press, Manchester 1966)
12 I Kershaw & M Lewin (edited by) Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in Comparisons (Cambridge University Press, 1997) p 92
13 J Noakes & G Pridham, Nazism 1919-1945, Volume Two: State, Economy and Society, 1933-39 – A Documentary Reader, (University of Exeter Press, 1984 ) pp 207-208
14I Kershaw & M Lewin (edited by) Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in Comparisons (Cambridge University Press, 1997) p 91
15 V Barnett, Nazism and Stalinism (History Review, Issue 49, September 2004) p51
17I Kershaw & M Lewin (edited by) Stalinism and Nazism, Dictatorships in Comparisons (Cambridge University Press, 1997) p 90
18 Ibid p 93
19 Ibid p 9
20 M Bennett, Nazism and Stalinism, (History Review, issue 45, march 2003) p 8
22 M Bennett, Nazism and Stalinism, (History Review, issue 45, march 2003)
24 R Pearce, Review of The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, (History Today, vol. 54, issue 11, November 2004) p79
28 M Bennett, Nazism and Stalinism, (History Review, issue 45, march 2003)