Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Hitler and Stalin
Book Review from the October 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia. By Richard Overy. Penguin
If you've been thinking that books on the two most renowned political dictators, Hitler and Stalin, have been done to death forget it and read this book. Whereas books such as Alan Bullock's Parallel Lives, Alan Kershaw's Hitler and Simon Sebag Montefiore's Court of the Red Czar (reviewed in the March 2006 Socialist Standard) concentrate on personality, Richard Overy investigates issues far more important to the working class. He raises such questions as how dictatorships could happen, how did they manage to hold on to power and impose their will on a sometimes-uncooperative working class. For answers to questions such as these this book is excellent.
Overy finds many similarities in the methods adopted by the dictators but also some important differences, lying mainly in the varying levels of economic development existing in the two countries. Germany, emerging from its history as a collection of loosely federated states was already a capitalist nation. It had a native capitalist class, trade unions, a democratic political constitution in the Weimar Republic. Russia had none of these. Eighty percent of its population were peasants, its homegrown capitalist class were almost non-existent, or at any rate very weak. There were trade unions (in fact it was largely trade union action which had toppled the Czar) they had not yet reached the same level of development as those in Germany. There had never been even the semblance of political democracy in Russia.
These historical conditions were important in the way the dictators came to power and held on to it. One thing Overy makes abundantly clear is that neither dictator was "imposed" or brought about by force against an unwilling or resisting populace. Hitler used the electoral process to gain power and, although no one in Russia ever had the chance of voting against Stalin, he still needed working class support to remain in power.
Hitler maintained his position of supreme ruler by adopting the cult of leadership right from the beginning. Everyone (including, crucially, the army) had to swear allegiance to the Führer. Stalin had to work slowly and behind the scenes to achieve his pre-eminence. But, as Overy makes clear, neither of them could move very far without popular support, and they both went to extraordinary lengths to hold on to a mass following.
This does not mean of course that Stalin and Hitler did not routinely employ force. But by means of propaganda, of general scare alarms - about "wreckers" in the case of Stalin, or "undesirables" in the case of Hitler - they managed to enlist the support of the ordinary citizen. Informers were actively encouraged and many enthusiastically took part in wholesale denunciation of the regime's opponents.
Overy makes a strong case for believing that both dictators believed in their own ideologies - something that can be readily accepted in the case of Hitler with his belief in the existence of "race" and of a "racially pure" Aryan blood. However we find it much more difficult to accept that Stalin really believed that he was building socialism. Overy also suggests that Stalin's purges of Communist Party members had some basis in reality in the sense that they really did threaten his conception of "socialism". After getting rid of Roehm, Hitler was much more loyal to his close circle as he built up his authority on the basis of personal loyalty and did not see them as a threat. His biggest problem lay in the conservative nature of the generals. This explains why he took over the conduct of the war as sole commander, something also attempted by Stalin, who sacked or murdered most of his generals. Overy also appears to have a greater respect for Stalin as a political theoretician than is warranted by the facts.
For anyone who wants to understand how the Holocaust came about and the circumstances building up to it this book is essential reading. From general beginnings as slave labour to its eventual conclusion as mass killing, it makes chilling reading. He also presents some interesting statistics on the Gulags and their role as providers of slave labour in the economy that goes a long way to understand them. In the pursuit of maintaining power both dictators used spectacle. Parades, military processions, torchlight rallies - all were used extensively and served as displays of power and as entertainment. In the days before television this was very effective. Rigid control of the press was also an essential. Any criticism of the establishment was viciously suppressed.
A serious shortcoming of this book lies in the author's conception of socialism. Overy takes the word "socialism" and the concept of "national socialism" as used by Stalin and Hitler at their face value. He never defines the terms and appears to believe that socialism is synonymous with a "command economy" capitalism, regarding which he has some very perceptive things to say. However the lessons implicit in this book are vitally important and it is to be recommended.