Friday, June 5, 2009

Comparing Tyrannies

Richard Overy’s The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia is a highly readable, immensely revealing work of history. Overy is interested in both the similarities (which were manifold) and the differences between Stalin and Hitler’s regimes. The similarities were mainly in methods. But, then, they were both utopian (at least in the sense of seeking to transform people and social relations) rulers who were (directly or indirectly) students of Lenin. I found Overy’s discussion of their economic policies particularly revealing (the similarities were rather greater than I had realised):
The command economies were instruments, first and foremost, for the achievement of particular political outcomes, whose utopian character was defined more by the political ambitions of each dictatorship and less by the prevailing mode of production (p.440).
Overy also makes it clear that Hitler’s ‘Third Way’ between the liberal capitalism of the Anglo Powers (UK and USA) and the state socialism of the USSR managed to perform less well than either in supporting total war, and not merely because Hitler did not agree to total mobilisation until 1942. Centralised but not centrally controlled (p.530) is how Overy puts it. Throughout the war, Germany produced far more coal, steel, aluminium, and had a larger industrial workforce, than the USSR, yet continually produced less aircraft, tanks and (especially) artillery (p.498).

The penultimate chapter is Empire of the Camps. Both systems operated on mass murder. Stalin was far more brutal towards his own citizens than Hitler, Hitler far more brutal to those he conquered (a German, confronted with the choice of Hitler or the local version of Stalin was better off picking Hitler). Stalin mainly killed by collectivisation famines, the terror-famines. But it is in the camps that the extra quality of the Nazi evil is brought out, because they had, as Stalin did not, explicit extermination camps. There is a certain special horror to the extermination camps. Particularly as, towards the end, Hitler’s regime gave higher priority to exterminating people than winning the war.

Hitler is as much a creation of Lenin as Stalin – Stalinism is just Lenin’s political ruthlessness applied to fellow Bolsheviks: Leninism for all. But without (1) the political model Lenin established and (2) the rational fear Leninism inspired (there was nothing an ordinary German might value – not life, family, culture, freedom, property, or religion – which was not under threat from a Leninist takeover), Nazism would never have come to power.

The triumph of Overy’s book is precisely that one can see both the similarities and the differences between Hitler, Stalin and their regimes.

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