A hundred years ago, a malignant form of governance, both modern and barbaric, slouched towards St. Petersburg to be born. As it grew, it swept across Eurasia, enveloping the largest territorial state on the planet and cloning itself elsewhere. As the decades passed, the monstrosity was given a name: totalitarianism.
Its original Russian manifestation had two German connections.
One was historical and ideological: Russian revolutionaries claimed to be the founders of the promised land prophesied by Karl Marx, a 19th-century Prussian-born philosopher.
The other was contemporaneous and geopolitical: In a vain effort to win World War I, Emperor Wilhelm II’s high command helped Russian Marxists seize power and make peace with Berlin.
Looming in the future was Germany’s own experience with totalitarianism: the emergence in the early 1930s of a predatory police state that initiated the Holocaust and a world war, more cataclysmic than the first.
While the blame for this carnage can be parceled out to myriad murderers, psychopaths, toadies, cowards and, of course, those who were “just following orders,” the twin evils were, ultimately, the work of two individuals: Stalin and Hitler. They are exemplars of a villainous version of Thomas Carlyle’s Great Man Theory.
Of the many books that deal with these two world-changing figures, “Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives,” by the British historian Alan Bullock, published in 1992, is the best — and certainly, at more than 1,000 pages, the most comprehensive. Bullock’s thesis is persuasive. Despite their differences in age, background and temperament — and despite their mortal enmity in World War II — there was a symbiosis, even an affinity, between the two: in their careers, their ideologies, their methods and their psyches.
They were both outsiders: the master of the Kremlin was a Georgian, not a Russian; the German Führer was an Austrian. Both, Bullock says, were narcissists. Both insisted on cults of personality and made themselves into high priests of warped versions of 19th-century social theories (Stalin’s Marxism, Hitler’s toxic combination of social Darwinism and the zanier ideas of Nietzsche). Both were homicidal paranoiacs, determined to deport, enslave and exterminate entire categories of human beings: in Stalin’s case, the kulaks during the collectivization campaign; in Hitler’s, not just Jews but Slavs, Romani and numerous others. Crucially, neither of these malevolent geniuses would have emerged from obscurity were it not for the first great cataclysm of the 20th century, then known as the Great War.
Stalin was already a ruthless and canny militant in the 1890s when Hitler was still a toddler. The pivotal year 1905 found him in St. Petersburg, where a wave of social unrest and political protests forced the czarist government to accede to limited democratic reforms including a parliament (Duma) and a multiparty system. That was not the outcome Stalin and his fellow Bolsheviks wanted.
Twelve years later, in November 1917, they had another chance to quash the democrats and impose a dictatorship. This time they got lucky, largely because Russia suffered a perfect storm of ill fortune and colossal folly.
The decrepit imperial government was ready for the ash heap of history before its decision in 1914 to enter the war against Germany and Austria-Hungary along with their Ottoman allies. The consequences were the devastation of Russia’s economy, the exhaustion of its population and a string of humiliating defeats on the battlefields that triggered mutinies and kindled a revolution that came in two stages.
In February 1917, Czar Nicholas II abdicated in favor of a provisional government headed by the liberal Alexander Kerensky and consisting of progressives, socialists and the more moderate Communists. Meanwhile, the disciplined and fanatic Bolshevik wing of the Communist Party was organizing, arming and propagandizing the masses with promises of “peace, land and bread.” They knew they could crush fierce internal resistance only if they sued for peace with Germany.
As for the Germans, they too wanted quiet on the eastern front. They knew that Vladimir Lenin, the Bolsheviks’ principal leader, had always opposed Russia’s entry into the war. But Lenin was in exile in Switzerland. In a spectacular instance of one great power instigating regime change in another, the Germans essentially weaponized Lenin’s willpower and charisma by infiltrating him back into Russia in a closed railroad car.
Lenin threw himself into rallying his fellow radicals while under the protection of Stalin, who smuggled him from one safe house to another. By November, the Bolsheviks had the forces and support they needed to lead an armed insurrection by workers and soldiers that overthrew the provisional government.
Lenin spent four years consolidating the Red Revolution and routing its enemies, the Whites. In 1921, he realized his ruthlessness had brought the Soviet state to the brink of collapse just as it was aborning. He softened some of his more repressive policies and retreated from the harshest form of socialism.
But Russia then suffered another blow. Lenin had his first debilitating stroke, opening the way for his successor, Stalin, to quash the founding father’s economic reforms and double-down on the imposition of the century’s first totalitarian state.
The Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 was reminiscent of the Bolsheviks’ in an important respect — one that we should keep in mind in today’s world. Autocrats and their supporters exploited the populist backlash against weak liberal democracies. Both the Kerensky interlude in Russia and the Weimar Republic in Germany failed to deliver economic security to their constituents.
As Bullock shuttles between his two subjects, he continues to refute commentators who have treated Stalinism and Nazism as diametrically opposed ideologies by labeling the first internationalist and the second nationalist. In fact, those terms were, in this pairing, a distinction without a difference. Both regimes were chauvinistic and expansionist, and both were police states with one-man rule and a reliance on terror, concentration camps and the Big Lie.
Hitler believed that the Third Reich would endure a thousand years. It lasted a dozen. For the first eight, he and Stalin, while geopolitical rivals, sometimes found common ground. Hitler’s minions admired and copied some of Stalin’s techniques of spying and liquidating enemies.
In 1939, much as Lenin and Kaiser Wilhelm had done, Stalin and Hitler made peace — though pre-emptively. They had their foreign ministers sign a pact guaranteeing that neither side would attack the other, while divvying up Poland and smaller countries. Late that year and into the next, the German Gestapo and the Soviet secret police, the N.K.V.D., held a series of conferences to coordinate their occupations.
Had Hitler held to that agreement, it is possible he might have won the war. Stalin might have sat out the conflict as it raged in the West, biding his time, then possibly consolidating with Hitler a condominium of totalitarian superstates.
What did happen was the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg into the Soviet Union in 1941, which caught Stalin by surprise. Why Hitler delivered this deadly but also dangerous blow, bringing new hope to Winston Churchill and the Allies, is still debated.
Bullock’s answer to that question came in his earlier biography of Hitler, who “invaded Russia for the simple but sufficient reason that he had always meant to establish the foundations of his thousand-year Reich by the annexation of the territory between the Vistula and the Urals.”
But there is no dispute about the consequence of Hitler’s decision to open a second front. Even though his invasion force got close enough to see the Kremlin towers, he siphoned off military resources from the west, and he underestimated his new Russian enemy. The battle for the major city in the Urals that bore Stalin’s name is regarded as one of the largest, longest and bloodiest in history, and the Germans lost, never to recover.
As the tide turned, the good news was that the Red Army was crucial in bringing about Germany’s total defeat. The bad news was that, in the name of liberation, Stalin’s legions enslaved much of Nazi-occupied Eastern and Central Europe for the next four decades, condemning the people of those countries to the double curse of suffering both kinds of 20th-century totalitarianism.
In Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of Bullock’s book, she wrote: “Between them, Hitler and Stalin effectively redrew the map of Europe, leaving behind a social and ideological legacy that has only now begun to disintegrate as a result of the recent breakup of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.”
From today’s vantage, it is hard to end on that upbeat note. The current leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, is known to toast Stalin’s birthday, suggesting nostalgia and respect for Russia’s nightmare years. More to the point, he is turning back the clock — not (yet) to totalitarianism, but to something akin to it. He has resumed Russian expansion of its sphere of domination, repressed his critics and, almost certainly, ordered or condoned “wet affairs” (assassinations) for dealing with political enemies.
Moreover, the president of the United States has a longtime admiration for Putin, and campaigned last year on a platform that suggested he would be a friend. No wonder the successors of the N.K.V.D. and other covert agencies of the Russian state put their meddling in American politics where their preferences were.
American neo-Nazis also proclaim that they have a friend in the White House. They take solace from what they have heard from the bully pulpit about race and nationalism — or, as their chants put it, “blood and soil.” The nation’s chief executive has repeatedly returned to his favorite slogan for foreign policy, “America First,” an echo (whether he knows it or not) of the ignoble movement that brought together some American isolationists and Nazi admirers before Pearl Harbor.
These adverse developments inspired Timothy Snyder, a prolific and groundbreaking historian at Yale, to publish a very short book, “On Tyranny,” that is a cautionary coda to Bullock’s mammoth tome.
“History does not repeat,” Snyder says, “but it does instruct.” His lesson from the 1930s is that a would-be dictator can still win high office in free elections, flout laws and norms, manipulate people’s fears and anger and establish a despotic regime. His message is “Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or Communism.” In short, Snyder believes that it can happen here.
Such is Snyder’s abomination of the president that, throughout the 126 pages in his book, he uses only the title and never the name. Perhaps it is his way of underscoring the unspeakable irony that this man could be the constitutional successor of Washington and Lincoln.
When Snyder cites his antihero, it is usually braggadocio, a lie, an insult or phrases reeking of megalomania: “I alone can fix it” (whatever “it” is) or, the single most striking and telling four words at the Republican convention, “I am your voice!”
“On Tyranny” has been a commercial success. And so are other books on similar themes, suggesting that Americans are buckling down to their homework on history and civics and thinking for themselves, including on what seemed unthinkable less than a year ago.
Moreover, the institutions of American democracy are beginning to check and counterbalance ominous actions and attitudes emitting from the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the European Union, while still wobbly, seems to be finding its feet again. And here’s a stunning but welcome irony: The chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, seems, however reluctantly, ready to take a key role in reinforcing the leadership and concept of the political West if the current American president is unable or unwilling to do so himself.