Compare and contrast how historians viewed Hitler and Stalin and how comparative basis have changed over time?
Twentieth century Europe saw the rise and fall of two powerful leaders and their regimes, Hitler and Nazism and Stalin and Stalinism. These leaders and regimes have undergone critical comparison to gain understanding of the various misinterpretations and differences between them. The comparison of Nazism and Stalinism has been constantly investigated by a number of historians such as Timothy Snider, Ian Kersaw, Robert Gellately, and Alan Bullock. Thus this essay will compare and contrast how such historians viewed Hitler and Stalin and how the comparative basis has changed over time.
It is evident that historians throughout the past have struggled with the application of comparative methodology. The idea of comparing Nazism and Stalinism is not a new phenomenon. There is an ongoing debate over whether the nature of the Soviet regime under Stalin can be directly compared to the Hitler regime in Germany. The direct meaning of the word comparison tended to suggest that the subjects being compared must have some degree of similarity. Before a critical analysis can be accomplished it is important to understand that there is a great complexity surrounding the comparison of Hitler and Stalin. The early argument was that Nazism and Stalinism could not be compared as they were too different due to their geographical, social and cultural composition. This line of argument was clearly evident in the question Schoenbaum posses when comparison of the third Reich and USSR was considered:
"Can we assume a meaningful identity between a conspiratorial group of highly intellectual, professional revolutionaries and a heterogeneous collection of provincial cranks; between an underdeveloped country with a vast rural population in the throe of industrialisation and a well developed industrial society in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis?"
It was only since 1960 that a comparison was deemed justified. It was through the comparative process that Hitler and Stalin became categorised as dictators. It was decided that they could be compared based in their style of dictatorship. Dictatorships were classified under the heading authoritarian or totalitarian. Their regimes were categorised first as authoritarian, then through revision they became known as totalitarian. However, the process of categorisation has recently been criticised because the definition of various types of dictatorships has not been used properly due to the misinterpretation of their meaning. This misinterpretation has been critically analysed by Ezrow, Frantz, Geyer and Fitzpatrick. These scholars concluded that the term totalitarian and totalitarianism came to be used in political circles since 1920 primarily in reference to Italian Fascism. They also found that as time progressed the use of the terminology shifted to encompass Germany in the 1940’s and 1950’s and was a popular label used in the academic sphere when referencing the Soviet Union in the cold war era. It is therefore important to understand the more detailed difference between the various dictatorships if we are to compare the dictatorship of Hitler to that of Stalin.
According to Bernard Shaw dictatorship was the only way to achieve something. Bernard Shaw openly stated that he admired Hitler and Stalin as they effectively put aside the democratic political structure which he strongly believed was the cause in preventing progress. According to C every dictator needed to be able to maintain full control of his supporters and gain their continuing support.
According to Juan Linz an authoritarian dictatorship can be defined as having a political party which does not have intensive or extensive political mobilisation. Additionally the leader or small group exercises their power within the formally ill-defined limits. Samuel Huntington’s definition closely aligned with that of Juan Linz but he disputed the idea of an authoritarian dictatorship being ruled by a group. Huntington instead suggested that there was only one leader which had either no party or a weak party to support that leader.
Huntington defined a totalitarian regime as a single party which was led by an individual which had a powerful secret police force at his disposal. According to Hannah Arendt, totalitarianism was a new extreme form of dictatorship which was based on ideological goals and the supreme power of an individual who used terror in order to exert full control over society and gain their compliance. In popular culture and at a scholarly level Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (particularly in the 1930s) have been labelled under the heading totalitarian regimes. It is because of these characteristics that Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, were labelled as totalitarian dictatorship by people like Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. However, this term has undergone various revisions throughout various studies looking at the socio-political attributions in Germany and Russia in the 1930’s. This has resulted in a change in the meaning and the application of totalitarianism. Some revisionists like Timothy Snyder have gone as far as excluding the use of the terminology when comparing Nazism and Stalinism.
Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin employed a different strategy when using comparative methodology to compare the two regimes. They used historical markers such as World War I (WWI), World War II (WWII) and the Cold War as common ground in order to enable a comparison between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to ensue. Kershaw and Lewin argued that in both societies there was a distinctive pattern that could be seen throughout the historical markers which enabled Hitler and Stalin to gain power. For example Germany and Russia went through civil war after the conclusion of WWI with the outcome being very similar. In Germany, the Weimarch Republic political party rose to power establishing stability in the society after WWI. However, this did not last long for different political factions started to undermine the whole democratic structure of the Wiemarch Republic thus, bringing the Wiemarch Republic party to its knees and paving the way for Nazism to rise out of the ashes of the Democratic Party. Russia went through a similar experience. After WWI the Russian Democratic Party rose to power and at the height of their power they tried to pass the New Economic Policy (NEP). This policy, according to Kershaw and Lewin, was a fatal error as it compromised the party, which gave Stalin the opportunity to seize power.
The use of historical markers to compare the two regimes was criticized in 1996 by Stephen Wheatcroft. Wheatcroft published an argument which stated that it was not possible to compare Stalin’s labour camps with that of Hitler’s racial genocide as they were neither morally or numerically equivalent. Even throughout his recent publication in 2002 Wheatcroft maintained his argument that there was a moral distinction between Stalin’s regime and Hitler’s. Wheatcroft reported that Stalin killed one million while the Nazis killed five million people. Barnett argued that these figures could not be taken at face value and could not be used to rank the ethical morality of the two societies as Stalin may have killed more people if he deemed it necessary to achieve his goal. Harrison supported Barnett’s reasoning when he suggested that Stalin was a rational dictator as he calculated a proximal amount of people that needed to be repressed in order for Stalin to stay in power. Barnett argued that “playing the comparative numbers game” in regards to mass purposive killings cannot be done with precise moral accuracy. Hence Barnett urged historians not to focus on distinguishing the difference between Stalin’s executions and Hitler’s genocide as this distinction was not needed as both leaders killed significant numbers of innocent people. Timothy Snyder shared the same view that both tyrants ruling Russia and Germany conducted mass-murder methods of artificial famine and shootings. Thus, the quilt of the mass killing could not be attributed to only one dictator.
Timothy Snyder addressed a very sensitive aspect which has been greatly argued since the defeat of communist Germany in WWII. There was no doubt that the holocaust occurred but historians like Robert Gellately have debated which dictator could be blamed for such tragedies. There have been claims from the holocaust era which alleged that the Jewish population made themselves look victimised to a far greater extent in the concentration camps than was actually happening. The argument made against Stalin executing Jews in the Ukraine region are rebuffed and such events were brought up by critics in order to distort the pure history and thus the identity of the country. Additionally Stalin followers approved of these executions as they believed that Stalin would not have executed these people without appropriate cause.
Robert Gellately suggested that it was during the Russian revolution (1918-1921) that the worst racial cleansing occurred against the Jewish population and it was conducted by the White forces. This kind of ill treatment of the Jewish community did not stop after the Allies celebrated their victory on 8 of May 1945 but finally ceased in 1953 when Stalin died. The other defence for the anti-semitic policies was that this was where the society was heading and these practices were conducted worldwide. Additionally the attitude against Jewish people was said to be prevalent throughout Europe prior to the Russian Revolution or the commencement of Hitler’s regime. According to Mark Palack; “Hitler retorted: I have nothing at all against the Jews themselves. But the Jews are all Communists, and these are my enemies, it is against these that I am fighting” Thus, according to Kershaw and Lewin Germany and Russia should not take the full blame as the first anti-semitic incident against the Jewish population occurred in 1919.
The Russian population believed that Stalin was the saviour of humanity from the evil Nazi regime which enslaved all of the European countries. However, Germany claimed that the war against Russia had to be as they were the power base that was infecting all the Eastern communities with the poisonous communist ideology. According to C World War II was a war of ideological principles between totalitarianism and democratic principles.
A similarity between the two regimes was the use of oppression. Both regimes used oppression in order to solidify their grip and maintian power. Hitler used concentration camp whereas Stalin used forced labour camps. However, the justification for the use of oppression was diversified. Harrison’s and Barnett’s viewpoints clash when the reasoning of the need of forced labour camps under Stalin was discussed. Harrison justified Stalin as a rational leader because he used the labour camps as a source to boost Russian’s economy through socialist economic methods. Whereas Barnett argued that these forced labour camps did not improve the quality of human life which is the primary aim of a socialist economy but rather only increased the productivity of Russia’s industries. Thus, according to Barnett, these mass killings in Ukraine and in the Russian labour camps could not be used to substantiate Russia’s economical needs but could be used to justify the tyrannical form of government that Stalin implemented which was based on Stalin’s own beliefs. Whereas, Barnett thought that Hitler’s regime was justifiable, because it was based on ethnic ideologies. Additionally Allan suggested that the economical goals were secondary objectives to Hitler thus there was no need for oppression to occur for economical gains. Whereas Stalin basis both his internal and external policies in order to gain economical benefits.
Timothy Snyder concluded that the Holocaust would not have been as extreme without Stalin. Whilst prior studies, Hannah Arendt’s among them, ‘over theorized and misunderstood’ Europe’s period of mass killing. At the conclusion of WWII Europe found itself with the loss of fourteen million non-combatants. This loss according to Snyder could not be attributed to only Hitler as Stalin was responsible for one-third of these deaths. According to Snyder the mortality rate in Nazi camps, for Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs) was 57.4 per cent, whilst in Soviet camps with German POWs, the mortality rate was 11.8 per cent. A number of historians have attributed such high death rates to genocide policies however, Snyder pointed out that there were other attributions contributing to Soviet prisoners-of-war deaths. These figures and the assumption that Snyder made have arrived from the use of victims testimonies which quote their last words which were scrawled on papers and thrown from trains, or etched on synagogue walls. These testimonies were kept in line by juxtaposing them with the nefarious schemes and actions of high-ranking Soviet and Nazi leaders.
Another debate which has occurred was the quality difference between the dictators and the regimes. The Nazi party grew in power after Hitler was released from prison in 1923 because, unlike the Weimar Republic, it tried to reconcile allegiances with minority groups within the German political sphere. By doing so the Nazi party was able to create unity that drove progress. Whilst Hitler rose to power exploiting this problem, Stalin's struggle involved the introverted attempt to finally settle the account with Russia's largely pre-capitalist element, the peasantry.
Hitler was admired for his ability to gain swift victories over Poland and the acquisition of Czechoslovakia. However, this became a great problem for Hitler, as the German society expected a swift conquest of the rest of Europe. Hitler was not able to do so due to a number of obstacles. This inability for quick conquest caused Hitler’s prestige to be questioned. Hitler wanted to support the ambition of colonial expansion but in order to achieve this he needed to use extortion and he did not believe that he had enough support to do this. Additionally Hitler would have to use blackmail as he did not have a powerful enough navy to pursue colonial expansion. In 1939 Hitler declared that Germany was in serious economical crisis and that the trade with foreign nations was a must if Germany was to survive. Additionally the National Socialist party that supported Hitler were pushing Hitler for a number of social reforms to be passed. Hitler made great progress in political unification within Germany through the use of terror and also accomplished solid progress in foreign policies.
In the past historians overestimated Germany’s fighting power and their organizational capabilities. According to C this imposing image, strongly portrayed in correspondence with Hitler, was far from perfect. According to C Germany was easy to unite as the majority of the German population wanted to expunge their humiliating treatment in the treaty of Versaille and so Germany was able to quickly reoccupy land that they lost in WWI without spilling blood. Additionally all political rivals to Hitler or any one that stood in his way from achieving his ambitions was swiftly executed. The Jews’ suffered because they were perceived as the reason for the defeat of Germany in WWI and thus had to be taught a lesson. These accomplishments could only be achieved by a ruthless and automatic authoritarian ruler such as Hitler. Additionally C suggested that Hitler had a great sense of timing as he implemented his actions at a favourable time. This allowed Hitler to use diplomacy as a threat and as a weapon. The highest point in Hitler’s regime according to C was 1938 when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and the prime minister of Great Britain and France pleaded with Hitler to stop his aggression.
John Moiser argued that Nazi Germany was far superior to that of Stalin’s political party. Moiser argued that Germany should have won the war but it was at the fault of Adolf Hitler’s command to divert the weapons and man power towards the west in order to resolve the ever growing fear of Western Allie’s attack. Moiser went further by suggesting that Stalin did not have the resources to counter the might of Germany as the soviet factories were producing inadequate quality or number of weaponry to counter Germany. Moiser agreed that Hitler had committed genocide and other atrocities but so did Stalin. Moiser argued that Nazi Germany was portrayed in a bad light because previous historians had been greatly influenced by Stalin’s propaganda. This argument was found to be true.
However, Moiser’s argument has been pulled apart and labelled as extreme based on the figure regarding fatalities. Countering Moiser’s argument is a more recent publication by Geoffrey Roberts. In this publication Geoffrey Robert argued that Stalin was an excellent leader, even though the first half of the conflict years Stalin’s’ army was disorganised. That said they became proficient very quickly. According to Geoffrey Roberts the best example of Soviet military strength was the invasion that occurred in 1945 called the Manchurian campaign. Additionally Allan counters Moiser’s argument by stating that Stalin was able to function within an already existing party framework whereas Hitler had to create his own and thus made the Nazi regime weaker than Stalinism.
According to John Lukcas, Hitler was a military genius. This was portrayed when he talked about how the “non-aggression” pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was “the biggest bombshell in modern history” because this pact did not stop Hitler from invading Russia but it did detour Britain from going to war with Germany. Stalin admired Hitler and did not want to go to war against Germany. Stalin’s goal was to reconquer the area of Eastern Europe that was part of Russia during WW1. Stalin ignored the massing of German troops on its western frontier. Stalin even ignored the Western Allies intelligence about a German attack being immenent. There is no disputing the fact that both Hitler and Stalin were great military leaders. Hitler showed both genius for political manipulation and a total ruthlessness that enabled him to achieve absolute power.
A major similarity between Hitler and Stalin was that they both wanted to change the world at whatever cost. Both Hitler and Stalin knew how to manipulate mass opinion by a judicious mixture of terror and propaganda in order to maintain social control. This similarity was further solidified when a comparison of the primary political ambitions where compared. This allured to the conclusion that Hitler’s main objective was to create Greater Germany purged of genetic defects. Additionally Allan Bullock argued that Stalin considered transformation of the Soviet Union into a classless society as the primary objective. Allan argued that the only way that Hitler and Stalin could meet these objectives was with the extermination of both the Jews and the Kulaks.
The comparison of Nazism and Stalinism is a very complex process and there are a lot of arguments about the comparative methodology used by historians such as Timothy Snyder, Ian Kershaw, Alan Bullock and other prominent historians. A major debate which has not been fully resolved is the labelling of Nazism and Stalinism as totalitarian regimes. Prior to 1960 the sustained argument was that a comparison was not possible as Nazism and Stalinism had too many distinguishable variables to compare. It was only in 1960 that eventually a common ground for comparison was achieved by Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin. However, this did not stop arguments from occurring as historians such as; Barnett and Harrison argued about the moral differences between the two regimes. Other arguments consolidated by Moiser, Luckas, C, and Robert Gellately, revolved around the quality of the dictatorships and the ability of the dictator. Thus, there is still a lot of ground to be covered before an accurate comparison between Nazism and Stalinism can be established and that whilst there are some significant similarities there are also significant differences between the two regimes.
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