Laurence Rees tries his best to cut through much of the mythology that infuses our collective memory of Hitler and Stalin
Who was worse, Hitler or Stalin? It sounds like the sort of question that two teenagers might ask in a debate over comic book supervillains. And yet it is an issue that historians are forced to treat with deadly seriousness—not least because there are extremely delicate national sentiments involved.
In western Europe it is Hitler who generally wins the prize. The killing factories that were set up in his name at Auschwitz and Treblinka are today seen as the apogee of evil in the 20th century. In much of eastern Europe, by contrast, Stalin is sometimes considered the greater monster. The Poles and Ukrainians in particular point out that Stalinist repression, unlike Nazi repression, lasted not years but decades; and that Russia, unlike Germany, has never tried to atone for its sins.
Meanwhile, in the European Union, there is a tendency to try and pour oil on troubled waters by fudging the issue. In an attempt to balance the memories of the east with those of the west, Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes are now routinely lumped together under the single label of “totalitarianism”—the implication being that they were essentially the same as each other.
These are the issues that Laurence Rees grapples with in his excellent new book about the relationship between these two tyrants. In Rees’s narrative, each of the above positions is misleading in its own way. Hitler’s crimes were certainly unique, but that cannot absolve Stalin of his sins. The crimes of the Communists, meanwhile, may have scarred eastern Europe more deeply, but the viciousness and intensity of their killing never matched that of Hitler’s. And as for the view that they were two sides of the same coin, that is given short shrift. Any similarities between the two dictators are vastly outweighed by the differences between their personalities, their ideologies and methods, and also the challenges that they faced.
Rees concentrates his book on the war years, because this was when Nazism and Stalinism were thrown into direct confrontation. He begins with the pact that Hitler and Stalin made with one another on August 23, 1939. This was perhaps the moment when their interests were most aligned. And yet, even as they carved up the map of Europe, there were important differences between them. At this point Stalin merely wanted to hold Germany at bay, and to retake territory that had once been part of the Russian empire. Hitler, by contrast, saw the pact as the first step on his path towards conquering the whole of Europe—including the Soviet Union.
Over the next 18 months, both tyrants embarked on military campaigns in their respective “spheres of influence”. Hitler worked within a long-established system, and was rewarded with some astonishing early successes. Stalin, however, had only recently subjected his own army to a violent internal purge. The inexperienced and demoralised generals who were left produced only a string of embarrassing failures, forcing Stalin to release thousands of more talented officers from the gulag.
Both tyrants presided over a series of atrocities in the territories they conquered, but the nature of those atrocities was very different. While Hitler was obsessed with race, and thought nothing of murdering millions of Jews, Slavs and Gypsies, Stalin was obsessed with class, and singled out aristocrats, kulaks, army officers and priests.
This does not mean that they did not occasionally stray onto each other’s ideological territory. The Nazis also executed members of the ruling classes, simply because these were the people who posed the greatest threat. Stalin, meanwhile, was quite happy to embark on his own campaign of ethnical cleansing, particularly towards the end of the war, when whole populations of Kalmyks and Crimean Tatars were deported to Siberia.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the two men was in the scope of their ambition. Hitler was committed to a war of annihilation, and would have kept on killing until he had conquered all of Europe. The world really had no choice but to fight him. Stalin, by contrast, was much more cautious. He directed most of his murderous activities not towards the outside world, but towards his own people. Unlike Hitler, therefore, he could at least be contained. During the Cold War this was a boon to world peace—but it was also a curse for the people of eastern Europe who were consequently forced to endure more than 40 more years of repression.
In this nuanced and disturbing book, Rees tries his best to cut through much of the mythology that infuses our collective memory of Hitler and Stalin. He presents them as a pair of flawed, ugly human beings who lacked the imagination to escape from their own paranoid fantasies, and whose only way of dealing with complex problems was through violence and terror.
Unfortunately, Rees never quite manages to shake off the aura of supernatural evil that has gathered around them, and which continues to haunt Europe to this day. If he had, perhaps we would no longer feel compelled to compare Hitler and Stalin as if they were indeed comic book supervillains.
Hitler and Stalin: The Tyrants and the Second World War
By Laurence Rees
Viking, 528pp, £25