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Hitler and Stalin: Parallel lives Paperback – 6 Jul 1998
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From the Back Cover
“It is practically unprecedented to take two such monsters as Hitler and Stalin, who never met, and interweave their lives chronologically, chapter by chapter, often paragraph by paragraph, as Bullock has done. It sounds like a recipe for confusion, irritation and indigestion. In fact, it works brilliantly. the book is a triumph of organisation, lucidity and perspective.”
JOHN CAMBELL, 'The Times'
“A magnificent piece of historical writing which, despite its massive size, makes for compulsive reading. The sweep is broad and the information concisely conveyed without any sign of pedantry. The judgements are sane and balanced…The grasp of the biographical material is matched by a multitude of interpretations which are the mark of a master historian.”
ZARA STEINER, 'Financial Times'
“A titanic narrative history…Bullock is a master-builder who constructs his edifice beautifully, underpinning the narrative mass with analytical supports to prevent the story collapsing into detail and burying the reader, Yet he can slow the momentum for a vivid vignette or apt quotation.”
DAVID REYNOLDS, 'Independent on Sunday'
“A magnetic chronicling…which, by dint of its distillation of a vast amount of matter, and by virtue of its author’s consummate powers of analysis and narrative, becomes a standard work from the very instant of publication.”
MARTIN FAGG, 'TES'
“Lord Bullock has carried out to perfection an artistic revenge on Public Enemies Numbers One and Two. This enormous book is a fitting tombstone to their world.”
ANDREW ROBERTS, 'Spectator'
About the Author
Alan Bullock is the author of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, The Liberal Tradition and The Humanist Tradition in the West. He is also the co-editor of The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thinkers, The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought and of the multi-volume Oxford History of Modern Europe series. In 1960, Lord Bullock became Founding Master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford between 1969 and 1973. He was made a life peer in 1976.
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Hitler had a messed up childhood culminating in the death of his beloved mother. Witnesses including the family priest had never seen someone so wrought with grief. As a teenager, he made sacrifices on behalf of his sister whom he loved. He feared his overbearing father, who as an older man at the time of his birth, died of old age when Hitler was fourteen. Orphaned at eighteen, he found all of a sudden he had to become the bread-winner. His father had thwarted his son's artistic ambitions by insisting he follow him into a civil service job. In the end Hitler's education fell apart and he was contemptuous of his teachers. Failing to be accepted into art school, Hitler only found his niche in the trenches of World War One.
In contrast, little is known about Stalin's childhood (by Alan Bullock's own admission) because he eliminated anyone who had known him in the early days and either buried or destroyed any record of himself. What we do know is that like Hitler, he was an altar boy, he loved his mother, but hated his brutal and unloving father. He drifted into criminality and then political activism and subversion from about the age of twenty. Having toyed with training as a Russian Orthodox priest, he too rebelled against authority, centred around Russian imperialism and the Church.
Another comparison Bullock makes is their style of doing things. Hitler thrived on danger and risk (he won the Iron Cross twice in WWI) and camaraderie. His fellow soldiers thought he was a nut. Stalin, cool and calculating, shied away from risk and open confrontation. He played his cards close to his chest. Hitler was a great speech maker, expert at picking up upon the sentiment of his audience; Stalin, sitting quietly and underestimated by his rivals, plotted his way to the top through his control of bureaucracy and his innate cunning. A natural gambler, Hitler believed in big, bold moves and outrageously ambitious plans even when the odds were stacked against him; by contrast, Stalin made small incremental inroads, only moving when he knew the odds were stacked in his favour. Stalin's analysis of Hitler was that he was a man who didn't know when to stop.
Ironically, it transpires that Stalin was about as big an anti-Semite as his Nazi counterpart and had plans to murder millions of Jews just seven years after the discovery of the Nazi death camps, but died before he could implement them. Hitler was a fierce nationalist, Stalin an anti-nationalist who turned his back on his Georgian compatriots and persecuted them as much as he did the other peoples of the Soviet Union. Hitler killed six million Jews; Stalin killed eight million Ukranians among others. Hitler trusted his coterie despite recognising their character flaws and was reluctant to fire and replace them; Stalin trusted no-one and systematically eliminated those who had served him well (a succession of heads of the NKVD for example, after they had served their purpose).
Another irony: Hitler despised Jews as he believed they controlled Soviet Communism; Stalin didn't trust Jews as he believed they were agents of American capitalism.
In old age, Stalin had a paranoia that his mostly Jewish doctors weren't trying to prolong his life (known as The Doctors' Plot) and therefore he planned a Jewish pogrom to remove most Jews from Soviet life. Hitler's mother was treated for her terminal illness by the family's Jewish doctor. An eternally grateful Hitler remembered this 30 years later, had him tracked down and gave out a signed order that any Nazi official who prevented his safe passage from Germany at the time of Kristalnacht would face grievous consequences themselves. Claims that Hitler himself had Jewish blood have been dismissed, but he is likely to have had some Czech on both sides (his parents were closely related cousins).
Hitler signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in order to get his hands on vital Soviet supplies of raw materials in the early part of WWII and ultimately to turn on his ally. In return he gave the Soviet Union blue-prints of German military design knowing that Germany was the next step ahead. Stalin fully lived up to his part of the agreement and more, believing that ultimately he would bring down the Nazis by revolution from within. Stalin couldn't believe Hitler would renege on their pact and wouldn't be so foolish in invading a territory so large as the USSR and so was ill-prepared when it happened. Both believed they were great generals who could micro-manage the war. After a while Stalin had the sense to stand back and let his top brass take over. Hitler failed to see his own limitations and never did.
It has to be said: this book covers a huge amount of ground and perhaps tries to come to terms with too much material. On the face of it, it is well organised, splitting up the chapters according to the age of Hitler and Stalin and the stage where they were in their careers, but when you have a chapter or section dedicated to one, the reader often finds that the passage has been hi-jacked by the life of the other. In the last third of the book, it becomes more of a chronicle of WWII and the other major players (Western Allies and Axis) and I think it steals the show from the two subjects.
At the same time, I found that the writing was somewhat lacking in detail, facts and figures. The chronicle of Hitler's life comes to an abrupt end when he commits suicide in his bunker, but I found the writing just petered out. So too, when Alan Bullock comes to summarise the lives of the two despots in the final chapter titled 'Perspective', I found it to be too brief and shy of casting a verdict.
This may be an 1,100 page book of the two dictators, but it can provide little more than an overview of such an enormous field of history. I thought it was very good in the early chapters, but went down hill progressively from then on. You get the impression that Hitler and Stalin had more in common than they cared to believe and would have got on very well had they met. What one does learn from this work is to treat children kindly for one never knows what kind of monsters one is creating for the future.
I found it irritating and reader-unfriendly to read, say, 'Hitler and Stalin had three points in common', without enunciating what they were, but launching into the first point with lots of (interesting) asides, going on for -- sometimes -- pages, keeping you wondering what the second point might be, and then springing that upon the reader, who has to figure out that this is indeed the second point referred to many paragraphs ago, and still no sign of what the third point might be.
Also, too often, I read a sentence and didn't understand what it meant. So, I reread it, trying to figure out where the subject, the verb, and the object were, and mentally inserting missing commas and semi-colons. Sometimes that helped and sometimes I had to try again. Mostly that worked but sometimes I just gave up and moved on.
As I said: brilliant content but a good editor could improve its readability -- and get rid of 200 pages in the process.
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