Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe Hardcover – 14 Aug 2007
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Nazi terror was totally different from the Bolshevik variety. Practically anyone could be victimized in Lenin and Stalin's Soviet Union, even old-time Communists: Stalin killed most of them in his successive Terrors. Not in Hitler's Germany: there, only unpopular outsider groups were reppressed, like Communists (whom even the Socialists were happy to see in concentration camps), gypsies, homosexuals and of course Jews. Only in its final winter did Nazism really exhibit its nihilistic face in Germany itself, as portrayed in Eric Johnson's "Nazi Terror: The Gestapo, Jews and Ordinary Germans". However, once the Germans started to carve their empire they began to show what they had in store for the rest of humanity: First in Austria (where many of the most brutal SS officers came, like Adolf Eichmann or Odilo Globocknick), then in the Sudeten, next in Czechia, in Poland, in Yugoslavia and Greece, and finally the Soviet Union, each time behaving more brutally. The dead are prominent characters in Gellately's book, as Lenin, Stalin and Hitler blithely consigned to banishment or horrible death ten thousand here, fifty thousand there, for page upon page upon page of this long book. The cumulative effect is sickening.
But Gellately also has a keen eye for the memorable detail. Here a few notable tidbits:
- Hitler never received funds from big business until after he was in power.
- Colonel Stauffenberg, who in 1944 tried to kill the Führer with a bomb, in 1933, as young lieutenant, was so overcome with joy when Hitler became Chancellor that he led an impromptu celebration march in Bamberg. When he was executed as a traitor, a relative was shocked, since the Colonel was the only real Nazi in the family.
- The German law that legalized sterilization (the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases) was cribbed from the California sterilization act of 1909.
- When in 1939 Germany and its ally the Soviet Union invaded Poland, the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths 3 or 4 times as many people as the Nazis, even though the territory they occupied only held a population half the size of the Germans'.
- Here is a chilling phrase from Stalin, indicating the fate of the Baltic upper classes after the Soviet invasion in 1939: "Comrade Beria will take care of the accommodations of our Baltic Guests".
- Hitler's favorite photographer, Hoffman, apparently knew of German military plans, since from 1940 onwards he showed photographs of the countries the Nazis intended to invade before the invasions happened. I thought: that's amazing.
- Perhaps the most horrible image in the book to this reader is narrated by a woman in Saint Petersburg during the 900-day siege, when people where so hungry they would eat anything. In April 1942 she saw a corpse with a backpack huddled against a lamppost. She saw it for several weeks, as first the backpack, then the clothes, then the underclothes disappeared, and eventually the flesh and entrails of the corpse, skeletonized.
- Himmler's 1943 operation to kill the Jews at the camp in Majdanek was named "Operation Harvest Festival".
- Hitler thought Mussolini was a pussy and that only Stalin and he were "World historical figures". Stalin apparently agreed.
- Harriman, Roosevelt's envoy to Moscow, thought Stalin was better informed than Roosevelt, more realistic than Churchill: he regarded him as the most inscrutable and contradictory character he ever met.
- The proposal that the Soviet Union keep the parts of Poland it occupied since September 1939 and that Poland be indemnified with parts of Germany was Churchill's. Stalin concurred.
- Beria was shocked when he heard, through telephone interception, that Roosevelt thought both Stalin and Churchill similarly untrustworthy.
- When the Red Army soldiers went into Germany, they couldn't understand why the Germans, so rich, had invaded them "what could they have wanted that we might have had", they asked. And so on, and so on.
Virtually every page is filled with similar juicy data. That is history as it ought to be written.
I've read many history books this year. The only one I enjoyed as much as this one is Tim Blanning's "The Pursuit of Glory", which is one of my top three history reads, along with McCullough's "Reformation" and Beevor's "Berlin". I have purchased Gellately's "Backing Hitler", which I hope to enjoy as much as "Lenin, Stalin and Hitler". I thank my stars that I didn't have to live in those countries, through those times, but am glad that Gellately is around to tell me what they were like.
One of the themes of the book is the degree to which Soviet communism drove the rise of Nazism. Gellately argues strongly that Hitler could never have gained power without the threat and example of Russian revolutionary terror. The various attempts in 1918-1920 to launch a Bolshevik revolution in Germany all failed disastrously, but combined with the nearby presence of a Soviet Union spouting world revolutionary rhetoric, they caused many to look in alarm for strong anti-communist leaders. This quest returned in force with the great depression and the perceived failure of the Weimar democracy. And, fatefully, in order to combat the feared Red Menace, many seemed to believe that aping its ruthless methods was both legitimate and necessary.
Gellately also explores how Hitler linked Judaism and Bolshevism, so that the threat to Germany became the "Bolshevik Jews". This wasn't a particularly obvious linkage, but Hitler somehow managed to create a mythical "Jewish Bolshevism" that bizarrely combined the alleged Jewish masterminds of Wall Street and Moscow into a single threat against the German race. This phantasm served Hitler well, as a single scapegoat for all of Germany's ills, but left the Jews doubly exposed.
Gellately highlights the very different relationships the Soviet and Nazi systems had with the mass of the populace. Lenin and Stalin saw themselves as having a quasi-divine Marxist mandate which had no need of popular endorsement and which entitled them to ruthlessly impose their policies on a reluctant people. In contrast, Gellately characterizes the Nazis as a "dictatorship by consent". The Nazis held absolute power, but they sought the genuine support of the masses, not simply their obedience. To a very large extent they obtained it. Even hostile sources, such as socialist undercover reporters, agreed that throughout the 30s there was genuine widespread and enthusiastic support for the regime and its policies. While the Nazis suppressed all opposing views, they also carefully built support for their own policies and were quick to adjust or even reverse positions that seemed unpopular. Gellately argues that provided the regime was delivering economic stability and expansionist successes, the population was willing to actively support it.
The bulk of the book focuses on the details of the repressive machinery (from gulags to death camps to specific massacres) continually re-emphasizing that these were driven by systematic strategies originating at the very hearts of the two systems. This makes for grim reading, but valuable history.
1) What were some of the major reasons why Hitler particularly hated the Jews? What did he have against them, other than mere xenophobia (fear of difference/strangers)?
2) How did the German people allow such a monster to get into power in the first place?
Another, less well-known but very important question may be asked:
3) What role did Soviet Communism play in the rise and decline of Nazism, and to European history in general in the first half of the 20th century?
To find answers to the first question one needs to understand Germany's situation after WW1. In Hitler's, and many other German's minds, Germany in the 1920s was being destroyed by both internationally exploitative capitalism (eg war reparations), and subversive, perverted, communist- Bolshevism. In Hitler's mind, both were designed, and orchestrated by,' international Jewry', ultimately for world domination. The German (Communist) Revolution of 1918-19, which Hitler witnessed, and, as he said, swore an oath to destroy, was a major formative factor in Hitler's mind. (And the underlying reason for his war against Russia 22 years later). He saw the great enemy of Germany, as subversive Bolshevism, which he also saw as run by Jews, as a race, which in his mind, were always attempting to undermine a nation's strength through conspiracies such as communism; therefore, in his mind, they had to be totally destroyed as a race; women and children and men together. Auschwitz therefore, was a direct result of this perverted thinking, largely formed upon witnessing communist subversions in Munich in 1918-19, and strengthened through the 1920s by Germanys economic woes as a result of the hated Treaty of Versailles (whom he also blamed on Jews). Stalingrad, was the other result. Lebensraum (living space for Germans) was a minor reason for Stalingrad, (but a major reason for the invasion/occupation of Poland, Check Republic, etc). The threat of communism destroying German national identity was a major reason for WW2, at least in Hitler's mind, and also Auschwitz, because in Hitler's mind the Jews designed Bolshevism to destroy German (and European) identity, and were also supposedly pulling all the strings in both Britain and the USA later on in WW2, specifically to destroy Germany (an example of `lumping paranoia'-every negatively perceived issue/force is blamed on a single entity). Hitler kept repeating these kinds of words right up until the end of WW2.
The second question (how did Hitler get into power in the first place) may be summed up thus: many ordinary German people saw the Nazi party as the only real bulwark against the hated and feared, extremely subversive, Soviet-controlled, Bolshevic-communist movement. The Nazi party also brought with it a renewal of national will and identity, which did facilitate social order and a rise in productivity and employment. This occurred during/after the Great Depression, another major economic factor which saw extremism flourish. People were willing to let the law get very lax, particularly against the communists in general, as in the erosion of civil rights after the Reichstag fire (blamed on communists). Hatred of Jews was tied up with this thinking, partially because the Jews were supposedly responsible for Bolshevism in the first place (despite eg neither Lenin nor Stalin being Jewish), and most/all economic woes. It was the fear and hatred of subversive communism, devised by corrupt political revolutionaries (eg Lenin in 1900-20s), combined with very unfavourable economic conditions brought about by both War Reparations and the Great Depression, which, within a WW1-trained soldiers' and bureaucrat sons' tendency to lump both ideas and people together , and to solve problems by fighting and sweeping arm waving, ultimately led to the tragedies of Auschwitz and Stalingrad.
The same sort of post-WW1 pattern occurred in fascist Italy and Spain, and in a different, but related form, in Soviet Russia. The real danger here, is the erosion of individual rights and liberties through political ideology. Lenin and Stalin saw any individual as expendable for the benefit of the State, regardless of innocence or guilt; whilst Hitler saw any non-German as expendable, also regardless of innocence or guilt. (German Jews, and gypsys etc weren't considered `German', and homosexuals and handicapped people weren't considered racially acceptable). Both regimes killed millions of totally innocent people as a result. And both ideologies were spectacularly dismal failures, in relation to their stated goals. (One reason why we should keep international human values (e.g. ethics), science and journalism (i.e. keeping in touch with reality, rather than political ideology), and respect to the process of law as our most valuable and precious possessions. The alternative is the expendability of the individual, including you and me, for no other reason except a particular psychopath's individual delusions).
As to the 3rd question above (Soviet influence up to, during, and after WW2), the book contains a lot more information on the `Eastern Front' than many other early 20th century, WW1 and WW2 histories, and what one finds surprising is how these 2 ideologies of (Nazism/Fascism and Communism) operated in tandem, fed off each other, and mutually tried to destroy each other, at various times. The two ideologies share a lot of common ground in human psychology, and they played a major role in defining Europe's 20th century history and identity; in Soviet Russia's and Eastern Europe's case, right up until the 1990s.
An excellent analysis, that answered many questions for me. With regards to interpretation, there are numerous direct quotes from Hitler, Lenin and Stalin etc themselves, making it clear what they really were thinking. Worth the effort, if you can stomach one negative story after another in the early 20th Century, which is one criticism. (A bit more positive history somewhere in there wouldn't have gone astray!).
The years between 1914 and 1945 witnessed World War I, the Russian revolution and the triumph of Bolshevism, the Great Depression, the dictatorships of the Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, World War II, the genocide of the Holocaust, and the construction of the Gulag.
While the brutalities of Stalin and Hitler are well known, Gellately points out that a key figure is often neglected or minimized in the chronicle of European barbarism: Vladimir Illych Ulyanov, a.k.a. Lenin.
In his famous speech in 1956, which renounced the atrocities of Stalin and signaled a "thaw" in the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev claimed that "the bad Stalin" had corrupted "the good Lenin."
"Khrushchev trotted out the myth of Lenin the noble and good," writes Gellately, "to save the 'inner truths' of Communism from association with what were belatedly recognized as 'Stalinist evils."
This myth of the noble and good Lenin, claims Gellately, no longer convinces. Documents from the newly opened Russian archives make abundantly clear that Lenin was the most extreme of the radicals, the leader who pressed for terror as much as, and probably more, than anyone. Far from perverting or undermining Lenin's legacy, as is sometimes assumed, Stalin was Lenin's logical heir.
Gellately began this work as a study of the conflicting ideologies of Communism and Nazism and the murderous rivalries of Stalin and Hitler. At first, he didn't include Lenin as a major figure. As he conducted his research, however, and tried to reconstruct the events leading up to World War II, he began to see that much of what he wanted to say was inexorably leading back to Lenin and the beginnings of the Soviet dictatorship.
"My book deviates from the standard appraisal," he writes, "by giving significant attention to Lenin and by putting the story in proper chronological sequence." Lenin was, says Gellately, "a heartless and ambitious individual who was self-righteous in claiming to know what was good for 'humanity,' brutal in his attempt to subject his own people to radical social transformation, and convinced he held the key to the eventual overthrow of global capitalism and the establishment of world Communism."
Lenin and Stalin were not alone in their utopian visions which turned Europe into a dystopia. Adolf Hitler offered his followers a "Social Darwinism," a pseudo-scientific philosophy emphasizing a brutal will to power, He preached that the historical mission of the "Aryan master race" (Germanic peoples) was to exterminate "inferior races," which he referred to as "sub-humans," "parasites," "vermin," and "trash."
The brunt of Hitler's wrath was directed against the Jews, who, he ranted, were responsible for the cowardly "stab in the back" at the end of World War I, and who, he raved, were the sinister instigators of Bolshevism.
Although Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler includes highlights of military action during the Second World War, the lion's share of the book deals with social and political developments in the Soviet Union and Germany, and especially with the suffering and death of untold millions of people in the labor camps of the Russian Gulag and the death camps of Nazi Germany.
Gellately shows how the Holocaust was, and remains, unprecedented. It was (Gellately here quotes Professor Omer Bartov of Brown University) "the industrial killing of millions of human beings in factories of death ordered by a modern state, organized by a conscientious bureaucracy, and supported by a law-abiding, patriotic, 'civilized' society."
In the Epilogue, Gellately writes, "This book is an attempt to record the evils perpetrated by both Soviet Communism and German Nazism and to figure out how it came about that, separately and together, the two systems brought such misery and destruction to the world."
The Roman playwright Plautus (c. 250 B.C.) wrote, "Lupus est homo homini" ("Man is a wolf to man"). If anyone doubts the truth of this aphorism, he or she should read Gellately's disturbing volume.
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