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Good Overview and Comparison, But You'll Need a Dedicated Biography Of Each To Learn More
on 15 April 2014
What I found good about this book was the comparison between the two despots and the uncanny similarity of their background and upbringing. Although Alan Bullock does not make a judgement about who was the worst of the two, the reader can draw their own conclusions from the Author's inferences.
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.