Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin were ideological enemies, but when it came to destruction, they were a matched pair. Hitler killed millions in the course of his war to enslave Europe. Stalin killed millions of his own countrymen in his successful attempt to mould the fledgling
Soviet Union into a one-man tyranny. By making both dictators the focus of his new biography, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, the distinguished British historian Alan Bullock, 77, offers many crucial insights into the nature of evil. Bullock is a synthesizer who draws heavily on other scholars’ work. But he writes with such comprehensive knowledge and seductive insight that his book is certain to become a classic.
Bullock maintains that Hitler and Stalin were fully responsible for the havoc that they wrought. Other historians have argued that it was the Nazi and Communist systems that were to blame. But Bullock writes that the policies of both the Nazi and Soviet governments bore the unmistakable stamp of their
leaders’ personalities. Hitler and Stalin were ruthless egotists who cared little for anyone else. Bullock suggests that childhood abuse shaped Stalin: his father, a Georgian shoemaker, beat him regularly. And although there is no hard evidence that Hitler’s middle-class Austrian parents mistreated him, Bullock reports that his father was “authoritarian and selfish.” In any case, both men grew up nursing a profound sense of hatred and resentment. Stalin found an outlet for those feelings
as a Communist agitator, working in pre-revolutionary Russia to overthrow its czarist rulers. Hitler’s chosen enemies were the Jews and socialists. Like Stalin, he had a lifelong need for a scapegoat—some group he could characterize as subhuman and, as a result, disposable. Still, it seems clear that, as young men, Hitler and Stalin were probably not much different from many other bigoted misfits wandering the streets of Europe. They became dangerous only after they had achieved the power to carry out their fantasies. In his detailed, fascinating account of their rise to authority, Bullock shows how both men cleverly manipulated the existing order for their own ends. Hitler helped transform an obscure German workers organization into the Nazi party, and played the legitimate game of German electoral politics until he became
Stalin’s rise, through the ranks of the Soviet Union’s ruling Communist party, was much quieter. When Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the 1917 revolution, died in 1924, Stalin had accumulated enough influence to eventually outdistance his rivals for the leadership. Unlike Hitler, who loved the trappings of his position, Stalin lived simply—at times in a single-storey two-room house inside the Kremlin. Reported one eyewitness, Communist party stalwart Boris Bazhanov, in his memoirs: “He loves neither money nor pleasure, neither sport nor women.” What he did love was power, which he exercised
chancellor in 1933. His appeal was always directly to the public. Awkward with individuals, he had a rapturous rapport with crowds, and played brilliantly on their secret fears.
with consummate secrecy and stealth.
Stalin’s reshaping of the Soviet Union was brutal. He murdered, starved and imprisoned millions of peasants who resisted his program to move them onto collective farms. He also ordered the deaths of thousands of fellow Communists whose only crime was to disagree—or be suspected of disagreeing—with him. And his chronic suspicions of disloyalty reached new heights in 1937 and 1938, when he purged the Soviet military of thousands of its best officers. As a result, his armies collapsed when the Germans attacked in 1941.
Hitler’s early successes in the Second World War led him to believe that he was a military genius. Like Stalin, he would phone his generals in the middle of a battle and tell them what to do. But while Stalin eventually learned to leave his field commanders alone, Hitler never did. His often absurd orders led increasingly to disaster, including the loss of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in 1943.
Bullock concludes that although Stalin’s armies beat Hitler’s, it was the Soviet people who were the real losers. The Germans suffered terribly in defeat—but at least they got rid of Hitler. Stalin, increasingly paranoid, ruled the U.S.S.R. until his death in 1953. And for almost 40 years afterwards, the general fear and centralized authority that he instituted held the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in their lifestrangling grip. Hitler and Stalin is an unforgettable testimony to what twisted individuals can do to a society—if their own people lack the foresight to bar them from power.
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