Nazism and Stalinism: Ian Thatcher Argues That Surface Similarities between the Regimes of Hitler and Stalin Disguise Deep-Seated Differences. (Talking Points)

By Thatcher, Ian | History Review, March 2003 | Go to article overview

Nazism and Stalinism: Ian Thatcher Argues That Surface Similarities between the Regimes of Hitler and Stalin Disguise Deep-Seated Differences. (Talking Points)


Thatcher, Ian, History Review


Commentators have been struck by the similarity of the seemingly irreconcilable regimes of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia since the 1930s. Leon Trotsky, a fierce opponent of both systems, argued that there was little to separate Stalin from Hitler in their preference for lies and oppression as the main means to assert political control. This viewpoint was brilliantly and wittily expressed in a contemporary cartoon by David Low, whose political satires were published in the British newspaper The Evening Standard. Low has Joseph Stalin sitting behind a desk in the Kremlin, clipping his moustache in the style of one Adolf Hitler, after having done a similar makeover on his hair. Behind him, to emphasise the metamorphosis, is a large painting of the Stalin of old. Other images in the cartoon highlight what unites the regimes headed by Hitler and Stalin, chiefly the pile of execution orders waiting to be signed and the map of a large and menacing USSR. The ultimate sign of similarity between the two regimes, the clue to an almost family-like resemblance, however, is the portrait of Hitler on Stalin's desk, an honour normally reserved for our loved ones.

The notion that Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia were basically similar informed much of post-1945 scholarship. Most notably, the `totalitarian school', whose key exponents included Hannah Arendt and Leonard Schapiro, classified the Nazi and Stalin regimes as being equally `totalitarian'. Indeed, there is an immediate and basic appeal to the case for similarity. After all, Hitler and Stalin presided over regimes that were anti-democratic, violent, one-party systems employing a mixture of terror and propaganda to maintain themselves in power.

This essay, in contrast to the above wisdom, will argue that the `similarity' argument is misconceived. There were more dissimilarities than similarities: more separated the regimes than united them. This is not to deny the similarities, which will also be pointed out here. Yet a comparison based on the six areas examinee] below--politics, war and terror, economy, popular participation and society, art and culture, and the regimes in retrospect--will show that the case for dissimilarity is convincing.

Politics

The most striking similarity in the political make-up of both systems was the role of the leader, Hitler in Germany and Stalin in Russia. So great was the leader's influence that historians often find it difficult to separate the system from the man, referring simply to Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. The similarities do not end here. If both systems were headed by one man, they were also dominated by one party--the Nazi party in one, the Communist party of the Soviet Union in the other. Both were also driven by an ideology, fascism or communism. There were, however, immense differences in how these surface similarities actually worked in practice.

In Nazi Germany the status of the Hitler cult was far more consequential. In a sense the Hitler cult was Nazism. It is hard to imagine the Nazi Party without the Fuhrer, whose personality impressed itself upon the movement that supported him. It has been pointed out, for example, that Nazism's irrationality, its inability to reproduce itself in a systematic fashion, flowed from Hitler's style of leadership. He was completely non-bureaucratic in that he avoided established and agreed patterns and procedures for work. When asked how a party member should progress up the ladder to become, say, a regional chief, Hitler answered that the individual should show his suitability by simply seizing the post, i.e. by proving himself in action. In this way Hitler expected an amorphous Nazi movement to throw up by a process of natural selection those most worthy of loyalty to the Fuhrer. He hated the detail of bureaucratic practices, preferring to avoid the minutiae of daily political life.

The Hitler regime therefore lacked a rational order; it was, in the words of its leading student, `systemless'. …

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