The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia

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The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia by Richard Overy W. W. Norton * 2004 * 849 pages * $35.00

Throughout the 1930s the propaganda machines of the Nazi and Soviet regimes did all in their power to insist that they were ideological enemies, diametrically opposed to each other in every conceivable way. There were critics of totalitarianism who emphasized the similarities in the two systems, but theirs was a minority view among many intellectuals, especially on the political left, during the decades of the Cold War and after.

When the masterful and detailed study of twentieth-century communist regimes, The Black Book of Communism, was first published in France in the 1990s, for instance, one French leftist tried to rationalize the human cost of socialist tyranny by arguing: "Agreed, both Nazis and communists killed. But while the Nazis killed from hatred of humanity, the communists killed from love."

Nazis, it seems, had bad intentions and used bad methods. Communists, on the other hand, had good intentions-they loved their fellow man and wanted to create a Utopia for him-they just made an unfortunate error in selecting less-than-desirable means. Oh, well, back to the drawing board!

Richard Overy's recent work, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, is the most detailed and methodical study, so far, of what the two totalitarian regimes shared in common and in what ways they differed. Indeed, there are few aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural life in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that do not receive meticulous analysis from the author.

It is in the concluding chapter of the book that one discovers what Overy considers the most fundamental premises of the two regimes. Both the Nazis and the communists, he argues, were guided by the spirit of scientism: the misplaced application of the methods of the natural sciences to the arena of human life. Marxian socialists were convinced that they could deduce the "laws" of historical development that necessitated the inevitable triumph of "the workers" over their capitalist exploiters. In addition, they believed that once the revolution had been orchestrated, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" had the ability to remake man and transform society into a collectivist paradise.

The Nazis also believed in the power of science, but in their case it was a "racial science" that defined different human groups and their hierarchical relationships to each other. Through application of eugenics, a purified "master race" could be socially engineered, with "the Germans" being the superior breed meant to rule the world.

Communism and Nazism, therefore, were variations on the same collectivist theme, in which the individual and his identity as a person were determined by either his "class" or "race." Both were paranoid in their outlook on life. Nazis saw racial threats everywhere, in the form of inferior groups that could defile Germany's blood purity. Communists saw class enemies surrounding and threatening the existence of the Soviet workers' state. Vigilance at the borders and secret-police terror internally were essential for the regimes to preserve either the master race or the proletarian paradise.

Hitler and Stalin were convinced of their unique and irreplaceable roles in making history. …