The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany Stalin’s Russia
by Richard Overy

Book Review

‘Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone’s right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to those peculiarities.’
Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, p. 230

David Adams

As any Hollywood movie director will testify, what terrifies tends also to fascinate.

On that basis alone, it’s small wonder that more than a half-century after their deaths, we continue to be so fascinated by Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

Both men sat at the very epicentre of regimes that practised murder, brutality and repression on an almost industrial (and barely imaginable) scale.

Yet neither regime did so for its own sake, but in pursuit of two ill-defined, very different, and what in hindsight seems barely credible, utopian goals.

Therefore, in terms of potential for dreadful fascination, Stalin and Hitler go way beyond anything that could be rendered to celluloid in Hollywood or anywhere else: their names are synonymous with genuine terror and real fear.

And that is excatly how history should record them.

But, tempting though it may be, it is a mistake to concentrate only on those two individuals and their closest admirers and supporters in any effort to understand the phenomenon of totalitarian dictatorships as they manifested in Russia and Germany.

Self-evidently, Stalin and Hitler and their various coteries were a large part of the story but they were, nonetheless, only a part.

In his book, The Dictators – Hitler’s Germany Stalin’s Russia, historian Richard Overy tries to paint as complete a picture as is possible, at this time and from this distance, of those two dictatorships in their entirety.

He also, more importantly in my view, looks to explore the actual phenomenon of dictatorship itself and the various dynamics of history, politics, economics, racism, bigotry, cults of personality, utopian dreams and promises, perpetual crises and paranoia and the relationships between rulers and ruled that all help to create and sustain such regimes.

Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia to a large extent, just happen to be the best and most obvious examples of the subject matter.

And what a frighteningly fine job Mr. Overy does.

(A cautionary note: As the author points out in his introduction, he does not bog himself or the reader down in unnecessary detail on foreign policy or military tactics, those, for the most part, are peripheral to the subject matter itself. However, as there are many casual references that presume knowledge of individuals and events, for wider reading on the subject I would recommend to the reader the following books: Hitler, Hubris and Hitler, Nemesis by Ian Kershaw; The Third Reich: A New History, by Michael Burleigh; Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps by Anne Applebaum; and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore)

How could National Socialism and Communism manoeuvre themselves into positions where, in both Germany and Russia within a relatively short time-scale, the state and the party became indistinguishable from one another?

A position that allowed for the full police and security apparatus (and virtually every other aspect) of the state to be placed at the murderous disposal of a political party or movement.

How could so many people not be aware of what was going on, of what was being done to their former friends and neighbours?

The unpalatable truth is that many, many, people believed in and supported the utopian fantasies outlined by the Communists and the National Socialists and supported the ascendancy and remaining in power of those two regimes.

And that many, many, people - far from not knowing what was happening - acquiesced in the ostracising, repression, torture, deportation and murder of their neighbours and erstwhile friends.

Inside both Germany and Russia, the vast majority of unfortunates who fell into the clutches of the security services did so because their neighbours had denounced them.

Both German and Russian recorded statistics make clear, that in only a tiny percentage of cases did members of the populace not draw the initial attention of police and security personnel to the individuals and families who fell into their clutches.

That is not to propagate the notion that somehow the security apparatuses were entirely, or even largely, reacting to the wishes of the public rather than their own twisted notions of racial and/or political purity.

But rather to point out the interdependent nature of the relationship that developed between those who represented the state/party orthodoxy and those who felt part of, and wanted to be recognised as belonging to, that same orthodoxy.

As Stalin himself said, during an interview in 1932: “ Do you really believe that we could have retained power and have had the backing of the vast masses for fourteen years by methods of intimidation and terrorisation?”

The multifarious relationships between the rulers, their fanatical supporters, the acquiescent, the opportunists, opponents of the regimes and the victims is complex, fascinating and heart-rending.

It is comfortingly convenient for us to believe that Hitler and/or Stalin must have been suffering from some mental disorder.

Not so.

While neither man was someone you might look to socialise with, by the same token, neither was in any way certifiably insane.

Nor should we fool ourselves into believing that somehow the German and Russian peoples are more genetically inclined towards totalitarianism and less tolerant of difference than the rest of us.

Again this notion avoids harsh truths about the base nature of humanity.

For many people, the almost gravitational pull of scapegoating and bias; the hunger for absolute uniformity; and a yearning for the messiah who can deliver a Utopian Promised Land, can prove irresistible.

Problems arise, as in Russia and Germany, when a variety of socio/political/economic/historical and other factors conspire to create conditions where normal constraints on those base gravitational pulls are not only removed but the dangerous and destructive tendencies that are unleashed are actually nurtured, encouraged and employed.

When the critical mass within any society moves in that direction, abnormality, quite literally, becomes the norm – and most people will gravitate towards whatever happens to be the norm.

We should never underestimate the ability of mankind, given the wrong conditions, to suspend individual rationality and belief.

Nor disregard an instinctive desire that resides somewhere in all of us: that is, to be part of the prevailing orthodoxy – no matter what that orthodoxy may entail.
It is a desire that, more often than not, must be resisted at all costs.

Above all, I think, this book is a timely reminder of the absolute necessity for us never to relax our guard.

Advances in terms of science and technology in the decades since Hitler and Stalin have been enormous.

But even a casual glance at the present world situation is enough to indicate that we have advanced very little (if at all) in terms of human relationships and, in particular, towards controlling our tendencies towards domination.

Given the wrong set of conditions, the phenomenon of dictatorship could, on a greater or lesser scale than Germany or Russia, be replicated just about anywhere in the world.

This book is a ‘must read’ for those who value individual freedom and, in a little display of totalitarianism myself, should be obligatory reading for those who might be tempted by one of the many little utopian totalitarians-in-waiting amongst us today.

Admirer as I am of Kris Kristofferson, I know that freedom is much, much more than, “…just another word for, nothing left to lose.”

Instead I incline entirely towards the sentiment expressed by Adlai Stevenson in Detroit in 1952 when he stated that: “A free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

5 July 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Can You Hear Ho Chi Minh Laughing?
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain

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

On Whose Side: Stakeknife
Mick Hall

Dogs and Lampposts
Anthony McIntyre

Towards a Republican Agenda for Scotland
Seamus Reader

30 June 2004

Flying the Flag
Dolours Price

The Police Process
Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA Prisoner Left "High and Dry"
Sean Mc Aughey

James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland
Liam O Ruairc

Venezuela 2004: Nicaragua's Contra War Revisited
Toni Solo


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