As any Hollywood movie director
will testify, what terrifies tends also to fascinate.
On that basis alone, its small
wonder that more than a half-century after their deaths,
we continue to be so fascinated by Adolf Hitler and
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,
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
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
Hitlers Germany Stalins 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.
Hitlers Germany and Stalins
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
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
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.
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
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
Admirer as I am of Kris Kristofferson,
I know that freedom is much, much more than,
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.