Hitler or Stalin?

One shouldn’t judge a book by its review. Too many works in that genre say more about the book reviewer than the book reviewed.

Hence I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to the book Hitler and Stalin by Laurence Rees and assume it’s not as ignorant as Tony Rennell’s review of it. However, his ignorance is worth pointing out since he refries old chestnuts that still dominate popular diets.

Drawing parallels between Hitler and Stalin is a tricky business, and in today’s Russia such parallel lines converge in prison: finding anything in common between the Soviet Union and the USSR is treated as a capital offence.

Yet those outside the reach of Putin’s jurisprudence agree that both regimes were evil. However, the general tendency is to admit Hitler’s evil with eager alacrity, and Stalin’s with grudging reluctance.

Too many Western intellectuals accepted the underlying virtue of Bolshevism for too long not to have left a festering cultural legacy. Even now one hears university-educated people deploring Lenin’s and Stalin’s crimes, while suggesting that those gentlemen lamentably misread the essence of Marxism.

The embers of old love continue to glow, casting a pink tint on people’s feelings. Hence there’s a tendency to downplay Stalin’s crimes and ignore Lenin’s, while touting Hitler’s from every available rooftop.

As a result, noticeable today isn’t so much the banality of evil as the banality of writing about evil. The review in question is a prime example.

Writing about Germany’s war on Russia, Rennell proceeds from the version of history concocted by Stalin’s propagandists and still peddled not only in Russia but also in the West. Essential to it is the notion of Stalin seeking a lasting peace with Germany and signing the infamous Pact to that end, only to be tricked by a bellicose Hitler.

One old chestnut Rennell tosses on the grill is Stalin’s reaction to an intelligence report of Hitler’s impending attack. The report came from the Soviet agent at Luftwaffe HQ, Harro Schulze-Boysen, and reached Stalin courtesy of his State Security commissar Merkulov:

“Stalin not only refused to believe the information but was furious at the very suggestion that his precious agreement with Hitler would not hold. In reply, he scrawled across the note: ‘Tell your “source” that he can go f*** his mother.’ Five days later, Hitler’s armies crossed the border…”

There’s no harm in quoting this incident, and just about every book on this subject does so. However, many authors, including my today’s subject, use it as vindication of the aforementioned concept of history. This is a fallacy.

Schulze-Boysen’s was one of hundreds of such reports reaching Stalin’s desk every day. Most of them presented conflicting information either about the planned timing of Operation Barbarossa or even about Hitler’s intentions in general. Many others were outright SD deceptions, which Stalin knew (hence, after suggesting the oedipal act, he added: “He’s a disinformer, not a source.”)

Yet Stalin also knew it would be madness for Hitler to attack him. For, rather than craving peace, Stalin had been preparing for war. Since the early 1930s every sinew of his vast country had been stretched to breaking point by feverish militarisation.

Practically the whole Soviet industry was dedicated to that end, with factories working in a wartime three-shift mode (24/7 in today’s idiom) since 1932 – something Germany didn’t start doing until 10 years later, three years into the war. Military equipment was rolling off the assembly lines in volumes exceeding not only Germany’s but the whole world’s.

Rennell is clearly unfamiliar with the non-Stalinist, which is to say real, scholarship on this subject. For Stalin was preparing a massive attack on Germany, and it was only a question of the most propitious moment to push the button.

By 22 June, 1941, the Soviets had completed a secret mobilisation and amassed a vast force at the border. The movement of troops and materiel had been mostly done at night, with large units hiding in forests.

The unprecedented armament programme gave Stalin a huge superiority in both equipment and numerical strength. His air force outnumbered the Luftwaffe at least 3:1, with Soviet planes at least matching their German analogues in quality. Stalin’s tank force outnumbered the Nazis 7:1 (4:1 in the border areas), with the KV and T-34 tanks infinitely superior to anything Germany had until late 1942. Soviet artillery was mostly of 1930s vintage, whereas the Germans relied on WWI models. And so on, so forth.

That impoverished, starving, enslaved country had been forced to deliver such riches for one purpose only: conquest of Europe. The Red juggernaut was ready to roll, and it was only on the planned kick-off date that serious historians disagree. Some think Hitler preempted Stalin’s attack by a couple of months, others favour a couple of weeks – some even a single day.

Stalin’s plan was to wait until the Nazis got bogged down in European trench warfare, similar to the bloodbath of WWI. Thus he was disappointed that France had collapsed so quickly.

Stalin’s next hope was that the Germans would invade Britain, leaving their back bare to a Soviet thrust. However, those hopes were dashed in 1940 by the 800-odd heroic RAF pilots who denied the Germans air superiority essential for a large-scale amphibious landing.

Nevertheless Stalin had to act: the Soviet war machine had gathered full momentum and it could no longer be stopped. Nor did Stalin intend to – he just hoped he could strike at his leisure because no one, not even Hitler, would be so mad as to attack in the face of the overwhelming Soviet superiority in every conceivable category.

Yet in this aspect at least Hitler was perfectly rational. Like every German past age five, he knew the dangers of a two-front war. However, he also knew he had no choice – precisely because neither Stalin’s strength nor his intentions were any longer a secret. So Hitler closed his eyes and swung with all his force.

I’ve taken more space than Rennell did to outline the situation to emphasise the ignorance and vulgarity of those who still insist that Stalin craved peace and relied on his pact with the Nazis to achieve it. The war was a clash of two equally evil aggressive forces, and it was only a matter of days who would strike first.

Yes, Hitler and Stalin were equally evil, but only in the metaphysical sense. A burglar who butchers a sleeping family is as evil as a dictator who murders thousands, and it’s crass to discuss the essence of evil in numerical terms.

However, the essence of evil is a subject for a theologian or a philosopher. To a theologian, the difference between a murderer of 1,000 and a murderer of 1,000,000 is immaterial. To an historian (not to mention the balance of 999,000) it’s important.

That’s where the residual affection for red, as opposed to brown, socialism comes into play, including conspicuously in Rennell’s review. To wit:

“Rees calculates that at least 13 million deaths can be laid at Stalin’s door – those who died from ethnic cleansing or deliberate famine in places such as the Ukraine, or as political prisoners in the gulag, or simply shot in the purges. 

“Rees’s equivalent figure for Hitler’s regime is much higher – 20 million deaths, of which the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust are well known but to which should be added huge swathes of captured Soviet soldiers and overrun civilians who were left to perish.”

If it’s true that these numbers come from Rees, I exculpated him too hastily. For the Soviet death toll of 13 million was reached, probably even exceeded, on Lenin’s watch (d. 1924). By the most reliable calculations I’ve ever seen (notably those presented in Prof. Rummel’s books Lethal Politics and Murder by Government), Stalin ran up that score to 61 million.

Talking about Stalin’s ethnic cleansing, Rennell bizarrely singles out just one group: “… the Kalmyks, an ancient Mongol people from the Russian steppes, the entire population of whom were hunted down in 1943 and deported, in unheated cattle trucks, to the Siberian wastelands. Tens of thousands died.”

What about the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles ethnically cleansed in the 1930s-1940s? Similar numbers of ethnic Germans, Chechens, Kabardians, Balkars, Bashkirs, Crimean Tartars? Why just mention the 13,000 Kalmyks? To keep the overall score down?

Also, comparing the numbers of Hitler’s and Stalin’s victims is only valid if the same methodology is applied to both. Otherwise an innocent reader might assume that Hitler’s crimes of “huge swathes of captured Soviet soldiers and overrun civilians who were left to perish” were unmatched by Stalin.

Many Soviet POWs indeed died in Nazi captivity. One reason was logistic: by the time the brutal winter of 1941 came the Nazis had taken over four million Soviet prisoners, many of them emaciated or wounded. Providing food, shelter and medical help for all of them would have been impossible even had the Nazis wished to do so. (My father was one of those who miraculously survived.)

The other reason was, well, Stalin. He refused to sign the Geneva Convention, leaving even the surviving prisoners without any help from the Red Cross or other international organisations. According to Stalin, every Soviet soldier taken prisoner was a traitor who deserved death. In fact, during those first catastrophic months the Red Air Force was known to strafe the camps where Soviet POWs were kept.

Still, whatever the circumstances, the Nazis’ brutality was an ever-present factor. However, the implication seems to be that no German POWs died in Soviet captivity, which is false. In fact, 1,094,250 did so.

As to the “overrun civilians who were left to perish”, Stalin’s score in that rubric was at least equal to Hitler’s and ran into millions. Again, there exists extensive scholarship on this subject, and anyone who broaches this subject without being familiar with it is a charlatan. Neither Rennell nor, possibly, Rees seems to boast such erudition.

But one can’t argue with their overall conclusion: both Stalin and Hitler were indeed nasty individuals. However, if that’s all a book, or even an article, leaves the reader with, then why was it written?  

12 thoughts on “Hitler or Stalin?”

  1. “the general tendency is to admit Hitler’s evil with eager alacrity, and Stalin’s with grudging reluctance.”

    Exactly so. Stalin seen as bad but that he and the communist leaders WANTED to do well. They had high motivations but their methods were bad. Not evil but bad. Hitler? Utterly evil and EVERYONE must agree he was so.l

    1. If has been suggested too that the German is part of civilized Christian western society with all that means and should have behaved better and knew how to do better but just did not.

      The Russian [Soviet] by contrast is not part of civilized Christian western society and cannot be expected to behave better.

      I neither say yea or nay. I merely repeat what others have said.

      1. The same logic applies to black lives. When the odd one is taken by a policeman, progressives are up in arms. When millions are lost to tribal massacres in Africa, the same people just shrug and say things like ‘well, what do you expect?’. That to me is truly racist in that the blacks are thereby dehumanised, absolved of any need, or indeed ability, to make moral choices. Thus there was much more hue and cry n the West about South Africa, where very few people died, than about Burundi and Rwanda, where millions perished. Yes, but the whites ought to know better, was the usual, racist, line.

  2. A delicate issue for sure.

    Perhaps the disparity is due to the fact that many who are staunchly opposed to communism begin to, ever so slightly, soften their stance towards Nazi Germany, it’s a difficult balancing act. Later intellectuals observe, say, Patrick Buchanan, and decide to permanently consign the Soviet Union generally, and Stalin specifically to a lower (higher?) rung of evil. I mean, if you had to choose, who’s life would you rather have: David Irving’s or that of the late Eric Hobsbawm?

    Without wishing to wax determinist, it really does seem as if the Third Reich was doomed from the start. Perhaps they should have tried to present a friendlier face to the Anglosphere in the run up to war? But if everyone knows that you hate everyone (if to varying degrees) who is not Germanic it’s always going to be a hard sell. Which is way they aligned themselves with what I presume they saw as degenerate Latins and the soulless Japanese. The latter of whom created a situation in which Hitler was obligated to declare war on the US of A for God’s sake!

    Perhaps there is an element of racism in the Western intellectual who soft peddles Soviet nastiness, echoing Marx’s view of “barbarous Russia” as in “what does one expect from a bunch of Slavs?”

    1. Eric Hobsbawm was on the advisory board of the publishing house that brought out my first book. The publisher wanted us to meet, but I told him I’d refuse to shake Hobsbawm’s hand. I would have given the same answer if it had been Irving. But you are right: national socialism by definition has a narrower appeal than the international variety. And of course the predominantly left-wing Western intelligentsia saw the Bolsheviks as soul mates, albeit at times slightly too muscular ones. The wanted to be seduced en masse, and both Lenin and Stalin obliged. Hence Comintern, the greatest incubator of useful idiots in history, and its various successors in different guises. Since Western intelligentsia remain predominantly left-wing, they simply can’t equate Stalin and Hitler, whom they mistakenly regard as right-wing.

  3. A puzzle: if the Soviet forces were massed near the border and (almost) ready to strike, why did the German onslaught succeed so massively? Is disorganisation a sufficient explanation?

    1. Simple answer: the Soviet army didn’t want to fight for Stalin. Notable exceptions apart, millions either deserted or willingly went into captivity. About 1.5 million switched sides – the first such massive event in history. (For example, in the 1812 war not one Russian soldier put on a French uniform. This, though the Russian army was an army of serfs.) The morale was restored by terrorism on both sides: Stalin’s against his own soldiers (officially, 157,000 were executed by their own side — multiply that by at least three to get the real number) and their families, and Hitler’s against the occupied population. And yes, disorganisation was also a factor. For example, the Soviets had an abundance of planes but a severe shortage of fuelling trucks. Also in short supply were qualified commanders on every level, from NCO to marshal. Also… well, a whole literature on the subject exists.

    1. You give Rennell the benefit of the doubt by suggesting that he is unfamiliar with the non-Stalinist historiography that sees Hitler’s invasion of the USSR as preemptive of Stalin’s planned attack on Germany. Rennell may well know about the scholarship of Viktor Suvorov and others, but for reasons of political correctness be unwilling to give it any credence. Even German historians today seem to feel
      a social pressure to reject that historiography.

      1. Witness the fact that Hoffmann’s book Stalin’s War of Annihilation didn’t do down well in Germany. Suvorov popularaised the issue, but it has been, for all scholarly purposes, turned into irrefutable fact by the extensively researched works by other Russian historians, especially Mark Solonin.

        1. Thank you for the reference to Mark Solonin, whom I did not know of. I do know of Joachim Hoffman’s book, and Viktor Suvorov’s translated works, Icebreaker and his more recent The Chief Culprit: Stalin’s Grand Design to Start World War II. Suvorov, as you point out, is not a professional historian, and critics have dismissed his historical judgments for that reason alone. They would not be able to employ that line of lazy argument against Solonin. But because Solonin’s writings have apparently not been translated, English and American historians who do not read Russian have a ready-made excuse for simply ignoring his work.

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