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Iron rulers, worlds apart

The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Richard Overy, W.W. Norton: 850 pp., $35

September 12, 2004|John Lukacs | John Lukacs is a historian and the author of many books, including "The Hitler of History."

"The Dictators" of Richard Overy's new book are Hitler and Stalin. There is some trouble with the very title. "Every South American popinjay can be a dictator," Hitler is said to have remarked. "I am not a dictator." Dictators are petty tyrants, dependent on small coteries supporting them by force. Hitler was a leader not of a determined minority but of a majority and often declared that "we National Socialists are true democrats." There was at least some truth in that, alas.

Another problem is the structure of this book: Overy's treatment of the Hitler-Stalin parallel. His statement in the book's introduction is cogent: "Comparison is not the same as equivalence." Still, the structure of this massive book, in chapter after chapter, consists of parallels. "The Dictators" -- whole series of books could be constructed along such parallels. Mussolini and Peron? Ho Chi Minh and Mao Tse-tung? Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein? And so on.

In any event, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were very different men. Their system of rule was different too, mainly because Germans and Russians are different. Overy is a learned historian; on occasion his comparisons show considerable insight (as, for example: "Stalin needed the state in order to control the party; Hitler needed the party in order to control the state"). Yet others are often wanting: "The totality of the German system was certainly the greater of the two." Certainly? Party membership during the Third Reich was not a prerequisite for the career of many important people, but in the Soviet Union it was.

Overy is often wrong about Hitler. He claims that "Hitler's world view had a profound economic core." To the contrary, Hitler's dismissal of standard economic arguments and categories was his strength. Overy states that for Hitler "the predominant historical reality was always 'the nation's struggle for existence' against other races." This is too simple. Hitler sent his Germans to fight and conquer other Nordic peoples, such as Norwegians and Britons, while he willingly accepted Japanese, Romanians, Italians, on occasion, Arabs, etc., as his allies. There are also multiple evidences of Hitler privately dismissing and even ridiculing the racialist theorizing of some of his cohorts. Hitler's "few private remarks on Christianity betray a profound contempt and indifference," Overy observes. Contempt, perhaps (and indeed rarely so); indifference, almost never. And "it was so much more difficult to export Hitlerism to Eastern Europe than Stalinism." To Russia, perhaps; to Eastern Europe, the opposite is true. And "There were almost one-and-a-half million immigrants of German descent living within the Soviet Union." Of German origin, yes; immigrants, no.

"The Dictators" is a better work than Alan Bullock's "Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives" (1992), which is wholly unsatisfactory. Still, one very essential element is missing in both of these books. Neither of them deals with what is, and must be, the most interesting and telling element: the actual relations of Hitler and Stalin. How did they regard each other; what did they see and esteem in each other? Unlike Bullock, Overy touches on their relationship, but only cursorily, and at times wrongly. Stalin did not send Hitler his "personal congratulations" upon Hitler's lightning victory over France in 1940. Nor did Stalin "[i]n the spring of 1941 [write] a personal letter to Hitler, which remains unpublished." No evidence of such a (potentially very significant) document exists. *

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