The Dictators by Richard Overy
by Richard Overy
Norton. 448 pp. $35.00
The 20th century was the time when ideology far outstripped religion as the engine of mass destruction. Fired by the promise of revolutionary redemption, nations not only came close to eradicating their enemies but placed themselves and their own posterity in peril as well. Two individuals have come to personify this immolating and self-immolating impulse: Stalin and Hitler. Their symbolic status as the embodiments of modern tyranny has long since eclipsed the specific enormities of their crimes.
But not in equal measure: 60 years after his melodrama in the bunker provided a squalid postscript to the suicide of European civilization, Hitler remains a kind of secular Satan, a universal touchstone of evil. Although his methods have been imitated in Asia, Africa, and even Europe, today’s practitioners or would-be practitioners of genocide shrink from acknowledging their debt to him. On the contrary, those, for example, who seek the annihilation of Israel denounce Zionism by likening it to Nazism. Presumably they do not mean this as a compliment.
Stalin, by contrast, is already a shadowy figure in the popular imagination. The moral credit that accrued from his alliance with the democracies in World War II persists even after the intervening decades of the cold war. Unlike Hitler’s, Stalin’s crimes remain unpunished, uncommemorated, unmourned—even in the former Soviet Union. Although his name has not yet been rehabilitated in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the same cannot be said of his modus operandi. Whereas it is inconceivable that the German secret service could re-establish itself in the old Gestapo headquarters in the Prinz-Albert-Strasse in Berlin, its Russian counterpart has just moved back into the notorious Lubyanka building in Moscow that housed the torture chambers of the Soviet state-security apparatus, successively named Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, and KGB.
Richard Overy’s The Dictators is by no means the first work to compare the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, but it surpasses all others in breadth and depth. The author describes his book as an “operational history” of the two dictatorships, designed to show how they actually worked. He begins with the careers of Hitler and Stalin, and concludes with their attempts at mutual destruction. But his method is less chronological than analogical. Each of the 14 chapters postulates a phenomenon common to both systems—the one-party state, the apparatus of terror, totalitarian morality, the command economy, and so forth—and then proceeds to distinguish between the German and Soviet experiences.
Overy’s comparisons are often arresting. He claims, for instance, that the Nazis achieved a more thorough surveillance of their population than the Communists ever did; on the other hand, there were more than 40 attempts on Hitler’s life, but none on Stalin’s. Germany had a larger and more advanced economy than the Soviet Union, but the latter produced more armaments with fewer workers, even after the Nazis had occupied much of European Russia. Each tyrant created a personality cult, but Stalin’s “view of it was opportunistic and cynical, whereas Hitler’s was deadly earnest.” Both men had utopian architectural ambitions, but Hitler’s monumental People’s Hall in Berlin would have been outdone by Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets in Moscow, which, had it been built, would have been taller than the Empire State Building, capped by a statue of Lenin three times the size of the Statue of Liberty.
In his most suggestive chapter, “The Moral Universe of Dictatorship,” Overy asks the question: why did the Nazis and Soviet Communists think they were right? Here he shows how both regimes subordinated religion and law to their purposes, adopting an extreme moral relativism that denied the existence of any norms or necessities beyond those dictated by their own historical circumstances. Both subsumed individual conscience into the collective will, driven by ideological imperatives. The clergy and courts, like other elites, were either co-opted or crushed. Though neither Germany nor the Soviet Union succeeded in eliminating what Hitler called “the disease of Christianity,” the moral constraints imposed by Judeo-Christian and classical humanism were, as Overy recounts, surgically removed from the body politic. Totalitarian jurisprudence taught that the state was above the law, and that the law was a continuation of war against class or racial enemies by other means.
The paranoia of the dictators was thereby institutionalized. Visitors to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union felt an uncanny sense of entering another world, its claustrophobia reinforced by international isolation. Nonetheless, for all their own provincialism, Hitler and Stalin were global missionaries on behalf of their respective utopias. As Overy points out, they held sway over evil empires, not backwaters like today’s North Korea.
They also saw themselves as locked in what one refugee, Aurel Kolnai, called “the war against the West.” In this they resembled today’s radical Islamists. And, again like the Islamists, they had their adherents inside the West itself. The nightmarish theatricality of the great dictators impressed itself on their contemporaries partly because so many were drawn into their intellectual orbit. The source of the attraction was partly pragmatic, or could be so presented: according to their own propaganda, at least, the dictatorships outperformed the democracies in economic efficiency and military might. But there was also, for outsiders, the lure of participating vicariously in the unique, unprecedented spectacle of a society organized on “scientific” principles: two gigantic experiments, ultimately tested to destruction against one another.
The West’s “totalitarian temptation” was, of course, incomparably stronger in the case of Communism than in that of National Socialism. Indeed, the habit of playing down the crimes of the former, which tended to be less familiar than the latter’s, is still with us. Overy makes strenuous efforts to be evenhanded in his own critique of the two tyrannies, but even he occasionally falls into the trap. Thus he dwells in devilish detail on the vividly visualized and richly documented bestiality with which the Nazis have scarred the collective memory of Europe, but Soviet atrocities sometimes seem fuzzy in his pages, recalled in impressionistic terms that belie their prodigious and sustained horror.
This discrepancy may be attributable in part to the lack of scholarly consensus about the numbers of victims, to the heterogeneous nature of the Soviet Union, and to the haphazard process by which former Soviet archives became accessible during the window of opportunity that opened under Boris Yeltsin and that Vladimir Putin is now trying to slam shut again. But it remains the case that Overy tends to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt, either offering no specific figures or accepting estimates at the lower end of the scale.
Thus, for example, he does not even attempt to guess how many of the nationalities, ethnic minorities, and “class enemies” proscribed by Stalin actually died as a result of forced migration, incarceration, or massacre. He mentions the Ukrainian famine of the 1930′s only briefly, and ignores the fact that millions of non-Ukrainians also died in it. Though he cites Anne Applebaum’s recent definitive history, Gulag, he seems to take little account of her reflections on the death toll in that vast system of prison camps. Like her, he quotes an official figure of 786,098 political executions in the period 1934-53, but whereas Applebaum points out that this figure is too precise to be reliable, and omits numerous categories of deaths, Overy prefers to pour scorn on estimates of a much higher toll. Nor does he cite, as she does, two other shocking statistics: under Stalin, some 28.7 million forced laborers passed through the camps or special exile villages, of whom a minimum of 2.75 million died.
According to The Black Book of Communism (1999), the grand total of those executed, tortured, starved, or worked to death during the 74 years of the Soviet Union comes to some 20 million, the majority of them directly attributable to Stalin’s policies. And even this figure may be too low if, as some Russian historians now suggest, it may be necessary to double the traditionally accepted total of 20 million military and civilian deaths in World War II. During the reconquest of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s policies toward those who had been occupied, captured, or recruited by the Germans were harsh in the extreme, especially those ( Jews, Balts, Poles, Volga Germans) whom he deemed to be, as it were, hereditary traitors. More interested in the confrontation between Hitler and Stalin, Overy deals too cursorily with its only slightly less horrific aftermath.
Above all, Overy nowhere acknowledges that, even if no single crime can be compared with the Holocaust, there is reason to suppose that Stalin’s victims outnumbered Hitler’s, probably by a large margin. The more that we learn about Stalin’s dictatorship, the more sinister it seems, most of all in its ability to cover its tracks.
Not that Overy is by any means an apologist for Stalin. He is careful to guard against the temptation to judge Communism more leniently than Nazism simply on account of its supposedly noble ideals, and he has no illusions about the “real existing socialism” in whose name so many millions of real existing human beings were sacrificed. If he is nevertheless harsher on the Third Reich than on the Soviet Union, that is because he thinks Stalin was merely a new kind of Czar. In his earlier, masterful work of military history, Russia’s War, Overy argued explicitly that “Stalin did to his people what Russia’s rulers had always done.” He does not repeat this judgment in his new book—indeed, it does not square with the totalitarian novelty of the Communist experiment, which he evokes so well—but I suspect it somewhat colors his attitude to Stalin.
These criticisms aside, The Dictators is a book of great importance, the first proper comparative study of the two most destructive empires of the last century. Overy probably knows more about the still unassimilated congruence of the two systems than anybody else alive, and in the pages of this book he authoritatively sets out the evidence for all to see.
The Dictators is a book that should be widely read not only in America, where the background to European perfidy cries out for explanation, but also in the Islamic world, where the putrefying remains of both Nazi and Soviet ideology continue to exert a malign influence. With its dry prose and understated eloquence, it is a monument to the millions who, dying in agony and anonymity for their race or their nationality, their class or their creed, bear witness to the bottomless abyss into which modern ideologies unchecked by the laws of God or man have threatened to hurl all of mankind.