Commentary Magazine

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, by Alan Bullock


Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives.
by Alan Bullock.
Knopf. 1,082 pp. $35.00.

Someone was bound to combine the biographies of this century’s most monstrous tyrants; fortunately, that someone has turned out to be Lord Bullock. Famed for his earlier biography of Hitler, as well as for his 1983 life of Ernest Bevin, this master historian has now blended and contrasted the lives of Stalin and Hitler in a narrative that is no less gripping for the fact that most of the details (not to speak of the outcome) are quite well known.

One of the fascinating questions about both men is how they were able to emerge as supreme overlords in two of Europe’s most powerful countries. In the early pages of this book Bullock suggests that both were beneficiaries of the breakdown of old regimes that had set in before World War I and accelerated during the war. The resulting upheavals associated with the collapse of the Russian and German empires opened the way for radicalisms of both Left and Right.

This is valid enough, although it does not account for the fact that out of the turmoil, two men who had no “natural or inherited advantages” were able to fight their way to the very top of their respective political structures. Their origins were certainly unimpressive: both came from lower-class families and grew up in peripheral areas of the Russian and Austrian empires. (Stalin was born in Gori, a rural village in Georgia, in 1879, and Hitler in Braunau on the river Inn ten years later.) Both, too, were raised by doting mothers and were abused or neglected by delinquent fathers: the elder Stalin (Djugashvili) was a drunken shoemaker, the elder Hitler a petty bureaucrat who eventually abandoned his family.

The young Hitler, an aspiring artist/architect, was rejected by the Vienna academy—a traumatic episode that was followed by a period of penurious drifting during which he absorbed the nationalism, the so-called socialism, and the virulent anti-Semitism of prewar Vienna. The war rescued him. Having distinguished himself in uniform, he remained in the army after the war as a propaganda specialist, and then found his way into politics. Gradually he became obsessed by two ideas: purging the German “race” of foreign (Jewish) influences, and conquering Lebensraum for the German people in the East.

Stalin, for his part, was a seminary student for several years at his mother’s insistence. He rebelled by becoming a Russian nationalist and then embraced rudimentary Marxism, later claiming that the determining factor was the harsh discipline of the priests. Bullock, however, calls him a “born Bolshevik,” and notes his admiration for the tightly knit, elitist, conspiratorial organization that promised to overthrow the existing order. As a Georgian Stalin felt himself an outsider, except within the clandestine network of the Communists; but he was also outraged by the backwardness of old Russia and was determined to make Russia a modern power, whatever the cost. Together with Hitler he shared one clear goal: to obtain, consolidate, and expand his own power.

The two embarked on different paths to that end. After the failure of his abortive coup in Munich in 1923, Hitler reluctantly decided that the way to power in the Weimar Republic lay through mass political organization, operating if necessary through the ballot box. He easily dominated the small National Socialist German Workers party (NSDAP) and built it into a powerful instrument supported by the paramilitary Sturm Abteilung (SA). In 1932, profiting politically from the Great Depression, the Nazis obtained more than thirteen million votes in an open election, a gain of eleven million votes over four years. In January 1933, Hitler was invited to form a government by President Hindenburg.

Thus, for Hitler, legitimacy was never an issue—and this had important psychological effects. Inside his own party and inside Germany he was quite simply Der Führer, supremely self-confident in his right to be so considered, and for the most part free of self-doubt (though by nature a procrastinator).



Stalin, on the other hand, came to power in part through blind luck. For much of his early career he was in prison or exile. When the Czar was overthrown in February 1917, Stalin made his way to Petrograd where he immediately became a member of the Bolshevik high command. But he committed an almost fatal error in rejecting Lenin’s insistence on overthrowing the provisional government; only by switching at the last moment did he assure himself a major position in the revolutionary regime. Still, he was never Lenin’s designated successor, and in fact had been denounced by the ailing leader. His acute awareness that he was never Lenin’s legitimate heir made him perpetually suspicious of all his comrades—one reason for the more or less permanent purges he conducted of the old Bolsheviks until virtually none was left.

Stalin was determined to create a true totalitarian regime in which no aspect of life would be left unaffected. By contrast, the more confident Hitler permitted some areas of German life to proceed without much interference. Although both men established police states, Stalin went much further, building a pervasive bureaucracy dominated by the party, a highly centralized economy, and a massive military machine—a system that survived in many respects until the entire edifice collapsed in 1991.

Both men understood the power of propaganda and indoctrination, especially when supported by a threat from the Gestapo or the NKVD. Both stimulated and encouraged the glorification of their own, radically different, personalities—Hitler being a flamboyant actor and gifted orator, Stalin rough and mean but also reserved and laconic. Both were at once disdainful of intellectuals and inordinately proud of their own writings—Hitler of Mein Kampf and Stalin of The Economic Foundations of Leninism—which were aimed at winning the approval of intellectuals.

Above all, both men were true believers in their cause, in themselves, and in their destiny. This, according to Bullock, is the “key” to understanding them. Ruthless by nature, and persuaded that they were history’s chosen instruments, they felt completely justified in doing whatever was necessary, however horrific the human costs, to fulfill their destinies.

Between 1934 and 1938 both achieved total power. Then they began to clash. From the Spanish civil war, through Munich, to the end of World War II and the Holocaust, the story has been exhaustively researched and analyzed by others, and Bullock does not have much to add. The military contest finally came to an end on April 30, 1945, when Hitler shot himself to death in a bunker in Berlin, surely one of the most bizarre passages in modern history. Until the very end he was ordering imaginary armies to relieve Berlin. When his partially burned body was recovered by Soviet troops, Stalin ordered a great lie, that the Soviet authorities had no knowledge of Hitler’s whereabouts; the truth was not revealed until the early 1970’s.

Hitler left a final will and testament in which he urged “merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.” His last written words were: “The aim must still be to win territory in the East for the German people.” Fittingly, the German people immediately lost territory, as East Prussia disappeared from the map forever and the Fatherland was divided, with the eastern part occupied by the dreaded Bolsheviks. As for “international Jewry,” within three years Jews in Palestine had founded their own state, Israel.



Bullock might have been better served had he ended his masterful narrative here. The chapter on Stalin’s New Order, from 1945 through his death in 1953, lacks the fire of the preceding 900 pages, no doubt because of the absence of Hitler as an effective counterpoint. In a concluding chapter, however, Lord Bullock recovers his form.

Neither of these two dictators, he notes, left a successor, but both left legacies which “would weigh heavily on Europe in the decades that followed.” With the events of 1989-91 firmly in mind, Bullock writes that Hitler and Stalin were engaged in a major attempt to redraw the map of Europe. Today, with the collapse of the Communist regimes and the decline of the Soviet sphere, yet another attempt has begun, one whose success depends crucially on “the ability of the Soviet Union to avoid a relapse into civil war or a return to dictatorship.” This is the issue, “rooted in the Hitler-Stalin period and its legacy, on which Europe’s future depends.”

Ever the long-view historian, Bullock ends by warning that we have still not grasped the “scale of the changes set in motion by the events of 1989-91.” But, he adds with cautious buoyancy, about the past we can now be more certain: the era of Hitler and Stalin, although it represented “one of the blackest periods in Europe’s history,” nevertheless did not mark the end of European civilization. Just how near a thing it was, we learn from this deep book about two of history’s most evil men.

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