The Magazine

Brothers Under the Skin

Divided by dogma, Stalin and Hitler were united by terror.

Apr 25, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 30 • By HENRIK BERING
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The Dictators

Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia

by Richard Overy

W.W. Norton, 848 pp., $35

ONE OF THE MOST GHOULISH reminiscences of life at Stalin's court was provided by the old Polish Communist security chief Jakob Berman. He recalled late-night banquets in the Kremlin lasting till four in the morning, where exquisite food and drink--roast bear, pepper vodka, and sweet Georgian wines--were served, and where the drunken participants would dance the night away with Stalin manning the gramophone.

On one occasion, Berman had slow-waltzed with Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister. "You surely mean Mrs. Molotov," asked the interviewer, Polish journalist Teresa Toranska. "No. Mrs. Molotov was in a labor camp," Berman answered matter-of-factly, adding that in the waltz he played the part of the lady, with Molotov leading. Throughout the night, Stalin was sticking to his DJ duties, while carefully watching everybody. When asked if they enjoyed themselves, Berman gave a qualified assent: "Yes, it was pleasant," he said, "but with an inner tension."

No kidding.

The scene of this Monster Mash is included in Simon Sebag Montefiore's bestselling biography from last year, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Montefiore benefited greatly from the partial opening of the Russian State Archives in 1999: We meet Stalin humiliating his minions, tapping his pipe out on Nikita Khrushchev's bald pate and asking if it is hollow, Stalin pruning his roses, Stalin signing death warrants, Stalin singing traditional Russian folk songs, and Stalin reassuring everybody that "life has become merrier, comrades, life has become better." A succession of secret police bosses guard his throne: Yagoda, who collected bullets dug out of his victims' brains and smoked pipes shaped like genitalia; the bisexual dwarf Yezhov, who, when not torturing people, was arranging flatulence contests among the commissars; and, of course, the unspeakable Beria, cruising the streets in his armored black Packard in search of young girls to rape.

Stalin is no longer the gray figure of the past, an abstract, inscrutable sphinx, but (in terms of colorfulness) at last catching up with his old enemy, Hitler, who has long had a whole historical cottage industry devoted to him.

The problem with focusing narrowly on the personalities of these people is that the reader invariably starts wondering how such freaks and lowlifes could ever have obtained power in the first place. The point is that these were not just two-bit gangsters, but men of vast ambition, messiahs with a program. To understand their success, you need more of the background--political, economic, and intellectual--that allowed them to claw their way to the top and to stay there.

This is what Richard Overy's massive study sets out to provide. Overy is professor of history at King's College London. Unlike Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991), Overy's book is not biography in the traditional sense. It is more a series of comparative essays on key aspects of the dictatorships--their cult of personality, their legal, economic, and cultural policies, their war-fighting capabilities, and their camp systems--while remaining saturated with the spirit of their creators. These were very personal dictatorships, created in the image of their makers.

In the process, Overy pays close attention to the writings of both. Many Western observers have a tendency to dismiss such writings as mostly empty rhetoric and mad rantings, since no serious person could hold such views. Unfortunately, they often do, whether it be a Hitler or Stalin, a Mao Zedong, Ayatollah Khomeini, or Pol Pot. "In each dictatorship," Overy notes, "a unique moral universe was constructed to justify and explain its actions. The moral plane was not an irrelevance, but a key battleground." We ignore such writings at our peril.

There were, of course, obvious differences in character and style between the two men. Hitler was a grand visionary, a gambler and dreamer, who considered himself an artist. Stalin was a careful, opportunistic schemer. Hitler was more distant and formal, while Stalin liked posing as the reassuring uncle, with his pipe and moustache, a man "upon whose knee a child would like to sit," in the phrase of the onetime American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies.

Hitler enjoyed performing in front of huge audiences; Stalin seldom appeared in public. As orators, Hitler would tear off into a primal scream, while Stalin was a slow and deliberate speaker. Occasionally, Stalin would display a certain mocking hangman's humor, such as when, in a newspaper article, he casually dismissed the millions of famine deaths in the Ukraine as having been caused by excessive zeal among officials who were "dizzy with success."