Throughout the 1930s the propaganda machines of the Nazi and Soviet regimes did all in their power to insist that they were ideological enemies, diametrically opposed to each other in every conceivable way. There were critics of totalitarianism who emphasized the similarities in the two systems, but theirs was a minority view among many intellectuals, especially on the political left, during the decades of the Cold War and after.
When the masterful and detailed study of twentieth-century communist regimes, The Black Book of Communism, was first published in France in the 1990s, for instance, one French leftist tried to rationalize the human cost of socialist tyranny by arguing: “Agreed, both Nazis and communists killed. But while the Nazis killed from hatred of humanity, the communists killed from love.”
Nazis, it seems, had bad intentions and used bad methods. Communists, on the other hand, had good intentions–they loved their fellow man and wanted to create a utopia for him–they just made an unfortunate error in selecting less-than-desirable means. Oh, well, back to the drawing board!
Richard Overy’s recent work, The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, is the most detailed and methodical study, so far, of what the two totalitarian regimes shared in common and in what ways they differed. Indeed, there are few aspects of political, economic, social, and cultural life in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that do not receive meticulous analysis from the author.
It is in the concluding chapter of the book that one discovers what Overy considers the most fundamental premises of the two regimes. Both the Nazis and the communists, he argues, were guided by the spirit of scientism: the misplaced application of the methods of the natural sciences to the arena of human life. Marxian socialists were convinced that they could deduce the “laws” of historical development that necessitated the inevitable triumph of “the workers” over their capitalist exploiters. In addition, they believed that once the revolution had been orchestrated, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had the ability to remake man and transform society into a collectivist paradise.
The Nazis also believed in the power of science, but in their case it was a “racial science” that defined different human groups and their hierarchical relationships to each other. Through application of eugenics, a purified “master race” could be socially engineered, with “the Germans” being the superior breed meant to rule the world.
Communism and Nazism, therefore, were variations on the same collectivist theme, in which the individual and his identity as a person were determined by either his “class” or “race.” Both were paranoid in their outlook on life. Nazis saw racial threats everywhere, in the form of inferior groups that could defile Germany’s blood purity. Communists saw class enemies surrounding and threatening the existence of the Soviet workers’ state. Vigilance at the borders and secret-police terror internally were essential for the regimes to preserve either the master race or the proletarian paradise.
Hitler and Stalin were convinced of their unique and irreplaceable roles in making history. Hitler believed that just as there is a master race among humanity, so there is a master leader within the master race, who through intuition, insight, and will power knows what is needed to assure the rightful place and destiny of the German people. Fate had called him to that task. Following in Lenin’s footsteps, Stalin believed that socialist victory was impossible without professional revolutionaries who served as the vanguard of the proletariat. Among the vanguard there was the necessity for one determined leader to head the movement, with “history” having assigned Stalin this momentous duty.
For Hitler and Stalin, their ruthlessness and disregard of human life were essential to fulfill their role as leaders of the Nazi and communist causes. What was, perhaps, most dangerous in both men was that they believed in what they were doing to bring their versions of utopia into existence. Hitler and Stalin were “true believers.”
The power of “scientific” social engineering was present in everything that they commanded for the reconstruction of German and Soviet society. Stalin introduced five-year central plans in 1929; Hitler imposed four-year central plans in 1936. Nothing was outside the orbit of control and command, from the most mundane consumer goods to the redesigning of whole cities and the wider countryside. Art, literature, music, sports, and leisure were all used to mold the tens of millions of subjects under their power into the desired shape for a beautiful tomorrow.
As Overy carefully recounts, there was little that was random in the Nazi and Soviet use of terror and imprisonment. Those, too, were planned with a purpose in mind. They targeted the designated “enemies of the people” to isolate and destroy all who opposed “the brave new world” in the making. But those arrested and sent off to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were also viewed as forced labor for building the Nazi and Soviet societies. The victims were all part of the same central plan, whether for work or extermination.
Overy also highlights the degree of popularity that both the Nazis and communists achieved in German and Soviet society. The secret police were tiny fractions of those populations. With little prodding people willingly spied and informed on their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Both regimes promised and seemed to deliver a new ideal of “equality” in which devotion and hard work in the service of “the cause” assured that even the lowly could find status, position, and reward, now that the old class distinctions were swept away. The state monopoly over news and information succeeded in persuading millions of the truth and justice of the regimes under which they lived. The “masses” in both countries passively or actively worked for the system, with little resistance or opposition.
The Nazi and Soviet regimes have passed away, their cruelties fading in memory. Yet one wonders–if such ideologies could once before mesmerize so many, could they not do so again? Under the right circumstance, could not the appeal of utopia drag humanity once more into a vortex of destruction?