World in the Grip of an Idea: 12. Nazi-Soviet Parallels, Part 1

On August 21, 1939, a shocking announcement was made in Moscow: the Nazi government of Germany and the Communist government of the Soviet Union had reached an agreement. It was billed as a nonaggression pact between the two countries and has been called by such various names as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the von Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, for the two foreign ministers who negotiated it, and the Moscow Pact. What was shocking was that these two avowed enemies should reach an accord; this, plus the dread implications it had for power alignments in the world. (There were dark rumors in those days of a Rome-Berlin-Moscow-Tokyo Axis against most of the rest of the world.) The Nazis were supposed to be on the "extreme right" and the Communists on the "extreme left" of the ideological spectrum. They had supported opposing sides in the Spanish Civil War, and Communists were proclaimed anti-Fascists (which included Nazis) while Nazis trumpeted their anti-Communism. The accord left many communists around the world facing in the wrong direction, so to speak. The Nazi-Soviet Pact lasted for nearly two years. The portion that was made public appeared to be a non-aggression pact. But the secret protocols which accompanied it made it, in effect, a mutual aggression treaty. Eastern Europe was divided into spheres of influence between the Nazis and Communists. A few days after the signing of the pact, German forces invaded Poland, launching World War II. While Polish forces were more than occupied in the west, the Soviet armies invaded that hapless country from the east. The defeat of the Poles, which came with astonishing swiftness, was followed by the division of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.


When Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany. When Stalin’s armies invaded Poland, no action was taken against the Soviet Union. (Some history textbooks do not even mention the Soviet invasion; those that do, generally do not explore its significance. Less than a year later, when Italian armies invaded France following the Nazi incursion, President Franklin Roosevelt declared: "The hand that held the dagger has plunged it into the back of its neighbor." He might have made the same dramatic remark earlier about the Soviet Union, but he did not.)


During the ensuing fall and winter, while German and Allied forces were bogged down in a "phony war," the Germans safe behind the Siegfried Line and the French and British behind the Maginot Line, the Soviet Union continued its aggressions. Soviet forces occupied strategic locations in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania as a prelude to their annexation. Then, Soviet forces invaded tiny Finland. The Finns, in one of the more heroic episodes during World War II, held the Soviet armies at bay for most of the winter before they finally succumbed.


Twin Aggressors


There was a more appropriate reaction in Western Europe and America to this act of aggression. The Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations, and the Allies offered military help to Finland but were unable to provide it because the other Baltic countries would not permit it to pass through their ports. Into the spring of 1940 the Soviet Union was running "neck and neck" with Germany for the lead as an aggressor nation. Thereafter, Germany forged ahead with the invasion of Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium.


The point is this, however: for a brief interlude during the life of the Nazi-Soviet Pact the affinity of Nazis and Communists was displayed for all to see, even if many preferred to avert their eyes from the spectacle. This should not be taken to mean that there were not differences between Nazism and Communism. It is rather to say that such differences as there were, were accidental and inorganic. They were differences of focus, of intention, and of articulation. By contrast, the similarities were organic and essential.


Nazism and Communism are best understood as parallel systems spun from essentially the same ideological materials. That they were competitors for dominion over the peoples of the world there should be no doubt, competitors whose eventual clash with one another may well have been inevitable. But competition arises from those offering essentially the same product or service, not from those at opposite ends of the spectrum. Their pact was a temporary agreement to divide up the territory over which they would hold sway, much as two giant cartels might agree to divide up the market until such time as one or the other would be strong enough to begin its incursion into the other’s area.


The essential similarities of these parallel systems emerge from a comparison of them. Their modes of operation and political structure would hardly have been more nearly alike if they had come from the same mold.


In the first place, both Communists in Russia and Nazis in Germany seized power by the use of violence. True, the Nazis appeared to come to power legally, but actually Hitler only got into office legally, not to real power. As has been shown, the Nazis only attained a parliamentary majority by illegally denying seats to the Communist Party. In a similar fashion, Hitler got his Enabling Act by suppressing opponents and terrorizing his collaborators. There was nothing more than a semblance, if that, of legality in the suppression of political parties, the subjection of the states, and the subjugation of the labor unions. The murder of political opponents laid bare just how illegal had been Hitler’s thrust to power. There was never any doubt, of course, that the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia.


Minority Rule


Both Nazi and Communist rule was the imposition of the will of the minority on the majority. Both Nazis and Bolsheviks failed to get a majority in the last (relatively) free elections held before they consolidated their power and outlawed opposition parties. The Nazis tried to cover this over by holding plebiscites, elections in which the alternative was to be for whatever was being proposed or for nothing, i.e., against it. The Communists have tried over the years to provide an appearance of popular support for the regime by having elections in which there is only a single slate of candidates. The people are asked not to elect but to give approval to what already has been decided. Actually, since the parliament had no significant power in Nazi Germany and has none in the Soviet Union, the make-up of them came to be a matter of little importance.


Nazi Germany was and Soviet Russia is a one-party state. In both cases, once their leaders came to power, these parties ceased to be political parties, to the degree that they ever had been, and became instruments of the ruling elite. They were not originators of policy. How could they be? It is only in opposition to other parties that party programs have any significance. They became, instead, tightly knit, fiercely loyal, and militant organizations to support the will of the rulers.


Nazi Germany had a personal dictatorship. In Nazi theory and practice all power and authority proceeded from the Führer, the leader, Adolf Hitler. Hitler did not care at all for administrative detail and spent very little time on it. Some of the most momentous decisions he made, such as that of the extermination of the Jews, were not even recorded so far as has been determined. (He may not have wanted a record, of course, of the decision to exterminate the Jews.) Hitler’s orders were often given out informally to associates and companions, more as wishes than commands. The method was more that of gangsters than what is ordinarily expected of prime ministers and heads of state (Hitler was both after the death of Hindenburg, though he wished to be addressed as "Mein Führer"). Many decisions apparently were handed down at the mid-afternoon dinners when Hitler was in Berlin. These frequently were attended by Goebbels, Himmler, Hess, and other leading figures, though rarely by Goering who preferred more sumptuous fare. Albert Speer, who often attended, put it this way:


Dining with Hitler regularly meant a considerable loss of time, for we sat at table until half past four in the afternoon. . . .


Yet it was important for one’s prestige to attend these dinners. Moreover, it was important to most of the guests to be kept abreast of Hitler’s daily opinions. The round table was useful to Hitler himself as well, for in this way he could casually and effortlessly hand down a political line or slogan.


Dictators All


The Soviet Union, too, has had a succession of personal dictators. The practice began with Lenin, reached its apogee with Stalin, and was continued by Malenkov, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. Communists usually have made some effort to hide the personal character of the dictatorship behind a facade of "collective leadership," but the reality has surfaced too often for it to be generally believed. In his "Secret Speech to the Twentieth Party Congress," Khrushchev made clear the personal nature of Stalin’s rule:


Stalin acted not through persuasion, explanation, and patient co-operation with people, but by imposing his concepts and demanding absolute submission to his opinion. Whoever opposed this concept or tried to prove his viewpoint, and the correctness of his position, was doomed to removal from the leading collective and to subsequent moral and physical annihilation. . .2


What Khrushchev’s remarks may obscure, however, is that while there have been differences in degree of personal rule, it has been characteristic of communist governments, whether in the Soviet Union or elsewhere.


There were even parallels in the style of living of Hitler and Stalin. Both men were "night owls," given to staying up to the wee hours of the morning and keeping their associates awake with them. They were both addicted to movies, Hitler’s taste running to musicals while Stalin liked American westerns. Stalin had a screening room for films in the Kremlin, but Hitler had his own "theater" in his hideaway in Obersalzberg. Both men had warped senses of humor, preferring jokes at the expense of those around them. Stalin was, if anything, the cruder of the two. In late night drinking sprees, he was apt to do such things as have Khrushchev, or others, perform a Russian folk dance in which they lacked all talent. Both were anti-Semites. Hitler, of course publicized his anti-Semitism, but Stalin was more circumspect in displaying his. Khrushchev gives these examples of Stalin’s anti-Semitism:


. . . When he happened to talk about a Jew, Stalin often imitated in a well-known exaggerated accent the way Jews talk. This is the same way that thickheaded, backward people who despise Jews talk when they mock the negative Jewish traits. Stalin also liked to put on this accent, and he was pretty good at it. I remember when I was working in Moscow, some kind of trouble at the Thirtieth Aviation Factory was reported to Stalin through Party channels and by State Security. During a meeting with Stalin, while we were sitting around exchanging opinions, Stalin turned to me and said, "The good workers at the factory should be given clubs so they can beat the hell out of those Jews at the end of the working day."3


If Khrushchev is to be believed, he considered this a direct order from Stalin, but he did not carry it out.


A Lonely Position


Both Hitler and Stalin apparently were fearful of being alone, which was the main reason for keeping people around so late at night. Speer has said of the late nights with Hitler at Obersalzberg: "From one o’clock on some members of the company, in spite of all their efforts to control themselves, could no longer repress their yawns. But the social occasion dragged on in monotonous, wearing emptiness for another hour or more, until at last Eva Braun had a few words with Hitler and was permitted to go upstairs. Hitler would stand up about a quarter of an hour later, to bid his company goodnight."4 Of Stalin, Khrushchev says: "He suffered terribly from loneliness. He needed people around him all the time. When he woke up in the morning, he would immediately summon us, either inviting us to the movies or starting some conversation. . . . He was depressed by loneliness and he feared it."5


There are many monstrous aspects to this immense concentration of power in one man but none more than their role in making war. According to Khrushchev, Stalin planned military operations on a globe! He never visited the front lines and could not be persuaded to consult detailed maps. Khrushchev told in detail the effects of this on one operation. It was in the Kharkov region in 1942. Stalin had ordered a massive encirclement operation. Those who were on the scene perceived the great danger of trying to carry it out. However, it was most difficult to reach Stalin on the matter, and when he finally was contacted he insisted that the operation must be carried forward as planned. "And what was the result of this? The worst that we had expected. The Germans surrounded our army concentrations and consequently we lost hundreds of thousands of our soldiers."


Hitler believed himself to be a military genius, and many military men were greatly impressed with his early successes in directing military operations. Hitler was a master of the politics of collectivism, as already has been noted, and so long as he could conduct war in a similar manner as his political moves, i.e., by surprise, by audacity, by swiftness, and by doing the unexpected, he was a master strategist. However, once his forces were on the defensive these tactics were of little use. Armies that are overpowered need to withdraw, to cut their losses, maintain discipline, shorten their lines, and take up superior positions. Time and again Hitler refused to authorize tactical withdrawals, insisting that his units stand their ground or seize the initiative, only to have them overwhelmed or retreat in disarray. Although there is no satisfactory way to calculate such things, it is probable that the number of deaths attributed to Stalin and Hitler should be increased by several millions on account of their military blunders.


My main purpose here is neither to prove that Hitler and Stalin were dictators nor that dictatorship can have horrifying unwanted consequences. Those are points, of course, that are well taken, but they are generally, though not universally, accepted. The point is rather that collectivism entails dictatorship, entails the concentration of power in the hands of a single man, and that the ills that follow are a consequence of collectivism.


In short, dictatorship as we have come to know it in the twentieth century is an effect, not a cause. It is the necessary effect of the idea which has the world in its grip. Hall effort is to be concerted to achieve an end, any end, that effort must be directed by a single man, else it will be dispersed due to the diversity of men. Communism was the cause of Stalin’s dictatorship. Nazism was the cause of Hitler’s dictatorship, even though it is conceivable that Hitler contrived the Nazi ideology in order to become dictator. Rule by one is the norm for the control and direction of all human organizations; rule by one is transformed into personal dictatorship by collectivism.




The key to understanding the effects produced by socialist or collectivist ideologies is their thrust to concert all efforts. These ideologies proclaim that man is not free and creative because he is not at one with those around him. He is not at one because there are those in his midst who have aims and purposes at odds with him. This external conflict internalizes itself in the individual as the drive to pursue his own self-interest, which, in turn, tends to set every man against every other man. Socialist ideologies propose a historical explanation for this condition. Marxists hold that the condition is a product of the class struggle, a struggle resulting from the control of the means of production of goods and services by some dominant class. In this latest age, capitalists constitute that dominant class, and they are the disrupters of the harmony and productivity of man. According to Nazi ideology, the historical conflict is basically racial. According to Hitler, what stood in the way of unity, harmony-at oneness-, and freedom of the German or Nordic peoples was the presence in their midst of disruptive races, or, more specifically, the Jews.


What collectivist ideologies attempt to achieve, then, is atonement. (This is the religious word "atonement," which socialists do not employ, but which captures the overtones of their meaning. The unity or at-one-ment they profess to seek, of course, is not with God but within society, which is the deepest reason for referring to them as socialists.) The basic device for achieving an at-one-ment within society is what is called by psychologists "projection." That is, they project upon some other group or class or race the blame for the ills or discontents that beset them. This is also known as "scapegoating." The Marxists blame the disruption upon the "exploiting classes," upon capitalists, imperialists, or whatever. The industrial worker is invited to project the blame for his condition upon the owners of factory and mine. The peasant is to lay the blame for his deprivation upon the landlord. Hitler, of course, projected the blame for the disharmony and disruption of the German people on the Jews.


Enemies to Demolish


Both Nazi and Marxist ideologues sometimes presented their cases very simplistically. To the Marxists, it would only be necessary for the proletariat to seize the means of production from the capitalists, and everything would be set right. To the Nazis, it would only be necessary to suppress and drive out the Jews, and the Germans would be freed from the incubus afflicting them. But, of course, it was never that simple. In both ideologies, society was supposed to be deeply infected; the sources of the disintegration of the individual and society lay deep.


To the Marxists, capitalist ideology was deeply imbedded in the whole cultural framework. This condition was described as the prevalence of bourgeois culture. Due to this prevalence, the pursuit of self-interest which occasioned the disharmony and produced the disruption in society had penetrated the arts, literature, the family, all social institutions, and was given the color of divine sanction by religion. Only the most advanced of an elite could be free from its sway at the outset.


The Jewish infection, as Hitler was given to calling it, was believed by the Nazis to have burrowed deeply into German culture, and into that of other peoples as well. There were, of course, many prominent Jews in literature, in music, in the other arts, and particularly in the field of publishing. The great carrier of the "Jewish infection," Hitler claimed, was international Marxism. But it takes no great insight to perceive that there was an even more pervasive source of "Jewish infection" in Germany, namely, the Christian churches. The roots of Christianity in Judaism, the fact that Jesus was born a Jew, were facts that Hitler might ignore publicly but which did not go away by being ignored. Some of the Nazis were as outspokenly anti-Christian as they dared to be. Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann were two of the more prominent. Speer says that Bormann carried on a continual verbal campaign against the churches with Hitler. Hitler’s standard reply was, "Once I have settled my other problems . . I’ll have my reckoning with the church. I’ll have it reeling on the ropes."


This article is continued in Part 2: Nazi-Soviet Parallels, Part 2.

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