Hitler and Stalin

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Bullock’s subtitle is borrowed from Plutarch, whose biographical essays are studies of parallel figures, from which the biographer draws certain moral conclusions and generalizations about public lives. Bullock is no moralist, though he cannot avoid making certain moral judgments about the heinous crimes of these two world historical figures, but like Plutarch he aims to reveal aspects of each life that may be apparent only by comparing these two careers in detail.

Bullock’s method is that of the political biographer who concentrates on those personality traits that clearly manifest themselves in public; by and large he eschews intimate, psychological explorations of character, finding that a psychohistorical interpretation is mostly speculative and inconclusive.

Bullock’s analysis of Hitler and Stalin appears not only in separate chapters but also in the excellent amassing of details that prove his thesis that both men were master politicians who carefully built up their power over years of patient manipulation and strategy. If Hitler ultimately failed, it is because, in Stalin’s words, he did not know when to stop. His final aim was to establish a slave empire in the East (in most of what was then the Soviet Union), and he overreached himself. If Stalin succeeded, it was because his aim was to consolidate his power at home; his ventures abroad (compared to Hitler’s) were timid, though in his own country he established a reign of terror and death rivaling that of Hitler.

Bullock’s overall portrayal of Hitler and Stalin will provide few surprises to anyone reasonably familiar with the literature on these two figures, yet his comparison freshens the facts, making it necessary to think carefully through how Hitler and Stalin found themselves in quite different circumstances and with quite different personalities and nevertheless managed to acquire absolute power in the face of innumerable obstacles that made it seem extremely unlikely that either one would succeed.

Although Stalin was a member of the original revolutionary circle headed by Lenin, he by no means cut a distinguished figure in the Russian Revolution. Lenin found him dependable for various administrative jobs dealing with the rank and file. Although Stalin occasionally disputed Lenin’s policies, he was absolutely loyal to them. Unlike many of his fellow revolutionaries, Stalin spent no time abroad. Between the failed revolution of 1905 and the successful one in 1917, he was in prison most of the time. After the revolution, he was known for his rough tongue and taciturn disposition. Stalin never let anyone know what he was thinking or plotting. He was slow in debate, a competent but not brilliant writer, and an indifferent speaker—clearly no match for the intellectual Leon Trotsky, who was renowned for his building of the Red Army, which kept the Communists in power during the Civil War in 1918. Moreover, by the early 1920’s, as Lenin was dying, he let it be known in his final testament that he had grown to distrust Stalin, and he urged that Stalin be removed from his powerful position as general secretary of the Communist Party.

How was it, then, that by 1930, less than six years after Lenin’s death, Stalin was in a position to transform the Soviet Union radically in the 1930’s through his collectivization of farmland, massive investment in industry, and purges of the party membership and of the army, leaving him in an invincible position? Stalin prevailed because he cloaked himself in the mantle of Leninism, twisting Lenin’s words when it was necessary, or getting his cronies to do so. Stalin did what Trotsky did not deign to: Stalin cultivated party members, installed them in positions beholden to him, and shrewdly pitted his enemies against each other, sowing suspicion so that he never faced the combined force of his opponents. Slowly, one by one, Stalin picked off his rivals after they had weakened each other and after he was assured of the votes necessary to drum his adversaries out of the party. Stalin never allowed his ambition to show, never bragged, and never admitted to having a plan to capture the leadership for himself. On the contrary, he always presented himself as the servant of the Communist Party.

Hitler, on the other hand, had no illustrious predecessor, no Lenin by whom he could chart his course. Until he was thirty years old, Hitler, a disaffected and...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)