It’s a bit of a fools errand trying to compare disasters, discoveries and empires from different time-periods. How can one properly make comparisons between the Roman Empire and the British Empire for example? The Mongol Empire and the French Empire? Just when you think you have weighed up all the factors then you realise you haven’t factored in gunpowder or the enlightenment.
It’s a little easier doing it with historical figures but still pretty much impossible unless you’re fortunate or unfortunate to live in a time with great rivals such as the early 19th century with Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, that hasn’t dissuaded Laurence Rees who has written a book entitled HITLER AND STALIN: History’s most monstrous contest which is probably only possible at all given they lived at the same time and are almost unique in not only being rivals but incredibly evil for want of a better word.
Back towards the beginning of the summer of 1941, there was only the United Kingdom and her Commonwealth allies fighting Nazi Germany. The USA was firmly neutral and as much as Putin would like everyone to forget it, the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with Germany. When one of Stalin’s commissars wrote to the Soviet leader warning him that ‘a source’ had told him German planes were on stand-by to attack Russia, bringing the non-aggression pact with the Nazi regime to a sudden and violent end.
Stalin not only refused to believe the information but was furious at the very suggestion that his precious agreement with Hitler would not hold. In reply, he scrawled across the note: ‘Tell your “source” that he can go f*** his mother.’ Five days later, Hitler’s armies crossed the border and Operation Barbarossa and with his intention to wipe out the Soviet Union made clear, Moscow for some reason decided to belatedly enter WW2.
From this we learn two things. First, that Stalin was the one duped by Hitler into agreeing to the unlikely peace deal between the two rival superpowers, despite the ideological chasm between them. Stalin thought it would last; Hitler never had any such intention. Even as Operation Barbarossa was happening, Stalin was slow off the mark and refused to believe he had been tricked.
The second thing we learn is about the very different personas of the two leaders. Because, according to prominent historian Laurence Rees in his latest book, such crudity as Stalin wrote would not have come out of the mouth of Hitler.
‘Hitler’s sense of his own special status would have prevented him from using the language of the street,’ writes Rees, just one of the many gems in this impressive book comparing the dictators, whose extreme brutality scarred the 20th century.
By contrast, the foulmouthed Stalin was uncouth and hard-drinking, with discoloured teeth and an unkempt moustache. The more charismatic and indeed brighter leaders of early Soviet communism had long away been done away with! Hitler was of course a moderately talented artist.
Despite their ideological and indeed personal character traits that were very different, the two men had much in common: indifference to suffering, certainty of purpose, loneliness with neither having a truly trusted confidence and both shared a hatred of Christianity. Perhaps as peace, compassion and brotherly love aren’t en vogue for tyrants.
Both condemned free speech and attacked human rights. Both managed to convince their millions of deludedad-herents that they were infallible. Above all, both were entirely without mercy in pursuit of their very different ideological goals — in Stalin’s case a class-free Communist nirvana, in Hitler’s a racially pure world or at least (greater) homeland. And to achieve their goals even the most dreadful suffering was justified.
We’re all mostly aware of the Holocaust and even in the Soviet Union it didn’t take Hitler long to get going. In September 1941, in a ravine outside Kiev, 33,000 Jews were forced by their Nazi captors to strip naked and lie on the corpses of those who had gone before them, to be dispatched with bullets. The horror was unimaginable, yet Babi Yar was just a fraction of the millions of deaths directly attributable to Hitler.
As for Stalin, among those on whom he took out his spite were the Kalmyks, an ancient Mongol people from the Russian steppes, the entire population of whom were hunted down in 1943 and deported, in unheated cattle trucks, to the Siberian wastelands. Tens of thousands died.
Both tyrants were monsters, yet their personalities and the way they operated were as different as chalk and cheese. Hitler was a man of vision — though the vision was a warped one: Deutschland uber alles, whatever the cost in human (or, as he as saw it, sub-human) lives.
He had a charismatic effect on people. ‘Everything came from the heart,’ recalled one of his dedicated henchmen, Hans Frank. ‘I was convinced he alone was capable of mastering Germany’s fate, through courage, faith, readiness for action and devotion to a great, shining common goal.’
Opponents thought his voice ‘scratchy’, his delivery shouty and his political ideas simplistic. But the masses he preached to were looking for a saviour and could only hear his self-belief — the commodity that a Germany still reeling in the 1930s from the defeat of 1918 and reduced to an economic basket case desperately needed.
Hitler not only fitted the bill but built on it, establishing a cult of personality in which he was the godhead, to be trusted, adored and, above all, obeyed. The Fuhrer, dictated rather than discussed. That was his modus operandi.
‘At crucial moments, he merely announced to his underlings what he had decided and then relied on his lack of selfdoubt and considerable powers of persuasion, allied to the authority of his office, to push through what he wanted.’
You don’t have to know German to pick up on Hitlers quite charismatic if bizarre style and we all know even today some politicians are great orators and some seem to have a personality bypass.
Stalin, by contrast, was a charisma-free zone. No orator, he wielded power through the all-powerful communist party, with its endless committees that he bent to his will. He was a strong, silent type, letting others talk while he took in what they were saying.
He was, according to Rees, ‘an aggressive listener and an even more aggressive watcher’, his eyes boring into those around him, probing for their weaknesses and, most of all, any hint of disloyalty. When Stalin did speak, he kept his voice low, leaving those listening at a disadvantage as they strained to catch his drift.
No one dared contradict his decisions for fear of the brutal consequences — denouncement, disgrace, death. His paranoia was constant — unlike Hitler, who tended to trust those closest to him until they proved otherwise.
For Stalin, proof was not necessary; suspicion was enough. He was once heard to say that every time he walked down the corridors of the Kremlin, he was wondering which of the armed guards lining his route would be the one to gun him down, and whether he would be shot in the front or the back. In fact one of the reasons the Soviet Union fared so badly during WW2 was because Stalin had ordered for much of the officer class to be executed along with many other professionals who might be able to think for themselves.
Both men were terribly feared by their subordinates. The D-Day invasions at Normandy might never have got off the beach if the regional officers hadn’t been afraid to wake up Hitler from his sleep. Stalin of course was found in his room almost 2 days after suffering from either a heart attack or stroke and may have been saved if only those outside were afraid to disturb their leader. (For a hilarious though tragic look at this time check out The Death of Stalin – Movie Review)
Getting down to the nitty-gritty with the numbers of deaths the two men can be blamed for, Rees calculates that at least 13million deaths can be laid at Stalin’s door — those who died from ethnic cleansing or deliberate famine in places such as the Ukraine, or as political prisoners in the gulag, or simply shot in the purges.
Rees’s equivalent figure for Hitler’s regime is significantly higher at 20million deaths, of which the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust are well known but to which should be added huge swathes of captured Soviet soldiers and overrun civilians who were left to perish.
It may be splitting hairs or moustaches but it is in also in Stalin’s favour that the extermination factories of Auschwitz and Treblinka, designed to exterminate an entire group of people, had no parallel in the Soviet Union. Stalin’s crimes went on for much longer and were hidden by victory in World War 2 but he didn’t particularly want to exterminate a race of people only those who might cause him trouble regardless of their background.
The way of the world is that the winner not only takes all, but gets to control the history. The result is that, though Hitler is unequivocally consigned to the darkness, Stalin, writes Rees, has largely escaped the full level of censure he deserves.
So much so that he is still revered in 21st-century Russia. One opinion poll there showed 70 per cent approval for him and another declared him the most outstanding figure in world history.
So, was one of the tyrants worse than the other?
It’s a false dichotomy even to ask, as Pavel Stenkin, a Soviet PoW who was imprisoned in Auschwitz but managed to escape, knew only too well. On his return to Russia he was accused of being a spy and sent to a labour camp. Having been starved in a German camp, he found himself permanently hungry in a Soviet one.
‘Fascism and Communism,’ he decided, ‘were the same. I know this better than anyone.’
As was once said, the main difference between Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin is the size of their respective moustaches.
So who was the worst monster? Personally I’d say Chair Mao of China who is thought to have killed more than Hitler and Stalin combined but as with Russia, the longevity of the ruling regime has airbrushed the bad elements (are there any good?) from history leaving Hitler as the byword for evil, at least in the 20th Century.