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Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared.

Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, edited by Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2009. ix, 536 pp. $95.00 US (cloth), $29.99 US (paper).

Many historians are (quite rightly in my view) suspicious of comparative studies, feeling that such studies can be done only at the expense of lopping off those parts, in best Procrustean fashion, that do not easily fit into the framework constructed. On the other hand, such comparisons lie at the heart of political science, where the search for the universal often rides roughshod over the historian's insistence on the singularity of events and the significance of context.

Few topics are more prone to the comparatist touch that the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. Hannah Arendt's famous lumping together of the two under the term "totalitarian" began a tradition in which the two dictators and their states have been linked in the search for, among other things, the origins of the banality of evil and the means by which such evil has been carried out. This comparison has been intertwined with, and complicated by, the study of ideology, where Nazism and Stalinism have needed to be parsed thoroughly, freed from the political constraints that the events of the twentieth century imposed.

The editors, each of them a distinguished practitioner (Fitzpatrick perhaps the leading scholar of Soviet society under Stalin; Geyer an expert on German military matters) at the University of Chicago, outline the problems involved in comparative history and the approaches and paradigms that have shaped the topic in a long and thoughtful introduction. This introduction is well worth reading, even for those who have no specific interest in either Stalinism or Nazism, simply for its approach to the topic of comparison generally. The nine chapters that follow are divided into four broad thematic groupings: governance, violence, socialization, and entanglements.

The two essays on governance are done as joint examinations--comparing the Nazi with the Soviet--of two particular topics. In the first, Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen examine the political systems of the two regimes. Their conclusion is that the two regimes--despite their seeming similarities--were profoundly different in that the underlying ideology of Marxism meant that Soviet Russia could be envisaged without Stalin, whereas Nazism was so closely identified with Hitler that the regime's legitimacy and the leader's existence were indistinguishable. The second essay, on "utopian biopolitics," reinforces that the differences between the two systems were profound. Hitler's emphasis on the need for an increased reproductive rate was founded on his racialist ideas and favoured eugenics, the Stalinist model was more like that found in Catholic European countries and eschewed any notions of race and fitness.

The section on violence is structured in the same fashion as that on governance. The first chapter, jointly authored by Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth, considers the goals of violence in the two societies and whether the societies themselves were inherently violent. The conclusion is that the two societies, while both violent, were so for different reasons. In Soviet Russia, mass violence was "developmental" (p. 179), being directed against the Russian populace with an aim to creating, forcibly, a new society. As such, it reached its peak in the 1930s. In contrast, Nazi violence was directed against the external world and found its greatest expression during the Second World War. Similar differences existed when considering violence towards ethnic groups. Jorg Baberowski and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel demonstrate that, while both governments pursued harsh policies towards ethnic minorities, both the reasons for doing so and the way in which it was done varied sharply. For the Nazis, ethnic minorities were fixed in place by the biological hierarchies that underpinned the Hitler state. For Hitler, the creation of a racially pure empire was both logical and necessary. For Stalin, it was not. Marxism allowed ethnic minorities to "overcome" their biological heritage and empire provided places to move those groups who proved resistant to change.

The third section, on socialization, has three chapters. The first, by Christopher Browning and Lewis Siegelbaum, deals with framework, that is, the ways by which citizens could identify themselves with the state. Here, there were sharp differences between the two governments. Both asserted their right to categorize people and to mould them into prescribed roles. Both used whatever violence necessary to achieve the state's preferred ends. However, the classifications and roles were profoundly different. Soviet classifications were based on class, and Marxist aims determined roles; Nazi classifications were based on race. As was the case with violence (and here there is a useful overlap with the earlier section), Soviet frameworks affected the population generally, whereas Nazi social engineering was directed racially. The second chapter in this 'grouping concerns itself with social bonds. Here, the authors (Fitzpatrick herself and Alf Ludke) consider whether one of the main tenets of the "totalitarian" thesis--the idea that societies are "atomized" in such states--holds true. In both Stalinist Russia and Hitler's Germany, it did not. In Russia, strong efforts were made to create new social bonds, ones that tended to separate the young from the old, in order to establish the new order; in Germany, Volksgemeinschaft was an essential element of Nazi ideology (although one that excluded people on the basis of race). Thus, there was no "atomization," but rather new social groupings. The preceding chapter flows nicely into the final essay--the creation of "the new man" in both societies--dealing with socialization. As Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck show clearly, both Stalinist Russia and Hitler's Germany were determined to create a new, improved type of person and utilized many of the same means to attempt to achieve this goal. And, both societies eschewed liberal internationalism as a model, feeling that their own ideologies were superior to the outmoded bourgeois systems. However, the type of "new man" to be created was different, since in Russia the existing order had to make way for a scientifically-superior Marxist system, whereas in Germany the goal was a racially-superior order.

The final section entanglements--consists of two essays. The first looks at the Nazi-Soviet war of 1941 and focuses on the degree of violence employed in it. The two authors, Mark Edele and Geyer--demonstrate that violence (and here is another useful overlap with the earlier section) in the war was liberated from social constraints. The Nazis had no intention whatever of peace with its racial enemies; thus, any means (and any degree of violence) was acceptable. On the other hand, Soviet Russia, driven by a different ideology, could not make peace with Nazism but could make peace with Germans. Soviet violence was driven by the exigencies of war and was not policy; Nazi violence was driven by both. The final essay, by Katerina Clark and Karl Schlogel, discusses how the two regimes viewed each other, and focuses on outward symbols--such as comparing the two countries' pavilions at the 1937 World's Fair, the literary topoi and typologies of Russianness and Germanness that existed and the longer historical relations--pre-dating both Hitler and Stalin--between the two states. The conclusion drawn is that both Nazism and Stalinism drew on long-standing images of each other (suitably selected and modified) to construct models that suited both ideological and power-political goals.

This outline does only rough justice to an exceptional collection. It is based on deep reading by all its contributors (the multilingual bibliography is exceptional), it has a unifying theme that works very well and the pieces are sophisticated and nuanced. For anyone who wants to make an attempt to understand two of the most important, if unattractive regimes of the twentieth century, this is an ideal place to begin. All involved in this ambitious project are to be congratulated on a job well-done.

Keith Neilson

Royal Military College of Canada
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Author:Neilson, Keith
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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