First, some similarities:
- Both tended to solve political problems by resorting to violence.
- Both had a driving force in the form of a Party organisation: the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) in Germany and the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
- Both had a man at the top: Hitler in Germany and Stalin in the Soviet Union.
- Both had a secret police. It was called Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo) in Germany. In the Soviet Union it went under various names: Cheka, GPU, OGPU, NKVD, MVD, KGB.
- The most powerful man after the Great Leader was the Head of the Secret Police, but he never was in a position to replace the Leader.
- Both had an official youth organisation, the Hitler Jugend in Germany and the Pioneers in the Soviet Union.
- Both built Empires. At their peak one stretched from the Caucasus to the Pyrenees, the other one from Vladivostok to Vienna.
- They both installed puppet governments in the conquered lands, Some of the better known local leaders were Quisling in Norway, Pavelich in Croatia, Ulbricht in East Germany and Rakosi in Hungary.
- Both had an organisation offering free holidays for deserving workers and their families. In Germany it was called Kraft durch Freude. In the Soviet Union it was administered by the Trade Unions (just another branch of the Party).
- Both had rallies, the Nuremberg Rallies in Germany, and May Day Parades in the Soviet Union. I found those in Nuremberg more impressive but that might have been due to the superior skill of Leni Riefenstahl in making propaganda films.
- Both had their bibles: Mein Kampf in Germany and the Brief History of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
- Both had a penchant for burning books they disliked.
- Both had an elaborate set of camps to which undesirables were sent: Under German administration the better known ones were Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Mauthausen, Ravensbruck, Treblinka. There were many of them in the Soviet Union, known collectively as the Gulag Archipelago (thanks to Solzhenitsyn’s book of the same title).
- Both adopted mass starvation as official policy.
- Both had their martyrs (casualties in some years gone into the tens of thousands), heroes of the street-fights between the Nazis and the Communists. On the Nazi side the most celebrated victim was Horst Wessel (a staunch member of the SA (Storm-troopers)) who wrote a campaign song, the Horst Wessel Lied, that became a kind of ersatz-national anthem when the orchestra wanted to play something different from Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. In the Soviet Union martyrdom was practised on a much larger scale. There were however a few individual assassinations like those of Uritsky (Head of the Petrograd Cheka at the time) and of Volodarsky by political opponents.
- Neither had a strict regard for truth. In the German case it was Dr Joseph Goebbels who was entrusted with the job of re-evaluating and rewriting everything. An interesting example I came across is Heine’s Loreley, that reappeared in German school books as a folksong rather than the work of a Jewish poet. The Soviet Union never had a Minister of Propaganda; that did not prevent them from producing tons of propaganda material. I imagine they must have had some specialist groups, each devoted to a different aspect of the untruth. They must have had many distinguished historians competing with each other in producing the best accounts of the past to the delight of the ruling General Secretary. To rewrite the present, an easier job, was probably done by people lower down the academic scale.
- Both had a vast and elaborate range of informers.
- Both demanded that children denounce their parents if they deviated from the true and narrow path.
- Both signed treaties they never considered to be bound by, like those of Munich and Yalta.
- Both had an arch-enemy, the Jews in Germany, capitalism in the Soviet Union.
- Both devoured some of their own children, like Röhm in Germany and Tukhachevsky in the Soviet Union.
- Both were good at recognising opportunities: In the wake of the Reichstag fire Hitler managed to ban the Communist Party. Stalin could launch the Great Purge using Kirov’s assassination as the excuse. This is the view shared by most Western historians. I myself tend to believe that the Reichstag fire was lit at Hitler’s order and Kirov’s assassination was masterminded by Stalin. I think they did more than use opportunities. They created them.
Now to some differences:
- Hitler was a non-smoker, Stalin smoked a pipe.
- There were many attempts on Hitler’s life, none on Stalin’s.
- Using military efficiency as a key criterion, Hitler’s purges were far superior to those of Stalin. Hitler had his old friend Ernst Röhm assassinated on the Night of the Long Knives because the leader of the SA (Sturm Abteilung) was too uncouth and too radical for the tastes of the German captains of industry and of the generals of the ancient regime. Tukhachevsky is in an entirely different category. He, like most of the Old Bolsheviks, had to perish because of Stalin’s paranoia. Hitler’s purge made the German military stronger. Stalin’s purge weakened the Soviet military to the extent that the German army could reach the gates of Moscow in a matter of a few months when they attacked in the summer of 1941.
- The Nazi programme of producing powerful weapons was more successful than the corresponding Soviet effort. The Nazis produced V1, V2 and the jet engine, The Soviets produced the Stalin organ.
- In Germany the enemies of the Reich were largely eliminated. In the Soviet Union they did not make that subtle distinction. They killed friend and foe alike.
- The Nazis were racist, the Communists were not. In Germany there was a breeding programme called Lebensborn aimed at producing pure Aryan children with blond hair and blue eyes. The programme (I have seen a film about it) was a failure. The Aryan children did not materialise. Apparently, the time available for the experiment was not sufficient. The thousand-year-Reich would have been OK, but that did not materialise either.
- Whoever was not an enemy of the Reich had passports in their pockets. And of course the great majority of the German people (including former Communists who quickly saw the light) were ardent admirers of the Führer. In the Soviet Union hardly anybody was allowed to travel abroad.
- Neither of them felt to be bound by legal niceties. For a succinct and remarkably precise definition of guilt we should thank Riumin, one time Deputy Head of the MVD:
“The question of whether you are guilty is decided by the fact of your arrest”
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