Thursday, February 24, 2005

Interesting meditation on totalitarianism from Times Literary Supplement

Why were they so sure?
Jane Caplan 22 October 2004

THE DICTATORS. Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. By Richard Overy. 848pp. Allen Lane The Penguin Press. £25. 0 713 99309 X. US: Norton. $35. 0 393 02030 4

The age of the bourgeoisie has come to an end", said Hitler in January 1945, "never to return." What was coming to a humiliating end in January 1945 was, of course, Hitler's own age, which he had managed to keep going for just over 1 per cent of its promised duration. "Bourgeois" Europe had survived its crisis, if only just: chastened, transfigured, but recognizable. Meanwhile, Stalin was reaching the apogee of his political career. He was the victorious leader of a wounded but triumphant Communist nation and the acknowledged ally of the two remaining world powers. Despite the regrettable persistence of the capitalist West, he was poised to establish in Eastern Europe a regional placeholder for the international socialist revolution that had failed to materialize after 1917. It was to take another decade before Stalin's pedestal began to crumble in its turn: not with the kind of cataclysmic blow that had brought Hitler's life and his Reich to their crushing end, but through the cautious posthumous chiselling of the next generation of Soviet leaders. Richard Overy sees the First World War as the proximate cause (though he might not use such a stark word) of the two dictatorships, in his gripping new study. In the dictators' eyes, the War and its outcome - revolution for Russia, defeat for Germany - signed the death warrant of the nineteenth- century Western European social and political order, bourgeois, liberal and individualist: a death warrant that Hitler and Stalin were equally eager to execute.

That Communism survived Stalin, as it also preceded him, poses something of a challenge to those who wish to compare Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Hitler's Germany had no Lenin, no Khrushchev, and for that matter no Gorbachev either. National Socialism and Hitler were exactly coterminous, bestriding the epoch from war to war that gave them their violent logic. They were born, flourished (if that is the right word) and imploded together in a twenty-five-year political history that transformed movement into regime, leader into dictator, and both into disaster. The cliche "meteoric" might be apt here, if not for its unfortunate connotations of cyclical return. Chronologically and in person Hitler embodied National Socialism in Germany to an extent that was never the case for Stalin and Bolshevism in Russia, far less for a Communist movement that enjoyed an international dimension quite absent from Nazism. Stalin had emerged from a revolutionary project that was launched well before he seized control of it, and which, some would say, he grossly perverted. After his death, his heirs tried to redirect their dishonoured inheritance with mixed degrees of energy and success, but the denouement of 1989 was neither predicted nor inevitable, much as it may have been wished for. Nevertheless, the impulse to compare the two dictators and the two political systems has long proved irresistible. Most durable and most contentious has been the claim that Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia were comparably "totalitarian" - a term aptly characterized by the Soviet scholar Iuri Igritski in 1993 as "a tennis ball" that everyone has tried "to hit harder into their opponent's court".

The American historian Abbott Gleason has traced the trajectory of the concept since it was first put into play in 1923 by the anti-Fascist opposition in Italy, only to see their denunciation adopted by Mussolini as a banner for his regime. It then went through a series of fascinating and complex intellectual transmutations and political applications in the 1930s and early 40s, notably in the hands of German exiles such as Franz Neumann and, most famously, Hannah Arendt. Thereafter followed a plunge into polemicism during the Cold War: the theorists of totalitarianism lined up against those of comparative fascism in a struggle for intellectual primacy, which mirrored the political battles between Left and Right that had been fought in the streets of Europe during the 1920s and 30s.

The demise of the Soviet system inaugurated a precipitate reassessment of totalitarianism at both ends of the political spectrum, though it hardly saw the end of the polemics. One thinks of the storm aroused by Stephane Courtois's protest in the Black Book of Communism (1997) that the fate of Communism's 100 million victims had been shamefully eclipsed by an exclusive scholarly and political concern for Nazism's 25 million. Related to this is the fundamental and unremitting dispute about whether Soviet terror was primordial and systemic rather than a post-lapsarian deviation - whether there was or wasn't, in Jeffrey Herf's words, a "golden era of Lenin followed by the dark night of Stalinism".

Still, since the 1990s we have also seen a more generous scholarly engagement with the comparative history of the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships. This has been enriched by the accumulating publication of historical research into their respective social structures and the dynamics, however repressed, of civil society. The great deficiency of totalitarianism theory in the classic form proposed by Friedrich and Brzezinski in the 1950s was that it concentrated so exclusively on ideological and political structures, indeed one-sidedly on "the 'output side' of politics" (Jerry Hough), the process of decision-making by the leadership. This narrow focus did not make it easier to understand how either Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia actually worked. It gave too much credence to the regimes' claims to total ideological and political control, and it posed its questions about the methods and efficacy of their operations in zero-sum terms of command and compliance.

The historiography of totalitarianism is not reviewed at any great length by Professor Overy. Nevertheless, his book stands at the intersection of two comparative impulses in the interpretation of German history, which have prompted historians to look either to the West or to the East for their models. The older of these paradigms, the idea of a German Sonderweg (special path), contrasted late nineteenth- century Germany's political "backwardness" with a normative Anglo-American model of combined economic and political modernization. It claimed that industrializing Germany lay trapped in a peculiarly unadaptive and ultimately fatal authoritarianism. Overy turns this image of German aberrancy on its head by taking the other tack, and suggesting that inter-war Germany resembled Russia in actively repudiating the Western model of development, with its heritage of individualism, liberalism and diversity. It was this that linked the Nazi and Soviet regimes; yet for all their monstrosity, he argues, it makes no sense to see them as historical aberrations. Rather, it was the First World War, another product of European history, that provided the conditions for these two deeply polarized societies to embark on their radical but explicable socio-political experiments.

These interpretative debates shadow Overy's text and will be visible to the attentive reader. More obviously, his book - and this is one of its great strengths - reflects in abundant detail the most recent and innovatory research into the texture of social relations and the interactions between society and politics in each regime. Although he disclaims any ambition to present a narrative history of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, he packs an astonishing amount of vividly told information into this volume, including much that will be new to non specialists.

It is instructive to consider how his account of the dictatorships compares with that offered by Alan Bullock. Not only is Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel lives (1991) essentially a double biography that, as Overy points out, doesn't need to be written again, but the earlier book is also a largely political narrative focusing on men, states and wars. You don't even need to plough through the lengthy texts to see how profoundly Overy's approach differs from this. Just look at their illustrations - Bullock's statesmen in a variety of public and private poses, versus the panorama of social milieu depicted in Overy's photographs. Or even their cartography: against Bullock's eighteen political and military maps, Overy offers just six, but of these no fewer than three are devoted to the Nazi and Soviet camp networks.

It is not that Overy ignores the political and military history of the two dictatorships, the dimensions in which, after all, they confronted each other most directly. But the bulk of his attention is drawn to the domestic policies that attempted to realize the utopian transformation of society, the environment and individual men and women that lay at their core. These were simultaneously programmes of massive construction and massive destruction which, it hardly needs pointing out, were utterly dismissive of the value of individual lives and even exulted in some of the human costs they entailed. But if some of the means were similar, the ends were different.

The Soviet historical literature is strewn with questions about the "necessity" of Stalin as Russia's indispensable modernizer, the man who forced through an essential project of industrialization at enormous cost. Isaac Deutscher put the same question with a slightly different inflection: did Stalinism create Stalin, rather than vice versa? It is less clear that we can even begin to ask the same questions about Hitler. He appears as a monstrous superfluity, a historical excess - which does not mean, however, that we cannot explain the historical and political conditions that bred his movement, eased his path to power and enabled the destructive energy of his regime. Arguments about Stalin's necessity derive some of their force from Communism's own claim to be powered by the very motions of historical reason itself: the illusion that was Communism's "daily bread", as Francois Furet has put it, nourishing its addiction to absolute certainty. Overy reminds us that Hitler claimed a much more personal identification with "History". Albert Speer described his "unshakeable faith", his "pathological" belief that his entire career was "predestined by providence". Hitler himself marvelled in one of his speeches at the "miracle" that he and Germany had "found" one another "among so many millions", with all the puppyish bathos of teenagers staring into each other's eyes on a date.

Not only did the dictators believe in their projects, but we should take their beliefs seriously, argues Overy. Exactly at the midpoint of his book lies one of its most original chapters, on "the moral universe of the dictatorships". Here Overy attempts to answer the question, "Why did they think they were right?". This is a challenging question about the motivations and moral practices of the leaders and their representatives which has not often been posed in quite this way. Its virtue is that it enables a more flexible analysis of belief and action than the more usual discussion of ideology alone. Perhaps it is symptomatic of a wider historical turn away from grand theory to the messier terrain of consensus and complicity. The American historian Claudia Koonz has recently attempted much the same thing in her book The Nazi Conscience (2003). And this chapter accords with Overy's overarching argument that we cannot understand the character and operations of the two regimes unless we also grasp the extent to which their ordinary citizens willingly identified themselves with their rulers' projects, and why they did so. Again we need to examine how the regimes were embedded in their societies, not just imposed on top of them.

Relying on a moral as well as a chronological dynamic, The Dictators culminates in a discussion of the most heinous projects of the two regimes, in two final chapters on "Nations and Races" and "Empire of the Camps". It was Hannah Arendt who proposed in 1951 that the camps constituted the essential centre and meaning of totalitarianism, and her claim has been given historical ballast with the intervening accumulation of descriptive and statistical evidence that now allows us to reconstruct these "empires" in remorseless detail. The numbers and detail remain excruciating, yet Overy is uncomfortably correct in reminding us that most Soviet and German citizens could live through the 1930s and 40s without feeling endangered by the terrible fates that engulfed so many of their fellows. It was the War, not the camps, that brought a levelling experience of trauma and loss.

One risk of a dual study like this is that it may become a balance sheet, a kind of historical accountancy that is all the more irresistible because of the degree to which the regimes themselves traded in colossal, improbable magnitudes. I confess I was struck by the emblematic disparity between the two gigantic congress halls planned by Stalin and Hitler to be the centrepieces for their reconstructed capital cities. Where Stalin aspired to provide space for 21,000 potential "delegates of international socialism", Hitler's megalomania conjured up a People's Hall capable of holding ten times this number. Another risk is that the comparative strategy will conceal what isn't readily comparable. Thus, possibly as an effect of his decision to counterpose Stalin's victimization of nationalities with Nazi racial genocide, Overy devotes virtually no attention to agricultural collectivization. Yet this was the policy most closely associated with Stalin and one which arguably had the widest and most destructive impact on ordinary lives.

Just as Bullock pointed out that parallels never meet, so Overy reminds us that comparison does not mean equivalence, and far less identity (though the Oxford bookseller from whom I bought my second-hand copy of Bullock's book had no hesitation in assuming equivalence. "Here you are", he said as I handed over my £5, "£2.50 a dictator"). The test of a comparison is not whether it "works": it can almost always be made persuasive by the historian's selection and direction of the evidence. The ultimate test is whether comparison enables a better understanding of the historical events and processes it describes than a monographic study would. Overy does not aim to provide an ideal type or a theory of dictatorship. He is resolutely resistant to theorization; he is an interpreter - and a superb one - rather than an analyst. His skills lie in the fluent telling of a complex story, in the sharp flash of insight, in his patient commitment to the rational explanation of events that sometimes seem to defy all reason. Only at the very end does a different register of explanation intrude, when Overy refers to a "popular fascination with unrestricted power" and cites the "profound fear of loss that prompted the savage regime(s) of discrimination": the fear that German culture and the promise of the Bolshevik Revolution were at absolute risk unless absolutely protected.

Richard Overy does not pursue the mechanics of these twin fantasies much further, though I think this might have helped him work out why regimes that came to power because they promised stabilization were then able to remain in power by pursuing utopian revolutions. Presiding over his study is the principle that - pace the dictators' own sense of their historical exceptionality - nothing lies beyond history, that the dictators and their regimes were part of the history of the modern world and explicable as such. Metaphorically, this yields an image of the dictatorships shadowing Western culture as its murderous alter ego, realizing the worst of a potential that has otherwise been better contained in Europe and even in Europe's empires, though there a good deal less successfully. Karl Deutsch once characterized totalitarian power as "the ability to afford not to learn". If fear of loss and fascination with power are also bound into our modern world, let us hope that we can at least learn from the dictatorships.

1 Thoughts:

Blogger Doug said...

Edited by yours truly with the portions most relevant to this current-events-skewed blog bolded. (It is a long post, after all).

I also redid the paragraphing to make it easier to read.

Go and buy a subscription to TLS! Expensive-ish, but totally worth it.

Friday, February 25, 2005 1:06:00 PM  

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