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Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock

Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives - Alan Bullock

Don’t be intimidated by this hefty 1100 page tome; it’s very readable. Results will vary, of course, but Hitler and Stalin- Parallel Lives did a fantastic job exploring the big question I’ve always had about World War II: why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union before he managed to beat Great Britain into either surrender or alliance with Germany?


This was probably the biggest strategic blunder of the war, and one that had never been explored to my satisfaction before. Alan Bullock does an amazing job here showing how this went down:  it starts with the showtrials and political purges of the 1930s. Stalin consolidated his dictatorship with this ever-expanding circle of accusation and self-incrimination. One of the side effects of this is that he completely gutted the Soviet military’s officer corps of its most experienced high ranking officers. Thus, when the Soviets got into a border conflict with Finland in the 1939 “Winter War”, the Soviet Union was beaten to embarrassment, leading Hitler to underestimate the difficulty of his long-term plans to seize and annex the entire Western third of Russia. Obviously, things didn’t go according to plan, but Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 is a bit easier to understand in that context.


A second reason Bullock cites for the June ’41 timing of Barbarossa is the idea that a quick win in Russia would remove the Russian threat from Japan’s western front, freeing them to attack the United States. This would- the reasoning goes- keep America too busy to come to British aid when Hitler then turned his full attention on beating England into submission (either by conquest, or –as Hitler hoped- convincing them to ally with him). I guess it is sound enough reasoning, but of course it contains within it the fatal flaw of assuming that the Russian invasion would go well, and would be completed in a single season. Germany’s “one at a time” strategy, as well as its blitzkrieg tactics had worked so well in Austria, the Sudetenland and Poland- I’m not sure whether the assumption represents hubris, optimism, or just an unaccounted-for bias.


Fascinating stuff. In a way, one might say Stalin unintentionally constructed the circumstances which lured Hitler into the ill-fated attack. As Bullock describes, while the war’s start may have been unintentional, there was nothing unintentional about the factors which eventually led to a Soviet victory. Once Stalin had secured his place at the pinnacle of Soviet power, he recognized the need to legitimize himself. His predecessor Lenin cemented his place in history as the Father of the Russian Revolution, but what gave Stalin a mandate to rule?  How could he justify his leadership?


For better or much worse, Stalin found an answer in industrialization and collective agriculture. Just as he lived in the shadow of Lenin, Russia had for centuries lived with an inferiority complex in the shadow of Western Europe. Peter the Great had hoped to elevate a nation of illiterate peasants by copying Western European (predominantly French) arts and letters, engineering, and science. His success was limited, but important, and well-received domestically. Stalin cast himself in Peter’s role as the man who would bring “backwards Russia” into the industrialized era that capitalism had enjoyed at the turn of the twentieth century. Throughout the 1930’s, the Soviet planned economy uprooted millions, built enormous and inefficient complexes for power generation, manufacturing, mining, oil drilling and refining, and collective farming. Completely unrealistic production schedules were set, and middle managers who failed to meet expectations were frequently exiled, imprisoned, or shot.


The entire birth of Soviet industry was a traumatic national controlled chaos. Starvation, upheaval, and misery followed, and the entire economic system it supported eventually failed in 1989… BUT, during a crucial window of time in the 1940’s and 50’s, the Soviet Union was able to produce a huge volume of tanks, railways, troop transport vehicles, aircraft, munitions, and other materials which helped it defeat German invaders. The Holodomor notwithstanding, there is a broad (and completely unfeeling) historical view that suggests the horrors of Stalin’s drive to rapid industrialization were at least partially justified by Hitler’s defeat.  Stalin probably saw it that way; when Germany invaded, to preserve Soviet industrial capacity, Stalin ordered entire factories deconstructed, shipped hundreds of miles east- safely beyond Third Reich supply lines- and rebuilt. It’s the sort of grand gesture you might expect from a massive, centralized State economy, but it just happened to work this time.  This is really the only book I’ve come across to devote itself to such extensive analysis of the connection between rapid Soviet industrialization in the 30’s and Soviet military experience in the 40’s. Obviously the two are directly related, but it took Bullock to make me see that.  


Another area where Hitler and Stalin- Parallel Lives really came to the table with something new was the extensive details it fills in about Hitler’s long-term vision. What exactly was he trying to build? Don’t get me wrong… he was a power-obsessed dictator with a fetish for German culture, but what exactly did the world he wanted look like? I mean, how was it supposed to work? Did he want to kill everybody else on the planet and repopulate the whole world with Germans, or what? Well, it turns out he left exhaustive notes about what he wanted. Pretty much he wanted Germany to occupy all of Western Europe, Scandinavia and the western third of Russia. He was (genuinely, it seems) going to let a friendly, Mussolini-led Italy occupy the Mediterranean (a sort of resurrection of the old Roman imperial borders, it seems), and Japan’s co-prosperity sphere would include all of East Asia, Australia and the Pacific. The Americas would be divided in some way with Japan, and the rest of the world, I guess would be enslaved and have their natural resources plundered. Without a doubt, it would be an Orwellian hell-on-Earth, but it was interesting to know what the plan was. (Of course who are we kidding? We all know it would only be a matter of time before he turned on Italy and Japan, and altered his dream to a pan-global German world-rule.)


I guess I should throw in a few notes about the parallels between Hitler and Stalin. That is supposed to be the main point of this book, after all.  The similarities weren’t as interesting as the differences. It’s not hard to imagine the similarities to be drawn between the two biggest monsters of the twentieth century. They were both sociopaths. They both worshiped power and materialism, and little else. They both felt aggrandized by sending other people to their deaths –and made no secret of this fact.  And they both turned on people who had helped them advance, once they were no longer useful. This is all well known.


More interesting to me was the contrast of Hitler’s flighty, capricious and grandiose “big picture” scheming in stark opposition to Stalin’s slow but incessant, methodical, patient, details-oriented approach to obtaining and holding power. Over the course of the book, it gradually became clear to me that Hitler’s rise to power was almost a fluke- a tragic confluence of weird circumstances. There is any number of single points in history where Fate might not have broken his way. With Stalin, it seems very different. Once he secured the (Communist Party) Secretary General’s position after V. I. Lenin’s cerebral hemorrhage, there is a sort of inevitability to his ascent to absolute dictator. He really left no detail unconsidered, no contingency unplanned for. His vulgar peasant’s upbringing, his aloofness, and his failure to appreciate anything remotely artistic or refined- all masked a reptilian evil genius brain, who seemed to always know what lever to pull or what button to press, to overcome the obstacles and competitors in his way. There were some uneasy chapters for me, in which I found myself simultaneously horrified by the vast scope of human suffering he caused, but also impressed with the skill he displayed in manipulating the world around him. Please don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing sympathetic or praiseworthy about the man, but his political facility is just a bit aweing. It may also be that this book unintentionally stacks the deck for Stalin’s reputation, by comparing him to possibly the only person in history who he might actually look good in comparison to.


These were the big take-home lessons I got from this book. There is of course much, much more. It’s an 1100 page book after all; I couldn’t possibly do it all justice. To throw a few teasers out, the book provides thorough accounts of both men’s’ rise to power; quite a bit of analysis of secondary characters like Molotov, Trotsky, Beria Ribbentrop, Goering, and Himmler; an interesting diversion about Tito in Yugoslavia; and detailed exploration of third parties such as Mussolini, Churchill, Roosevelt and Franco. World War II has always been a ripe topic for positing “what if’s”, and this book is quite good with that as well. The most intriguing is “What if Hitler had followed Mussolini’s plan in the Mediterranean?”


While Hitler drew up plans to attack Russia, Mussolini was trying to convince him to dedicate German forces to control the Mediterranean. Naturally Italy’s interest in this was obvious, but Bullock points out that if Axis Powers ruled the Mediterranean, England could only get natural resources from her Asian and Middle Eastern colonies by traveling all the way around Africa. It is quite possible the strain on British supply lines –especially in those two years when England was committed to war, but America had not yet joined in- could have been decisively crippling.  In fact, if Hitler had been willing to defer his dreams of German “Lebensraum” in the Ukraine, Germany might have teamed up with Russia to create a massive land force which would have completely obviated Great Britain’s greatest strategic asset: her unopposable naval force. Whether Stalin would have gone along is doubtful; he was well aware of Hitler’s long-term ambitions in Russia. Still, it is interesting that –through either grandiosity or a simple failure of imagination- Hitler failed to recognize this possible strategy as far superior to the one he ultimately deployed. Thank God he didn’t.


This is probably as good a place as any to end. Hopefully you get the idea that Bullock has written something very special here: an enormously informative book, vast in scope and deep in detail, which manages to say something new about World War II, and which is a pleasure to read. I not only give it 5 stars, but include it in the top 3 history books I’ve ever read, in the honored company of Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy & Hope and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.