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Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen




The onset of perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet system promised to
redress a long-standing imbalance in the study of Stalinism and Nazism. Pre-
vious restrictions on archival access and on the openness of of¬cial Soviet dis-
course had meant that the corpus of credible academic research on Stalinism
had lagged behind the equivalent scholarship on the Nazi system.1 The opening
of the archives and the emergence of a meticulous and even-handed post-Soviet
historical scholarship have done much to set this imbalance to rights.2 Among
the most striking revelations of the last ¬fteen years has been the unearthing


As late as 2000, in the fourth edition of his textbook, The Nazi Dictatorship, Ian Kershaw
1

wrote: “Research into Stalinist government and society has reached nowhere near the level of
penetration of that into the Nazi regime, and comparisons are in fact often highly super¬cial.”
See Ian Kershaw, The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation, 4th ed.
(London: Arnold, 2000), 35.
2 Two of the most important published archival sources on the political history of Stalinism are

the series “Dokumenty sovetskoi istorii” published by ROSSPEN under the general editorship of
Andrea Graziosi and Oleg Khlevniuk, and the series “Rossiia. XX vek. Dokumenty” published
by Mezhdunarodnyi Fond “Demokratiia” under the general editorship of A. N. Yakovlev. The
¬rst series, which commenced in 1995, is now in its twelfth substantial volume while the second,
which began in 1997 and which includes books outside the Stalin period, has now yielded over
twenty volumes. An example of the excellent new Russian scholarship on the political history
of Stalinism is O. V. Khlevniuk, Politbiuro: Mekhanizmy politicheskoi vlasti v 1930-e gody
(Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1996), now available in English as Master of the House: Stalin and His
Inner Circle, trans. Nora Seligman Favorov (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008).
We owe a special debt to Michael Geyer for his encouragement and sage advice. Thanks are
also due to the participants at the Harvard and Chicago workshops and, in particular, to Sheila
Fitzpatrick, Peter Fritzsche, Terry Martin, Lewis Siegelbaum, Ron Suny, and Nicolas Werth for
valuable suggestions. A later version of the essay was presented at the CREES History Seminar at the
University of Birmingham. Although we are unlikely to have convinced him, we are grateful to the
discussant, Richard Overy, for his trenchant criticisms and to the other participants, especially John
Barber, Don Filtzer, and Melanie Ilic, for theirs. The essay has further bene¬ted from readings and
comments by Oleg Khlevniuk, Vera Tolz, Mark Harrison, Peter Gatrell, and Bob Davies. Yoram
Gorlizki also thanks Boaz Evron for stimulating conversations on this theme.

41
Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen
42

of a large body of evidence incriminating the Stalinist leadership in successive
waves of violence against their own population. Detailed revelations on Stal-
inist “ethnic cleansing,” on the elaborate network of slave labor camps across
the country, and on Stalin™s own blood-stained involvement in the running of a
¬ercely coercive state have tended to accentuate the strong family resemblances
that bound the two systems and set them apart from the other personal dicta-
torships of interwar Europe. While other regimes may have had dictators and
one-party states geared toward mass mobilization, none “repressed, enslaved,
and then killed millions of their subjects,” as Hitler™s Germany and Stalin™s
Soviet Union did. “The two regimes belong together,” the sociologist Michael
Mann was to write in the mid-1990s. “It is only a question of ¬nding the right
family name.”3
While attention has unsurprisingly turned to the new, ¬ne-grained, and often
gruesome accounts we now have of individual tragedies, and to the leaderships™
culpability in the deliberate and calculated murder of hundreds of thousands
of victims, that is not our purpose here.4 Instead, our intention is to start
by looking speci¬cally at the internal political dynamics of the two regimes.
Incorporating some of the empirical ¬ndings of the last ¬fteen years, especially
from the Soviet archives, we shall argue that while Stalin™s Soviet Union and
Nazi Germany both had tyrants and ruling parties, the attitude and behavior
of their rulers, the internal organization of their parties, and the interaction
between the two were markedly different, leading to divergent patterns of
development. While the higher degree of party-based institutionalization in the
Soviet case enabled the leadership over the long term to keep the dynamics
of political mobilization in check, in Nazi Germany the greater reliance on
the institutionally amorphous cult of the Fuhrer, on the free-¬‚oating retinue
¨
structures around him, and on a relentlessly expansionist ideology led the
dynamics of political mobilization to spill out of control.
We argue that one of the reasons for this divergence was that the two dicta-
torships emerged in response to crises within societies at differing moments of

Michael Mann, “The Contradictions of Continuous Revolution,” in Stalinism and Nazism:
3

Dictatorships in Comparison, eds. Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1997), 135. Richard Overy™s recent volume, while empirically much richer, is
similar in its stress on the camps and on the scale of violence as the key distinguishing feature
that unites the two regimes. “The camps,” Overy writes, “are what make the Hitler and Stalin
dictatorships appear so distinctive from other forms of modern authoritarianism.” Later, he
goes on: “The two dictatorships did not just crush lives in their prisons and camps; one or
the other, they destroyed entire ancient communities, exterminated millions, deported millions
from their homelands. . . . The mere reiteration of these unimaginable statistics sets the two
dictatorships apart from anything else in the modern age.” See Richard Overy, The Dictators:
Hitler™s Germany, Stalin™s Russia (London: Penguin Books, 2005), 594, 644“5.
For a ¬ne microstudy which traces the effects of Soviet repressive policies to the local level, see
4

Nicolas Werth, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag, trans. Steven Rendall (Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007). The subject of state violence is also tackled in greater
detail in the chapter in this volume by Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth.
Political (Dis)Orders 43

socioeconomic development and national integration. The Stalinist regime, as
with the October Revolution before it, must be interpreted against the back-
ground of Russia™s historical backwardness. It was this backwardness “ de¬ned
in no small measure vis-a-vis Germany “ which had induced Lenin to push for
`
a “committee of professional revolutionaries” which could both operate in a
hostile political environment and provide the unity and leadership needed to
haul Russia into the orbit of the advanced Western states. In the absence of
the large industrial working-class class base and the civil freedoms enjoyed by
the German Social Democrats, Lenin had laid great stress on proper organi-
zation and inner party discipline. “Take the Germans. It will not be denied, I
hope . . . that the working class movement there has learned to walk,” he had
noted in 1903. “But what takes place very largely automatically in a politically
free country must in Russia be done deliberately and systematically by our
organizations.”5
After the October Revolution, backed by a growing central apparatus the
party assumed a leading role in the ¬rst phase of Bolshevik state-building which
lasted from 1919 to 1923. Russia™s “backwardness” “ again, coincidentally,
vis-a-vis Germany “ would also provide the background to the second phase of
`
Bolshevik state-building from 1930 to 1934. The crash course industrialization
of those years, designed to defend Russia from its more economically advanced
adversaries, was accompanied by the introduction of a panoply of steering
organizations, most notably in the economy. The establishment of a full-blown
Stalinist state in the mid-1930s was matched by a radical social transformation.
By the end of the decade Stalin™s “revolution from above” had transformed the
prerevolutionary class structure and created a completely new political and
economic elite, which, in contrast to Nazi Germany, had sundered all ties to
the prerevolutionary ruling order.
The Nazi regime emerged in a relatively advanced industrial economy where
the relation of party to society was in many respects the mirror image of Rus-
sia. Whereas the Bolshevik party strove toward centralism, the Nazi party was
poorly integrated and owed most of what coherence it had to the unifying
force of its leader. Where the Bolsheviks seized power against the backdrop of
a highly unsettled and ¬‚uid class structure marked by fast-changing party alle-
giances, the Nazis, as with other European fascist movements, were latecomers


V. I. Lenin, “What Is to Be Done?” in Lenin, The Years of Reaction and of the New Revival
5

(1908“1914), vol. 1, ed. J. Fineberg (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1936), 135, 147. This
vision of the Bolsheviks as a tightly knit unit was of course a far cry from the fractious, frag-
mented, and fast-growing party of 1917. Nevertheless, impelled by the military and economic
emergencies of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks did take up a centralized interventionist approach,
especially from 1919, to marshaling the country™s troops and economic resources. The need for
centralization was an abiding theme of Lenin™s throughout this period. See, for example, his
“Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?”, the second edition of which was published after the
October Revolution but before the Civil War, in V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 26 (London:
Lawrence and Wishart, 1964), 116“17.
Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen
44

on a political scene in which social cleavages had hardened and in which a
nascent party system had already taken shape.6 Having made their prerevo-
lutionary pitch to an embryonic Russian proletariat “ in Bolshevik parlance,
the future “winners” of industrialization “ the Communist Party leadership of
the late 1920s went on to seek a social base for the coming Socialist Offensive
in the fast-growing urban working class. In Germany although the National
Socialists in the late 1920s did increasingly turn their attention to the sizable
German working class, the political loyalty of much of this group had already
been courted by the Nazis™ opponents, the Communists and Social Democrats.
Instead, the National Socialists relied on a highly heterogeneous mix of sup-
porters, many of whom, as former nonvoters, came from social groups that
were the least integrated into the relatively mature class and party structures
of German society.7
Historical circumstances affected not only the tactics but the revolutionary
potential of the Nazi and Bolshevik movements. Despite the recession and the
economic crisis of the 1920s, the German class structure was not pulverized as
Russia™s had been by the events of 1914 to 1921. In Germany, the forces of
the establishment remained suf¬ciently sturdy to prevent a full revolutionary
takeover and to force a number of compromises on the Nazis. Whereas the
Bolsheviks completely broke with established economic interests, offering only
a partial and temporary reprieve during NEP, the Nazis coopted industrial
and national-conservative groups, making them key players in their regime.
While the Nazi regime did undergo a radical overhaul toward the end of
the 1930s, this was fueled by the regime™s expansionist ambitions and was,
accordingly, directed outward. At no point did the Nazis commit themselves,
as the party leadership under Stalin certainly did, to a coordinated program for
the wholesale restructuring of domestic state and society.8

Juan Linz, “Some Notes toward a Comparative Study of Fascism in Sociological Historical
6

Perspective,” in Fascism: A Reader™s Guide, ed. Walter Laqueur (Harmondsworth: Penguin,
1979), 14“15, 26.
For more on the role of former nonvoters in the Nazis™ rise to power, see Jurgen W. Falter,
¨
7

¨
Hitlers Wahler (Munich: Beck, 1991), esp. 369“70.
Here our emphasis differs from that of those who see the emergence of a “racial state” in
8

Germany in the 1930s. We suggest that the impact of the “racial state,” which sought the
puri¬cation of state and society on racial lines, was far more limited than Stalin™s “revolution
from above,” which led to an unprecedented internal transformation of Soviet society. None of
the consequences of the “racial state” for German state and society can compare with the ef-
fects of forced collectivization, the mass migration to the cities, the transformation of the coun-
try™s occupational structure, and the Great Purges, on the USSR in the 1930s. As we shall see later,
Leninist ideology also had a much greater impact on the internal design of the Soviet state than
did the ideology of the “racial state” on German political institutions. For more on the “racial
state” see, in particular, Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wipperman, The Racial State: Germany
1933“1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). Other, more recent works which
lay emphasis on the role of racial ideology in German society include Claudia Koonz, The Nazi
Conscience (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003); Jeffrey Herf,
The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge,
Political (Dis)Orders 45

In concentrating on the role of political institutions, we do not aim to demean
the importance of personal political values or of collective political identities,
themes which are covered in some detail elsewhere in this volume.9 It would
nonetheless be folly to ignore the fact that in the 1930s Germany and the
Soviet Union both had identi¬able political institutions such as ruling parties,
state bureaucracies, and leadership structures, which, as well as commanding
considerable human resources, served as motors for their social and economic
systems as a whole. “Stalinism” and “Nazism” may have existed as speci¬c
“subjectivities,”10 but they also existed as distinct political systems as well.
Fixing on two directly comparable and empirically concrete aspects of these
systems “ the roles of their leaders and ruling parties “ will also allow us to
trace two distinct lines of development and to show how the two political
orders were moving, as it were, at different speeds and in different directions.
Close scrutiny of the inner dynamics of the political order will, we go on to
argue, reveal a variety of contrasts between the two social orders which other
large-scale comparisons have tended to disregard or ignore.11
We accept that the relationship between political structures and the social
undercurrents that swirled beneath them was often far from straightforward.
In the Soviet case, Lenin™s, and subsequently Stalin™s, “relentless insistence on
the centrality of political power, order, and systematic building” and techno-
cratic vision of “the party as a vast of¬ce or factory” were often superimposed
on an extremely ¬‚uid social reality.12 If anything, the insistence on “plan,”
“discipline,” and “organization” was repeated so often “ especially in the ¬rst
phase of Stalinist state-building “ precisely in order to make up for an external
social reality that was quite the reverse; where the leadership did try to narrow
the gap between their own political goals and this reality they often ended up

MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006); and Christopher R. Browning, “Ide-
ology, Culture, Situation, and Disposition: Holocaust Perpetrators and the Group Dynamic
¨
of Mass Killing,” NS-Gewaltherrschaft: Beitrage zur historischen Forschung und juristischen
Aufarbeitung, eds. Alfred Gottwaldt, Norbert Kampe, and Peter Klein (Berlin: Edition Hentrich,
2005), 66“76.
9 Chapters 6, 7 and 8, by Siegelbaum and Browning, Fitzpatrick and Ludtke, and Fritzsche and
¨
Hellbeck in this volume.
10 See chapter 8 by Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck in this volume.
11 Richard Overy™s impressive work The Dictators is a case in point. It is invariably in its efforts

to press the homologies between the two systems that its arguments become most forced and its
empirical errors “ especially on the Soviet side “ most glaring. Few specialists, for example, would
accept the statement that “Kirov seems to have had little fear of Stalin” (thereby enhancing the
parallels between the effects of Kirov™s assassination and those of Ernest™s Rohm™s murder,
¨
both in 1934), the argument that Stalin had at his disposal a “secret state” centered on the
Special Sector (thereby downplaying the importance of the ordinary central party apparatus in
the USSR), or the assertion that the party as an institution somehow declined in the late 1930s
(thereby bringing our notion of the Soviet political system into line with common interpretations
of the role of the NSDAP). Cf. Overy, The Dictators, 52, 66“8, 70, 169“70.
12 See Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian

Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 44“5.
Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen
46

only in widening it.13 Some scholars have generalized from instances of this
kind to argue that it was the huge disparity between the lofty political goals
of the regimes and the often brutal realities on the ground that, in some sense,
helps us to de¬ne these systems.14 In order to chart the political evolution of

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