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After Totalitarianism “ Stalinism and Nazism Compared

Michael Geyer with assistance from Sheila Fitzpatrick

The idea of comparing Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union under Stalin is
not a novel one. Notwithstanding some impressive efforts of late, however,
the endeavor has achieved only limited success.1 Where comparisons have
been made, the two histories seem to pass each other like trains in the night.
That is, while there is some sense that they cross paths and, hence, share a
time and place “ if, indeed, it is not argued that they mimic each other in a
deleterious war2 “ little else seems to ¬t. And this is quite apart from those
approaches which, on principle, deny any similarity because they consider
Nazism and Stalinism to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Yet,
despite the very real dif¬culties inherent in comparing the two regimes and an
irreducible political resistance against such comparison, attempts to establish
their commonalities have never ceased “ not least as a result of the inclination to
place both regimes in opposition to Western, “liberal” traditions. More often
than not, comparison of Stalinism and Nazism worked by way of implicating
a third party “ the United States.3 Whatever the differences between them,
they appeared small in comparison with the chasm that separated them from
liberal-constitutional states and free societies. Since a three-way comparison

Alan Bullock, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (London: HarperCollins, 1991); Ian Kershaw and

Moshe Lewin, eds., Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1977); Henry Rousso, ed., Stalinisme et nazisme: Histoire et m´ moire compar´ es
e e
(Paris: Editions Complexe, 1999); English translation by Lucy Golvan et al., Stalinism and
Nazism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Richard J. Overy, The Dictators: Hitler™s
Germany and Stalin™s Russia (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004); Robert Gellately, Lenin, Stalin,
and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007).
Klaus Jochen Arnold, Die Wehrmacht und die Besatzungspolitik in den besetzten Gebieten

der Sowjetunion: Kriegfuhrung und Radikalisierung im “Unternehmen Barbarossa” (Berlin:
Duncker & Humblot, 2004).
Fran§ois Furet and Ernst Nolte, “Feindliche Nahe”: Kommunismus und Faschismus im 20.

Jahrhundert (Munich: F. A. Herbig, 1998).

Michael Geyer

might entail associating liberal democracy with its opposite, if only by bridging
the chasm between them through the act of comparison, this procedure was
commonly shunned “ or deliberately used to suggest that, despite it all, the
three regimes were not so far apart.4
This state of affairs is not good, especially considering that the material
conditions for the comparative enterprise have markedly changed. For the ¬rst
time historians are able to approach Nazism and Stalinism on a relatively
level playing ¬eld. One may legitimately argue that historians did not take
part in the ¬rst round of comparisons, a round dominated by philosophers,
social scientists, and public intellectuals. 5 Since that time, however, we have
accumulated suf¬cient primary and secondary source materials to merit a seri-
ous comparison of the two regimes. Moreover, the historiography on both
regimes has grown quite large “ massive and overwhelming for Nazi Germany
and growing prodigiously for the Soviet Union “ and is generally accessible to
researchers. Comparison is now a matter of doing it “ and doing it intelligently
and productively.
It turns out that this is easier said than done. For one thing, thought on total-
itarianism always seems to intrude, regardless of what the editors think about
the concept™s usefulness (on which matter they disagree). It intrudes because the
concept is so deeply embedded in how historians grapple with and understand
the two regimes.6 Second, comparison proves to be a remarkably obstreperous
exercise.7 While it is easy enough to identify common turf, such as the political
regime or everyday practices, it is far more dif¬cult to make the comparison
happen in actual fact. As a result, the attempt of understanding Nazi Germany
and the Stalinist Soviet Union as distinct regimes is often sidetracked into an
effort to better understand each other™s histories. Of course, familiarity with
each other™s national history is a bonus. If anything, it helps to penetrate the
idiosyncrasies of national historiographies.8 But comparative history ought to
add more value for the exertion of doing it, if it is to matter.

Johan Galtung, Hitlerismus, Stalinismus, Reaganismus: Drei Variationen zu einem Thema von

Orwell (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1987).
Alfons Sollner, Ralf Walkenhaus, and Karin Wieland, eds., Totalitarismus, eine Ideengeschichte

des 20. Jahrhunderts (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1997); Hans J. Lietzmann, Politikwissenschaft im
“Zeitalter der Diktaturen”: Die Entwicklung der Totalitarismustheorie Carl Joachim Friedrichs
(Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1999); Mike Schmeitzner, ed., Totalitarismuskritik von Links:
Deutsche Diskurse im 20. Jahrhundert (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).
As far as Germany is concerned, every historian of stature dealt with the issue at one point

or another. Manfred Funke, ed., Totalitarismus: Ein Studien-Reader zur Herrschaftsanalyse
moderner Diktaturen (Dusseldorf: Droste, 1978); Eckhard Jesse, Christiane Schroeder, and
Thomas Grosse-Gehling, eds., Totalitarismus im 20. Jahrhundert: eine Bilanz der internationalen
Forschung, 2nd enlarged ed. (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 1999).
Deborah Cohen and Maura O™Connor, eds., Comparison and History: Europe in Cross-National

Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Jurgen Kocka, “Asymmetrical Historical Comparison: The Case of the German Sonderweg,”

History and Theory 38, no. 1 (1999): 40“50.
Introduction 3

Compared to the grander projects of, say, “thinking the twentieth century,”
this is down-to-earth stuff.9 But it is of consequence. For in wrestling with
Nazism and Stalinism in joint Russian-German essays, the contributors to this
book have laid bare what does and does not work. In a progression of labors
and discussions in the manner of a pilotage a vue, they de¬ned the nature
of the two regimes and the two societies more clearly, such that, after a ¬rst
round of totalitarian theorizing, we can now begin to think historically about
Stalinism and Nazism.10 Moreover, the contributors identify the dif¬culties
inherent in a comparison that is more than the assemblage of like parts and,
thus, provided insight into the epochal nature of the two regimes by way of in-
direction. We might want to see in this a return to the original intent of thought
on totalitarian regimes “ understanding the intertwined trajectories of socialism
and nationalism.11 More assuredly, doing the labor of comparison gives us
the means to ascertain the historicity of the two extraordinary regimes and
the wreckage they have left. The latter has become an ever more important
challenge as Europe and the United States are making efforts to leave behind
the twentieth century.12

the ways of “totalitarianism”
The terms “totalitarian” and “totalitarianism” entered political debate in the
1920s, primarily in reference to Italian fascism.13 They moved into academic

Fran§ois Furet, Le pass´ d™une illusion: Essai sur l™id´ e communiste au XXe si` cle (Paris: R. Laf-
e e e

font: Calmann-L´ vy, 1995); Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World,
1914“1991 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994); Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe™s
Twentieth Century (New York: Random House, 1999); Moishe Postone and Eric L. Santner,
eds., Catastrophe and Meaning: The Holocaust and the Twentieth Century (Chicago: Univer-
sity of Chicago Press, 2003); Dan Diner, Das Jahrhundert verstehen: Eine universalhistorische
Deutung (Munich: Luchterhand, 1999); Bernard Wasserstein, Barbarism and Civilization: A
History of Europe in Our Time (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
Wac‚aw D‚ugoborski, “Das Problem des Vergleichs von Nationalsozialismus und Stalinismus,”

in Lager, Zwangsarbeit, Vertreibung und Deportation: Dimensionen der Massenverbrechen
in der Sowjetunion und in Deutschland 1933 bis 1945, eds. Dittmar Dahlmann and Gerhard
Hirschfeld (Essen: Klartext, 1999), 19“29; Dietrich Beyrau, “Nationalsozialistisches Regime
und Stalin System: Ein riskanter Vergleich,” Osteuropa: Zeitschrift fur Gegenwartsfragen des
Ostens 50, no. 6 (2000): 709“20.
Roman Szporluk, Communism and Nationalism: Karl Marx versus Friedrich List (New York:

Oxford University Press, 1988).
Ira Katznelson, Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitar-

ianism, and the Holocaust (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).
Michael Halberstam, Totalitarianism and the Modern Conception of Politics (New Haven, CT:

Yale University Press, 1999); Wolfgang Wippermann, Totalitarismustheorien: Die Entwicklung
der Diskussion von den Anfangen bis heute (Darmstadt: Primus Verlag, 1997); Karl Schlogel,
“Archaologie totaler Herrschaft,” in Deutschland und die Russische Revolution, 1917“1924,
eds. Gerd Koenen and Lew Kopelew (Munich: W. Fink Verlag, 1998), 780“804. On left totali-
tarianism: William David Jones, The Lost Debate: German Socialist Intellectuals and Totalitari-
anism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999); Uli Scholer, “Fruhe totalitarismustheoretische
¨ ¨
Michael Geyer

debate in the late 1940s and 1950s with a distinct focus on Germany. They
gained popular and academic currency during the Cold War, mostly in reference
to the Soviet Union.14 Concurrently, they became a staple of secondary and
postsecondary teaching and of media debate with works like Arthur Koestler™s
Darkness at Noon and, more prominently, George Orwell™s 1984, which made
the image of the ideologically driven, mind-altering police state pervasive.15
In popular parlance, totalitarianism lumped together the two most prominent
European dictatorships of the 1930s and 1940s, Nazi Germany and the Stalinist
Soviet Union, as expressions of absolute evil rather than any particular form of
rule.16 The two regimes were juxtaposed with the “righteous” path of liberal
democracy, both as a way of life and as a form of governance.
As a polemical term in political debate and in academic controversy, we may
also recall that “totalitarianism” stood in sharp opposition to “fascism.” The
latter initially served as a self-description for Italian fascists and their European
imitators (including some early National Socialists). But left-wing intellectuals
appropriated the term in the 1930s. Unlike the concept of totalitarianism, which
linked together the dictatorships of the left and right during the ¬rst half of
the twentieth century, the notion of fascism set them apart. Fascism referred
exclusively to right-radical, ultranationalist movements and states. Fascism
brie¬‚y dominated academic debate in the 1960s and 1970s. The academic no-
tion of fascism, however, collapsed under the combined weight of left-wing
political dogmatism and the pervasive discrediting of leftist thought during the
last quarter of the twentieth century and is only just now resurfacing.17
Initially, historians “ and, especially, German historians “ showed consider-
able enthusiasm for the ideas of totalitarianism and, to a lesser degree, fascism.
They generally held the ¬rst-generation master thinkers of totalitarianism, like
Hannah Arendt or Carl Friedrich, in high regard.18 They certainly had Carl

Ansatze der Menschewiki im Exil,” Beitrage zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 38, no. 2
(1996): 32“47.
Abbott Gleason, Totalitarianism: The Inner History of the Cold War (New York and Oxford:

Oxford University Press, 1995).
Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (New York: Random House, 1941); George Orwell, 1984:

A Novel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1949).
Dieter Nelles, “Jan Valtins ˜Tagebuch der Holle™: Legende und Wirklichkeit eines

Schlusselromans der Totalitarismustheorie,” 1999: Zeitschrift fur Sozialgeschichte des 20. und
21. Jahrhunderts 9, no. 1 (1994): 11“45.
Wolfgang Wippermann, Faschismustheorien: Zum Stand der gegenwartigen Diskussion, 5th

rev. ed. (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976); Sven Reichardt, “Was mit dem
Faschismus passiert ist: Ein Literaturbericht zur internationalen Faschismusforschung seit 1990,
Teil I,” Neue politische Literatur 49, no. 3 (2004): 385“406; Sven Reichardt and Armin Nolzen,
eds., Faschismus in Italien und Deutschland: Studien zu Transfer und Vergleich (Gottingen:
Wallstein Verlag, 2005); Roger Grif¬n, Werner Loh, and Andreas Umland, eds., Fascism Past
and Present, West and East: An International Debate on Concepts and Cases in the Comparative
Study of the Extrreme Right (Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2006).
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, new ed. (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and

World, 1966); Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autoc-
racy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1956).
Introduction 5

Schmidt to contend with.19 In hindsight, it also appears that, wittingly or
unwittingly, some of the best early works of historians originated out of their
struggles with “theory.” Karl-Dietrich Bracher™s monumental studies on the
Third Reich worked through Friedrich™s legacy and were picked up by others,
like Eberhard Jackel, who highlighted the ideological motivation of the Nazi
regime. Martin Broszat™s and Hans Mommsen™s structural-functional inter-

pretation of the Nazi regime™s radicalizing trajectory represented a creative
adaptation and transformation of Arendt™s complex reading of totalitarianism
that hinged on the inherent instability and the (self-perceived) lack of legiti-
macy of these regimes.21 Timothy Mason™s widely admired attempts to escape
the strictures of a dead-end German debate that pitted intentionalists (Bracher)
against structuralists (Broszat) were deeply in¬‚uenced by his struggles with
Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and his attempt to resuscitate nonorthodox theo-
ries of fascism.22
One of the more curious reasons for the dif¬culty in evaluating the spe-
ci¬c impact of theories of totalitarianism on German historiography was that


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