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82

2003); Fitzpatrick, Stalinism: New Directions.
¨ ¨
Erwin Oberlander, and Rolf Ahmann, Autoritare Regime in Ostmittel- und Sudosteuropa 1919“
¨
83

1944 (Paderborn: Schoningh, 2001); Gerd Koenen, “Alte Reiche, neue Reiche: Der Maoismus
¨
auf der Folie des Stalinismus “ Eine Gedankenskizze,” in Moderne Zeiten?: Krieg, Revolution
und Gewalt im 20. Jahrhundert, ed. Jorg Baberowski (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht,
¨ ¨
2006), 174“201.
Michael Geyer
18

should take this approach for what it does best and see how far we can go
with it. We added the most compelling elements of inquiry (for example, on
subjectivity, on emotions and beliefs, on governance, on violence) to our own
exploration of the subject, while remaining agnostic about the claim that any
one of these pieces provides the capstone for an overarching interpretation of
Nazism and Stalinism or, for that matter, of modern tyrannical regimes.
The overall challenge of this particular volume “ and of the historiog-
raphy on Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia “ should be evident by now.
It is to work toward a comprehensive assessment of the two regimes and
their comparability. The basic questions that we are asking are simple ones:
Where does a quarter-century or, in any case, more than a decade of research
leave us in our understanding of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia?Were the
two regimes in some important way similar, as so many have thought?Were
they, as others have argued, profoundly different?And what would either of
these variants entail for our understanding of twentieth-century Europe?Was
there a signi¬cant relationship, or even mutual dependency, between these two
quintessential rogue states of twentieth-century Europe, despite their professed
enmity and the monstrous life-and-death struggle in which they engaged?Or
were they largely blind to each other, driven forward by their own splen-
did isolations and cocooned in their respective worldviews, as is suggested by
the notion of “Socialism in one country” and the supremacy of Nazi racial
views?And if neither holds, what might capture their rise to world-shattering
prominence?
If we put these questions into more analytical language, we may want to
differentiate three levels of analysis. In the ¬rst instance, any reassessment of
the two regimes will have an internal dimension, which for some historians may
be the only one that matters. Here the main task is to draw up a compelling
account of the working of these regimes in all their parts and as a whole.
With much empirical work having been done, this now requires a great deal of
prudent judgment “ more than is normally expended “ in assessing the relative
weight of research domains “ proper social scientists would speak of variables “
such as the political sphere, ideology, economy and issues such as surveillance,
entertainment, welfare, and warfare.
On a second level, a reconsideration of the entire issue of the (synchronic)
comparability of the two regimes is at issue. We will return to this point
below because the question of comparison, and of comparative history, has
gained a new salience among historians. But the speci¬c challenge here is worth
noting. Having escaped the epistemic prison of the totalitarian sameness of
the two regimes and having indulged in the particularities of each regime for
the last quarter-century, we need to ask what difference “difference” makes
in understanding the two regimes. This is not merely a question as to what, if
anything, comparison achieves. Rather it involves explaining how and why two
regimes did so many similar things in such different ways. What we ultimately
aim to produce is a better appreciation of the problems and issues that moved
the two regimes and of the strategies they employed to solve them. This, in
Introduction 19

turn, could lead to a new round of informed discussions on the nature of
twentieth-century tyrannical rule in Europe (and in the world) and how it
differs from other forms of rule. For if the totalitarian presumption of sameness
is gone, the phenomenon of twentieth-century tyrannical rule is as urgent as
ever “ but, unfortunately, in knowing more about each regime, it turns out that
we know altogether less about the nature of their rule.
On a third level, questions of historical or diachronic context surfaced
prominently, although the editors did their best to hold the contributors to
a rather narrow focus on the thirties and forties “ and, thus, to button down
this level of analysis as far as possible. But our decision does not invalidate the
line of inquiry itself, a line that is concerned with strategies of “embedding” the
two regimes in their history, in their mutual relationships, and in the transac-
tions, engagements, and disengagements that made up the world of which they
were part. Here, the challenge is twofold. First, it consists in embedding each
regime in its respective national history “ and, not least, in acknowledging the
sheer durability of the Soviet Union as a twentieth-century phenomenon and
the short-lived, explosive nature of the National Socialist regime. Second, the
challenge is to make sense of the rash of dictatorships that covered Europe and
the world in the ¬rst half of the twentieth century, of which Stalinist Russia and
Nazi Germany were by all counts the most prominent, most hard-headed, and
most violent. While we have already discounted the intrinsic sameness of these
regimes, the simultaneity of their occurrence requires attention as a problem of
European and global history.

toward a comparative history of stalinism and nazism
Comparison seems the right way to proceed. For it is only now that the primary
and secondary sources exist for a historical comparison of the two regimes. The
vast and growing historiography entraps historians in their own specialties and
national histories. Therefore, whatever larger bene¬ts there may be, the most
immediate one is to get out of nationally con¬ned historical thought. The exper-
iment is to do on an empirical level what political scientists and philosophers
have done at the theoretical level half a century ago “ and, if all goes well,
revise, amend, improve, or overthrow what they argued in due course. But
why would anyone want to step into the same river ¬fty years downstream as
it were? Would it not be better to consign the entire concept and framework
of totalitarianism to history much as the regimes that totalitarianism tried to
understand? What is there to be gained from a comparison speci¬cally of Stal-
inism and Nazism? In short, does comparison really add value to what we
already know?
A ¬rst line of argument in favor of a comparative history of Stalinism and
Nazism points to a stunningly understudied area of research. Whatever else
these two regimes may have that makes them comparable, the shock and awe
they elicited in their own time “ and in the Nazi case long after defeat “ make
these two regimes, more than any other combination, a worthwhile subject for
Michael Geyer
20

study. If the theorists of totalitarianism lumped Nazism and Stalinism together “
and they often did so as exiles on the far shore of the Atlantic “ they were
motivated by an immediate sense of awe and fear of the two regimes. Whether
that fear was real or imagined “ as, for example, in the Cold War “ was (and
is) not easy to gauge, but we cannot forget or underestimate the immediacy of
the terror for many participants in the debate. Understanding the two regimes
always also meant assessing their future potentialities and their current course
of action. Sovietology is the prime example of this kind of enterprise.84 The
study of National Socialism, in turn, aimed to determine whether these regimes,
once defeated, would reemerge and what it would take to prevent that from
occurring. Arendt, the members of the Frankfurt School, much as a conservative
historian such as Hans Rothfels were deeply troubled by this possibility.85
Further, these regimes simply did not act as classical political theory predicted
even tyrannies to act, or so it seemed (more so to Hannah Arendt than, say, to
Carl Friedrich). They appeared unprecedented and unpredictable in their utter
ruthlessness. Hence their novelty had to be accounted for, if only to provide
a frame of reference for understanding.86 The dif¬culty in conceptualizing
totalitarian regimes is immediately apparent in even the most formalistic of
endeavors, the one by Friedrich and Brzezinski.87 The struggle with the sheer
novelty of these regimes is perhaps clearest in the French endeavors of the time,
as, for example, in the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, which by way of Claude
Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis made it into the American debate.88 Arendt,
Friedrich, and Castoriadis/Lefort are worlds apart analytically and politically.
However, putting the Nazi and the Soviet regime together seemed to all of
them the intelligent thing to do, because these regimes appeared to them both
frightening and unprecedented “ and while we may no longer experience that
fear or, for that matter, the puzzlement, the historicity of the experience re¬‚ects
on the subject matter.
However, even if we take past experience as a starting point, comparative
treatments quickly become caught in an epistemic crisis. The latter is less evident
in grand synthetic efforts,89 but it is the bane of more hard-nosed, one-on-one


Vladimir Shlapentokh, “American Sovietology from 1917“1991: An Attempt at Diagnosis,”
84

Russian History 22, no. 4 (1995): 406“32; Richard Pipes, Vixi: Memoirs of a Non-Belonger
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).
Rabinbach, “Moments of Totalitarianism”; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt: For Love
85

of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982).
Hannah Arendt, “Understanding and Politics (the Dif¬culties of Understanding),” in Essays in
86

Understanding 1930“1954, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994), 307“27.
Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy.
87

Marcel van der Linden, “Socialisme ou Barbarie: A French Revolutionary Group (1949“65),”
88

Left History 5, no. 1 (1997): 7“37; Cornelius Castoriadis, The Castoriadis Reader (Oxford and
Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1997); Claude Lefort, Complications: Communism and the Dilemmas
of Democracy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).
Richard J. Overy, The Dictators: Hitler™s Germany and Stalin™s Russia (New York: W. W.
89

Norton, 2004); Gellately, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe.
Introduction 21

comparative work.90 On one hand, the two regimes, despite their mutual and
implacable ideological enmity, appear so incredibly similar that it seems only
a matter of putting the two sides together to establish their commonality. Yes,
their worldviews were inimical. But the fact that they both were “ideology”-
driven joins them together, or so it is argued. (What ideology entails is another
issue.) Their techniques of rule were quite similar, others opine, but even when
and where they differed they shared a common enmity to bourgeois society
and governance and to democracy. Hence, it seems only natural to explore
the play of similarity and difference between the two regimes. On the other
hand, when it comes to matching up the pieces, say in terms of governance or
ideology, all similarities break down radically and the sheer play of differences
loses meaning. When it comes to one-on-one comparison, the two societies and
regimes may as well have hailed from different worlds. For better or worse,
comparison, as opposed to synthesis, reveals a total mismatch. Although the
two regimes seem to have a great deal in common, surely eyed each other
relentlessly, were indebted to each other and borrowed from each other despite
themselves, and were imbricated in each other both in war and in peace, they
do not match up. Even when observing the same things or processes, historians
face a basic and, some authors in our group argue, irreconcilable asymmetry.
The truly puzzling thing then is how two regimes that in many ways look
so similar can be so fundamentally different. Ironically, it takes comparison to
¬nd out.
First, the acknowledgment even of irreconcilable asymmetries may lead to
comparisons in a minor key. The approach should not be disparaged, all the
more since no less a historian than Marc Bloch elevated this kind of minor
comparison to an art form.91 Historians tend to look over each other™s shoul-
ders “ and while, in the past, it has usually been the Russian historians who
canvassed German scholarship, the state of Russian scholarship today is such
that German historians are well advised to do the same. If systematic compar-
ison does not work, good kibitzing “ an attitude more than an approach “ has
its rewards. Since, at the most elemental level, all national historiographies are
shaped by arbitrary and contingent factors, it is useful for historians working
in one national context to take note of what questions are being asked, what
sources are being consulted, and what approaches are being used by histori-
ans working in a different one, especially if it is related. For instance, German
historians of “everyday life” have for a long time focused on resistance, while
the emerging Soviet historiography concentrates much more on social prac-
tices and survival strategies. A “show-and-tell” comparison thus yields new

Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (Cam-
90

bridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Henry Rousso and Richard Joseph
Golsan, eds., Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2004).
Marc Bloch, “Toward a Comparative History of European Societies,” in Enterprise and Sec-
91

ular Change: Readings in Economic History, eds. Frederic C. Lane and Jelle C. Riemersma
(Homewood, IL: R. D. Irwin, 1953), 494“521.
Michael Geyer
22

approaches and an altogether more re¬‚exive attitude. It forces historians out of
their parochial, expository, and interpretative conventions. The insights gained
from such kibitzing may then well turn into a new appreciation of the subject
matter at hand. Dietrich Beyrau has done this kind of comparison, looking at
professional classes in both regimes.92 With such down-to-earth comparison
even the formalistic catalogue of parameters of totalitarian regimes becomes
intriguing again. For we might now begin to wonder why these two regimes
were so fundamentally concerned with a very few issues, like leadership, even
if they settled them differently.
Second, comparison can also be used as an explanatory strategy. A simple
example: if one believes that the practice of identifying entire population cate-
gories for arrest and execution is a product of Communist class-based ideology,
then the same practice inspired by a race-based ideology in Nazi Germany com-
plicates that argument. But this is, perhaps, too simple “ because the stakes here
are very high indeed. Comparison as a means of elucidating cause and effect
has been the most contentious issue in understanding totalitarianism and fas-
cism, ever since Ernst Nolte turned Arendt™s and Friedrich™s “structural” or
“classical” theories of totalitarianism into a “historical-genetic” one.93 Nolte
claimed that genocidal violence was a Bolshevik invention that had to be dated
back to the Russian Civil War. The Nazis picked up their genocidal id´ e ¬xe
e
from the Bolsheviks, which is to say that the Holocaust is a derivative act
and, post hoc ergo propter hoc, a Russian deed. By extension the Nazi war
of extermination against the Soviet Union was but a boomerang that hit the
originators in what amounted to a European, if not global civil war.94 This
argument was the backdrop for the German historians™ debate in the eighties,
which roundly rejected Nolte™s argument as “ressentiment” or plainly “wrong
judgment.”95
There are other and better ways of historicizing comparison. Nolte™s outra-
geous position has led to the unfortunate result that any form of “genealogical”
research is suspect in German historiography. Reprieve comes from World


Dietrich Beyrau, ed., Im Dschungel der Macht: Intellektuelle Professionen unter Stalin und
92

Hitler (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2000).
¨
¨
Ernst Nolte, “Die historisch-genetische Version der Totalitarismustheorie: Argernis oder Ein-
93

¨
sicht?,” Zeitschrift fur Politik 43, no. 2 (1996): 111“22.
¨ ¨

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