Bullock's extensive biography probes the diabolical lives of Hitler and Stalin

April 19, 1992|By Bruce Clayton


Alan Bullock.


1,057 pages. $35. To read Alan Bullock's magisterial "Hitler and Stalin" is to stare into the face of evil. German Nazis systematically exterminated more than 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, Adolph Hitler's diabolical brainchild. In the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin ruthlessly forced Soviet peasants into collectivized state farms and, in the process, starved millions to death. Later, his publicized purges of Communist Party leaders and "dissidents" brought about another million or so deaths. In 1939, Hitler plunged the world into World War II. The death toll: more than 50 million.

No one is better qualified to probe these two moral monstrosities than Alan Bullock, the Oxford don who made his name 40 years ago with a massive biography of Hitler. Now, after a lifetime of pondering and writing about contemporary Europe, Mr. Bullock has produced a gargantuan dual biography. At almost 1,000 pages of text alone, it can't be read quickly, nor should it be.

Here is a masterpiece of scholarship, probing questions, piercing arguments, brilliant synthesis. Every fact-filled page, turning on fast-paced narrative, springs to life with an arresting comment. Deftly, each chapter contrasts and compares, never losing sight of either man or the history swirling around them.

Stalin, older than Hitler by 10 years, was born in 1879, from peasant stock. He hitched his wagon to Lenin's star in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and outfoxed his competitors following Lenin's death in 1923. Stalin was stolid, secretive, squat, short (only 5 feet 4 inches), unimaginative, boorish (full of grubost, "rudeness," Lenin said) -- someone Trotsky and the intellectuals sneered at.

Stalin was plagued by insecurity but was street-smart; his mouth was always dry with ambition. Only power could quench his thirst and he remained thirsty until his death in 1953. He then had vanquished every foe, real and imagined, and created a morally bankrupt regime whose only raison d'etre was to serve the Generalissimo, as he liked to be called.

Hitler was the ideologue. (Stalin began as a believing Communist but mainly he mouthed Marxism and used Leninisms to club his opponents.) Hitler's ideology, picked up in the gutters of turn-of-the century Vienna, was a crude Social Darwinism layered with fanatical anti-Semitism. But like Stalin, his crazed ideology served a vaunting ambition, a love of power, an intense nationalism and a willingness to use any means to advance himself. Both men, Mr. Bullock writes, "shared a common narcissistic obsession with themselves."

Similarities abound. Both were loners, outsiders, essentially self-made, though Hitler's origins were middle-class. Both were rude, uneducated, primitive in their tastes, suspicious of refinement, full of hatred for their betters but equally contemptuous of the masses whom they professed to love.

Hitler strutted with self-confidence, but like Stalin was cunningly patient. Both waited until they could seize power "legally" -- Stalin by stealthily taking over control of the Party by 1928, Hitler by winning such mass support that the government asked him to become chancellor in 1933. Each man instinctively understood the worth of propaganda -- "it must," Hitler said, "confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over again" -- and the enormous power of terror. Mr. Bullock writes: "Ruthlessness in Stalin's eyes, as in Hitler's, was a sovereign virtue, to be curbed only for the sake of expediency."

Mr. Bullock concurs with Robert Conquest and other scholars to document the destruction Stalin inflicted when he collectivized agriculture during his first Five Year Plan (1928-1933). The peasants fought back, vainly. Production plummeted, but Stalin

demanded more and more grain for export to finance Soviet industrialization. Starvation stalked the countryside: "Corpses were piled by the side of the roads, even in the towns; only in the larger cities were the dead collected each morning and thrown into pits." At least 11 million perished, probably more, Mr. Bullock says.

The death count for Jews in Hitler's concentration camps was probably 7 million, not 6 million, Mr. Bullock believes. Hitler's henchmen -- Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Eichmann, many others, including prominent German physicians -- oversaw the killing, but it was Hitler's idea and will that made the "Final Solution" a policy. To Mr. Bullock, Hitler's crime against humanity -- based on a paranoid ideology and directed at an entire race -- is more morally odious than Stalin's bestiality.

Dispassionately, Mr. Bullock argues that the Holocaust and the war also must be laid at the feet of the German people. The downtrodden Soviets were terrorized into submission. But millions of Germans gave their hearts and heads to Hitler. The Germans knew what was happening to the Jews. Hitler had spelled out his virulent anti-Semitism in "Mein Kampf" and had continued slandering Jews publicly.

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