Three of a kind: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
Three of a kind: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
(From left to right) AP; AFP; AP

Killers with Ideologies

Reviewed by  Simon Sebag Montefiore
Sunday, August 12, 2007


The Age of Social Catastrophe

By Robert Gellately

Knopf. 696 pp. $35

"The image of Lenin that emerges from the pages of this book, even the mere mention of him in the title alongside Stalin and Hitler," writes Robert Gellately in the introduction to his new study of the epoch of the great slaughterhouse in the 20th century, "will disturb some people." The author, a distinguished academic, adds that "a good friend of mine . . . said the very thought of putting Lenin next to Stalin and Hitler in the book's title would be enough to make her Russian grandmother turn in her grave." But let that Russian grandmother turn: It's time to rip up the accepted versions of this terrible period and analyze it on the evidence that we now have. Gellately has done just that in a book that is both sensible and sophisticated, scholarly and very readable.

The book starts with World War I and the Russian Civil War, and this makes sense: The Great War was the furnace of crazed human destruction that forged these three super-killers. The chapters on the 1930s are especially interesting for bringing out the differences between the regimes: While Stalin, who had emerged as dictator in the mid-'20s after Lenin's death, was killing millions of peasants in the collectivization of 1932-33 and then millions of his own communist comrades in the Great Terror of 1937, Hitler, who was elected chancellor in 1933 and became head of state the following year, had all but stopped killing: There were hardly any executions in Germany in the '30s. Even during the worsening disaster of World War II, Hitler played off his paladins against one another but very rarely executed them. He sent his noble Prussian generals on holiday rather than having them shot.

This shows that the Nazis believed themselves to be popular, whereas the Bolsheviks had no illusions about themselves. The Nazis felt they did not need to kill their own people, and in particular they spared the Prussian generals because the officer class was basically loyal (and willing to ignore the slaughter of Jews and Slavs) so long as Hitler delivered victory. Only when faced with total disaster in the summer of 1944 did the spirit of resistance attain the momentum to launch a plausible attempted assassination and coup -- the July '44 plot.

Afterward, Hitler started killing his own officers -- because he needed to do so. With the start of his Russian invasion, the regime's nature was revealed in the massacres of Jews and commissars. The Nazis considered the killing of non-Germans as part of the struggle for German racial survival, and the more severe the fighting became on the Eastern Front, the more imperative it became to kill "polluting" civilians such as the Jews. The Holocaust started as soon as Hitler invaded Russia. The Bolsheviks, who were besieged by invaders and faced with civil war immediately after their seizure of power in 1917, on the other hand, had to engage in violence and terror right away in order to keep their hold.

We should draw parallels between these two diabolic regimes. But I wonder if, with the latest revelations of Stalinist killings, the balance hasn't shifted too far: Since the publication of my book Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar, I am constantly being buttonholed by earnest history buffs who inform me that Stalin was "much worse than Hitler, yet all we ever heard about was Hitler's crimes while Stalin, who killed so many more people, got away with it." But those who play the parlor game of identifying the greatest monster of all time risk falling into the trap of Stalinist cynicism: "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic," he supposedly said. We have to accept that there were many such monsters and that every victim is a tragedy.

We will never know how many people Stalin murdered -- Gellately discusses various numbers for what he calls "Soviet-on-Soviet killing" that range from 10 to 20 million, not even half the approximately 40 million who died in World War II because of Hitler, not to mention the 6 million Jews. Weighing the evidence sensibly, Gellately concludes that these two terrible regimes, with all their differences and similarities, were jointly responsible for an age of social catastrophe.

This is familiar, but the inclusion of Lenin is the difference. Gellately is right to consider Lenin a maniacal mass-murderer, the creator of the repressive Soviet dictatorship and the promoter of Stalin. I was taught at school that Lenin was decent, Stalin a mad butcher. This was Khrushchev's argument in 1956, and it became leftist orthodoxy. We now know it's a lie. Richard Pipes's Unknown Lenin (1996) and Robert Service's Lenin (2000) have shown the real, brutal Lenin. In my own research into young Stalin, I found much new evidence of an early and close relationship between him and Lenin. Their alliance really started in the years 1905-07 when Stalin, a ruthless bankrobber and gangster kingpin, became Lenin's chief fundraiser: "Exactly the sort of man I need," said Lenin. (Gellately's allegorical granny should have been spinning for some time.) Gellately's material on Lenin is nothing new, but he presents a fine synthesis of it.

As for Stalin, Gellately perhaps leans too far toward the old view that he was a gray bureaucrat, the assessment propagated by Trotsky and repeated in virtually every biography until recent times. Evidence overlooked by Gellately suggests, however, that Stalin was a very dynamic politician -- but that is a small gripe. Gellately is correct in arguing that Lenin and Stalin shared fanatical beliefs and bloodthirsty methods. To underscore the point about Lenin, let me conclude by quoting from a typical memorandum written by that murderous Bolshevik on August 11, 1918: "1. Hang (hang without fail so the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2. Publish their names. 3. Take from them all the grain. 4. Designate hostages -- as per yesterday's telegram. Do it in such a way that for hundreds of versts [one verst is about one kilometer] around, people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks. . . . P.S. Find . . . truly hard people." This is a far cry from the decent man Khrushchev tried to sell us. ยท

Simon Sebag Montefiore's new book, "Young Stalin," will be published in October.

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