Schools of History

Walter Laqueur

  • Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives by Alan Bullock
    HarperCollins, 1187 pp, £20.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 00 215494 3
  • Stalin: Breaker of Nations by Robert Conquest
    Weidenfeld, 346 pp, £18.99, September 1991, ISBN 0 297 81194 0

‘About Hitler I can’t think of anything to say,’ thus Karl Kraus in a famous aside in 1935. But a great deal has been said about him ever since and no one has been better at saying it than Alan Bullock. His Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, published in 1952, is still the best biography, and one of the best books on the Nazi phenomenon in general. Only a very few other works come to mind which are in the same league: Konrad Heiden’s history of the Nazi Party and his Hitler biography – but they appeared in 1932 and 1936 respectively – and Joachim Fest’s fine work of 1972.

It has been the fashion for some time among students of Nazism to claim that Bullock’s book had aged or was out of date. And it is of course true that a great many sources have since become accessible and fine monographs been written on almost every aspect of Nazi Germany in peace and war. It is more difficult to think of profound new insights and conceptual breakthroughs, however. The Marxist-Leninist angle (Hitler as the running dog of monopoly capitalism) has had its day, and so have psycho-history and sundry structuralist and functionalist approaches. We have been told that Hitler was a ‘weak dictator’, that much of the time he did not know what was going on around him. Arno Meyer of Princeton has informed us that Hitler did not really dislike the Jews, only the Bolsheviks; more recently, two German writers, Mr Aly and Ms Heim, have demonstrated over five hundred pages that ‘practice-orientated modern social science’ bears a great responsibility for the Final Solution; and yet another book discussing this ‘challenging new thesis’ has already been published. Others, of varying degrees of sophistication and mostly outside the academic world, have engaged in a systematic white-washing of Hitler and Nazism. It had been the custom inside the profession (few outsiders are likely to take note of these debates) to give serious attention to insights of this kind, pronouncing them ‘seminal’, ‘stimulating’, ‘original’ or at the very least, ‘interesting if controversial’, although, as I see it, justice could be done to them only by a writer like David Lodge or Malcolm Bradbury. It seems evident to me that their work is for the most part based on a very small element of truth whose significance is inflated out of all proportion, that facts buttressing the case are carefully selected, and all the evidence that does not fit ignored.

Of the various schools, the one claiming that Hitler was a weak dictator is perhaps the most perverse. The same claim has been made about poor Stalin (allegedly beleaguered in the Politburo) – revisionism in Nazi and Soviet studies has a great deal in common. In fact, the role of Hitler (as of Mussolini) was, of course, absolutely crucial. Without his relentless fanaticism his party might not have come to power in the first place; it would have pursued a less radical line; and the Second World War would almost certainly not have broken out in 1939. Seen in this light, Hitler’s historical role was more important than that of Stalin, who only came to power ten years after the Revolution had occurred. On the other hand, Hitler was not omnipotent and omnipresent: without millions responsive to his appeals he would not have got very far.

Towards the end of his long book Lord Bullock addresses those of his critics who have claimed that he did not put sufficient stress on impersonal forces, on the bureaucracy and the structure of government. He does so politely and in a statesman-like way. Social and economic historians, he reminds us, focus on general trends and concern themselves with human beings collectively. Such an approach has much to recommend it in times of peace and continuity: ‘but a different situation arises when war, revolution or some other form of violent upheaval disrupts normality and continuity. Communities then become de-stabilised, behaviour unpredictable and more extreme courses conceivable. In such circumstances it is possible for an individual to exert a powerful, even a decisive influence on the way events develop,’

This simple truth has been widely ignored during the last twenty years. As a result, the story of Nazi (and Soviet) studies during this period – always with some notable exceptions – has been a story of false dawns, of repetition and sterility, and sometimes of arrant nonsense. In the circumstances Bullock’s Hitler biography has aged much less than is claimed by some of his critics; in fact, a case could be made that Heiden writing in the Thirties saw the essential character of Nazism more clearly than some of the writers of the Seventies and Eighties. The misgivings one may have about Hitler and Stalin are on a different level. ‘Parallel lives’ are a notoriously difficult medium, used only infrequently since Plutarch, and more suited to a long essay than a volume of almost 1200 pages. Plutarch used this form to encourage his readers to emulate the example of great men; or in a very few cases, such as Alcibiades, to deter them with the story of a villain. The purpose of the modern historian is different: why engage in comparative biography, with all its attendant problems of structure and style, unless it sheds new light on the main figure? In this instance, the approach might have been more productive had there been more in common between Hitler and Stalin. Both were great villains, but not in the same way, and the historical context in which they acted could not have been more different. I don’t know whether Lord Bullock would ever have seriously considered writing parallel lives of, say, Bevin and Baldwin (or Lord Halifax and Churchill), who after all, were part of the same society: if not, why the juxtaposition of Hitler and Stalin?

Hitler and Stalin is nevertheless a book that will be read with profit by non-specialist readers. What Bullock has to say about Stalin and his regime is correct in all essential details. But it is also true that it has been said many times before. Nor do the sections on Stalin promote a better understanding of Hitler and Nazism. Readers would probably have been better served by a Hitler biography on a similar massive scale, a book which took the 1952 biography as its starting-point, re-examined the evidence that has appeared since then and incorporated the important new material.

Robert Conquest’s books – especially The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, his work on the collectivisation of agriculture – did not receive the universal acclaim which came the way of Bullock’s Hitler. Even those who thought Hitler relatively unimportant did not admire his policies, whereas more than a few Sovietologists persuaded themselves that Stalin’s policies, while regrettable, were necessary, probably inevitable, that it was not for us to judge him, and that his role in Soviet history was generally positive. For subscribers to such beliefs, an influential section of Sovietologists, perhaps at one time even the majority, Mr Conquest’s writings were bound to be anathema, a typical product of the Cold War. As they saw it, he grossly exaggerated the importance of the terror both quantitatively (the number of victims) and qualitatively (the extent of the great fear). This attitude prevailed until quite recently and the arguments used were quite similar to those used by the revisionists in the German field. Hitler, like Stalin, had been instrumental in causing a social revolution: in Germany as in Russia, there was greater upward mobility than before.

Then glasnost came, Conquest’s writings were published in the Soviet Union; alone perhaps among Western writers, he became a cultural hero both to the Russian liberals and to the conservatives, to both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. It now appears that his estimate of the victims of the purges were moderate by comparison with those of Soviet writers. Furthermore, the totalitarian model dismissed by Western revisionists as hopelessly flawed, the product of anti-Soviet hysteria, has been avidly embraced by Russian writers and became the prevailing mode of thought in the Soviet Union. All this was more than a little embarrassing, and criticism of Conquest among the Western fraternity of Sovietologists has lately been muted.

Mr Conquest’s new biography is a work of synthesis rather than new research, even though it makes use of certain facts that became known under Gorbachev. For Stalin’s youth, he follows broadly speaking the pioneering work of Edward Ellis Smith – but rightly rejects Smith’s assertion that Stalin was an agent of the Tsarist secret police. For the role of Stalin in 1917 Slusser’s book provides a reliable guide. One finds little to quarrel with either in Conquest’s scholarship or in his judgment, though on occasion his perspective is slightly lopsided. Thus many pages cover the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, but there are only two brief references to the first Five-Year Plan, and none to the subsequent ones. Mr Conquest’s interest in economics is limited, but since Stalin was to a considerable extent preoccupied with economic tasks, the biographer has to follow him into this territory. Strangely, Bullock, too, fails to mention the plans – other than the first.

Stalin, Breaker of Nations has many merits: its weakness is that it does not contain much that is new in the way of fact or appraisal. But then most of the essential documentary material covering Stalin’s years in power is still missing and the times are therefore better suited to an analysis of the phenomenon of Stalinism – its origins, character, place in Russian and Soviet history – than to a definitive biography of its begetter. In the matter of sources there is a basic difference between the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. For some considerable time now we have known all we shall ever know about Hitler, whereas about Stalin we know as yet precious little. Even a Soviet writer of (then) excellent standing such as General Volkogonov did not have access to the secret material.

All crucial decisions from 1927 onwards were taken by Stalin in person, and it could well be that in some cases no written record ever existed; we know from experience with Nazi archives, that the greater the crime, the less the likelihood that it was documented. But there were records of the meetings of the Politburo and other such institutions; and tens of thousands of Stalin’s letters, memos and notes were undoubtedly preserved. How to write with confidence about the Thirties and Forties without this essential material?

Do the sources still exist? For a long time it was argued that most of the truly important material was destroyed in mid-October 1941 when the Germans reached the Moscow suburbs. More recently it became known that a few days after the German invasion, in late June 1941, Stalin issued an order to the NKVD to transfer all important archives to a small city east of Moscow. Much of this material is probably now in the hands of the Party, but until about a year ago most Soviet historians were wholly unaware of the fact that the Party Central Committee had extensive archives. Even now access is highly restricted. Permission is still granted by the KGB and the chances that truly sensitive material will be released are exceedingly small, unless the KGB happens to be interested in publicising a certain file – as happened recently with a file concerning Rudolf Hess’s flight to England in 1941.

A famous French textbook on historical methodology first published around the turn of the century opens with the lapidary statement: ‘No documents, no history.’ But the absence of full documentation has never deterred writers, least of all biographers, from Plutarch onwards. After all, we know at least in broad outline what happened, even if there is bound to be some speculation concerning motives. But the fact that the fog of uncertainty is likely to prevail for some considerable time doesn’t mean that one man’s speculation is as reliable as another’s or that everybody has a licence to be his own historian.

Mr Conquest opens his book quoting the title of an essay by a Soviet writer which appeared a couple of years ago, to the effect that Stalin ‘died only yesterday’. This is true as far as the older generation is concerned, but for the young he is about as remote (and as relevant) as Ivan the Terrible. Russia faces troubled times, and for years to come it is bound to worry more about its future than its past. Following the Russian revolution of August 1991 there have been major changes in the KGB and President Yeltsin has transferred its Moscow archives to the hands of the Russian Federation. But historians have a great deal of experience of the working of bureaucracies in dictatorship as in democracies and one should not be over-optimistic about the chances of unfettered access in the near-future. All of which is to say that, for a variety of reasons, a Stalin biography as authoritative as the works we now have on Hitler will not be written this century.