Category Archives: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives

Between Fanaticism and Terror


Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw  Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).

The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well.  Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family.  Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919.  He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day:  “Zachto—Why?

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory 


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Evil Leaders: Book Review of Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin, Parallel Lives

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (Vintage Books, NY, 1993) offers a monumental social and psychological biography of two of the most evil dictators in human history as well as an epic sketch of an era. Although the author specializes in Hitler, his grasp of Stalin is equally impressive. It rivals, in fact, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror: A Reassessment (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007) in its thoroughness and depth.

As the title suggests, Bullock alternates chapters on Hitler with those on Stalin.  He reveals how each dictator relied on his powers of manipulation, deception and opportunism to rise to power. They spread totalitarian regimes meant to wipe out the human spirit and large parts of humanity itself across the world.  The book also explains how Hitler and Stalin initially operated within the systems which they later (mis)used for their own selfish and nefarious goals. Whatever their rhetoric and ideology, both psychopathic tyrants ultimately craved power for its own sake, at the expense of everyone else, even the causes (and allies) they initially claimed to support.

Primo Levi famously advances the same thesis as Hannah Arendt expressed in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Penguin Classics, New York, 2006): “Monsters exist, but they are too few in numbers to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are…the functionaries ready to believe and act without asking questions.” There is no doubt that the Holocaust throughout Europe or the terror in the Soviet Union weren’t brought about by Hitler and Stalin alone. Without coopting tens of thousands of soldiers, functionaries and “regular people” throughout the world, these two evil leaders wouldn’t have succeeded in their genocidal goals, nor could they have implemented totalitarian regimes. Yet the obverse clause is equally true. Without the leadership of psychopathic, power-driven and malicious individuals like Hitler and Stalin the genocides wouldn’t have happened either. The Holocaust wouldn’t have existed without someone like Hitler: namely a highly influential and charismatic psychopathic leader rising to power at a ripe moment in history.

Although Stalin claimed to have an allegiance to the communist party and Hitler to the Aryan race, history proved that their true allegiance was to their own empowerment. As Bullock demonstrates, Stalin only appeared to have a solid allegiance to the Bolshevik movement and to Lenin’s political legacy. In reality, however, he used communist rhetoric to gain control over Russia, then over the countries and territories that became the Soviet Union and eventually over the entire Eastern Europe. To him, the means—shifty allegiances, mass indoctrination, staged show trials, forced confessions as well as torture and murder of unprecedented proportions–always justified the ends, which was absolute control. This goal was only instrumentally related to communist ideology, as Stalin’s temporary alliance with Hitler, his former archenemy, would reveal.

Nor did Stalin exhibit any loyalty towards his supposed friends and allies. He switched political and personal alliances, turning first against the left wing of the communist party (Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev), then against the right (Bukharin, Rykov and Tomsky). In his insatiable quest for power, Stalin forged alliances and later broke them. He imprisoned, tortured and murdered former allies. He shrewdly reversed his position and retreated when necessary, only to charge forward again at a more optimal moment. He took everyone by surprise with the extent of his duplicity and ruthlessness.

The human cost of psychopathic dictators, especially during the Hitler-Stalin era, is one of staggering proportions and unimaginable suffering. Bullock documents, “Not counting the millions who were wounded or permanently maimed, the estimated number of premature deaths between 1930 and 1953 reached a figure in the order of forty to fifty million men, women and children. Suffering on such a scale is beyond the imagination’s power to comprehend or respond to.” (Hitler and Stalin, 969)

What makes such human suffering particularly reprehensible, at least from a moral perspective, is that unlike natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and epidemics, the harm was deliberately inflicted, unnecessary and man-made. Granted, the mass murder of tens of millions of innocent civilians can’t be attributed solely to the leaders in charge. The collusion and indifference of many individuals made it possible. As Hannah Arendt demonstrates in The Origins of Totalitarianism, totalitarian dictators are a necessary, but not sufficient, explanation of complex historical, economic and social phenomena. Yet without a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mao or a Ceausescu–which is to say, without evil leaders who attain total control of a country–this suffering would not have occurred, at least not on such a massive scale.

Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives gives us a detailed, compelling and extremely informative historical and psychological portrait of two of the most powerful faces of evil in human history. He describes in great detail their rise to power and deadly influence. Hitler and Stalin is an indispensable book for all those who want to understand how totalitarian regimes function and the role psychopathic dictators play in changing the course of history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon


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Totalitarianism: A Modern Curse

Totalitarianism is a modern phenomenon. It is stronger and more intrusive than dictatorship or autocracy. Totalitarian regimes control not only the state, the military, the judicial system and the press, but also reach into people’s minds, to dictate what they should say, think and feel. Hannah Arendt has argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism that one of the key features of the totalitarian state is its system of indoctrination, propaganda, isolation, intimidation and brainwashing—instigated and supervised by the Secret Police—which transforms classes, or thoughtful individuals able to make relatively sound political decisions, into masses, or people who have been so beaten down that they become apathetic and give their unconditional loyalty to the totalitarian regime. Although scholars such as Hannah Arendt, Robert Conquest and Vladimir Tismaneanu have elegantly explained the rise (and fall) of communist governments in Eastern Europe, it’s the vivid descriptions we find in the fiction and memoirs of the epoch–George Orwell’s 1984, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Natalia Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Lena Constante’s The Silent Escape—that take readers into the daily horrors, the dramatic Kafkaesque show trials, the physical and psychological torture and the general sense of hopelessness that characterizes life under totalitarian regimes. The writers I have just mentioned tend to focus mostly on the Stalinist period, during which the state governed through arbitrary displays of power and terror, sending millions of people to their deaths in labor and concentration camps. Yet as many who lived under totalitarian rule in Eastern Europe during the post-Stalinist era would claim, the milder, “velvet” form of totalitarianism was depressing and depleting in its own way, killing people’s hope and humanity even though it did not physically claim as many lives.

My own novel, Velvet Totalitarianism,  introduces students and the general public to the post-Stalinist phase of totalitarianism, focusing on Romania under the Ceausescu dictatorship, through the dual optic of scholarship and fiction. First I provide information about the Ceausescu regime: its feared Securitate (or Secret Police); the human rights abuses and outrageous domestic policies which left the Romanian people hungry and demoralized; the dictator’s narcissistic personality cult; the infamous orphanages, which were a direct result of the regime’s inhumane and irrational birth control policies, and the events that led to the Romanian revolution, first in the Timisoara uprising and then in Bucharest, where the dictator and his wife were deposed, put on their own show trial and executed in December, 1989. To do so, I synthesize information presented by other scholarly works, memoirs and textbooks on the subject, including Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Stalinism for all Seasons (2003), Peter Cipokowski’s Revolution in Eastern Europe (1991), Andrei Codrescu’s A Hole in the Flag (1991) and Ion Pacepa’s Red Horizons (1987).

Then I translate these events into fiction, to give readers a more palpable sense of what it felt like to live in Romania under the Ceausescu regime. I also attempt to capture the mixture of cynicism and hope that characterized one of the most bloody anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe. My novel depicts the experiences of a family living under the Ceausescu regime whose son gets entangled in a web set up by the Securitate. The story then traces the family’s difficult process of immigrating to the United States as well as the sometimes comical cultural challenges of adapting to America. The main characters arrive in Eastern Europe on vacation during the period of revolutionary upheavals in both Czechoslovakia and Romania, whose events they witness first-hand.

The parts of the novel that focus specifically on Romania constitute more of a fictionalized autobiography or a memoir in that they’re partly based on my family’s personal experience of communism. I say “fictionalized” since having left Romania at the age of eleven, my memories are undoubtedly skewed by a childlike perspective as well as by the passage of time. The factual information about the Securitate, Ceausescu’s policies and the Romanian revolution I depict here, however, is also based on research rather than just on memories and anecdotal accounts. The fiction inspired by real life helps individuate a mass phenomenon. In a post-Cold War era where totalitarian communism has become just another page in history books, fact and fiction are complimentary rather than opposites. Fiction can make what may now seem like a long-gone, dead epoch, and the anonymous suffering of millions of people, seem vivid, significant and real again.

Yet whichever perspective one chooses, fact or fiction, what is being described here is essentially the same reality: conditions in Romania during the so-called “Epoch of Light” were notoriously miserable. People had to wait in long lines for meager supplies of food, clothing and household goods. There was limited heat and hot water. By the late 1970’s, the Secret Police had installed microphones in virtually every home and apartment. The whole population lived in fear. As a Romanian citizen said to a French journalist following the fall of the Ceausescu regime, “It was a system that didn’t destroy people physically—not many were actually killed; but it was a system that condemned us to a fight for the lowest possible level of physical and spiritual nourishment. Under Ceausescu, some people died violently, but an entire population was dying.”

Although this book focuses mostly on Romania, hundreds of millions of Eastern Europeans led similar lives to the ones I describe, struggling daily against poverty, hunger, state indoctrination, surveillance, censorship and oppression in post-Stalinist communist regimes. In actuality, “velvet” totalitarianism was insidious rather than soft and gentle, killing your spirit even when it spared your life.

Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon

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