Review of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin by R. Gellately

I have read many books about the history of 1920-1945 period but Gellately's book provided me with additional insights. Several people have singled out the negative portrait of Lenin as a major contribution of the book and the author certainty makes a good case for this portrayal. The book is also remarkable by the parallel narrative of the events in the Soviet and Germany. The book is divided in ten parts whose (sometimes abbreviated) titles are: Lenin's Communist Dictatorship - The Rise of German National Socialism - Stalin Triumphs - German Make a Pact with Hitler - Stalin's Reign on Terror - Hitler's War against Democracy - Stalin and Hitler - Hitler's War on "Jewish Bolshevism" - Hitler's Defeat and Stalin's Agenda - Final Struggle. This kind of treatment brings out how each dictatorship fed on the other to consolidate its power. It is well known that Hitler made maximum use of the fear of the Bolsheviks by many Germans but Stalin also made use of the fear of foreign spies to impose his reign of terror. The uneasy alliance between Stalin and the West is also discussed in depth as well as the fears of each side that the other may conclude a separate peace with Hitler and how such fears affected post war events.

Overall the focus is on political history and the behind the scenes machinations of those in power rather than the details of the military campaigns and other overt events. If you have already some familiarity with the history of the period you are going to appreciate the book even more.

The book also brings forth the fact that both Stalin and Hitler had many eager followers that often exceeded their orders in imposing terror and killing people. While this phenomenon does not absolve the evil dictators of their crimes it is also points out the darker sides of human nature that often come into play and, maybe, we should pay more attention to the latter forces than to whoever happens to be their leader. The modern parallel seems to be the excessive focus on bin-Ladden rather than the factors that make certain people flock to his cause.

There are several little known stories that are presented in the book and there is no space to mention all of them so I pick only two, both on page 290, that struck me the most. One is a statement by Admiral Raeder about Hitler "... In my opinion he was a great and talented politician in the first years, whose national and social aims were already known for years, and which found an echo in the armed forces as well as among the German people." (My emphasis.) Keep in mind that the "aims" included extreme anti-Semitism. The second story on the same page is that of the enthusiastic support of the Nazis by the young lieutenant von Stauffenberg who gained fame later by his attempted assassination of Hitler in July 1944. The story gives further credence to the argument that the conspiracy against Hitler was motivated not by principled opposition to his aims, but mainly by disappointment that his leadership was causing Germany to lose the war. (After all the "coup" occurred less than two months after the Normandy landing.) Keep these fact in mind before deciding to view any movie about the "plot against Hitler" that paints the plotters as heroes.

October 2007