Ian Thatcher appreciates a magnum opus from Richard Overy and Jan Bolton assesses a new Tudor biography.
The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany Stalin’s Russia
Allen Lane, 2004 848 pp, £25.00 ISBN 0 713 99309 X
This is a very detailed and thoroughly researched study, based upon an extensive range of the most up-to-date scholarship. It is the fullest comparison of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia available. The author certainly achieves his aim of providing ‘an empirical foundation on which to construct any discussion of what made the two systems either similar or different’ (xxxiii).
The book is organised into fourteen chapters, in which a comparison is pursued through a particular theme. The topics are well chosen, covering the political, economic, ideological, social, cultural, moral, military, and terror aspects of the regimes.
Not surprisingly, there are many similarities. In Germany and Russia one observes the establishment of one-party dictatorships headed by the cult of a single personality. Both regimes were convinced of their historic significance. The construction of a utopia was a common aim. This provided the German and the Soviet governments with sufficient justification to have no moral restraint. The most vile means were acceptable to achieve their stated ends. Citizens faced a stark choice between support and compliance or opposition and repression. In these systems one was either for or against, there was no room for doubt. Fascism and communism intended to mould an individual’s mind appropriately. There were party sponsored organisations to guide citizens in their life choices, from youth bodies to officially approved culture. There were also security forces that monitored and moved against any signs of discontent. Most citizens, however, seem to have made peace with the regimes, offering them a significant degree of popular approval. Despite the outrageous levels of violence that make these dictatorships unlike all others, they were populist.
However, as with modern democracies in Britain, France and the United States, similarities in how the systems operate (in the contemporary case free press, elections, multiple political parties, etc.) do not make them equivalents. There are very good reasons why, apart from the brief tactical pact that neither side really desired, history was spared the prospect of Soviet-German alliance against Western liberalism.
For all the surface similarities the two systems, fascist and communist, were fundamentally different, with competing not complimentary ambitions. The USSR, guided by the communist party, intended to lead the world into a classless society through international revolution, of which Moscow was the capital. Nazi Germany desired the elimination of inferior races and the domination of a superior racial type, the Aryan, to be achieved through war. The Soviet Union explicitly rejected the racial theories that guided Nazism.
This fundamental difference separates the regimes in areas that seem to make them similar. Germany and Russia had camp systems, but as Overy notes, ‘camp does not equal camp’ (p. 595). Those in the USSR were not extermination camps in the Nazi sense. Prisoners were not sentenced in the Soviet Union according to racial criteria; the Soviet GUlag was not a method of exterminating races. Indeed, labour in Russian camps was intended to make a vital contribution to the economy. There was an interest in keeping the prisoners alive. Mortality rates in Soviet camps were therefore much lower than in the German; most Soviet prisoners survived.
Similarly, although Germany and the USSR became the most militarised societies of their time, they did so out of very different objectives. The intention to wage an aggressive war was written into the core of Nazism. The USSR preferred to achieve world revolution through other means, backing national communist parties via the Communist International. There does not seem to have been a serious Soviet plan to export revolution by a major European war. The Second World War saw Germany on the offensive and the USSR on the defensive, something that worked in the Soviet Union’s favour. The fundamental differences between communism and fascism resulted in a particularly brutal conflict on the Eastern front, but the Soviets had the advantage of rallying the people to a war of defence in a national battle for survival.
Not all of Overy’s comparisons are convincing. Although the operation of a free market economy was undermined in Russia and Germany, I still see more differences in the two economies. Yes, both regimes used the economy to achieve broader political goals, with consumers suffering in both instances, but for all Hitler’s anti-capitalist rants there was no intention in Germany of establishing a moneyless, planned socialist economy as in the USSR. Soviet economic theory was therefore very different from the German.
Overall, however, Overy can be congratulated for a sensible and useful reminder of how Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia were both similar and very dissimilar. It is natural for historians to feel revulsion at the loss of life that both systems inflicted, and that ultimately the fight to preserve them was ‘inexplicably disproportionate with what was gained or lost’ (p. 645). Overy avoids the temptation to weigh up which system was the more evil. He sticks to the task of trying ‘to understand the different historical processes and states of mind that led both these dictatorships to murder on such a colossal scale’ (xxxiii). This is his great achievement.
Ian Thatcher teaches history at Brunel University.
Walsingham: Elizabethan Spymaster and Statesman
Sutton, 2004 274 pp, £20 ISBN 0 7509 3122 1
It is no surprise that Alan Haynes, the author of The Elizabethan Secret Services, should produce this new volume on the Elizabethan spymaster. Sir Francis Walsingham’s career certainly deserves this renewed attention. Cast in the shadow of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Walsingham is frequently depicted as a one-dimensional figure, as the stern, sombrely-dressed, single-minded Puritan. Haynes presents a more multifaceted Walsingham, the spymaster certainly, but also the great statesman and patron of the arts.
This is a biography better suited to the undergraduate than the general reader. There is a concentrated wealth of information within its 250 pages that is not comfortably assimilated without significant foreknowledge of the period. The book is extensively researched and the material presented is complex. At times one is left wondering if the author shares the same passion for information and detail as his subject, Walsingham.
Haynes asserts that the drive against the Catholic threat was paramount in Walsingham’s every pursuit. As a diplomat he could charm and impress the Catholic powers when required, but serving as Elizabeth’s Ambassador to the French court during the Massacre of St Bartholomew left a lasting impression. Major sections of the book, therefore, are devoted to the unearthing of the Catholic plots, tracing developments from Walsingham’s personal interrogation of Ridolfi, in fluent Italian, to the acquisition of the previously elusive written evidence that brought Mary, Queen of Scots, to her trial and execution. Throughout, the effectiveness of Walsingham’s spy network, ‘a service that mesmerized European rulers’ (xii), and his firmness of control are in evidence. Even the most bizarre of Catholic schemes are covered, including a plan to poison Elizabeth with cake.
Similarly, Haynes explores Walsingham’s attempts to persuade a reluctant Elizabeth to commit herself to military action against the Catholic powers. This was a queen who, in the author’s words, ‘shrank from war as from a courtier with halitosis’ (p. 55). When war did materialise and the Armada was launched, Elizabeth’s dark-haired ‘Moor’ became ‘the administrative hub of the kingdom’ (p. 216) in England’s defence. The queen, Haynes argues, owed a good deal to Walsingham, her Principal Secretary and distant relative.
The settlement of the New World also appears to be of relevance to Walsingham’s response to the Catholic threat. Gilbert’s planned expedition to North America received his support, in the belief that it provided an opportunity for the resettlement of English Catholics across the Atlantic. Ralegh’s plans for Roanoke Island in 1587, by contrast, he ruthlessly wrecked. Walsingham bitterly resented ‘royal generosity to Ralegh by a menopausal woman of uncertain temper’ (p. 144) at the height of the Catholic threat.
A workaholic who struggled with his health in the service of his country, Walsingham had limited opportunities to enjoy his books, music and very extensive art collection. Elizabeth made great demands on his time but it was her lack of co-operation that he found most galling. Haynes mirrors Walsingham’s frustrations, reserving for Elizabeth some of his most powerful and scathing remarks. ‘There are times when the historian longs to seize Elizabeth by her bejewelled throat preparatory to slapping her hard’ (p. 221). In Haynes’ opinion it is evidently Walsingham, not Elizabeth, who should be credited with some of the greatest achievements of the reign.
Jan Bolton teaches history at St Martin’s College, Lancaster.
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