Were there any real similarities between Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in the Soviet Union?
The six-year long Second World War of 1939 to 1945 is the most devastating conflict to date in human history with the estimated loss of over 50 million lives. The most destructive theatre of the war was in Eastern Europe, mainly between two ruthless dictators who sought to assert their aims and ideology on not just each other, but on the wider world as a whole. Despite the mutual hostility between Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany and Iosif Koba Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republic, there appears to be much common ground between these two, both obvious and otherwise.
The most obvious similarity between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union is the concept of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is highly centralised system of government that places the welfare and ideology of the state above all else. The state and the governing political party become one entity with one powerful individual figure symbolising this union, who is the focal point of that society. This leader has a huge cult following among his people as a result. A totalitarian regime also has ready access to a huge state apparatus to build and maintain its power and prestige such as a mass-media propaganda machine and a huge police force both visible and almost invisible that is given a free hand to operate above the law in the formal sense of the word. Totalitarian regimes are also highly militarised societies able to command massive armed forces. These armed forces are created through economic policies designed to put these states on a war footing. Based on this criterion, both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union are clearly totalitarian societies. Both Hitler and Stalin at the height of their social and political prowess enjoyed virtually unlimited power and adoration at home. Both political leaders virtually destroyed all social, political and military opposition that threatened their power and prestige from other political parties to even their own closet colleagues. Both the Nazis and Communists utilised then-modern forms of mass-media communications that they were able to control such as newspapers, radio, cinema and even television in their largely successful attempts to control and manipulate the hearts and minds of the public. These two governments also had far more in common in other areas than most people realise.
Both regimes totally disregarded the rights of the individual in the pursuit of their agenda. The Nazis were preoccupied with the purity and growth of the volk (the race). Individuals were considered merely cogs in a machine or bricks in a building. Only their obedience and fanatic loyalty mattered. In the Soviet Union under Stalin, individuals were not only seen as being both insignificant, but also as something to be feared. Stalin himself is said to have claimed that “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of thousands is a statistic”. Anyone who did not comply or fit in with the needs of the race or of the state were either imprisoned and made to labour for the Cause, or just terminated.
Perhaps the most astonishing similarity between Nazism and Stalinism is their relationship with big business. Both Nazism and Stalinism have their roots in left-wing socialist ideology; the Stalinist system emerged from left-wing so-called social-democratic ideology, while Nazism emerged from the Italian Fascism of Benito Mussolini, himself a former Socialist. Both movements also claimed quite openly that they were ‘socialist’ organisations. Stalinism of course was an informal, artificial name given to describe Communist rule during Stalin’s era, while the word Nazi is an acronym of the Party group’s official name, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The early Nazi movement did have some strong left-wing policies that for a time co-existed with what is traditionally viewed as being policies of the extreme-right. The early Nazis were anti-big business and their original twenty-five-point programme clearly stated that they would act against capitalist business interests. Two of the most ardently left-wing members of the Nazi leadership throughout the 1920s through to just prior to the Nazi ‘revolution’ were the Strasser brothers, Otto and Gregor. The Strassers were violently opposed to the interests of big business and had many supporters within one of their many party professional organisations that the Nazis had set up to broaden their support and the SA. Hitler himself according to some obscure army documents had been a former Communist himself during the 1918 Spartacus Uprising as he had been elected to serve as a member on the local Bavarian army soldiers’ council during the brief tenure of the Retarepublik. Many of the left-wing elements and policies within Nazism gradually began to be deemphasised once Hitler was released from prison after his part in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. With Hitler’s professed aim to achieve power through legal and democratic means, he decided to broaden the appeal of the Nazis by portraying them in a more respectable right-wing political light, by amending, reinterpreting and even ignoring parts of the party’s twenty-five point programme and wearing business suits. This was done to secure the support of right-wing captains of industry and acquire their finance and goodwill to achieve his aims of acquiring political power.
In the Soviet Union, the devastating effects of two wars and two revolutions had led to Lenin implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP) that allowed a limited capitalist economy to operate in order to help the country recover and rebuild its already poor infrastructure. Lenin in particular granted concessions to foreign business interests to improve the nation’s finances on such things as asbestos mining. Once Lenin died and Stalin won the initial leadership struggle with Leon Trotsky during the mid-twenties, he ended the NEP and implemented Five Year Plans for industry and agriculture. Although Stalin ended the NEP, he was still nevertheless eager to encourage greater levels of foreign capital investment into the Soviet Union. In addition, on the eve of the Great Depression in America, numerous American corporations from IBM to AT&T had business interests in the Soviet Union. There was even investment from the British company Metro-Vickers in Soviet power stations. The most notable company though to invest in the Soviet Union was the Ford Motor Company who Stalin cut a lucrative five-year deal with to build a production factory near the Ural Mountains. The alliance between the Soviet Union and foreign business interests were mutually beneficial for different reasons.
American corporations viewed the Soviet Union as an untapped economic market that they could exploit to enhance their profit margins, particularly during the time of economic depression back at home. This attitude is very similar to that most businesses have of Communist China today. Stalin however saw foreign investment in more pragmatic terms. Stalin encouraged foreign investment to help further industrialise the Soviet Union, which was entirely consistent with the aims of his Five Year Plans for industry. Stalin could also use the industrial facilities built by businesses such as Ford to build essentials such as tractors (which Stalin himself consider to be of greater use to him than ten ‘good’ foreign Communists) and more importantly, military vehicles that Stalin needed to improve the country’s defences. Labour was also cheap for the Americans investors as wages were either low or non-existent through the use of slave labour from the Gulags. Once Stalin had what he wanted, he terminated his agreements with these American businesses and used the facilities that they had built to serve the interests of the state. Much of the information about foreign investment in the Soviet Union before the Second World War was largely kept secret by Soviet authorities. Once the Nazis had come to power in Germany, national and foreign businesses also did business with the Nazis such as the Coca-Cola Company and again IBM. The majority of these businesses were encouraged to invest in Germany by the Nazis (as was the case with the Soviet Union) to improve Germany’s economic situation and build up its armed forces. In other words, foreign business investment in both Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR was virtually identical, with identical aims – to improve those nations’ economies and serve as another pillar of military armament in highly militarised societies.
There were of course stark contrasts between Nazism and Stalinism that historians have been quick to point out. These historians argue that although Nazism and Stalinism did share certain traits, any similarities were purely coincidental and brought about through differing means. In some regards, this is true. Although both were highly militarised societies, Nazi totalitarianism sought control through means of an offensive war, whereas Stalinism’s greater concern was defending the Soviet Union from foreign aggression and the Soviet Union’s military machinery served a greater defensive purpose than that of Hitler’s war machine. In addition, whereas the Nazis increased their hegemony over Germany and the territories, they occupied or held sway over; Stalinism displayed a less pervasive control over its subjects. The early catastrophes, the fight for survival and expulsion of the Nazi menace from Soviet territory did lead to greater freedom of action between 1941 and 1945. People were given greater leeway to show initiative and Stalin did not interfere as much in military matters as he had done during the early months of the so-call Great Patriotic War, whereas in complete contrast Hitler sought to micromanage every last detail and his orders were to be carried out without question. Once the war ended though, Stalin then began to reassert the control and fear he used over his people during the 1930s.
The single biggest difference though between Nazism and Stalinism was the way in which they treated minority elements within their societies that rejected or did not fit in with their ideologies. Without wanting to go into the intentionalist or functionalist arguments about Nazi policy towards the Jews, Nazism did lead to the most infamous and horrific acts of genocide in human history, because of the prejudice openly displayed and encouraged by the Nazi leadership. Stalin on the other hand did not devise a policy of industrialised genocide against a minority group that we yet know about. Stalin’s preferred method with dealing with minorities and scapegoats was deportation to Siberia, as occurred for both the Tartars and Chechens. While there were still widespread deaths caused by starvation and mass murder, these atrocities never approached genocide in the same sense as that which occurred under Hitler despite the fact that more people did die under Stalin than with the more understandable reviled Hitler. In spite of the apparent differences between the two, the facts show that both regimes legalised criminality and inhumanity on the same mass scale.
Nazism and Stalinism are, as both Hannah Arendt and the author and Daily Express columnist, Frederick Forsyth described, as both being “offspring of socialism” with the same “unfailing characteristics” by which the two “have identified themselves”. Both ideologies had their roots in left-wing political thought and both developed along similar lines of evolution almost exactly simultaneously. Although both might have acted for differing reasons, the methods they employed were almost identical to one another and the result itself was virtually the same. Tens of millions died during a short period under the ideological leaders of these two sibling ideologies. Both exploited right-wing capitalist elements to improve their internal infrastructure and military capabilities. Both ruled through the fear generated by a massive and often secretive police force and the adulation of a single ideal and identity personified by a single individual or icon, apart from possibly some differing motives and methods in dealing with large groups of undesirable elements that did not fit in with what was sanctioned to be the community. Stalinism was National Socialism and Nazism was merely a German equivalent of Stalinism.