21 February 2006

When untruths masqueraded as truth

By Tapani Lausti

Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. Penguin Books 2005.

Richard Overy explains in the preface that recent scholarship "has transformed our understanding of both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union because it has in large part focused on the many areas of state, society, culture, science and ideas which make up the history of this as of any other age." (p. xxviii)

According to Overy, the opening up of Soviet archives and new outstanding research in Germany have given us a fuller picture of those two dictatorships. His own book attempts to study at length the similarities and differences of the two totalitarian systems. It also explains how Hitler and Stalin were sons of their times, however great their differences: "The dictatorships have to be placed in context to understand the ideas, political behaviour and social ambitions that defined each. The context is both European and, more narrowly, Russian and German. They were the product of political, cultural and intellectual forces that were the common stock of early twentieth-century Europe." (p. xxxv-xxxvi)

Overy quotes Friedrich Nietzsche's "idea of personality" and Max Weber's idea "that the most desirably authentic form of political authority in the modern age derived from promoting what he called the 'charismatic personality', instead of relying on inherited deference or simple merit." (p. 103) Indeed, "[t]he idea of the exceptional, wilful personality became central to many disciplines besides political science." (p. 104)

Many Germans as well as Russians dreamed of a strong man who would take them away from chaos and uncertainty. There was an apocalyptic atmosphere in both countries. Somebody would have to save them: "Both populations had been exposed to prolonged periods of political uncertainty, civil war, violence and economic deprivation. The degree of crisis was acute and prolonged and disorientating. The longing for salvation was one of its consequences. Both leaders exploited and were sustained by the psychological insecurity of their populations and the sense of certainty that the leader-image bestowed." (p. 130)

Overy points out that Hitler and Stalin matured into their political selves through life histories which were drenched in blood. Hitler dreamed of an empire based on a super-race. Stalin, according to Overy, dreamed of a socialist utopia. Here Overy seems to blur the difference between Stalin's "socialist" claims and his totally non-socialist policies even though the dark farce of it all was revealed when "[a]t the end of 1936 Stalin finally anounced that the struggle to forge a classless society had been successful." (p. 235)

I find it difficult to believe that Stalin was dreaming of any kind of "utopia". It was more probable that the Soviet elite, with Stalin at the helm, was by the 1930s dreaming mainly of retaining their positions of power. They had long ago lost any idea of an equal society, this being quite unsurprising in view of the authoritarian frame of mind of leading Bolsheviks. Socialist rhetoric was pure propaganda. Overy also writes about "Marxist politics" as though anything that could be described genuinely as Marxist existed in the political life of the Soviet Union.

In one passage of Overy's book we come across an interesting corollary to our own time: "Both systems saw themselves at the forefront of a war against international terrorism. What is now defined as ruthless state terror was viewed by Hitler and Stalin as state protection against the enemies of the people." (p. 176)

Overy alludes to the recent discussion of popular attitudes to the two dictatorships, "which has compelled acceptance of the idea — so different from the traditional 'totalitarian' model of ruthless control over a captive populace — that broad sections of the German and Soviet public supported the dictatorships, often with enthusiasm and devotion, or at least with a general approval. Neither system can be properly explained without accepting this conclusion, but the extent to which that enthusiasm was the product of genuine ideological identification or the product of political education and self-interest remains open to conjecture." (p. 305)

In his conclusions Overy writes: "The gap between what was real and what was claimed to be real now appears so self-evident that it seems implausible the regimes would sustain the illusion, or that the populations would in any sense believe it. Yet the schizophrenic nature of the two dictatorships defined the terms of their operation. Both leaders and led engaged in collective acts of misrepresentation so that truth became untruth and untruths masqueraded as truth. 'People have grown cunning,' wrote a disillusioned German businessman in September 1939, 'and know how to dissemble. We have become a fine community of liars.'" (pp. 645-646)

Overy's book is rich in detail and rewards the reader with many new facts and observations.


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