Henry Rousso, ed. Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. xxvi + 324 pp. ISBN 978-0-8032-9000-6; ISBN 978-0-8032-3945-6.
Reviewed by Arthur Brenner (Department of Judaic Studies, University at Albany)
Published on H-German (May, 2006)
Dictatorships Compared: A French Twist
Comparative history is a notoriously difficult undertaking, and few topics have generated a demand for comparison as continuously and compellingly as Nazism and Stalinism. The two regimes that stand as the most extreme cases of limitless violence and immorality remain linked in the public mind, not only by their apparent commonalities but also by their contemporaneity. What spawned such apparently similar phenomena so near to each other at the same time? Since the end of World War II, and even back to the 1930s, scholars and pundits have sought to compare Nazism and Stalinism. Much of the debate during the Cold War was colored by ideology and aroused considerable controversy, but effective comparison was hindered by the continued existence of Soviet communism, which sustained much of the ideological intensity of the debate and also impeded the scholarship necessary to facilitate this comparison. For more than three decades after its publication, Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism remained the touchstone in most such comparisons. In the 1980s, the interpretive climate changed due to the outbreak of the German Historikerstreit and glasnost in the USSR, but these, too, were tightly bound to political and ideological underpinnings.
The end of communism in Eastern and East Central Europe changed the situation dramatically, and created a much more fertile opportunity for comparing the two regimes. While political motivations persist--as the origins of this book, discussed below, demonstrate--they have lost their urgency and many of their devotees. Moreover, sources that were once inaccessible, particularly for Soviet history, are now available, and this has fed a growing body of research and analysis on the Soviet Union that in turn has facilitated scholarly comparison of the two regimes.
The book under review takes its title (but not its subtitle) from the compendium edited by Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison. That work, which originated in a 1991 conference, was finally published in 1997 to mixed reviews. Its thirteen essays focus on three themes: the dictators, the war, and the way the respective histories of these dictatorships were addressed in the Soviet Union/Russia and Cold War Germany. In both their introduction and afterthoughts, Kershaw and Lewin readily acknowledged the provisional and not entirely comparative nature of their work; as scholarly reviewers commented, most of the essays provide separate accounts rather than compare specific elements of the two systems. That task was left largely to the reader. Because of these characteristics and the fact that Kershaw and Lewin's was the first post-communist, comparative book on the subject, the book under review is, in some respects, a direct response to the earlier collection and its critics. The structure of Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared, the topics it covers and some specific positions taken by its authors refer in one way or another to Kershaw and Lewin and their contributors.
This state of affairs is most evident in part 1, "A Historical Comparison." Here, Nicolas Werth (on Stalinism) and Philippe Burrin (on Nazism) undertake a series of "parallel investigations that share the same perspective and follow a common articulation" (p. 26). They explore three areas "chosen to reveal what is most similar--not identical" (p. 26) in the two systems. The first pair of essays considers "The Dictator and the System." They address such issues as how Stalin and Hitler created the systems they inhabited; how other officials exercised authority within this system; and how effective or chaotic each system was. The second pair explores "The Logics of Violence," both domestic and international. Both sections address themes that were considered in Kershaw and Lewin's book. But Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared departs from the earlier study with a third comparative section, on "Power and Society." In one of the book's most original contributions, the authors explore the ways ordinary citizens living under Stalinism and Nazism coped with the two systems and the chaos and terror they launched. These chapters demonstrate the value of comparison, not merely by exploring points of similarity and contrast, but also by showing how the more mature scholarship in one field of study (Nazi Germany) can provide foundational questions and issues that can be applied to the study of another (the Soviet Union under Stalin). Furthermore, they show that the rapidly evolving scholarship on the Soviet Union may offer perspectives and questions that could provoke reconsideration of some features of Nazi Germany. In this section in particular, Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared represents an important step forward in the comparison of the two regimes.
This section, however, also suffers from shortcomings that limit its effectiveness. Comparison of the two regimes is inherently complicated by the imbalance in the historical understanding of them. Nazi Germany has been the subject of intense, archivally based research for over half a century, so new scholarship tends to refine or adjust existing notions about that society. By contrast, Stalin's Russia is comparatively uncharted territory, due to the restricted archival access during and after the Soviet period and the more limited human and financial resources that have been devoted to the study of Soviet history. Readers of this book might therefore anticipate that the comparative chapters are out of balance, but may be surprised, as I was, by the fact that the lengthier sections are those by Nicolas Werth on Stalinism. His chapters are written with greater depth of detail and analysis than those by his counterpart, Philippe Burrin. Moreover, in his chapters, Werth--perhaps more familiar with the larger body of scholarship on Nazi Germany than Burrin is with the thinner historiography on the Soviet Union--makes frequent references to both the Nazi experience and to what Burrin has written about it. One example of Werth's effective use of scholarship on Nazi Germany to provide a framework for his own analysis of life under Stalin is his third essay, "Forms of Autonomy in 'Socialist Society.'" In one of the best chapters in the collection, he follows categories sketched by Kershaw in his work on Nazi Germany in order to "give a preliminary typological sketch of 'societal resistance' to Stalinism" (p. 117).
The second part of the volume concerns "The Wages of Memory in Formerly Communist Eastern Europe." This uneven collection of essays accounts for the book's subtitle. This section is rooted in the book's genesis as a reaction to the contentious debates in France in the 1990s about, on the one hand, the Papon and Touvier trials, and on the other, the evils of communism as presented by François Furet in The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century and especially The Black Book of Communism. Whereas the first section of Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared represents an advancement in scholarship from the necessarily preliminary and provisional essays published by Kershaw and Lewin, this second section is less valuable. The essays connect little with each other, and individually, their merits are uneven. Étienne François's piece on the opening of the East German archives and its impact on the historiography of Germany is already outdated, and François Frison-Roche's chapter, "Managing the Past in Bulgaria," is disjointed. Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine is sharply critical of Romanian historians in her essay, while Paul Gradvohl takes a more favorable view of their Hungarian counterparts in another. The most effective selection is Andrzej Paczkowski's essay, "Nazism and Communism in Polish Experience and Memory," a survey of the bitter Polish experience of the suppression of history and memory under both Nazi and Communist domination.
Another highlight of the book is Pierre Hassner's concluding commentary, "Beyond History and Memory." It stands as a sort of review within the book; Hassner hesitates neither to praise the essays in the book nor to discuss their shortcomings, and he moves beyond them in trying to draw some broader conclusions about the issues raised throughout the collection. Krzysztof Pomian is given the final word, a "Postscript on the Idea of Totalitarianism and of the 'Communist Regime'."
The book is marked by some odd features, inconsistencies and omissions. None of the authors is identified anywhere in the book (except for Nicolas Werth, whose contributions to and dissent from The Black Book of Communism are discussed in Richard J. Golsan's informative introduction to the English edition). Also, the book's second section has no chapter on Czechoslovakia or its successor states. The otherwise excellent notes to each chapter follow an erratic practice with regard to the translation of non-English book and article titles: in some chapters, French and German titles are translated; in another, only Russian (but not French or German) titles are translated; one translates them from Polish to French; and many include no translations at all. The team of translators surely had a challenging task, as Richard J. Golsan notes in his acknowledgments, and their struggle to convey the French effectively is at times painfully evident and not always successful.
In the same way that Kershaw and Lewin's book was a worthwhile contribution to this subject despite its shortcomings, Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared is a flawed but constructive step toward a better understanding of the two regimes, their commonalities and dissimilarities. Like that earlier work, and together with Richard Overy's recently published book The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia, this book will provoke discussion and disagreement and, hopefully, inspire others to try their hand at advancing this fascinating and instructive comparison.
. Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
. François Furet, Le Passé d'une illusion: Essai sur l'idée communiste au XXe siècle (Paris: R. Laffont: Calmann-Lévy, 1995); The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, trans. by Deborah Furet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); and Stéphane Courtois et al., Le Livre noir du communisme: crimes, terreur, répression (Paris: R. Laffont, 1997); The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
. Richard Overy, The Dictators: Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).
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Arthur Brenner. Review of Rousso, Henry, ed., Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared.
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