Academic Book Review: Richard Overy. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia

17 Jun

The Dictators

Richard Overy. The Dictators: Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia. New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 2004. v + 849 pp.“This war could not have been fought by democratic states” (p. 650). Overy’s statement in his concluding remarks is a simple, yet powerful, assertion of the comparative analysis between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia and how their dictatorships were ultimately destined for war with each other. The Dictators is an important contribution, not only in the early twentieth century politics and history of government for Germany, Russia, and the Soviet Union, but also to the volumes of published histories that comprise the Second World War. Overy’s comprehensive work in The Dictators is a refreshing and invigorating break from the continuum of books on World War II-related history which infrequently seem to break new ground but merely retell battles within their theaters of war. The importance of the book is in its ability to offer a comprehensive understanding of Germany’s and Russia’s leaders, their ideologies and effects on its citizenry along their similar paths to war. By utilizing an exhaustive and up-to-date bibliography, Overy’s The Dictators becomes an essential contribution that leads the vast realm of work, not only on Hitler and Stalin, but on the history of two European dictatorships heading on a collision course in the Second World War.Overy’s excellence as an academic historian is exemplified in the chapter ‘Total War’. Here the author adeptly incorporates the bitter aspects of war between Germany and the Soviet Union while remaining true to the book’s theme. By avoiding a turn-by-turn timeline and recounting of battlefront history in The Dictators, Overy keeps his contribution fresh and relevant to the breadth of scholarship and thought on the ideology of totalitarianism in the two regimes.

Overy’s The Dictators’ significance as a major contribution to history is his ability to assimilate and reflect upon what we have learned since the end of World War II. As similar as the dictatorships were, their impact and dissimilarities were evident following the war. Overy offers that the citizenry of Germany and the Soviet Union felt differently at the ultimate demise of their leaders. Hitler’s dictatorship dissolved following his suicide in 1945, but Stalin’s rule did not end until his death in 1953, eight years after the war’s end. By tracing the paths of both Hitler and Stalin from the second decade of the twentieth century onward, Overy’s The Dictators becomes an even more valuable addition to the subject. Overy shows through his many parallels of the twin dictatorships how each was bound to ultimate failure. Both regimes had supporters and detractors following the deaths of their leaders, but each was ultimately doomed to failure by definition alone. The author is quick to offer that the book is not a “twin biography” (xxxiii) but to show how the two dictatorships were different and to “write a comparative ‘operational history’ of the two systems in order to answer the large historical question about how personal dictatorship actually worked” (xxxiii). As a comparative work, The Dictators succeeds brilliantly. In chronicling the rise of Hitler from a corporal in the German Army during the First World War, and whose disgust at Germany’s surrender in 1918 propelled him to party leadership as Chancellor in 1933, Overy shows how Hitler was viewed as the one to save Germany. Stalin’s rise to power and dictatorship is attributed to the year 1929. As Lenin’s successor and the leader of the ‘second revolution’, Stalin was: “… [Projected] as the figure who would build the new socialist community…” (p. 48). The comparisons between the two dictatorships are an incredible accomplishment by Overy.

While Overy’s comparative history does not focus on the War on the Eastern Front itself, The Dictators is not without its own measure of the many horrors characterized by the two regimes. To give an accurate accounting of Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Communist Soviet Union during the 1930s and 1940s, the terrors inflicted not only upon enemy combatants and prisoners but their own citizens are unavoidable. An especially brutal passage of Soviet behavior at the Solovetsky camps in the early 1930s: “… [In] winter a favourite penalty was the ice staircase, 273 steps leading down to a frozen lake. Prisoners were forced to climb down barefoot to fetch two buckets of water; if they spilled any as they struggled up the icy stairway, they were sent down again. The object was to get the prisoner’s feet to stick fast to the frosty steps, where he would be left to freeze to death.” (p. 630) Overy’s depictions of “life” for prisoners in the Soviet GUlag reflect the similar expressions of terror in Germany. Out of economic necessity, the Soviet camps were inconceivably filled with prisoners whose crimes were increasingly negligible in order to expand the requisite base of workers.

Central to both dictatorships, Overy explains, is the goal of a classless society. By Hitler and Stalin eliminating the bourgeois social class as a construct to their ultimate goal of “social utopia” the dictatorships are similar. The difference between them, however, is crucial. The Soviet view of utopia was merit-based among the proletariat while the German ideal was far more extreme. Long-term preservation of Germany was seen as a matter of race, or “community of blood” (p. 241).

The importance of Richard Overy’s work in The Dictators is shown by its place and rank within the bibliography of the Second World War. The Dictators is so well-written and substantial that its stead is undeniably at the forefront of similar literature.  In reading and synthesizing this work, the reader is provided with a more complete and total understanding about the history of the war itself. Overy’s stature as an academic historian, as well as one of the most highly regarded and foremost historians of World War II, is well documented. Overy’s in-depth analysis of the distinctive aspects of both dictatorships is not found in many other books of the events leading up to and including the war. Overy’s ‘Contents’ is a unique view from which to cover the similarities and differences between both dictatorships. Of special mention are ‘The Art of Ruling’, ‘Cults of Personality’ and ‘Constructing Utopia’. Overy’s examination of Hitler and Stalin as measured in these categories offers new insight not found in previous works.

The only critique which I have of Richard Overy’s The Dictators is the limited information from Hitler’s and Stalin’s involvement as dictators of high-level command decisions in military matters. While Chapter twelve’s ‘Total War’ touches upon a small number of the insights from Hitler and Stalin, I would have preferred to have learned a bit more from Overy. For example, Overy speaks to the Soviet Union’s dramatic turnaround in 1942: “The increased modernization and mechanization of Soviet forces took place against a declining level of supply on the other side.” (p. 527) Stalin’s instruction to the leaders of his military regarding the dramatic Soviet turnaround from 1941 to that of 1942 and 1943 would have been a worthy addition for example.

Following the book’s finale, the reader can readily conclude that Overy does in fact succeed in his observation that the world was fortunate that these two dictatorships faced each other and did not unite: “Both dictators also briefly reflected on what might have been if they had co-operated rather than fought each other. ‘Together with the Germans,’ Stalin is said to have remarked, ‘we would have been invincible. Hitler, in February 1945, assessing the options he might have taken in the past, assumed that ‘in a spirit of implacable realism on both sides’ he and Stalin ‘could have created a situation in which a durable entente would have been possible’.” (xxxiv) As broken and ill-conceived as both dictatorships were, any cooperative effort between Hitler and Stalin would have had frightful results as Overy suggests.


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