Many of the Communists we’ve seen heavily base their philosophies on the teachings of Lenin, so since we haven’t looked at a Lenin book at all, it seemed like a natural thing to read about. That’s why today’s book, Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe, is such a revealing look into the dark side of the first half of the twentieth century. Its author, Robert Gellately, does an amazing job of showing the devasting consequences of Soviet Communism and Nazi Fascism and why it happened.
Gellately puts together the case that an incredible impact has been made on the events of the twentieth century through the actions of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He does so in a relatively unique fashion: he presents the general theme of the book at the beginning, then dumps an overwhelming amount of evidence for it throughout the body of the book, and concludes the book with a recap of the general theme of the book. It thus comes off as a very sober, analytic look at the millions of people murdered across the Soviet and Nazi regimes sandwiched by critical analysis on both sides.
He also talks about how the book was originally going to contrast only Stalin and Hitler, but how Lenin simply had to be included for his undeniable role in the terror of the period. He clearly shows Lenin’s ambition and a very similar theme develops between the three men. A very similar underlying philosophy of “absolute dictatorship is necessary in order to lead the people properly” shows up, and Gellately does an amazing job of showing how similar Lenin and Stalin are and precisely how they compare and contrast with Hitler.
The book also does a great job of showing how these dictators came to power. All three are shown to be incredibly cunning and take out their competitors in a very cold, calculated fashion, but they differ in how they seek to dominate the people. Lenin and Stalin both don’t care for the approval of the people when coming to power, while Hitler requires constant approval by the people (in what Gellately appropriately dubs a “consentual dictatorship”). Hitler also uses his incredible charisma to sell the public on his goals, and then holds a direct vote on key issues, which he then gets a clear approval for (which he then uses as a mandate for his aims).
Gellately shows us how the incredible tragedies suffered in this period went down because the dictators were able to play off various majorities against the minorites they wanted to purge for one reason for another. It’s basically like the well-known poem “First they Came…” by Martin Niemöller:
First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.
Although this poem specifically is about Germany, it easily applies to the Soviet situation as well. In the Soviet model, Lenin and Stalin easily destroyed the elite classes and various “undesirable” classes in a manner that is so perfectly captured by the other recent read, Animal Farm.
The book is longer than you would expect but it shows the devastating tragedies endured in this time period in its entirety. It’s a necessary job and the book keeps things interesting by constantly switching back and forth between Germany and the Soviets.
If there’s only one book you read about Soviet Communism and Nazi Fascism, make it this one. If you need further convincing, check out Dan Carlin’s history podcast series, Ghosts of the Ostfront. It really pulled me into the damage that the twentieth century felt because of three men who thought that people can only be saved through domination (and I’m pretty sure it will do the same for you).