The complexity of Stalin’s character and his role becomes most apparent when a comparison is attempted between him and Hitler. Their similarities are numerous and striking. Each of them suppressed opposition without mercy or scruple. Each built up the machine of a totalitarian state and subjected his people to its constant, relentless pressure. Each tried to remould the mind of his nation to a single pattern from which any ‘undesirable’ impulse or influence was excluded. Each established himself as an unchallengeable master ruling his country in accordance with a rigid ‘Fuhrerprinzip’.
Here the similarities cease and the differences begin. Not in a single field has Hitler made the German nation advance beyond the point it had reached before he took power. In most fields he has thrown it back far behind; terribly far behind. The Germany he took over in 1933 was, despite economic depression and social strains and stresses, a wealthy and flourishing country. Its industry was the most efficient on the continent. Its social services were the most modern that any European nation had had. Its universities were great centres of learning, priding themselves on famous men of science. The better part of the German youth was serious, alert and idealistic. The German theatre was the object of the highest admiration and of imitation. The best German newspapers were the most intelligent and the best informed of the continental press.
The Germany that Hitler left behind was impoverished and reduced to savagery. We are not speaking about the effects of Germany’s defeat, but about the state of the nation, regardless of defeat. The material apparatus of production which the country possessed under Hitler was, apart from special armament plants, not essentially greater than that which it had possessed before. Its social services were half destroyed. Its universities became drilling grounds-for a generation of horrible brutes. Its famous men of science were compelled either to emigrate or to accept the guidance of SS men and to learn racialist gibberish. Its medical men were turned into specialists on the racial purity of blood and into the assassins of those whose blood was deemed impure. In the sanctuary of national philosophy Alfred Rosenberg sequestrated for himself the niche that used to be occupied by Immanuel Kant.
Twelve years of ‘education’ by a nazified press, radio, cinema, and theatre left the collective mind of Germany stultified and ruined. These terrible losses were not redeemed by a single positive acquisition or by a single new idea, unless one chooses to regard as new the idea that one nation or race is entitled to dominate or exterminate the others. Nor was the social structure of the nation essentially changed by national socialism. When the Nazi facade was blown away, the structure that revealed itself to the eyes of the world was the same as it had been before Hitler, with its big industrialists, its Krupps and Thyssens, its Junkers, its–.middle classes, its Grossbauers, its farm labourers, and its industrial workers. Sociologically, although not politically, the Germany of 1945 was still the Germany of the Hohenzollerns, only thrown into terrible disorder and confusion by a tragically purposeless riot.
What a contrast, after all, Stalinist Russia presents. The nation over which Stalin took power might, apart from small groups of educated people and advanced workers, rightly be called a nation of savages. This is not meant to cast any reflection on the Russian national character – Russia’s ‘backward, Asiatic’ condition has been her tragedy, not her fault. Stalin undertook, to quote a famous saying, ‘to drive barbarism out of Russia by barbarous means’. Because of the nature of the means he employed, much of the barbarism thrown out of Russian life has crept back into it. The nation has, nevertheless, advanced far in most fields of its existence. Its material apparatus of production, which about 1930 was still inferior to that of any medium-sized European nation, has so greatly and so rapidly expanded that Russia is now the first industrial power in Europe and the second in the world. Within little more than one decade the number of her cities and towns doubled; and her urban population grew by thirty millions.
The number of schools of all grades has very impressively multiplied. The whole nation has been sent to school. Its mind has been so awakened that it can hardly be put back to sleep again. Its avidity for knowledge, for the sciences and the arts, has been stimulated by Stalin’s government to the point where it has become insatiable and embarrassing. It should be remarked that, although Stalin has kept Russia isolated from the contemporary influences of the west, he has encouraged and fostered every interest in what he calls the ‘cultural heritage’ of the west. Perhaps in no country have the young been imbued with so great a respect and love for the classical literature and art of other nations as in Russia. This is one of the important differences between the educational methods of nazism and Stalinism.
Another is that Stalin has not, like Hitler, forbidden the new generation to read and study the classics of their own literature whose ideological outlook does not accord with his. While tyrannizing the living poets, novelists, historians, painters, and even composers, he has displayed, on the whole, a strange pietism for the dead ones. The works of Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Belinsky, and many others, whose satire and criticism of past tyranny have only too often a bearing on the present, have been literally pressed into the hands of youth in millions of copies.
No Russian Lessing or Heine has been burned at an auto-da-fï¿½. Nor can the fact be ignored that the ideal inherent in Stalinism, one to which Stalin has given a grossly distorted expression, is not domination of man by man, or nation by nation, or race by race, but their fundamental equality. Even the proletarian dictatorship is presented as a mere transition to a classless society; and it is the community of the free and the equal, and not the dictatorship, that has remained the inspiration. Thus, there have been many positive, valuable elements in the educational influence of Stalinism, elements that are in the long run likely to turn against its worse features.
Finally, the whole structure of Russian society has undergone a change so profound and so many-sided that it cannot really be reversed. It is possible to imagine a violent reaction of the Russian people itself against the state of siege in which it has been living so long. It is even possible to imagine something like a political restoration. But it is certain that even such a restoration would touch merely the surface of Russian society and that it would demonstrate its impotence vis-ï¿½-vis the work done by the revolution even more thoroughly than the Stuart and the Bourbon restorations had done. For of Stalinist Russia it is even truer than of any other revolutionary nation that ‘twenty years have done the work of twenty generations’.
For all these reasons Stalin cannot be classed with Hitler, among the tyrants whose record is one of absolute worthlessness and futility. Hitler was the leader of a sterile counter-revolution, while Stalin has been both the leader and the exploiter of a tragic, self-contradictory but creative revolution. Like Cromwell, Robespierre and Napoleon he started as the servant of an insurgent people and made himself its master. Like Cromwell he embodies the continuity of the revolution through all its phases and metamorphoses, although his role was less prominent in the first phase.
Like Robespierre he has bled white his own party; and like Napoleon he has built his half-conservative and half-revolutionary empire and carried revolution beyond the frontiers of his country. The better part of Stalin’s work is as certain to outlast Stalin himself as the better parts of the work of Cromwell and Napoleon have outlasted them. But in order to save it for the future and to give to it its full value, history may yet have to cleanse and reshape Stalin’s work as sternly as it once cleansed and reshaped the work of the English revolution after Cromwell and of the French after Napoleon.
From Stalin, A Political Biography, I. Deutscher, Oxford University Press, 1949.,