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The lives of Hitler and Stalin: Two sides of the same coin
Adolf Hitler. 1889 – 1945. Born into a middle-class family in Braunau am inn, a town in then Austria-Hungary, he was the fourth of six children. His early life was inauspicious and having left school with no formal qualifications and failing his big dream to be an artist (rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna) he became an aimless drifter before joining the army out the outbreak of WW1 in 1914. Hitler’s route to absolute power materialised when he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 and then as leader of the country Fuhrer (1934 -1945). He died aged 56 from suicide.
Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin. 1878 – 1953. Born in the town of Gori, Georgia he was brought up in an impoverished and itinerant family environment. In his early life, Stalin became a Georgian Revolutionary and later a Soviet politician who eventually ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s till his death in 1953. Despite initially governing the Soviet Union as part of a collective leadership, he consolidated power to become the country’s de facto dictator by the 1930s. Stalin’s formalised ideas for changing a once Imperialist Russia to a communist state was based on Marxist–Leninism, while his own distinct and extreme policies became known as Stalinism.
Hitler was brought up in a middle-class family headed by his father, Alois, a customs officer father and his third wife Klara. They lived in a region of Habsburg state where the young Adolf had few contacts with Jewish people. Most of his siblings died in childhood leaving Adolf with a difficult father who dominated his mother. Family life was tension-filled and often violent as Adolf was subjected to beatings and humiliation by his father who died through alcoholism when Adolf was 14.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Hitler Jnr himself developed a brutal mindset and a lack of compassion for people after such a loveless home environment. Hitler’s youthful dreams of being an artist were dashed when he failed the entrance exam to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. It was the academy’s view that Hitler lacked ‘spiritual imagination’ in his art and saw his ‘prosaic’ and ‘painful precise draftsmanship’ as being more suited to architecture. Close to his mother Klara, who had been dominated by her obnoxious bully of a husband, Adolf was emotionally affected by her early death to breast cancer.
Known as ‘Soso’ by his parents young Stalin’s upbringing could be described as lower-middle class. His father was a shoemaker who employed up to ten people until the business failed and drove the family into poverty. As a child, he suffered smallpox leaving him with a pock-marked face but possibly more damaging was the stress of living with a violent and alcoholic father, whose abusive behaviour drove Stalin’s mother to leave and live with friends, taking Stalin with her. Encouraged by his strict and devout Russian Orthodox Christian mother, Stalin showed an early, perhaps naive leaning towards the priesthood. Deciding he was an atheist, an interest in radical politics took him down a different, to become a fanatical activist.
As demonstrated by Hitler’s bitterness at being rejected by the Fine Arts Academy Vienna, the young Adolf possessed an ‘all or nothing’ psyche. His narcissistic-sociopathic bent meant that he couldn’t take rejection or criticism without some kind of consequence, usually in the form of blaming others for his own failings.
Hitler's pathological belief that he was not being recognised or acknowledged for his self-deluded ‘greatness’ may have contributed to his hatred of Jews and he would bide his time to take revenge on characters who had dismissed or humiliated him.
It was convenient for Hitler to believe that his path to fame and recognition as an artist had been thwarted because of ‘foreigners’, forgetting that he himself was an Austrian with ambitions to succeed in Germany. Despite having been rejected by the echelons of the art world, a deluded Hitler still described himself as an ‘artist’ rather than a politician as he once remarked to British Ambassador Nevile Henderson, adding ominously ‘once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist’. Ironically the narcissistic dictator, who possessed grandiose ideas of creating a new mythical Germany, inspired by Teutonic folklore heroes, saw himself as a latter-day ‘Siegfried’ in an opera of megalomania though he ended his final moments in a bunker with a pistol to his head.
The future dictator of the Soviet Union exhibited a contradictory mix of behaviour traits, being both studious at school and wildly rebellious as a youth. His penchant for mischief would sometimes involve extreme stunts, such as igniting explosive cartridges in a shop. Stalin’s early upbringing in an environment with a bullying, alcoholic father, may have contributed to his propensity to bullying and ruthlessness. But his experiences of poverty, witnessing its effects on his mother and being aware of the plight of the working class at the expense of an elite ruling system shaped his radicalism.
As a teenager, Stalin and other fellow students were taken by their teachers to watch the public hanging of several peasant bandits. The incident had a profound effect on the young revolutionary who sympathised with the condemned prisoners. At the Tiflis Seminary where the teenage Stalin was training to be a priest the institute’s Russian nationalistic and anti-semitic ideology may have influenced his negative view of Jews. Bizarrely for a young socialist, passionate about the arts, poetry (he had works published) and a genuine desire to help the impoverished, he managed to become one of the most feared and murderous dictators in the world with thwarted plans to commit genocide of Russian Jews in 1953.
Political Influences & Career Turning Points
Anton Drexler, a former machine fitter and locksmith in Berlin co-founded the German Workers’ Party (the DAP) which was to have a huge influence on Hitler’s early path to becoming Chancellor less than fifteen years later. Drexler represented the lower-middle-class workers made insecure by the economic and political upheaval in post-war (WW1) Germany.
It was a party fuelled by racist ideology, quick to blame Jews, socialists and communists for Germany’s plight. Hitler, who was then an obscure army corporal from Austria, was attracted to the party’s policies and joined. Many of Drexler’s pamphlets inspired Hitler’s political biography, Mein Kampf. In 1920 Hitler persuaded Drexler to change the party’s name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the NSDAP or Nazis) and to set forth the aims of the party in a ’25 Point Programme’. Not long afterwards Drexler’s leadership was challenged by Hitler and taken over by the upstart, precipitating the growing cult of the new leader of Germany.
The Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a seismic impact on the world economy. By 1932, six million Germans were out of work. It was the perfect climate for Hitler to capitalise and offer the Nazi party as an alternative to other established parties, particularly the Communists. The Weimar Republic, making Germany a democracy for the first time was attacked as a failure. An emboldened Hitler saw his opportunity for greater power by exploiting the nation’s slide into economic turmoil and uncertainty. With President Hindenburg suffering poor health and reportedly becoming senile, Hitler masterminded tactics, assisted by a massive campaign by the Nazis, to outmanoeuvre his rivals to secure the coveted prize. Ironically his path had been made easier by the army that thought such an appointment would offer stable government as well as the nationalists (German National People’s Party) believing that they could manipulate Hitler. On 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. That night thousands of SA, SS and ‘Steel Helmets’ (First World War veterans) marched through Berlin in a torch-lit parade. It was if the years of defeat for Germany after WW1 had never happened.
Stalin’s youth was a hotbed of revolutionary zeal after having read the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and believing in their Communist ideology for a new Russia free of monarchy and the ruling aristocracy. He became a staunch anti-Imperialist, hating the Russian royal family, the Romanovs with a passion. In 1901 (aged 23) Stalin joined the Social Democratic Labour Party and organised protests and strikes in a revolutionary movement against the imperial rule of monarchy and Tsarism.
The young Stalin impressed Lenin with his instinctive ruthlessness to organise strikes, often using extreme violence and raising money for the party by kidnapping and committing robberies. The young revolutionary-cum-mobster proved that he wasn’t averse to using violence to get results and around this time he adopted the nickname Stalin which means ‘man of steel’ in Russia.
During the Russian Revolution of 1917, Stalin ran the Bolshevik newspaper ‘Pravda’ utilising propaganda as a tool to manipulate public opinion. By October of that year, the Bolsheviks were in control. Civil war followed with a Bolshevik victory and the Romanov royal family brutally assassinated in a country house basement. In 1922 Stalin was appointed General Secretary of the Communist Party and manipulated his role so he was in a powerful position. After Lenin died unexpectedly in 1924, Stalin made sure that his rival for absolute power, Leon Trotsky, was made an enemy of the state. He has Trotsky moved from the Central Committee and exiled, later executed by an assassin. Stalin was effectively dictator of the Soviet Union.
Why People Supported
Many people in Germany in the early 1930s believed that Hitler would restore the country’s economy and status in the world and see it become once again a dominating force in Europe. For many, there was a shared grievance that Germany has been impacted upon unfairly due to the Versailles Treaty after WW1, where territory had been lost to France and Poland. As well as suffering high unemployment the country also faced huge debts due to reparations. The fear of Communism by German people, particularly the lower-middle classes and wealthy industrialists influenced citizens to vote for Hitler. Communism was the bogeyman that justified many Germans turning to far-right parties such as the Nazis.
In short millions of German people across the social divide believed that Hitler was the great hope to bring about prosperity and reverse the country’s humiliations after WW1. In reality despite the intimidation metered out by the Nazi party a third of the country didn’t vote for the Nazis.
For a ruthless dictator who once said ‘The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic’ it is difficult to believe how anyone could have admired or supported a megalomaniac whose paranoia during his reign would result in millions of Russians' deaths through famine, execution or being sent to Gulags in Siberia.
Despite Stalin’s ruthless ways of dealing with people, he propagated an image of a ‘revolutionary prophet’ for ordinary working-class citizens and peasants. Such an image was reinforced not only through headline-grabbing strikes that he arranged to demand better pay rises for workers, but also through public demonstrations of mass protest, such as the Batumi Massacre, where Stalin encouraged the storming of a prison to free imprisoned strike leaders.
Even when such an event led to the deaths of 13 protestors by Cossack soldiers, Stalin organised a further demonstration which involved 7000 people marching on the day of their funerals. A potent mixture of self-promotion, notoriety and this Messiah-like persona as a saviour of the Russian poor, propelled him to a position of absolute power. Stalin used a combination of manipulation and terror to destroy dissenters and his opposition. Fear was the key to make sure few wouldn’t support his plans for Russia.
Dictatorship & Leadership
Hitler’s controlling dictatorship style aimed to create an illusion of unyielding authority and control but was in reality a manifestation of a deeply insecure pathology affected by an inferiority complex and rejection. As a leader, he was crippled by contradictory forces and an indolent uncompromising and egotistical personality. He became a dictator because others in positions of power such as the German National People’s Party believed that he was weak and could be controlled if given the position he craved.
As a military leader, Hitler was an audacious, meticulous and successful war leader, planning his invasions against the advice of his more cautious generals. The Third Reich saw Europe collapse as Hitler conquered Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, France, Belgium and Holland before setting his sights on the Soviet Union and the coveted prize of Great Britain.
Hitler’s fortunes changed after Operation Barbarossa (codename for the Axis invasion by the Nazis) when he attempted to take Stalingrad, not realising that his exhausted armies were overextended. Mishandling the German army, Hitler’s manpower was also inadequate to combat the USSR, England and the USA. Having failed to boost war production and military skill before embarking on an epic invasion of the Soviet Union and Moscow, Hitler’s plans crumbled with a devastating loss of his armies. After 1942 Hitler’s star ascendant in taking over the world fell rapidly.
The Soviet Leader’s ruthless style of dictatorship was most likely influenced by his experiences as a political activist as a youth. He had been sentenced to three years of exile and imprisoned in eastern Siberia, where after a couple of attempts to escape he succeeded. Stalin’s understanding of political disputes and conflicts amongst revolutionaries - acknowledging the toxic relationship between Bolsheviks and Georgian Mensheviks (one of three dominant factions in the Russian socialist movement ) - may have taught him very little could be gained through endless debates and compromise.
Stalin himself aligned himself with the Bolsheviks in his passionate goal to rid Russia of the Tsar. For Stalin, if you were critical of his plans you were against him and likely to suffer the consequences with your freedom or life, as many who were close to him found out through exile, imprisonment or execution.
Well before the Soviet Union was invaded in Operation Barbarossa, Stalin, with paranoiac zeal purged and executed anyone he saw as a threat from generals to Red Army officers. His neurosis, possibly triggered by revelations of assassination attempts on him, resulted in a pathological distrust of those around him. Stalin’s extreme suspicious nature led him to disregard advice, such as securing the direct approach to Moscow or making sure his troops were prepared for an invasion of which Stalin was in denial.
Hitler: Night of the Long Knives
Before the atrocities of the Holocaust and other genocidal campaigns carried out by the Nazis, Hitler initiated a swift purge of militant members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) including its leader and one time close friend of Hitler, General Ernst Rohm.
The SA was initially a bodyguard mob, employed by the Nazi party to protect Party meetings and use bullying tactics and violence to break up opposition gatherings. Rohm was responsible for recruiting SA members which by 1923 increased its membership by thousands and was beginning to embarrass the Nazi party and image with its thuggish behaviour on the streets. Although known to be gay, Rohm’s sexuality and frequenting Berlin gay bars didn’t unduly bother Hitler, but he did see Rohm’s later position as the SA’s Chief of Staff, over what increased to two million members, as a threat to him and the Nazi party. When Rohm declared he wished to merge the regular army with the SA under his leadership his enemies seized the moment to bring him down. ‘The Knight of the Long Knives’ took place between 30 June and 2 July 1942 and saw the SA purged by the SS (Schutzstaffel) paramilitary organization on Hitler’s orders.
Rohm was on holiday at Bad Wiesse when Hitler and units of the SS headed to the hotel where Rohm and other SA leaders were staying. They were still asleep when the SS burst into their bedrooms, in one case dragging an SA leader from a bed he was sharing with his blond boyfriend and subsequently hauled all SA leaders to a nearby prison. Rohm himself, at first unaware of the chaos, was arrested for treason and given a gun to shoot himself. Refusing to comply with the request members of the SS went to his cell and shot him. The brutal purge of the SA continued under the codename ‘Hummingbird’ overseen by Hitler’s No 2, Hermann Goring, as the latter was sent to Berlin to oversee the killing assisted by the SS and the Gestapo.
Described by a witness as a ‘murderous Puss in Boots’ as Goring stomped around in white high-boots shouting ‘Shoot, shoot!’, the victims included conservative rivals of the Nazi party, a speechwriter for politician Franz von Papen and one General von Schleicher (the Chancellor before Hitler) who had been accused of treachery with the French. Both he and his wife were gunned down along with numerous SA leaders and old political rivals of Hitler, with one politician being viciously hacked to death with axes for suppressing Hitler’s Munich Putsch of 1923. With a bizarre twist the killing spree, allowed SS officers to take revenge on old enemies - including a priest and at least five Jews - so that many of the victims had no idea why they were targeted. Indeed, one former bell boy and gay nightclub bouncer was heard shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ as he was butchered.
Stalin: The Great Terror
‘The Great Purge’ or ‘The Great Terror’ as it was known was not a killing spree entirely fuelled by personal revenge by Stalin, as in Hitler’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’. Instead, the Soviet Union dictator’s campaign of political repression in 1937 conveniently combined settling old scores and methodically freeing the Soviets of any threat to Stalin’s leadership and plans for the country.
Taking place between 1937 -1938 ‘The Great Terror’ was foremost designed to purge the Communist party at various levels, motivated by Stalin’s paranoia. It was targeted at political opponents, Trotskyists, Red Army leadership, ethnic minorities as well as religious leaders and undertaken by summary executions, massacres and mass murder.
A conservative estimate put deaths at between 600,000 and 1.2m.
Such a bloodbath over one year was coordinated and planned by a cabal of Stalin’s closest generals and spared few ‘traitors’ in its savagery. Out of the ethnic cleansing category and known by the perpetrators as the ‘Kulak Operation’ this genocidal targeting of national minorities made up of peasants - who had resisted Stalin’s forced collectivization programme - resulted in millions being arrested, exiled or killed and made up the main components of the purge.
The second-largest group of ethnic minority victims were Polish citizens identified by the Politburo of the Communist Party as alleged Polish ‘spies’. Over 100,000 Poles living in the Soviet were executed and another 100,000 were sentenced for imprisonment, usually to the Gulags. Besides the Kulaks, the Poles constituted the largest group of victims representing only about 0.5% of the Soviet’s population but comprising 12.5% of those executed. Some 2000 writers and intellectuals were imprisoned and at least 60% of them died in either prisons or concentration camps. Bizarrely victims even included twenty-seven astronomers as the Meteorological Society was purged for ‘failing to predict weather harmful to crops’
Like a bloodthirsty wave, the Great Terror extended itself beyond ordinary citizens to all of the Bolsheviks who had played a part in the Russian Revolution of 1917 with only Stalin left standing out of all the original revolutionaries. Victims were also convicted in absentia by the NKVD troika (People’s Commission of Internal Affairs – later the KGB) and the true scale of victims was and still is unknown, as uncovered documents as late as 1992 demonstrated that the NKVD had made quotas for arrests and executions. Many victims, particularly those in political circles were murdered late at night or in the cellars of the NKVD headquarters, while others suffered their terrible fates in forests or secluded areas in the country.
Pervasive Personality Cults
The leader of the Nazi party has remained universally reviled and detested as a psychopathic despot motivated by bigotry, racism and a deluded belief in Aryan superiority. The numbers of victims both in Europe, globally and in Germany due to WW2 is comparable to that of Stalin’s murderous legacy of 20m. But Hitler’s main drive for world domination was unique in that it was driven by race and an ideology based on believing that the German race was superior to others.
Despite being responsible for the deaths of over 20m Russians and masterminding a brutal reign of terror, resulting in hundreds of thousands of citizens being executed, sent to Gulags or dying in their millions due to famine - brought about by Stalin’s collectivism policies - the Soviet dictator still became revered after death as a champion of the working class and socialism. Unlike in Germany where it is a crime to revere Hitler and support political parties inspired by him and the Third Reich, Stalin can be hero-worshipped openly without any criminal consequences.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
Hitler and Stalin were both tyrants and murderers sharing common ground with racial hatred of Jews and other ethnic groups. And both dictators suppressed opposition with brute force controlled the media, the police and government bodies to become absolute rulers with total power over their people. Their narcissistic and sociopathic personalities, coupled with acute paranoia demanded total loyalty from their subjects. If there is one thing that contributed to their successes as dictators, however short-lived, it was fear and the promotion of it.