Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared.

TitleBeyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared.
Publication TypeBook review
AuthorsVan den Eeden, Mare
Book reviewed (all data)Geyer, Michael and Sheila Fitzpatrick, eds., (2009). Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ix + 536 pp.
ISSN NumberISBN: 978052172379 (ppb.); 9780521897969 (hbk.)
Full Text

Since the end of the Cold War, there is a renewed interest in totalitarianism—the concept and its applicability to the fascist and communist regimes. Archives previously closed are now open, and there are no longer political taboos that hamper the research and interpretation of findings in this area of inquiry. Many scholars therefore took up the challenge to rethink the concept of totalitarianism. Michael Geyer and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s recent work, Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared, fits well within this trend, of looking at this contested notion in a new light. Geyer and Fitzpatrick assert that it is possible to compare Nazism and Stalinism on more equal terms than ever before, and that it is finally possible to begin thinking historically about Stalinism and Nazism.

Beyond Totalitarianism serves another aim as well. In the introduction, Geyer, with the assistance of Fitzpatrick, claims that the intention of this book is to add something new to the numerous existing volumes on totalitarianism. They wanted to write something that departs from and reinvents traditional comparisons of the Soviet and Nazi regimes, a book in which the histories of Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union no longer “pass each other like trains in the night” and that provides a new theoretical model for studying these regimes (1). To achieve this goal, the editors paired specialists in German and Soviet history to produce jointly written articles in order to present new and better explanations regarding “the question of what made these regimes such quintessential forces in twentieth century [European and even global] history” (26). While this is an admirable aspiration, unfortunately this goal is not fully reached.

The nine co-authored chapters are organized according to the following four themes: (I) Governance; (II) Violence; (III) Socialization; and (IV) Entanglements. Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen, and David L. Hoffmann and Annette F. Timm contribute to the first theme with articles analyzing the internal political dynamics of Stalin’s Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and on the management or politics of reproduction in both countries, respectively. Whereas classic theories of totalitarianism often focus on the similarities between the two regimes, these articles highlight their differences. For example, Gorlizki and Mommsen argue that Stalinism and Nazism were distinct political systems. According to them, Stalin and Hitler had different attitudes and behaviors towards governance, the political parties were structured differently, and there was also a difference in how both rulers and parties interacted. In the end, the authors argue the Soviet system managed to turn ruling structures upside down, created new elites, advanced political and economic integration and, in so doing, produced a stability that Nazi Germany lacked.

Yet, what to do with this conclusion in light of existing theories of totalitarianism and the desire to provide new insight into the concept? Although Gorlizki and Mommsen’s analysis is interesting, thorough and well written, their comparison stays within the confines of the current stage of research on both systems. Their contribution misses an opportunity to offer a fresh perspective on the two systems. They state that since the end of the Cold War “there is no longer a benchmark for comparing the two systems” (84), and they seem to imply a possible benchmark could have been the argument that the Soviet Union was more successful than Nazi Germany in changing the political system and ruling structures and in creating a stable political identity apart from the dictator. However, they do not further explore the theoretical consequences of this point. Given the aim of the book, this omission is regrettable since such a benchmark could indeed lead to new advances in the study and conceptualization of both regimes in the broader history of twentieth century Europe.

In Part II, on “Violence”, Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth address the use of mass violence. Like the contributors in Part I, they emphasize the differences between Stalinism and Nazism, their use of violence, and the goals it served. For Gerlach and Werth, the model of totalitarianism cannot provide an adequate framework for explaining mass violence because of the complexity of the phenomenon, the need to historicize and contextualize violence in both societies, and the necessity of what they call “multicausal thinking” in understanding and explaining mass violence (136-137). In addition, both authors seek to broaden the field of comparative historical research on Nazi German and Stalinist violence, focusing on different, less well-researched victim group case studies, such as the “asocials,” victims of ethnic resettlement and prisoners of war (138). Yet, once again the problem with respect to the overarching goal of the book is that that the authors, apart from some key observations on the differences between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union regarding the scale and nature of violence, do not draw any overall conclusions that explicitly support the aim of the volume.

Setting aside differences, there are contributions that stress the similarities between Nazism and Stalinism. For the present reviewer, these articles represent the more interesting and attractive part of the volume. For instance, Jörg Baberowski and Anselm Doering-Manteuffel explore the question of why the National Socialists and the Communist Party under Stalin both came to understand difference as a threat to their attempts to structure and control space, and why these regimes subsequently sought to eliminate this difference through violence—one on the basis of race, the other on the basis of class. They link the two regimes together by placing violence within the framework of empire as an explanatory tool for the severity and persistence of Stalinist and Nazi terror. This focus on empire, a theme that is a hot topic in academic research, is an interesting and innovative way of comparing both regimes and has great analytical potential.

Equally appealing are the articles on social engineering and processes of identity and community building by Christopher R. Browning and Lewis Siegelbaum, the contribution by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke that focuses on people’s bonds to the Stalinist and Nazi regimes, and Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck’s chapter on the creation of the New Man in both systems. All of these essays depart from the shared roots between Stalinism and Nazism and instead investigate their differences. In doing so, they convincingly show how both regimes were not only exceptionally successful in ascribing identities (based either on class or nation) to their people, but also had a very powerful influence on how the people themselves came to define their own identities. In his introduction, Geyer calls this “the grand wager of a new social history of the two regimes” (34), because it is no longer the action of the regimes that dominates research. Instead, social groups are studied as actors in their own right. Though not completely new—Fitzpatrick and some of her colleagues have pursued this line of research in earlier publications—these three contributions to the respective thematic section show that the current comparison of Stalinism and Nazism opens up captivating avenues of new research.

The fourth and final part the book is called “Entanglements,” and contains articles by Mark Edele and Michael Geyer, and by Katerina Clark and Karl Schlögel. Clark and Schlögel have written a compelling article that fits well within the scholarly aspirations of the book. Not only do they study the two regimes in relation to each other, but they also locate these regimes in the wider European context. They deal with mutual image-making and illuminate the complexity and diversity of the issue of representation. Clark and Schlögel show that the Nazi and Stalinist regimes perceived each other in various ways and that there existed several, sometimes conflicting images of each other in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. Next, they demonstrate how Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia kept a close eye on each other and reacted to political, cultural, and social events, constructing images of the other and of themselves. Here, both authors point out the European context in the construction of these images of the other and the self, since both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia attempted to bolster their historical place in European civilization. They conclude that “[b]oth systems were engaged in a struggle for hegemony over Europe—cultural and military,” and suggest that further research in this field should not focus on the differences but rather on “the exchange and transfer of culture and ideas that took place in a context defined by the crisis of interwar Europe” (441). Considering the aim of the book, this is the most fascinating, well-balanced, and striking contribution to this volume. Clark and Schlögel’s use of the comparative method sheds new light on Stalinism and Nazism, their interrelationship, and the question how these regimes relate to European history and culture. Their contribution sets new standards for future research.

To conclude, the editors of Beyond Totalitarianism set an ambitious goal for themselves. They seek to establish a new explanatory framework for comparing Nazism and Stalinism and shake up the comparative methodological approach by asking experts on Nazi German history and Soviet history to join forces in this pursuit. Such ambitions are noble and worth pursuing. However, the goal of developing a new theoretical model is not met by all of the contributions. Some authors, especially those who stress the differences between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, neglect to explain the added value of their comparison. The findings and methodological approaches presented in several of these articles remain largely within the established framework of totalitarian studies. However, the articles that focus their comparative analysis on the commonality of the two regimes present surprising and thought-provoking conclusions that open up new fields of research, thus making the book a worthwhile read.


Mare van den Eeden

Central European University, Budapest