hen talking about History, some people are often bound to a specific way of thinking that is not appropriate for this kind of subject. In particular, they tend to think of it in terms of historic rivalries. As a consequence, Athens against Sparta becomes something similar to Boston Red Sox versus New York Yankees. Besides being wrong, such reasoning is also misleading.
In this story, I will address one of the main — alleged — rivalries in History, namely Nazi Germany against the Communist Soviet Union. The main reason why they are considered the opposite is that when we locate political parties in space, we usually use Communism on the extreme left and Nazism on the extreme right as anchors. Even if Marxian Communism is certainly leftist, the same thing cannot be easily said for Soviet Communism.
The ideology is the same; but what about the existence of a political elite? What about the existence of a strong and threatening army, whereas Marx supported the freedom of the people? As far as Nazism is concerned, too much salience is attached to the political dimensions that made Nazism the most wicked dictatorship in History. Consider, instead, Hitler’s plans for a car that should have been cheap enough to be affordable for the German middle class.
However, let’s go back to our initial question. Are Nazism and Soviet Communism that different? The answer is: no, they are not. More specifically, they are not different because they have some similarities. In this story, I will talk about four similarities between them. For the sake of simplicity, I will focus only on Stalin’s dictatorship, even though some of its features characterize also Lenin’s.
Hitler stayed in power for twelve years; Stalin’s rulership, instead, lasted for thirty-one years. Throughout those periods, both undertook several “cleanings” within their parties. The best-known purges ordered by Hitler and Stalin are, respectively, the Night of the Long Knives and the Great Purge.
The Night of the Long Knives took place in Germany from June 20th to July 2nd, 1934. Hitler’s main goal was to alleviate his concerns about the rising power of Ernst Röhm. He was the head of the SA, the Nazi Party’s original paramilitary wing. Officially, 85 people died in those days (even though estimates range up to 1000), including Röhm himself.
The Great Purge was far more bloody. However, this is probably because it lasted from 1936 to 1938. Unlike the Night of the Long Knives, the Great Purge targeted not only members of the party, but also common people such as wealthy peasants and ethnic minorities. Overall, the casualties were hundreds of thousands (some estimates range up to more than a million).
Even though the mainstream idea is that concentration camps were erected for the first time in History in Germany, this is not true. Several countries had already built these special prisons before the Weimar Republic turned into the Third Reich. The term “concentration camp” itself can be dated back to the Ten Years’ War (1868–1878) when Spanish forces detained Cuban civilians in camps to focus only on fighting guerrilla forces.
The first Nazi concentration camp was established on March 3, 1933, in Nohra. According to the historian Nicholas Wachsmann, by the end of World War II there were 27 camps and more than 1100 satellite camps. Most of the prisoners were Jews, but also alleged political rivals, homosexuals, and disabled people were interned. Estimates of the casualties range up to 2 million.
A gulag was not a proper concentration camp, but a forced-labor camp. In other words, its aim was to “correct” people rather than kill them. Anyway, the camps were major instruments of political repression in the Soviet Union. In the gulags, there was a wide range of prisoners, from common criminals to political rivals. The official certificates of death in the gulag system were recorded for the first time in 1930 (as a consequence, we cannot be sure about how many people died in the first years of Stalin’s rulership). However, from 1930 to 1953, when Stalin died, nearly 1,5 million prisoners lost their lives.
Nazism depended mainly on metallurgical and chemical industries for its rearmament project. To avoid competition between industries of the same production branch, Hitler made industrial concentration mandatory. Therefore, the Nazi government dissolved small and medium-sized companies and forbade the creation of new ones, unless they would have worked exclusively on commission for large industries. In addition, several measures were taken for the partial tax exemption of profits reinvested in sectors that were approved by the state (namely the war industry).
I’ve already discussed about Soviet Union’s industrial policy in this article. However, I’ll recall some of its key features. From 1928 onwards, Stalin started to issue Five-Year plans to develop the Soviet economy. Each plan dealt with all aspects of development, even though the emphasis was on power, capital goods, and agriculture. Clearly, any kind of company was nationalized and market competition was forbidden.
This is going to be the smallest section of this article as it doesn’t need further explanations. Both Hitler and Stalin were all-powerful men, nobody could ever challenge their rulership (and, when somebody did it, they were killed). However, there’s a technical difference between them as far as how they took the power is concerned. While Stalin succeeded Lenin when the latter died, Hitler took the power in a sort of legal way. Hitler’s first chancellorship was the result of an election, even though with several irregularities.
What is the point of this story, then? Clearly, Nazism and Soviet Communism were two different “monsters”. The point is that they were not opposite; they were not two parallel lines unable to meet. Thinking of them as if they were something like two polar ends is quite misleading because we could end up underestimating the importance of a treaty like the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They represented two of the most deadly powers in History and, if you do not agree with the above-mentioned comparisons, this should be enough to deem them as two different “monsters” with something in common.
History, Politics & Economics – A place for uncomfortable truths.