There is a clear connection between both leaders in their legitimate accessions to power. However, Overy dispels the notion Stalin was a populist politician like Hitler. Instead, he depicts Stalin as a ‘master of dissimulation’ who used his personality to defeat his leadership rivals within the Politburo. Stalin consistently changed his stance on important issues and shifted his allegiances to enable his rise to power. For example, his formation of a ‘triumvirate’ with Zinoviev and Kamenev led to the defeat of Trotsky, before he then moved to the Right in order to defeat the Left as a whole. Furthermore, structuralist historians, like E.H. Carr, emphasise Stalin’s administrative role as General Secretary to explain his rise to power. This position gave him control of appointments and exclusions within the party, while also allowing him to gain allies through aiding the rise of certain party members. Ultimately, there is an underlying consensus amongst historians of the legal nature of Stalin’s rise to power. While his actions are widely being considered immoral and duplicitous, they can be paralleled to Hitler’s open attacks on the Jews and his false promise to the Catholic Party in 1933 not to diminish Catholic religious and educational rights. Therefore, the methods used by both leaders to rise to power cannot be viewed as moral, but must be recognised as legal.
There is a significant divergence in Nazi policy before and after 1933 that undermines Gellately’s argument for a ‘consensus dictatorship.’ After Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Nazis instigated a policy for consolidating power that centred around violence, using a legal facade to portray their actions as legitimate. Gellately suggests that the Nazis’ use of a legal facade to conceal their violent actions proves a desire to remain popular amongst the people and build a consensus towards their programme. However, more recent historiography has discarded Gellately’s argument for this period of consolidation. Bessel outlines how the Nazis used the state’s resources to terrorise and intimidate their opponents. The Reichstag Fire Decree and the Enabling Act mark the crucial shift in Nazi policy from legality to violence. The fire caused chaos and confusion, providing justification for Hitler to expand the powers of the police and attack other political parties. Furthermore, in order to create the two-thirds majority required to pass the Enabling Act, Communist Party members of the Reichstag were arrested and removed by the SA. The law subsequently passed and the Reichstag became redundant. All political parties were dissolved by July and Germany became a one party state; thus, as Wachsmann aptly puts, the politics of Nazi activism and violence took precedence over the politics of consensus and popularity. Furthermore, the purge of the army in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 ultimately confirmed Hitler’s control, tying the army to the regime with an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Therefore, Hitler replaced his legal strategy with a violent strategy in order to consolidate power. In shrewdly using the law to portray his actions as legal, Hitler was able to act violently to eliminate his political opponents and secure his dictatorship.
Stalin’s use of violence in order to consolidate his leadership position further confirms the direct link between the establishment of both dictatorships. The Liberal school of Soviet historiography up to 1953, which is predominantly Stalinist in its perspective, argues that Stalin’s use of violence against the peasantry was justified, since the presence of kulaks and their demands threatened the revolution and the country as a whole. Therefore, Stalin was acting for the benefit of the nation by destroying the kulaks. Ward, however, argues this violence occurred purely for Stalin’s personal gain. His position was insecure upon rising to power and he needed to combat threats from the peasants and the Politburo. The launch of ‘dekulakisation’ occurred within the agricultural policy of collectivisation, which aimed to merge smaller agricultural holdings into larger farms in order to boost production rates. However, in de facto terms, the destructive slaughter of the kulaks took precedence over these economic objectives. From February 1930, outright war was declared against the kulaks, with local committees ordered to apply ‘necessary measures’ against them. 250,000 volunteers and conscripts were recruited to attack the kulaks, while thousands of other peasants were stigmatised as kulaks and driven from their land. Fitzpatrick builds on Ward’s appraisal, viewing Stalin’s attack on the kulaks as an attempt to gain support within the party. Many new members in the early 1930s were workers, who opposed NEP and the benefits it had brought to the rural population. Therefore, by attacking the kulaks, Stalin was able to attract greater intra-party support and establish control over the countryside. Ultimately, the Stalinist explanation neglects how Stalin used violence primarily for his own benefit in order to secure power, initiating what Fitzpatrick labels the ‘first wave of terror.’
As a final act to consolidate power, Conquest leads the liberal scholarship, arguing that Stalin organised the murder of Kirov in order to remove his main leadership rival within the party. Getty questions the role of Stalin in Kirov’s murder, specifically disputing the evidence of Aleksandr Orlov, a Soviet defector, who took 15 years to place blame on Stalin for the assassination. However, the wider historiographical consensus points towards Stalin’s guilt, with Kirov’s murder acting as a, ‘logical continuation of Stalin’s ruthless consolidation of power.’ Despite the support he had gained from dekulakisation, Stalin’s position within the party was still unstable in 1932, with many calling for Kirov to take over as General Secretary. While Conquest acknowledges the importance of the assassination itself, in that it eliminated Stalin’s main opponent in the Politburo, he does not recognise, as Ward does, its wider significance in triggering the next wave of terror. Importantly, Kirov’s murder provided Stalin with justification to find the ‘enemies of the state’ who threatened Stalin’s position in power. For example, the day after the assassination, the NKVD were given powers of trial and execution, with over 100 people killed in the following weeks for ‘preparing terrorist acts against the regime.’ Not only does this illustrate a clear connection between Kirov’s murder and the expansion of Stalin’s control, more pertinently to this essay, it provides further evidence of Stalin’s use of violence in order to consolidate his position.
From 1934, the Nazis ruled through coercion rather than consensus; their popularity had peaked by the last Reichstag election in March 1933 and opposition groups began forming in protest against the regime. Gellately uses the large numbers of denunciations as evidence of a consensus for Nazi rule. For example, in August 1935, 208 people were reported for ‘race defilement’ by other German citizens. However, Mazower argues that many of these denunciations were the result of the Gestapo and their role in dealing with the enemies of the Nazis, such as the Jews, who were regularly rounded up, marched down streets and sent away to concentration camps. Notably, the expansion of the Gestapo after 1935 coincided with a substantial increase in cases of racial defilement and friendship with Jews. Furthermore, Browder suggests the Gestapo manifested themselves psychologically as well as physically; Nazi propaganda provided the organisation with an all-pervading image and instilled fear into German people. German society was therefore doubly penetrated by the Gestapo. The Nazis created a society of forced conformity, in which propaganda was used for violent purposes and denunciations were the product of fear rather than consensus.
While many German people supported the Nazis for their anti-semitic behaviour, there was a general lack of consensus to the mass murder of the ‘non-aryan’ groups from 1934, with German society largely engaged into a state of passive conformity. There was a significant rise in targeted violence towards Jews from 1937. For example, Kristallnacht was ordered by Hitler in order to arrest 30,000 Jews, while around 360 synagogues and 40 Jewish stores were also destroyed. Furthermore, as well as the Jews, Hitler aimed to eliminate the disabled and handicapped through the T4 program, while he had plans to destroy Slavs after the ‘Jewish Question’ had been resolved. Goldhagen coined the term ‘willing executioners’ to argue for the compliance and consensus of German people in the mass slaughter of the Jews. He suggests there was a unique ‘eliminationist antisemitism’ within German society and, while many Germans took inactive roles, Goldhagen claims most knew what was happening, proposing that their silence is tantamount in guilt to those who actually organised and committed the murders. On the other hand, Mazower suggests the fact the Nazis tried to keep the Jewish death camps secret proves its unpopularity within society and the concerns the Nazis had with potential opposition. Significantly, Goebbels’ propaganda was deliberately vague in order to avoid stirring resistance, especially after the criticism from Catholic Bishops in August 1943 towards the euthanasia program, which led to its disintegration. Therefore, opposition did exist, evidenced further by resistance groups, like the Edelweiss Pirates, who acted as a rebel group to the Hitler Youth, rebelling against its strict regimentation. Such acts of opposition should not be disregarded, by the likes of Collier, as unimportant, but treated as significant, due to the climate of fear and violence that the German people had to live in. Thus, it is clear few German people acted violently towards the Jews out of their own volition; as a result, the silence and complicity of the German people cannot be treated as a consensus towards the regime’s actions.
A further comparison can be drawn between the two dictatorships concerning the roles of the Gestapo and the NKVD, specifically how they enabled violent rule to be exercised in the respective nations. The NKVD played a central role in creating physical and psychic terror that maintained the dominant position of Stalin. From 1935, the NKVD had a more aggressive role in the terror, forwarding compromising materials on party members to regional party leaders and using illegal methods on suspects; torture, sleep deprivation and psychological abuse were used in a ‘conveyor system’ to obtain and shape confessions. From 1937-38, the NKVD arrested more than 1.5 million people, 87% of which on political grounds. After interrogation, these people were either shot or sent to labour camps, where they were ‘worked to death.’ Adopting a ‘from below’ perspective, Fitzpatrick acknowledges the instrumental nature of the violence by the NKVD, specifically through the surveillance used to monitor the ‘mood of the population.’ They observed public opinion through blending into society, such as listening to conversations in shops, thereby instilling terror into Russian society and forcing people to comply with the regime. Therefore, the physical and psychological presence of the NKVD created a forced conformity in the Soviet state akin to that in Nazi Germany.
Repression was a widespread phenomenon under Stalin’s regime, not only in terms of the victims it produced, but also, as Goldman argues, in terms of the ‘number of perpetrators it spawned.’ Vigilance and denunciation were propagandised as being part of a good citizen, deployed as a major form of finding the ‘enemies within’ and as a substitute for local courts. Rather than being evidence of conformity with the regime, most people denounced others due to a fear they would otherwise be accused of crimes. These confessions, which a study in 1991 found were largely obtained under torture and duress, formed the basis of the show trials that publicly scapegoated supposed enemies of the regime. For example, in the purge of the Red Army from 1937, several top military leaders were convicted of treason and executed for supposedly organising a conspiracy with Germany against the Stalinist regime. More importantly, the purge of the army and the frequent party purges highlights how nobody was safe within Stalin’s regime. While there is a clear link between both dictatorships in their use of fear to force denunciations, Goldman draws a more illuminating comparison between the targets of each regimes. She argues that, while the rhetoric of Nazism was aimed at the enemy ‘without’, Soviet rhetoric focussed on finding the enemy ‘within.’ It transformed every workplace with its ritualised ‘unmasking’ of workmates, bosses and bureaucrats. Unlike the war against the Jew, the line between victim and perpetrator in Russia was blurred. Thus, as Gellately notes, terror acted as ‘social prophylaxis’ under Stalin; it maintained his position in power and was used to eliminate any potential opposition.
Hitler had a limited role in the execution of his overarching vision to exterminate the Jews and provoke a second world war. On balance, it was the implementation of violent policy from other Nazi leaders that was central to the governance of Nazi rule. Intentionalists, such as Hildebrand and Jackel, equate Nazi rule to solo rule, and consequently exaggerate the importance of Hitler’s role. In reality, the ‘Fuhrer Orders’ were vague and ambiguous, referring to broad aims rather than specific actions. Meanwhile, functionalists, namely Kershaw, identify the number of different power bases existed within the Nazi regime, with Hitler not dictating, but acting as a symbolic and passive figurehead. Most Nazi policies were devised by other departments, enabling the rise to careerists within the party. For example, the Chancellery of the Fuhrer (KdF) saw an opportunity for favour with Hitler by presenting him with a letter from a father asking for a ‘mercy death’ for his disabled child. This led to the T4 program and the deaths of 70,000 children. However, an overlapping theme between all the policies devised from the different leaders is the use of violence. Goebbels’ propaganda, whether it directly attacked the Jews or attempted to conceal the death camp atrocities, consistently revolved around the violent acts of the Nazis. Himmler led the unified German Police from 1936, which retained its traditional repressive role, but with an increased willingness for brutality. Furthermore, in planning the Final Solution, not only did Heydrich organise the Einsatzgruppen to attack Jews in the USSR, he also set about devising, ‘a general plan … for carrying out the desired final solution,’ in 1941. Ultimately, the application and implementation of violent policies and propaganda formed the basis for Nazi rule, relegating Hitler to a limited role within the regime.
While Stalin exerted greater personal rule than Hitler did, he was still more of a causal factor to the rule of his regime, as violence was ultimately key to governing the dictatorship. 1990s historiography saw the emergence of evidence tying Stalin into the repression and terror that occurred during his rule, strengthening the intentionalist argument for Stalin’s key role in ruling his dictatorship. However, more modern historians, like Goldman, dispute the role of Stalin in the terror; not only does she place more of the responsibility for the terror onto Yezhov, the head of the NKVD from 1936-38, she argues the history of repression in unions and factories means the terror could not have been created solely by the regime. Rather, this combination of working class resentment against managers from below and violent directives from above resulted in terror itself becoming a self-generating dynamic that affected all areas of society. The argument placing Stalin at the centre of the regime’s actions has been further revised by the likes of Fitzpatrick. She ties in the psychological terror produced by the NKVD with the Cult of Stalin that proposed a quasi-sacred nature to Stalin’s leadership. These images produced a feeling of intimidation and surveillance over Russian society, as if all their actions were being monitored. Consequently, a comparison can be drawn between Stalin and Hitler in relation to their roles as symbolic figureheads ruling over their regime. Other leaders took greater responsibility in governing the nation, while it was the application of violence that became the main instrument both regimes used to rule.
To conclude, violence was used as the predominant tool to consolidate and rule the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin, despite their legal accessions to power. Stalin used his personality and position within the party in order to seize power, and, while Hitler deployed violence, this occurred within a wider strategy of gaining popularity and achieving electoral success. For Hitler, violence was merely a tactic and was controlled at all times in order to maximise public support. Violence was most significant initially in its legacy from WW1, as it produced radicalised and unstable political climates that Hitler and Stalin were able to take advantage of. Nevertheless, violence quickly became the main strategy used by both regimes to rule. Public opinion was treated with increasingly less attention, while propaganda was primarily used for violent purposes in order to instil fear into society. Furthermore, the significance of the roles of both dictators is limited in comparison to the role of violence. Stalin and Hitler effectively adopted figurehead positions within their regimes and were not involved in most decision-making processes. Meanwhile, violence was central to maintaining the dictatorships throughout the 1930s and, while the two regimes focussed on different enemies, it enabled the position of Hitler and Stalin to be strengthened through the elimination of possible opposition. Ultimately, both regimes ruled through exerting physical and psychological terror; arrests and executions were commonplace, while the fear of being attacked or denounced placed society into a perpetual state of forced conformity. In hindsight, it is clear to us, as historians, the significance violence played in consolidating and ruling these two dictatorships. However, we should also recognise how, since violence ultimately made the existence of these dictatorships possible, it was consequently the only means by which they could be ruled and maintained. Thus, both regimes were violent not simply by choice, but by necessity.