He, the Fuhrer, dictated rather than discussed. That was his unique style. 'At crucial moments, he merely announced to his underlings what he had decided and then relied on his lack of selfdoubt and considerable powers of persuasion, allied to the authority of his office, to push through what he wanted.' Stalin, by contrast, was a charisma-free zone. No orator, he wielded power through the all-powerful communist party, with its endless committees that he bent to his will. He was a strong, silent type, letting others talk while he took in what they were saying. He was, according to Rees, 'an aggressive listener and an even more aggressive watcher', his eyes boring into those around him, probing for their weaknesses and, most of all, any hint of disloyalty.
“Fascism and Communism were the same”, the Russian soldier and Auschwitz survivor Pavel Stenkin told Rees. “One may disagree with this, but this is my opinion. I know this better than all.” He certainly did. While the Nazi Tweedledee could only be identified by the metal dental bridge in his mouth in 1945, the Soviet Tweedledum carried on his mirror-image rule until his death in March 1953, as he was characteristically planning to kill a group of Jewish doctors for supposedly plotting against him. As this book brilliantly shows, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were blood brothers.
Rees’s decision to include plenty of personal stories in his narrative adds an important layer to our understanding, both of the dictators themselves and of their victims. He reminds us that the millions of dead, displaced, and maimed victims of the tyrants’ regimes are not just statistics, but real people – people like the 14-year-old Albert Burkovski, who was fetching water from the Volga river when, on August 23 1942, German warplanes first started to bomb the city of Stalingrad. He ran back to his grandmother’s house to find his home in ruins and his entire family wiped out in the largest air attack yet mounted on the Eastern front.
That symmetry is the underlying theme of Laurence Rees’s new book, Hitler and Stalin, a relatively concise and always compelling account of how the two leaders conducted their existential war. This gives Rees a smaller canvas to work on than that chosen by the most famous bi-biographer of the two men, Alan Bullock. Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, published in 1991, deserves the term “magisterial”. It is more than twice as long and examined its subjects from birth to extinction.