Twin tyrants

Two riveting, very different, studies of two brutal totalitarian regimes.

April 6, 2006 09:01
3 minute read.
dictator book 88 298

dictator book 88 298. (photo credit: )

The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia By Richard Overy W.W. Norton 847pp., $21.95 A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-45 Edited by Antony Beevor Translation by Luba Vinogradova Pantheon 378pp., $27.50 If you haven't read any of the scores of books about Hitler or Stalin, get The Dictators: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, a book about the differences between two of the biggest totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, now just released in a hefty paperback. Professor Overy's acclaimed masterpiece doesn't just deal with the two dictators, but demonstrates the way each regime developed in the '30s and '40s. Overy does not miss a beat, so some of the accounts are necessarily superficial, but accurate nonetheless. The book culminates in the detailed explanation of how the industrial might of Russia (supported by Allied material aid) outstripped Albert Speer's vaunted miracles of wartime production. As the war proceeded, Hitler took control of virtually all of Germany's tactical and strategic decisions, divesting himself of experienced generals like Manstein and hamstringing his general staff. Stalin, on the other hand, realized the military arguments put forward by a courageous Marshal Zhukov were sounder than his own judgments and quickly left the conduct of the war to his many talented generals. Stalin concentrated on war production and handled it brilliantly. He also honored the officer class he had once purged and directed that party commissars be reduced in rank or done away with altogether, the younger ones being sent to fight. There was another element, too. Nazism fell victim to its own propaganda, its demonization of the Jews and the perception of Slavs as Neanderthals. Morale at home and even in the Wehrmacht suffered from massive Allied air raids and continued military reverses. The Germans fought on out of fear of retribution, both Nazi and Soviet. The mass of Russians knew that they were fighting to escape a slavery worse even than the repressive Stalinist system. The vengeful Russian army, partly made up of non-Russian minorities (including very many Jews), believed it was marching not just on Berlin, but to a better life in a more liberal Soviet state. A PATRIOTIC Russian Jew with the same belief in a new Soviet dawn, novelist and famed war correspondent Vasily Grossman eventually died disillusioned and in poverty. Grossman's dispatches and personal notes were a key source for Antony Beevor in his epic book on the defense of Stalingrad. Now Beevor and his translator have mined the riveting source material published in Russian by Grossman's daughter early this year. When the Germans invaded Russia, Grossman (1905-64) was an overweight and sickly 35 - when he volunteered for the army, he was turned down. But as a frontline correspondent for the army newspaper, he soon became a Lieutenant Colonel with an uncomfortable reputation for honesty. Russian troops instinctively accepted Grossman as a real frontliner and not a party hack. Privates, colonels and even generals opened their hearts to him. Some had no heart; Grossman reported how some generals treated their men like dirt. Grossman never took notes during his talks with exhausted officers and men or famously tough snipers. He wrote them up as soon as he was alone, then worked them into his dispatches. Grossman witnessed many of Russia's initial defeats and greatest victories, notably Stalingrad and Kursk. He wrote about the destruction of his home town of Berdichev, once a great Jewish center. He discovered the horrors of the death camps like Maidanek and Treblinka; and that Stalinist policy did not differentiate between Jewish and other victims. Grossman got as far as Berlin; he had seen more of the war than perhaps any other Russian. He had also seen the pillage and rape that the Russians inflicted on the hapless Germans. Grossman survived the first post-war purges. He had great hopes that Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin would change matters. It did not. Grossman's manuscript of his great novel, Life and Fate, completed in 1960, was immediately seized by KGB officers; they even took his carbon paper and typewriter ribbons. Suslov, the ideologue of the Politburo, pronounced that Life and Fate could not be published for 200 years. A microfilm of the novel was smuggled out of Russia around 1980 and published to great acclaim, but by then its worn-out, outcast author was long dead. But Grossman's monument is his collection of notes made in the course of enduring over three years of brutal horrors. They record a low point in the history of man.

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