What is most fascinating about this novel dual biographical approach toward understanding both Hitler and Stalin is the startling degree to which such an unorthodox approach illuminates one's understanding not only of their remarkable similarities, but also their philosophical, tactical, and personal differences. This truly is a fascinating and absorbing book, and it is well enough written that the narrative seems to spin along on its own strength, and we find ourselves captivated by the degree to which these two seem star-crossed in terms of their destinies. As Bullock deftly illustrates, the main differences between the two dictators were found in their personalities. Yet, even after all these crucial differences in both personal style and substance are considered, the degree to which they were similar is both remarkable and frightening to comprehend.
Stalin was a creature of bureaucracy, the ultimate insider, someone who knew how to use the organization bonding the Communist Party together for his own rise to prominence and power, an increasingly clever, adroit, and masterful practitioner of power politics. He was nothing if not careful, cautious, deliberate, and shrewd. Hitler, on the other hand, was a gambler, a masterful politician, a bold, easily bored, and endlessly distracted dreamer whose natural ability to charm, captivate, and enchant helped him to rise by extraordinary means. In many ways, these men came to prominence in quite different ways; Stalin, by mastering the art of bureaucratic manipulation and quietly assuming key roles within the organization that gave him friendships, alliances, and information that he used masterfully to rise through the ranks of the faithful, and Hitler, the manic-depressive natural leader whose charismatic popular appeal and desperate, authoritarian, and often violent measures were used to gain political power through extraordinary means.
Yet Bullock shows how similar both men were in terms of the way they used their power once established to execute their national responsibilities, and in the way they ruthlessly pursued their goals without mercy, remorse or any concern for others who suffered for their sake. Both used extralegal means to maintain position, both cruelly purged potential rivals through purges or political overthrows. Both bordered on being psychotic; Hitler coming close to being declared certifiably insane, and Stalin by having all the symptoms of classic paranoia. Certainly both had personal histories that can most kindly be described as bizarre in terms of the ways in which they treated those close to them as well as the populace in general. Both also seemed convinced of their own central and unique role in terms of their country's destiny, and indeed each identified his own importance in terms of succeeding in accomplishing that historical mission. Also, both were guilty of massive crimes against humanity, both against the opposing forces they captured and their own subjects. Hitler persecuted German citizens who were Jewish, Gypsies, or otherwise "undesirables", while Stalin persecuted Ukrainians in general and peasant farmers in particular, not to mention the systematic purges of thousands of Army, Navy, and Air Force officers he or his cronies suspected of potential disloyalty.
This is a wonderful book in terms of its insights, unusual research sources, and provocative speculations regarding each of these two quite unique historical figures. The narrative carries itself in an entertaining, edifying, and comprehensible fashion, and his use of photographs and maps serves the text well. All in all, I would have to describe this book as a must-read for anyone seriously interested in how the personalities and characteristics of these two key leaders in 20th century history figured into the unholy calculus of madness and mayhem, otherwise referred to as World War Two. I highly recommend it. Enjoy!
on May 21, 2002
"Hitler and Stalin" places two of history's most destructive figures side by side, telling their stories both individually and (periodically) in comparison. Bullock's technique makes for some mighty interesting reading, with a thorough examination of just how so many people came to their deaths through the whims of two men. Using their political careers as a window into Hitler's and Stalin's personalities, Bullock emerges having drawn a portrait of the similarities and differences between the two men, and how their characters led to the the events that defined their lives. The book also paints the lives of the two men in human and historical terms, making sure to document just how they managed to cause suffering on such a grand scale.
From their humble beginnings, Bullock examines how Hitler and Stalin managed to gain positions of absolute power over their respective countries. Stalin is portrayed as an almost shadowy figure, spending his early career lurking in the background behind the public figure of Lenin, waiting his chance while expertly playing the game of power politics. Hitler, on the other hand, is depicted as a gambler, taking chances he wasn't expected to take, attempting to seize power through calculated boldness and his fiery public persona. With both men, however, Bullock stresses how they succeeded by going just a little farther than others, capitalizing on their enemies' perceptions of what they would and would not do.
Another comparison Bullock draws between Hitler and Stalin lies in the men's complete lack of anything that could appropriately be described as human feeling or comparison. To both, as Bullock says, other people were simply objects to be manipulated or obstacles to be eliminated. To Stalin the objective was getting and keeping power, to Hilter achieving his wild dreams of a German empire, with neither goal leaving any room for consideration of others. It seems to be this one characteristic, above all others, that Bullock sees as motivating the two dictators' action. The starving of the Russian peasants, the Holocaust, the purges, and the massive suffering of the war are all presented by Bullock as just extensions of Hitler's and Stalin's personal missions. He refers at one point to how casually Stalin was able to send to their deaths men with whom he had long worked, as if it required no more effort than the stroke of his pen. By discussing how easily both Hitler and Stalin brought such suffering upon others, Bullock provides a chilling view of just how inhuman these men were.
Bullock tells the tale of these two despicable, yet compelling figures with an expert balance of detatchment and emotion. Although he typically discusses his topic in a very matter-of-fact manner, he will occassionally pause and tell tales of the horrors of collectivization, or the purges, or the Holocaust, bringing an appropriate tone of righteous indignation to these events. Clearly, Bullock's intention in attempting to get inside these men's heads is to expose how truly evil they were, rather than attempt to put down some psychobabble to explain their actions. And one can't help but be moved in his epilogue, where he discusses his experiences in Jerusalem at the Holocaust memorials. If this book has a problem, it's its incredible density, but this is a very minor flaw. 4.5 stars.
on September 20, 1997
To describe Sir Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives as a duel biography does not do it justice. It is no less than a history of the formation and evolution of the most violent and pathological dictatorships in the history the world, and an understanding of these dictatorships is necessary to an understanding of the twentieth century.
However, Sir Alan Bullock tells this story primarily through the two men whose efforts, paranoias, prejudicies, and impressive if ultimately evil intellects made their regimes possible. Without a doubt, he tells their stories masterfully, interweaving their lives within the context of twentieth century history and ideas yet maintaining their distinct personal and political identities, talents, and mistakes. His book is both interesting narrative and unquie analytical fair for both the general reader and specialist.
In their latest book, Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison, Sir Ian Kershaw and Moshe Levin write of their subjects:
"Studying the history of inhumanity, perpetrated on such a vast, unprecedented scale, has an emotional and psychological cost. It is not like studying the history of philosohpy, the Renaissance, or the age of the cathedrals. The subject matter is less uplifting than almost any other conceivable topic of historical enquiry. But it is history al the same. And it is important. The emotional involvement has to be contained, even when the very effort to arrive at some balanced and reasoned interpretation seems an affront. . . There is nothing else . . . than to adhere to scholarly methods in the hope that knowledge might inform action to prevent any conceivable repetition of such political pathologies as characterised Stalinism and Nazism."
With his most recent work, Sir Alan Bullock has gone a long way toward achieving the ideals set forth by Kershaw and Lewin. I highly recommend this book
on June 17, 2000
For most of the past century, there have been two schools of thought about Hitler and Stalin. One states that Stalin wasn't really so bad, because he fought the Fascists; the other insists that Hitler wasn't really so bad, because he fought the Communists. Alan Bullock leaves both viewpoints in the dustheap of history, where they belong. Both Hitler and Stalin came as close to pure evil as human beings ever get; both stood for the utter repression of the human spirit and the annihilation of anyone who might possibly be suspected of standing in their way. Bullock demonstrates this in exhaustive, but never exhausting, detail. More people should read this book, if only to be cured forever of any temptation to support any form of totalitarianism, any time, anywhere.
on December 25, 2000
It's a sad fact that Hitler and Stalin probably had more influence on the history of the twentieth century than any other two individuals. Each was responsible for unleashing monumental evil that left tens of millions dead in its wake and had a profound impact on geo-political events for the remainder of the century. Bullock's brilliant and somber comparative biography charts the lives of Hitler and Stalin, stopping along the way to compare and contrast their personalities, their philosophy and goals, and the strategies and tactics they used to gain and maintain power. Both shared a consistency of purpose, a total disregard for the human suffering they unleashed and a proclivity to blame others for their own mistakes. Both suffered from paranoia, although for Stalin it was a systemic condition, while in Hitler's case, the paranoia grew in intensity as his empire crumbled around him. Both had a grasp of detail that would astound and disarm their opponents. Both maintained power by using the machinery of terror to crush opponents. But there were also deep differences between the ways in which the two men operated.
Stalin owed his rise to power to astute political maneuvering and a mastery over the internal bureaucracy and decision-making apparatus of the Bolshevik party. The man defined the word crafty. Bullock documents how over a number of years Stalin systematically out maneuvered, isolated, and then removed anyone that his feverish imagination deemed to be a potential challenger - which in Stalin's case could be virtually anyone. He showed loyalty to no one but himself, and frequently had former friends and loyal subordinates alike executed because he saw them as a threat. Stalin's leadership style was one of centralization, which when coupled with a phenomenal memory, a grasp of detail, and control over the machinery of terror, allowed him to reshape the Soviet empire in his own image.
In contrast, Hitler's had no patience for administration and willingly delegated power over the management of government bureaucracy to his long time political lieutenants, such as Goring and Goebbels. While Stalin was an average public speaker, Hitler's power came from his brilliance as a speaker which magnified a demonically charismatic persona. While Stalin was a workaholic, Hitler's work habits were lax. While Stalin was careful, slowly accumulating power and avoiding direct conflict with his opponents until the ground had been well prepared, Hitler was a risk taker, a consummate military and political gambler with a taste for bold moves. For a long time, it was Hitler's very boldness that disarmed and defeated his opponents, but in the end, his biggest gamble of all, going to war with Stalin's Soviet empire, was to prove his undoing. Yet as Bullock makes clear, in Hitler mind there was little choice in this matter. Hitler saw war with Russia as inevitable, his destiny; the timing was the only thing at issue, and in the end he saw little choice there too. One of the great paradoxes of Hitler's life is that the man made history, but the forces of history he unleashed and his own internal sense of destiny shaped his actions and trapped him into pursuing a course of action that was to bring about his demise.
Bullock's grasp of both the broad sweep of twentieth century history, and the details of Hitler and Stalin's lives and personas is nothing short of remarkable. This vast book represents historical writing at its very best. Once the reader embarks upon the journey Bullock has charted out, the book is impossible to put down. What Bullock does better than anyone else is to map out how these two evil men, individuals who in another time and place would have warranted a footnote in history at best, were able to seize control of two great countries and bend them to their own purpose. This book is a must read for anyone who wishes to understand how it is that the will of the masses can be manipulated and controlled by unscrupulous and evil politicians.
on October 3, 2000
Bullock's Parallel Lives is definately entertaining and it moves along quite well. For an introduction to both Hitler and Stalin, it is just the ticket. It covers enough biographical detail for each so that you have a complete picture of them through their entire lives (this is not history that bogs down in specific minutiae of decisions, campaigns and the like).
While it is interesting how the two lives are compared, I find the attempts to do so somewhat of a contrived stretch. On a surface level, the objectives and techniques to achieve and maintain political power would make it plausible compare Stalin and FDR -- so of course Stalin and Hitler, both despicable dictators, will have "parallel lives." That aside, the book is worth the trip.
on December 4, 1999
This book leaves absolutely nothing out. I have read an enormous amount about Hitler and the entire nazi era. The book was extremley inciteful about Stalin as well . It is truly amazing and exciting to read about both these men simultaneously while they are being compared from birth all the way until the end of each life. It is also great how when Hitler dies , the author still talks about Stalin until his death because this is still the era of both men. I highly recommend this book.
This dual biography is excellent. Bullock is an excellent writer with an uncluttered style and the content of this book reflects Bullock's considered judgements based on a careful reading of a large volume of scholarship. The balance between the narratives of Hitler's and Stalin's lives, explanations of the relevant contemporary history, and efforts at psychological insight is excellent. While a very thick book, it is a gripping read.
Bullock shows very well the distinct courses of Hitler's and Stalin's lives, a function both of their very different circumstances and personalities. Hitler rose to power in a partially democratized society, his success based on charismatic leadership, demagogic mass politics, and shrewd exploitation of the political weaknesses of his opponents. Once in power, he delegated power to trusted subordinates and presided over an anarchic state composed of competing power centers jockeying for his approval. Stalin, on the other hand, was a consummate bureaucrat and backroom politician. A tireless worker and master political infighter, he largely constructed the state apparatus that was the instrument of his power. His serial purges had the effect of elimnating any potential rival seats of power.
The major question, of course, is why produce a combined biography instead of 2 separate books? It is true that Hitler's and Stalin's lives intersected in very important ways but these issues could easily have been handled in separate books. The advantage of Bullock's approach is that it demonstrates, both implicitly and explicitly, the convergence of the Nazi and Stalinist states. Both were based on personal rule, crude but powerful ideological constructs that held the loyalty of the leaders and numerous followers, ruthless repression, and both states produced results that garned significant popular support. Both were constructed by monsters with considerable insight into human nature but no real sympathy for their fellow men. Both leaders were incredible egoists. Bullock uses the term narcissism in its clinical sense to describe both Hitler and Stalin, who saw the states they led as extensions of themselves. Not surprisingly then, in the depth and organization of repression and many other features, the Nazi and Stalinist states had major similarities. These basic patterns can be seen in many tyrannical states throughout human history and are independent of ideology.
on March 28, 2003
It is difficult to describe Alan Bullock's fantastic dual-biography of Hitler and Stalin, and others have done much better here than I could. Allow me to add their voices to theirs in praise of this work. Bullock not only manages to convey the terrible sweep of history of the first half of the 20th Century and the impact of these two monsters of history, but does so in a very readable style. I marvel that a book of nearly 1000 pages, many of them filled with either terrible stories of oppression and horror, or else mindnumbing (but critical) economic statistics, can hold one's interest enough from start to finish. Highly recommended.
on January 1, 1999
Alan Bullock has composed one of the most probing studies of human ambition ever written. Its reading is essential to the understanding of European History in the 20th Century. Excellent book!