Books to read: The Dictators – The moral universe of totalitarianism

I finished Richard Overy’s The Dictators some time back, and I have been reflecting on what to say about it.  The book is a profound analysis of the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin.  It deserves to be read, with care, from cover to cover.

But rather than say a little about much too much, I will focus on the subjects of interest to this blog.  Here I will touch on the moral challenge posed by the two totalitarian faiths; a separate post will ponder the assertion, made frequently by Overy in the course of the book, that the two dictators, for all their crimes, enjoyed a great deal of public support.

The ideologies aggressively promoted by Hitler and Stalin are sometimes portrayed as a veil to conceal their basic criminality and appetite for power.  In this view, which is more prevalent among Hitler biographers, totalitarian rulers are golden-voiced opportunists, spewing whatever nonsense will persuade the people to surrender their freedom.  The advantage of this interpretation is that it allows one to dismiss the moral claims of Nazism and Stalinism.  The problem is that it contradicts the facts, as Overy makes clear beyond reasonable doubt.

Hitler and Stalin never lost a night’s sleep over the millions they murdered.  Both thought they were in the right.  They maintained that certainty in their moments of greatest power, and on the verge of disaster and defeat – in Hitler’s case, to the grave.  Both erected and imposed on the populations they ruled systems of morality, of right and wrong action, that broke radically with the past.

This fearful transformation was accomplished by brute force, but it had theoretical underpinnings, which we must take at face value.  The first step was the appropriation of modern science.  The Nazis believed that racial theory followed from Darwin as transmitted by Haeckel.  The Soviets worshipped at the altar of “scientific socialism.”

If one granted these premises, then science, with its immense authority, seemed to come down against the existence of universal moral values.  Religions and philosophies that claimed universality were relics of a prescientific age.  The same, of course, was true of the moral traditions of Germany and Russia, which derived to a great extent from Christianity and moral philosophy.  Such traditions weren’t viewed as evil or wrong.  They were unscientific, like a belief in satyrs and nymphs.  They were false.

Cut loose from universal moral principles and from moral traditions alike, the totalitarians became emancipated from every theoretical restraint on behavior.  They could build or destroy, nurture or kill, without qualms.  In practice, both made a supreme moral imperative of the revolutionary struggle.

For the Nazis, the struggle was for racial purity and domination.  For the Soviets, it was to build communism in one country.  But such positive goals fail to capture the spirit of totalitarian morality.  The orientation was always toward the enemy.  The terms used conveyed an unutterable loathing and rage.  The Jew and the capitalist wrecker were described as satanically powerful and cunning, and magically present in the most trivial acts:  a joke, a careless word.  They had to be destroyed.

That was the moral core of totalitarianism.  Hitler and Stalin each had his vision of the future, but they were prophets of rage and destruction.  The Dictators records them endlessly hectoring their followers to be more ruthless, more violent, more inhuman in their dealings with enemies of the new order.

The immediate consequence was, in Overy’s phrase, the “empire of the camps,” death camps and labor camps for Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals in Germany, the Gulag archipelago for kulaks and Trotskyites in the Soviet Union – people who died by the millions because they were guilty of being the enemy.  Their deaths were neither arbitrary nor acts of passion.  Murder was built into the system.  The anihilation of millions was a requirement of totalitarian morality.

A zeal for destruction as the ultimate good collided with older conceptions, rooted in Christianity but also in its humanistic successors, that placed the individual at the center of all moral judgment.  Both Hitler and Stalin, possibly influenced by the science and sociology of their day, saw blind, pitiless forces compelling the struggle in which they were engaged.  The individual could ride these forces or be crushed by them.  Moral judgment was a question of victory or defeat.

The constant calls to greater cruelty show a wish to exterminate any trace of individualism, of personal autonomy in moral decision.  In this, the two dictators entirely succeeded.  A few individuals resisted; most went along.  The murders and deportations, the famines and depraved scientific experiments, moved forward unopposed, as if the empire of the camps were the work of peculiarly malicious ants, rather than educated Germans and Russians.

Overy draws striking parallels between the two systems, which abominated each other and considered each other as different as night and day.  The underlying morality was certainly the same for both:  to be good was to destroy the enemy without pity and to sacrifice oneself.

But differences existed that are not always noted by Overy.  The ideals of Nazi Germany stood much further outside the mainstream of liberal democratic thought.  The destructiveness and self-destructiveness wrought by Hitler seems, as recorded by Overy, to exceed that of his rival, in numbers as well as sheer viciousness.  At the same time, a system based on racial superiority was, by definition, impossible to export.  Nazism could be admired and emulated, but never copied.

Marxism, on the other hand, espoused quite fervently the ideals of liberal democracy:  equality, democracy itself, full employment, economic fairness.  The difference lay in the revolutionary method.  But the revolutionary struggle, as we have seen, led inevitably to a morality of destruction, with mass murder as a requirement.  This did not begin with Stalin, and it did not end with him – though he was admittedly among the great practitioners of Marxist-style anihilation.

Because Stalin’s system demanded internationalism, it became easier to export.  Because Stalin’s brutal methods appeared to succeed in making the Soviet Union a great power, they seduced other nationalists from backward places, men like Mao and Pol Pot.  Because Stalin cloaked his policies in terms of the most generous and humane ideals, the moral monstrousness of Stalinism became much more difficult to discern, more liable to contagion, and in the end, it may be, a more widespread plague to the human race than was Hitlerism.  The latter, for all its foulness, is not likely to return; whereas the former is still killing people in North Korea.


One Response to Books to read: The Dictators – The moral universe of totalitarianism

  1. Stan says:

    Thanks for this review. I have referenced it on my blog, where I have been commenting on the three-class system of today’s leftist proto-tyrants. I have, in the past, used Sowell’s notation, “anointed”, but now I use the following classifications which I think fit slightly better: the Messiah Class, the Victimhood Class, and the Oppressor Class. The leftists wish to be seen as the moral saviors, and they require victims to save, and oppressors for their victims.

    Many times the Messiah Class contains people who place themselves also into the Victimhood Class (e.g. feminists). But the three-class system is consistent across all leftism, and I see from your review, across the major tyrants, too.

    I was unaware of the book until I came across your blog. Book is now on order.

    Drop by and chat if you wish, and thanks for your post here.

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