Lawrence Rees, a BAFTA winning historical documentary filmmaker and a British Book Award winning author, has once again used his vast knowledge on the Nazis and the Soviets to write another compelling piece by comparing two tyrants who may be perceived as being completely different from one another. But in this book, he displays that using interviews (some of which he did himself) and general facts it may appear that even though they believed in opposite ideologies and were actively fighting each other from 1941 to 1945 they were not all that different.
The use of oral history
What makes this book different to other history books is that there are many interviews with people who were living in the territories of both tyrants, and those who were involved in the inner working of both governments and therefore really getting to know how Hitler’s and Stalin’s administrations worked.
One example is a conversation with Boris Yefimov, who was the most famous Soviet cartoonist of the Second World War. In this interview he reveals that all his work was closely monitored by Stalin himself who personally approved of any cartoon that was on a sensitive topic.
Rees acknowledges in his preface that he knows the faults of the overreliances of primary sources, and therefore treats every piece with scepticism. He used the case of the Domobranci (Anti-Communist Volunteer Militia) where the British stated that they were treated well by Tito’s armed forced once captured, but when asked by Rees the man who wrote the letter said he was told to lie b a superior officer.
The perceived similarities
Through these interviews it can clearly be seen that there are in fact some similarities in the way these two dictators ran their countries. For example, from the interview with Boris Yefimov and the conversation that Rees had with film directors who worked with the Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, it is clear that both sides had to create propaganda that would serve the state and do nothing to undermine it.
The acknowledged differences
Despite the discoveries that showed what the two tyrants had in common, there were still some differences between them. Rees acknowledges that their tactics of gaining and consolidating power were very different. For example, Hitler gained notoriety and eventually power by being a passionate orator by relating to people’s struggles and using scapegoats like Jews and communists for the party to rally against. However, Stalin gained power using bureaucracy with the expansion in the number of people working as administrators within the Soviet system. His position of General Secretary of the Communist Party gained him power over the decisions over personnel.
Overall, I would most definitely recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the events of the Second World War, as it goes more in depth as to how certain events took place and what the two tyrants’ mentality was during them. This is all thanks to Lawrence Lees interviews with those who experienced life both in Nazi occupied territory and that of the Soviet Union, like retired members of the secret police, villagers who suffered at the hands of both forces and of course veterans of enormous battles that took place throughout World War Two. This is as well as the interviews that he also acknowledges from other historians where the interviewee may not be longer accessible, for example Hans Frank who was a leading Nazi and was executed for War crimes at the Nuremburg trials in 1946, who talked about when he heard Hitler speak in 1920, he felt like Hitler ‘uttered what was in the consciousness of all of those present.’
It is also for those who want to know about two of the most infamous dictators to have ever lived, and to know that even though they believed in two completely different sets of ideologies, were Hitler and Stalin really that different?