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The origin of this book is easy to explain. I’ve spent the last thirty years making documentaries and writing books about the Third Reich, Stalinism and the Second World War. As a consequence I’ve met hundreds of people who experienced life under Hitler’s and Stalin’s rule — not just those who suffered, but those who enthusiastically supported the dictators as well. It was my encounters with these first-hand witnesses, and the intriguing things they said, that made me want to write this book.
Fourteen years ago, for instance, I was in the Moscow apartment of the most famous Soviet cartoonist of the Second World War, Boris Yefimov. He revealed that his work had been so strictly monitored that Stalin needed to approve personally any cartoon he drew on a sensitive topic. When pressed on how it felt to be an artist who could not practice self-expression but instead had to create state-sanctioned propaganda, Yefimov replied that artists had to realize the responsibility they possessed ‘not to do harm to their own people’ and ‘country’.
It was, of course, a totally different perspective on the role of the artist from the one that we possess today in the west. And as he talked I remembered similar views I had heard years before, when I met film directors who had worked for the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. They too spoke about the need for their artistic work to serve the state. So, in this respect at least, the two regimes sounded alike.
In contrast, the experiences of those people I met who personally encountered Hitler and Stalin on a regular basis could hardly have been more at odds. It was most certainly not the same thing to walk into a meeting with Stalin as to walk into one with Hitler. As individual personalities the two tyrants were far apart.
Over the years I started thinking more and more about this comparison between the two leaders and their regimes. What were the key differences? In what ways were the regimes similar? And, perhaps most crucial of all, to what extent did Stalin and Hitler shape the times they lived in, and to what extent did the times shape them?
After much thought, I decided to focus this work on the period 939– 45. That’s because these were the years during which Hitler and Stalin had a direct relationship, first as colleagues in an alliance of sorts, and then not just as mere adversaries but as the two most powerful warlords the world had ever seen. Even though they never met, each of them was very much aware of the other. They even admired each other’s ruthlessness. Hitler and Stalin were linked together for nearly six years, and I believe it’s that connection that makes this comparison particularly striking.
An emphasis on the war years is one way this book differs from the best- known previous attempt to compare the two dictators — Alan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. I’ve also benefited from the wealth of scholarly research that has taken place on this subject since Bullock wrote his book nearly thirty years ago. But perhaps the biggest difference between this work and Parallel Lives is the way I’ve been able to draw on millions of words of original eyewitness testimony. So much so that most of the interview material quoted here has never been published before.
It’s been one of the great privileges of my professional life that, together with my various production teams, I was able to travel across the former Soviet Union and meet people who had never felt able to talk publicly about this history before. Over many years, and for a variety of projects, we travelled from Siberia to Ukraine, from Kalmykia to the Barents Sea and from Lithuania to the River Volga. We met retired members of the secret police, villagers who had suffered at the hands of both German soldiers and Red Army partisans, veterans of gigantic battles like Stalingrad and Moscow, even Stalin’s former telegraphist who revealed how the Soviet dictator had nearly fled the capital in the dark days of October 1941. If the Berlin Wall had not fallen, and the Soviet Union had not subsequently collapsed, these witnesses to epic events could never have talked of their experiences without fear of retribution. Their stories would have been lost for ever.
This primary source material is especially valuable in the context of a comparison between the two dictators, because Hitler and Stalin made decisions in warmth and comfort that resulted in the torment of millions, and it’s vital that ordinary people who suffered at their hands have a voice.
It’s important to treat eyewitness testimony with particular care, and I’ve written elsewhere of how we checked the authenticity of the material we obtained, and of the nuanced way in which it must be used. But notwithstanding these caveats, and after years of experience dealing with personal testimony, I’ve concluded that it is a mistake to think that individuals speaking after the event are somehow inherently less ‘reliable’ than documents of the time. This point was first brought home to me with great force thirty years ago, when I was making a film featuring the testimony of members of a Slovenian unit called the Domobranci, who were handed over to Marshal Tito’s men by British forces in the summer of 1945. These eyewitnesses spoke of the brutal way that Tito’s soldiers had treated them, and of how the British had seen their suffering. But a report in the archives, written by a British officer at the time, offered a radically different perspective. It spoke of how well Tito’s men had treated their prisoners, saying, ‘They were kindly and efficiently handled, and provided with light refreshments . . .’
This could be taken to demonstrate the primacy of documents over testimony. But when I interviewed the British officer who had written the report he confirmed the evidence of the Domobranci, and said that he had been told at the time by his superior officer to lie. He expressed surprise that anyone could believe the words he had written in his report, since he had been deliberately ironic. How could anyone, he said, possibly think that Tito’s forces would have offered ‘light refreshments’ to their enemies in such a situation?
I mention this not to suggest that eyewitness testimony is somehow better than contemporaneous material, merely to point out that historians must treat every single source with scepticism. Nor, especially in the context of this history, would I dispute the enormous importance of archival evidence. Many times the discovery of a document that has been hidden for years has reshaped our understanding of the period. Think, for example, of the piece of paper Stalin signed early in the war which authorized the killing of thousands of Polish officers, and which only came to light after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union.
Notwithstanding my decision to focus this work on the period of the Second World War, I also discuss key events that occurred before these years when an understanding of them is helpful for the narrative. For example, I look at the impact of the Red Army purges of the 1930s in the context of the Soviet Union’s protracted war with Finland. However, I also thought it would be useful, in the Introduction that follows, both to mention some other necessary biographical context and to foreshadow some of the major themes of the book.
Though this is a work of history, I believe it is of particular relevance to today. There are still plenty of tyrants in the world. And some of them have the means to destroy us.
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
—Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler - Hubris and Hitler - Nemesis