Nazism and Stalinism: What if anything did they have in common?

A key quotation, from a review essay cited at a previous post, regarding a study entitled Totalitarian Art: In the Soviet Union, the Third Reich, Fascist Italy and the People’s Republic of China (1990, 2011), goes as follows:

“Contrary to [Igor] Golomstock’s reasoning, an artist should not qualify as the progenitor of totalitarian art simply because he or she hailed fascism and revolution in Europe in the first decades of the twentieth century.”

The above-noted quote is from a May/June 2011 Foreign Affairs review essay entitled: “What Is Totalitarian Art?: Cultural Kitsch From Stalin to Saddam.”

Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011) argues that early-1900s avant-garde art in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Soviet Russia played a key role – in setting up requisite conditions at the level of conceptual metaphors and mindsets – for the rise of totalitarianism in Italy, Germany, and Russia.

The passage from the above-noted review essay is of much interest.

It prompted me to revise the conclusions I had reached, after reading the account by Igor Golomstock, regarding avant-garde art and totalitarianism.

What I read in the Foreign Affairs article has compelled me to start reading further about European and world history, between the the First and Second World Wars.

Accuracy in language usage, by journalists and historians alike

Accuracy in reporting and balance in language usage are features of top-quality journalism and historiography.

With regard to the latter term, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it thusly:

Definition of historiography

1a : the writing of history

especially: the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods

b : the principles, theory, and history of historical writing
// a course in historiography

2 : the product of historical writing : a body of historical literature
// a survey of the country’s historiography


Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia: What were the commonalities, if any?

Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011) aptly discusses a broad range of features of totalitarianism but does not, in my view, define the term with a great deal of precision.

Possibly, the lack of precision is accounted for by the fact the text largely dates from 1990. Since that time, additional research has been conducted.

With regard to more recent research, I have started by reading Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism (2009) edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer.

Introduction to Beyond Totalitarianism (2009)


Previous efforts to find commonalities between Nazism and Stalinism have had limited success

I will begin by focusing on the first paragraph (pp. 1-2) of the Introduction.

My first remark is that this is a valuable book to read, as the introductory remarks by Michael Geyer with assistance from Sheila Fitzpatrick underline the editors’ seriousness of purpose, in seeking to clearly outline the task at hand.

The editors note (p. 1) that “The idea of comparing Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin is not a novel one” – but previous efforts have “achieved only limited success.”

Nonetheless, they add, attempts to “establish their commonalities” have never ceased.

This is evident, for example, when attempts have been made establish links between Nazism and Stalinism in opposition to “liberal-constitutional states and free societies.”

The editors recruited pairs of historians to address a range of themes related to Nazism and Stalinism, specifically in relation to the 1930s and 1940s.

“Extremely violent societies”

Among the essays highlighted in the Introduction is one entitled “State Violence – Violent Societies” by Christian Gerlach and Nicolas Werth.

As I’ve noted at a previous post, Christian Gerlach has advanced the concept of “extremely violent societies”:

Christian Gerlach’s 2010 genocide-related study focuses on extremely violent societies

In the latter post I refer, among other things, to a study entitled: An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (2016).

An excerpt (pp. 32-33) from the Introduction to Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) reads:

What, if anything, is captured by the notion of extreme violence? How do we distinguish killing from murder, Soviet from Nazi terror, and the latter from the violence of other belligerents in the thirties and forties? And not least, what is to be gained from historicizing [that is, interpreting it as a product of historical development] violence? The answers may differ for Stalinism and Nazism, Germany and Russia; but much can be gained if we can make sense of both histories – and comparative history is a discriminating interlocutor, espe­cially when it comes to violence, as the two essays on the subject suggest. Of course, a history of violence and terror is only complete if war becomes an inte­gral aspect of this. But the latter moves us from a comparative to an entangled history, in which the present and future of one regime are implicated in those of the other. Especially if we add [Mark] Edele’s and [Michael] Geyer’s essay, the conclusion is that, although we know a great deal, the question of extreme violence is still very far from resolved.


Making of the “new human being”; making of society

In Totalitarian Art (1990, 2011), Igor Golomstock notes (p. 199) that:

“The idea of the construction of the New Man is included in any utopian programme and constitutes the aim and kernel of all totalitarian ideology.”

In a footnote he adds that rather than “New Man,” the more precise wording, at least in the Russian wording, is both man and woman. “The Nazi and Fascist ideologies,” in contrast, “were, first and foremost, concerned with maleness.”

The Introduction to Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) features a discussion of society, as experienced in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the 1930s and 1940s.

This discussion, related to an essay by Christopher R. Browning and Lewis H. Siegelbaum entitled “Frameworks for Social Engineering: Stalinist Schema of Identification and the Nazi Volksgemeinshaft,” immediately caught my attention.

The discussion refers (p. 33) to a state of affairs according to which war and sacrifice ascribed identity, but in which the more exclusivist German identity “mutated into a cosmopolitan transnationalism after defeat, while the universal ideals of class disappeared into Soviet nationalism and, so far as Eastern Europe was concerned, imperialism.”

In their comments regarding another essay, by Peter Fritzche and Jochen Hellbeck, entitled “The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany,” Sheila Fitzpatrick and Michael Geyer note that:

The third essay on shaping the social body by Fritzsche and Hellbeck might be considered in opposition to the previous one, because it is so distinctly ideology driven. They argue that the two regimes intended to create a new collective subject, an entirely modern, illiberal, and self-fashioned personage. They point to the long intellectual tradition of imagining this kind of subject, the initiatives to create such personalities, and, in an exemplary fashion, the kind of striking conversion experience that real persons underwent in becoming not just dedicated Nazis and Stalinists, but new “men.” While these labors of self-transformation in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia differed in significant respects, the point of this essay is to highlight the ways in which Nazism and Stalinism were literally embodied in the lives of people. That discipline was central in both projects is noteworthy, not least because it suggests a site where ascribing class, creating bonds of belonging, and transforming the self intersect in a telling fashion. Overall, this line of inquiry – one of the key contributions of a new Soviet history that explores [such embodiment] – opens up a wide arena of study that might, indeed, compare the rage for the “self-made” and “self-help man” and may well link it to a hitherto unexplored politics of intimacy.


Please note: I have added my own attempt at addressing a minor copy editing error in the above-noted text, by inserting the words “such embodiment” in square brackets. Other ways to correct the copy editing error are, of course, possible.

Review of Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) at Journal of East Central Europe

A 2010 Journal of East Central Europe review, entitled “Beyond Totalitarianism: Stalinism and Nazism Compared,” features an insightful overview of the above-noted essays by Christopher R. Browning and Lewis Siegelbaum, and by Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck.

Among other things, the review refers as well to an essay, by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke, entitled “Energizing the Everyday: On the Breaking and Making of Social Bonds in Nazism and Stalinism.”

An excerpt from the review reads:

Equally appealing are the articles on social engineering and processes of identity and community building by Christopher R. Browning and Lewis Siegelbaum, the contribution by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Alf Lüdtke that focuses on people’s bonds to the Stalinist and Nazi regimes, and Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck’s chapter on the creation of the New Man in both systems. All of these essays depart from the shared roots between Stalinism and Nazism and instead investigate their differences. In doing so, they convincingly show how both regimes were not only exceptionally successful in ascribing identities (based either on class or nation) to their people, but also had a very powerful influence on how the people themselves came to define their own identities. In his introduction, [Michael] Geyer calls this “the grand wager of a new social history of the two regimes” (34), because it is no longer the action of the regimes that dominates research. Instead, social groups are studied as actors in their own right. Though not completely new – [Sheila] Fitzpatrick and some of her colleagues have pursued this line of research in earlier publications – these three contributions to the respective thematic section show that the current comparison of Stalinism and Nazism opens up captivating avenues of new research.


I look forward to completing my reading of Beyond Totalitarianism (2009) and proceeding to read other studies related to totalitarianism.

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