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Totalitarianism - Stalin Vs. Hitler

The totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century reshaped the European map and ingrained a legacy of destruction, power, and terror across the modern world.[1] Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler were considered the most dangerous, cunning, and authoritative leaders of their time, reigning over their respective nations during times of great chaos and uncertainty.[2] The motivations of these dictators were numerous; however, one goal united their respective regimes under different ideologies – the strengthening of their nations and the establishment of vast empires which would rival and threaten the capitalist powers of the West.[3] While there exist a great many parallels between the totalitarian dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler regarding their toxic personality types and the cult that emerged around their leadership through the propaganda machine, naturally there were differences in their respective regimes due to a multitude of factors regarding the political, ideological and socio-economic circumstances of the time.[4] This essay will argue that the rise to power and the policies that were implemented to maintain their dictatorships differed greatly due to their separate ideological focuses.[5] Furthermore, the varying degrees of emphasis that the dictators placed upon their economies regarding industrialisation and agriculture and the importance of their people within these spheres contrasted greatly between the two regimes.[6] Regarding their totalitarian dictatorships, historians typically agree that neither can be classified as the ‘lesser of two evils.’[7] This essay will accentuate however, that whilst both regimes were deadly, unjust and rife with great suffering and loss under the orders of both Hitler and Stalin, it was Stalin’s committing of greater atrocities in peacetime and his total mobilisation of the political, socio-economic and ideological structures of the Soviet Union that rendered his regime of greater totalitarian distinction than that of Hitler’s.[8]

Image: A representation of the total control and mobilisation of Hitler and Stalin's respective nations.

The political landscape of the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler were tumultuous, with total party control in the hands of the two leaders.[9] Despite this, the circumstances surrounding the rises to power and the ways in which Stalin and Hitler implemented policies to maintain their autocracy were considerably different. Stalin’s rise to power was distinguished by his power struggle with Leon Trotsky following the death of Lenin in January 1924.[10] Due to his limited role within the Bolshevik party’s early insurrections, Stalin considered himself an outsider.[11] With the need to contend with Lenin’s legacy within the Soviet Union and with Trotsky’s proclamation as Lenin’s true successor, Stalin first needed to gain support within the Bolshevik party.[12] Overall, Stalin and Lenin held differing views for the way in which ideological policies needed to be implemented in the USSR and Lenin worked to have Stalin removed as General Secretary up until his death.[13] However, Stalin understood that appearing as Lenin’s disciple and subordinate was of great importance in maintaining support not just within the party but within the wider Soviet Union.[14] As such, Stalin relinquished a portion of his powers as General Secretary to gain favour with the older members of the Bolshevik party who, like Lenin, remained wary of Stalin’s character and the direction in which the Soviet Union would take under Stalin’s leadership.[15] Over time however, Stalin surrounded himself with sycophants and appointed loyal informants who owed their position and prestige to Stalin.[16] By immortalising Lenin and appearing as his most faithful follower, in conjunction with Trotsky’s personal misgivings and failures, Stalin was able to gain popular support from party members, with Trotsky ultimately exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929.[17] Once in power, Stalin’s implementation of total control was done through his wielding of terror, known as the Great Purges.[18] Historians have argued that the Purges were an attempt to remove opposition and perceived threats to Stalin’s regime from positions of power.[19] Anyone who was deemed an “enemy of the state” was removed from office and suffered in the purges, accentuated by the assassination of Sergei Kirov in December of 1934, who had gained more votes than Stalin at a party Congress, directly threatening Stalin’s autocratic position.[20] Through ordering Kirov’s assassination, Stalin maintained his authority and was able to deal with counterrevolutionaries and political opponents.[21]

Unlike Stalin’s power struggle with Trotsky, Hitler contended with a democratic society under the Weimar Republic and needed to gain support through the majority of votes in order to rise to power.[22] Hitler joined the DAP (German Worker’s Party) in September 1919 and quickly became their most influential speaker, preaching anti-capitalist and nationalistic goals.[23] Fuelled by German nationalist sentiment at the end of WWI, Hitler used his oratorical skills to gain popular support from the masses.[24] The popularity of the DAP rapidly increased and in February 1920, the party was renamed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP) and the Nazi Party was born.[25] One motivation of Hitler is agreed upon by historians in that he wanted to create a German Empire through the Nazi Third Reich, evident as not long after the Nazi doctrine of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism was institutionalised, Hitler demanded the position of “Chairman with dictatorial powers.”[26] After experiencing setbacks such as the Beer Hall Putsch and his jail sentencing, Hitler’s propaganda machine and underhanded political tactics paid off and the NSDAP became the most important political party with 37.3% of the electorate in July 1932.[27] What would ensue was Hitler’s own purge, whereby his cult of personality would evolve into intimidation and fear, involving countless leaders of the opposition being beaten up and incarcerated and the mayor of Stassfurt, a social democrat, shot dead on February 5th, 1933.[28] Hitler stated his motivations from the onset as being the “liberator of the German people” and at 43, the youngest government head in German history.[29] Despite this, Hitler had no interest in policy making, only manipulating existing policies to maintain his authority, and his Nazi Party lacked any real ideological focus which would have rationalised the actions of the party, unlike Stalin’s ‘Socialism in One Country’.[30] Ultimately, the lack of ideological unity and Hitler’s disinterest in political reforms made him an inefficient leader which contrasted Stalin’s political leadership of the Soviet Union.[31]

Image: Lawrence Rees - A Tale of Two Tyrants. A cartoonist's representation of Hitler and Stalin and their nuanced partnership.

Stalin’s total mobilisation of the economy through the collectivisation process is what differentiates Stalin and Hitler’s approach to the economic spheres of their regimes.[32] The Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship exhibited the world’s first state-run economy through the process of collectivisation which accentuated a program of great exploitation and accentuated a shift from agriculture to industry.[33] 25 million small peasant farms were collectivised between 1924 and 1936, which became 250 000 state run Collective farms.[34] During this period, procurement from collective farms rose from 10% to 47%, which included grain and farm produce exported for much needed foreign currency used to purchase industrial goods in the process of industrialisation, yet resulted in revolts and protests from the peasantry.[35] These revolts resulted in the worst famine in Russian history from 1932 to 1933, claiming the lives of 6 million people.[36] The reason for the rapid industrialisation process, as stipulated by Stalin, was to prepare for a potential attack from the Western powers which would be far more likely, the more successful Stalin was in strengthening the Soviet Union.[37] Stalin understood that war was likely the more the Soviet Union industrialised which would become eerily prophetic when Hitler attacked Moscow in 1941.[38] Stalin justified rapid industrialisation by appealing to nationalism in the Soviet Union and stating that as a socialist country, the Soviet Union would have a target on their back, stating, “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed.”[39] This was further achieved through a series of 5-year plans which aided in building up the resources of the Soviet Union and allowed for the rapid development that Stalin was hoping for.[40] These plans were a success as the country quadrupled in size between the late 1920s and the 1940s.[41]

Unlike Stalin, Hitler reigned over a German state that was not in need of rapid industrialisation or technological advancement.[42] Hitler understood the importance of a strong economy which sat on top of a Capitalist society.[43] Yet under the Weimar Republic, the German state experienced a golden age of prosperity and economic progression which aimed to strengthen the nation following the reparations from the Treaty of Versailles.[44] This was achieved through the implementation of the Dawes Plan in 1924 and the replacement of the German Mark with the Retenmark as the economy was stabilised and the reparations could be paid in increments.[45] Hitler thus placed the emphasis of a strong economy on the farming population, which comprised the majority of the Nazi’s electoral support.[46] As such, agricultural prices increased by 20% by 1937 and unlike the Soviet Union under Stalin, agricultural wages rose quicker than industrial wages.[47] Furthermore, in 1933, the Hereditary Farm Law prevented farms from being bought out from farming families, which guaranteed greater security.[48] Thus, Stalin’s revitalisation and total strengthening of the economy of the Soviet Union renders the economic sphere of his dictatorship of greater totalitarian distinction than Hitler’s.[49]

Image: The German-Soviet non-aggression Pact (the Hitler-Stalin Pact). Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov signs the pact. German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Joseph Stalin stand behind him.

Undoubtedly, the factors that defined the regimes of both Stalin and Hitler were their implementation of terror and the mass murder that was committed within the Gulags and during the Holocaust.[50] Due to the vast amount of changes that Stalin implemented within the Soviet Union however, more terror was needed to ensure that the socialist goals were effective.[51] In 1937, the Great Terror was ordered by Stalin to enforce his policies and remove political opponents and enemies of the state.[52] The Collectivisation program is considered by historians to not only be Stalin’s answer to the perceived ‘economic backwardness’ of the Soviet Union, but the greatest implementation of terror during his dictatorship.[53] The program resulted in the imprisonment and death of millions of Russian peasants and farmers, who were considered obstacles in Stalin’s ambition to strengthen the Soviet Union as ownership of the land and agricultural development was necessary to ensuring the economic development of the nation.[54] In order to effectively deal with the thousands of displaced peasants and those who were deemed ‘enemies of the state’ the Gulags were created which placed these peoples into forced labour camps.[55] Approximately 386 798 people were shot in the Gulag camps from 1937-38 and more than 1.3 million people were arrested for political crimes.[56] Furthermore, Gulag prisoners reached a total of 1 930 000 by 1941, a figure which Stalin attributes as a necessity for the state which “demands that we are pitiless.”[57] While the total figures of victims during Stalin’s Gulag system is not agreed upon by historians, it is generally believed that Stalin’s Gulag program was considerably more totalitarian than Hitler’s Holocaust, accounting for far greater deaths during peacetime.[58]

While the official command for the order of the Holocaust has not been stipulated, nor found in the historical record from the reign of the Nazi Party, Historians typically agree that the order verbally came from Hitler.[59] Originally used as a way of euthanising undesirables or civilians with mental and physical disabilities, the process of ‘euthanasia’ soon began to target Jewish adherents as Hitler began to search for a more permanent method to rid Germany of Semitic sentiment.[60] This was deemed “the final solution of the Jewish question” by Hermann Goering, a Nazi general in July 1941.[61] 6 death camps in total were constructed for the execution of the Jews with the ‘war of annihilation’ becoming considerably more radicalised following the bombing of Pearl Harbour on December 7th, 1941.[62] The first systematic gassing of Jews occurred on December 8th, the day after the US were brought into WWII.[63] Historians believe this is reflective of Hitler’s motive behind the murdering of Jews as prior to the onset of American involvement in the war, Hitler was careful not to offend the nation which possessed a large Jewish population and sympathy for their adherents.[64] However, following the declaration of war, appeasing the US was no longer a concern.[65] As a result, Jewish civilians who were weak, old, or female were often murdered systematically, while the able-bodied prisoners were used for forced labour.[66] As a result, 5.8 million Jews died in the Holocaust during wartime, a figure of substantial weight regarding the suffering of a large religious adherence.[67] However, despite these numbers, they were considerably smaller than Stalin’s atrocities committed in the Soviet Union.[68]

The atrocities and grievances that occurred during the dictatorships of Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler cannot be measured in numbers. The far-reaching effects of the leader’s policies and ambitions resulted in the displacement, imprisonment, and murder of millions of Russian and German civilians which would be felt for generations to come.[69] The implementation of terror, the policies that were institutionalised and the approaches the leaders had to their respective economies were contrasting in that they had different motivations and varying goals for their nations.[70] Despite this, when considering the degree of severity of the leader’s actions and the totalitarian qualities of the dictators, Stalin’s peace-time mass killings and his total mobilisation of every sector of the Soviet Union rendered his regime drastically more totalitarian than that of the Nazi Party, under Hitler.[71]


Dikotter, Frank. How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Epstein, Catherine. Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Glover, Jonathan. Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Gregor, James A. Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

Hoffmann, David. L. The Stalinist Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Hoffmann, David L. Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki. Stalin: Profiles in Power. London: Pearson/Longman, 2005.

McKenna, Tony. Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin. London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.

Norman, Andrew. Hitler. London: Pen and Sword, 2011.

Pauley, Bruce F. Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century. London: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Pine, Lisa. Hitler’s ‘National Community’. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017.

Pine, Lisa. Life and Times in Nazi Germany. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016.

Redles, David. Hitler’s Millennial Reich. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

Stoltzfus, Nathan. Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

[1] Frank Dikotter, How to Be a Dictator: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), p. 46. [2] Ibid. [3] A. James Gregor, Totalitarianism and Political Religion: An Intellectual History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012), p. 189. [4] Jonathan Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 58. [5] Ibid. [6] Bruce F. Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), pp. 52-3. [7] Tony McKenna, Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine: A Political Account of Joseph Stalin (London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015), p. 132. [8] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 59. [9] Ibid, p. 46. [10] David L. Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses: Modern State Practices and Soviet Socialism, 1914-1939 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011), p. 22. [11] Ibid, p. 26. [12] Hiroaki Kuromiya, Stalin: Profiles in Power (London: Pearson/Longman, 2005), p. 9. [13] Hoffmann, Cultivating the Masses, p. 26. [14] Ibid. [15] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 69. [16] Ibid, p. 70. [17] McKenna, Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine, p. 128. [18] Ibid. [19] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p.70. [20] David. L. Hoffman, The Stalinist Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), p. 156. [21] Ibid. [22] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 161. [23] Ibid. [24] Lisa Pine, Hitler’s ‘National Community’ (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017), p. 16. [25] David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich (New York: NYU Press, 2005), p. 124. [26] Lisa Pine, Life and Times in Nazi Germany (London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2016), p. 19. [27] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 162. [28] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 163. [29] Ibid, p. 165. [30] Dikotter, How to Be a Dictator, p. 48. [31] Ibid. [32] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 68. [33] Gregor, Totalitarianism and Political Religion, p. 152. [34] Hoffman, The Stalinist Era, p. 156. [35] Ibid. [36] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 72. [37] Kuromiya, Stalin: Profiles in Power, p. 8. [38] Nathan Stoltzfus, Hitler’s Compromises: Coercion and Consensus in Nazi Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 121-22. [39] Pauley Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 73. [40] Ibid, pp. 73-4. [41] Hoffman, The Stalinist Era, p. 150. [42] Pine, Hitler’s ‘National Community’, p. 19. [43] Ibid. [44] Andrew Norman, Hitler (London: Pen and Sword, 2011), p. 33. [45] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 165. [46] Pine, Life and Times in Nazi Germany, p. 21. [47] Ibid. [48] Norman, Hitler, p. 35. [49] Dikotter, How to Be a Dictator, p. 48. [50] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 162. [51] McKenna, Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine, p. 130. [52] Ibid. [53] Dikotter, How to Be a Dictator, p. 56. [54] Ibid, p. 58. [55] Kuromiya, Stalin: Profiles in Power, p. 22. [56] McKenna, Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine¸ p. 129. [57] Ibid. [58] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 73. [59] Catherine Epstein, Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths (London: John Wiley & Sons, 2015), p. 89. [60] Pine, Life and Times in Nazi Germany, p. 20. [61] Epstein, Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths, p. 91. [62] Ibid. [63] Epstein, Nazi Germany: Confronting the Myths, pp. 91-2. [64] Ibid, p. 92. [65] Ibid. [66] Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich, p. 135. [67] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 169. [68] Ibid, p. 78. [69] Glover, Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, p. 44. [70] Pauley, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini, p. 81. [71] McKenna, Dictator, The Revolution, The Machine, p. 128.


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