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Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin both cast long shadows over the 20th century. One, the leader of Nazi Germany, hoped to create a vast new empire underpinned by his racist beliefs; the other wanted to build the first communist state in the fledgling Soviet Union. But despite the differing nature of their goals, the two men were motivated by the same overarching passion: the desire to create what they believed was a utopia here on Earth. Unlike other dictators, many of whom resemble Mafia bosses, these two each thought that they had uncovered the secret of existence.

Yet as individual personalities, Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin could scarcely have been further apart. Over the last 30 years, in the course of writing various history books and making many historical documentaries, I’ve met a number of people who knew the dictators personally. And their recollections confirm that it was most certainly not the same thing to walk into a meeting with Stalin as to walk into one with Hitler.

Unlike other dictators, who resemble Mafia bosses, Hitler and Stalin believed they had uncovered the secret of existence

Hitler, unlike Stalin, was the archetypical ‘charismatic’ leader. Such leaders rely primarily on the power of their own personalities to justify their office, don’t fit well into bureaucratic structures and project an almost ‘missionary’ aura. Ulrich de Maizière, a general staff officer who attended meetings with Hitler in the last part of the Second World War, witnessed the dictator’s supposed charismatic allure firsthand. He saw “men who came to tell [Hitler] it could not go on any longer – and even said that to him. And then he talked for an hour, and then they went and said: ‘I want to give it another try’... He had an enormously strong will, you know, and he had powers of persuasion that could gloss over any rational arguments.

Personal magnetism

Karl Boehm-Tettelbach, a Luftwaffe adjutant at Hitler’s headquarters, agreed that Hitler’s persuasive abilities were impressive, saying: “He could [take] somebody who was ready for suicide, he could revive him and make him feel that he should carry the flag and die in battle. Very strange.” Moreover, in their personal dealings, Boehm-Tettelbach found the Nazi leader to be “a respectable person… Charming as a host, not wild and shouting.”

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It is important to remember, however, that you almost always had to be predisposed to support the Nazi regime to be entranced by Hitler’s personality. If you were not a staunch believer, then a meeting with Hitler could leave a very different impression. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, found Hitler unimpressive when they met in 1938 and later described him as “the commonest-looking little dog” he had ever encountered. Chamberlain thought Hitler a crude and blustering rabble-rouser.

Hitler’s inability to listen to others was not a new trait – he had been like this since his youth. August Kubizek, who knew him before the First World War, claimed that when Hitler was talking about a book he had just read, he didn’t want to hear anyone else’s opinion.

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was known to praise Stalin's ruthlessness. The Soviet leader sometimes appreciated Hitler's brutality, too. (Image by AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, one of the dangers of taking a meeting with Hitler – as the Italian Fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, discovered – was that it could be extremely difficult to get a word in edgeways. “Hitler talks, talks, talks, talks,” recorded the Italian foreign minister, Count Ciano, in his diary after a meeting in April 1942. “Mussolini suffers – he who was in the habit of talking himself, and who, instead, practically has to keep quiet. On the second day, after lunch, when everything had been said, Hitler talked uninterruptedly for an hour and 40 minutes,” discussing everything from religion to art and history. Thus – depending on your point of view – Hitler was either a crashing bore or an inspirational visionary.

It would be hard to come away from a meeting with Joseph Stalin feeling either of these extremes. In this respect, he was the reverse of Hitler. For the most part, the Soviet leader wanted other people to talk. He was an aggressive listener, and an even more aggressive watcher.

“Stalin was by nature very attentive,” said Stepan Mikoyan, who grew up in the Kremlin in the 1930s. “He watched people’s eyes when he was speaking – and if you didn’t look him straight in the eye, he might well suspect that you were deceiving him. And then he’d be capable of taking the most unpleasant steps.”

Vladimir Yerofeyev, an interpreter who translated for Stalin, said of the dictator: “It wasn’t entirely safe to work with him because if he didn’t like something, there would have been no forgiveness.”

Hitler (second left) meets with officials including Joseph Goebbels (centre) and Hermann Goering (left)
Hitler (second left) meets with officials including Joseph Goebbels (centre) and Hermann Goering (left). The German leader tended to trust those in his immediate circle until they clearly acted to deceive him. (Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Enemies everywhere

One of the keys to Stalin’s character, according to Stepan Mikoyan, was that he was “very suspicious”. Since the Soviet dictator was comfortable lying to and betraying those around him, he saw no reason why his comrades should not behave in a similar manner. Mikoyan said: “He’d sense it if you were lying to him. The most terrible thing was to lie to him... that for him was the greatest crime of all.”

It is hard to overestimate the importance of this insight. Stalin appears to have treated everything and everyone with suspicion. The dominant question in his mind was always: ‘Who could be about to betray me?’

Joseph Stalin
Stalin "watched people's eyes when he was speaking – and if you didn't look him straight in the eye, he might well suspect that you were deceiving him," recalled one eyewitness. (Image by Getty Images)

Hitler did not possess this level of personal wariness. He tended to trust those in his immediate circle until they clearly acted to deceive him. If he had not been this trusting, the attempt on his life by Count von Stauffenberg in July 1944 would almost certainly never have happened. Surprisingly, Stauffenberg – as an officer attending a military meeting – hadn’t been asked to reveal the contents of his briefcase before he entered Hitler’s presence. If he had, the bomb he carried would have been discovered. Indeed, it’s significant that while there were a number of attempts on Hitler’s life, there is not one similar, well-documented attempt on Stalin’s. An intensely suspicious nature clearly has its benefits.

Stalin was the antithesis of the ‘charismatic leader’. Not only was he a less than inspiring orator but, far from shunning the demands of bureaucracy, he embraced them. The Soviet leader had a profound understanding of the power of committee meetings. He presided over a gigantic expansion in the number of people working as administrators in the Soviet system – from fewer than 4 million in 1929 to nearly 14 million by 1939.

Conversely, Hitler was always suspicious of any institutional attempt to restrict him. He did everything he could to dismantle any centralised structure that could potentially usurp him. To that end he allowed the German cabinet to atrophy – indeed, Hitler’s cabinet never met again after 1938.

Political thinkers

But while there were many differences between Hitler and Stalin, they shared one vital quality: they actually believed in something outside themselves and sought to create a new world. They weren’t even similar to the religiously driven European monarchs of the past who had faith in a Christian god. On the contrary, both of the dictators abhorred Christianity. In private, Hitler remarked that “Christianity is an invention of sick brains” – though, for pragmatic reasons, he largely concealed his true opinion on the subject from the German public.

They were both profoundly post-Enlightenment figures. They believed not only that God was dead, but that he had now been replaced by a fresh, coherent ideology. And millions of those who followed the two dictators also subscribed to this new reality.

Hitler and Stalin, of course, believed in different things. The belief that Hitler proselytised was most certainly not the same as the one Stalin lived by. Equally, neither originated the ideologies that they thought revealed the truth about the nature of life; both adapted them from the work of others.

Both dictators abhorred religion. In private, Hitler remarked that 'Christianity is an invention of sick brains'

For Hitler, the starting point was to recognise the crucial importance of “race”, an idea he developed from a whole series of writers who had gone before him. The core of his belief system was the assertion that the way to assess people’s value was by examining their “racial heritage”. And it was this conviction that helped fuel his murderous anti-Semitism. For there was to be no place in Hitler’s utopia for a whole host of people whom he considered to be “racially undesirable” – the Jews in particular.

In keeping with his belief that his racial hatred was based on modern thinking, Hitler often expressed his prejudice using pseudo-scientific terms. “The Jew,” Hitler wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf in the early 1920s, “remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favourable medium invites him.”

Like Hitler, Stalin had also been convinced by the work of others. The most influential was Karl Marx. It was primarily Marx’s teachings that had drawn him into the world of revolution. According to Marx, working people – whom he called the “proletariat” – were alienated from productive life. Instead of work being, as it should be, a way for people to feel fulfilled, life in the grim factories of the 19th century was destructive to the human spirit.

The trouble was that, while Marx was brilliant at analysing the problem, the solution he proposed was not necessarily so convincing. One difficulty was that he asserted that history was destined to move through certain phases. For instance, there was an imperial phase, a feudal phase, a capitalist phase, a socialist phase and a communist phase. But this formulaic approach could prove problematic when applied to a wide variety of different countries and cultures.

Arguments raged among followers of Marx about exactly what the great man had meant by certain theories, and what was the best way of implementing them. Marxist followers denounced each other for corrupting Marxist teachings, much as medieval Christians had attacked each other for heresy.

There was thus an obvious gulf between Hitler and Stalin in the way that each viewed the world. One was a devout racist, the other a man who thought the environment primarily shaped individuals. One was a believer in the laws of “Nature”, the other a dedicated follower of Karl Marx. What was more, they each passionately hated the other’s belief system. Hitler feared and despised Bolshevism, and Stalin detested Nazism.

Chasing utopia

Similarly, there was a chasm between the two dictators in terms of their ultimate goals, with the communist aim of a stateless society presenting a sharp contrast to Hitler’s idea of a giant empire based on violent racism. This clear distinction informs how the two ideologies are perceived today. The type of racial hatred that was at the core of Hitler’s thinking is rightly condemned – indeed, expressing such beliefs is illegal in many countries – whereas there are still a number of people who proudly proclaim they are Marxists. But, in the context of Stalin’s leadership, there is a problem with this analysis, because the harmonious goal of the Bolsheviks – of a state in which government “withered away” – was not realistically achievable under Stalin. And even Stalin came close to admitting as much.

In his address to the 18th Congress of the Communist party in March 1939, Stalin confessed that Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels, had not always been right. Specifically, when Engels had said that once “there is nothing more to be repressed” then the state “withers away”, he had failed to mention the “international factor”. The problem, said Stalin, was that because other countries were not on the road to communism, the Soviet Union needed “at its disposal a well-trained army, well-organised punitive organs, and a strong intelligence service” to defend itself. In other words, expect the “well-organised punitive organs” to stay put, because there was no prospect of them leaving unless the whole world went communist, and who seriously thought that would happen in the foreseeable future?

Nonetheless, both Hitler and Stalin offered a vision of a future utopia. They were different utopias, of course, but utopias nonetheless. The road to get there would be hard – even, as Stalin admitted in 1939, taking longer than people could possibly imagine – but a wonderful goal lay ahead regardless. Both of these utopian visions offered a purpose in life, in a world that could seem meaningless without religious belief.

For Nikonor Perevalov, born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution, the reason for his existence could not have been clearer. He believed he had been put on this Earth “to be a conscientious person, to lead the masses to [an] awareness of the need for the victory of socialism and communism”. Perevalov subsequently tried to “improve the life of the peoples of Russia” by joining the Soviet Union’s secret police, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) and organising mass deportations to Siberia.

Johannes Hassebroek, commandant of Gross-Rosen concentration camp, gained a similar purpose in life from his membership of the SS: “I was full of gratitude to the SS for the intellectual guidance it gave me. We were all thankful. Many of us had been so bewildered before joining the organisation. We did not understand what was happening around us, everything was so mixed up. The SS offered us a series of simple ideas that we could understand, and we believed in them.”

Stamping out freedom

One of the “simple ideas” offered by both of the ideologies preached by Hitler and Stalin was staunch opposition to the values of liberal democracy. Both rejected outright the principles that constitute ‘freedom’ today. Both condemned free speech; both attacked human rights at every level. Crucially, both sought to destroy your ability to be an individual. You had no right to be the self you chose. You conformed to the new value system, or you were persecuted. Ultimately, this was the reason why the utopias Hitler and Stalin sought could never be free from tyranny – because even if the Promised Land had been reached, anyone who openly opposed this new paradise would be punished.

The utopias Hitler and Stalin sought could never be free from tyranny – anyone who said they didn’t like this new paradise would be punished

Hitler and Stalin were united, too, by the fact that they were both utterly merciless. They even appear, on occasion, to have admired each other’s ruthlessness. When, in 1934, Hitler ordered the murder of the leader of the Nazi storm troopers, Ernst Röhm, together with other opponents, Stalin remarked: “What a great fellow! How well he pulled this off!” And in May 1943, Hitler said he envied Stalin for the way he had “got rid of all opposition in the Red Army and thus ensured there is no defeatist tendency in the army”. However, the Nazi dictator had not always admired his Soviet opponent. Six years before, when Stalin had been presiding over the murder of large numbers of ‘enemies of the people’, Hitler had remarked that “Stalin is probably sick in the brain, otherwise you can’t explain his bloody regime”. It’s a bleakly ironic statement, given that Hitler presided over the killing of more people than Stalin did.

During the Second World War, while Stalin deported whole groups of people into exile in the wilds of the Soviet Union, where many died, the core of Hitler’s hatred was directed at the Jews. He decided that the Jews as a group – men, women and children – would be “exterminated”, many in purpose-built factories of death. The Holocaust, a singular crime in the history of humanity, must be considered the most infamous part of Hitler’s legacy.

Crucially, the majority of those who died because of Stalin’s actions were Soviet citizens, while the majority killed by Hitler were non-Germans. This difference follows from their respective ambitions. Stalin was focused on repression within Soviet territory for most of his time in power, while Hitler dreamed of creating a huge new empire. In that context, it is a common misconception to think that German Jews made up substantial numbers of those who died. In fact, less than 1 per cent of Germans were Jews. It was the countries that the Nazis invaded – in particular Poland, Hungary and the Soviet Union – that contained large Jewish populations.

This geographical distribution of the deaths demonstrates one further variant between the two tyrants. Hitler’s view was that Germany’s only chance of long-term survival was to grow bigger – much bigger. As a result of his desire for German expansion, and his steadfast belief in racist ideology, he played the leading role in three of the most consequential decisions ever taken: the decision to invade Poland, which led to the Second World War; the decision to invade Stalin’s Soviet Union and launch a “war of extermination”; and the decision to murder the Jews.

As for Stalin, while he did not completely abandon the idea of exporting the revolution to other lands, he had no immense plan of conquest. The European countries that came under his control after 1945 suffered this fate only in the wake of Hitler’s defeat. And the territory Stalin snatched in eastern Poland and elsewhere in 1939 and 1940 he gained only as a consequence of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact, which divided eastern Europe up into ‘spheres of influence’ between Germany and the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless – despite their many differences – what united Hitler and Stalin was their desire to create a paradise here on Earth. And because both dictators promised their vast numbers of willing followers that there was a glorious world awaiting them in the future, the problems of the now could be brushed aside as the price of the perfect life of tomorrow. But that tomorrow never came.

Most appalling of all, Hitler and Stalin were prepared to kill millions of people in pursuit of their dreams. And, as a consequence, their actions are a reminder – for all time – of the destruction that tyrants with utopian visions can inflict upon the world.


This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine


Laurence ReesHistorian, author and documentary film-maker

As well as being a historian and author, Laurence Rees is a former Head of BBC TV History, and has won many awards for his work, including a British Book Award, a BAFTA and two Emmys.