For an American historian who researches totalitarianism and genocide, nothing is more disheartening than facile comparisons sometimes heard between Western leaders and Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. When we are so wrong about history, we do a great injustice to ourselves.
The Stalin comparison rests on a basic misunderstanding of the history of communism. Americans often seem to think that social reforms are somehow steps toward communism. History tells a different story.
Communism has never once arisen — not in the U.S.S.R., not in China, not in Cambodia, not in Cuba, not in Vietnam, not in North Korea — as the cumulative result of social reforms. It was always brought by violent revolution carried out by a fanatical minority, usually during or right after war. Once in power, committed revolutionaries sought to transform agrarian countries such as Russia or China into modern industrial states by oppressing peasants and applying political terror.
The history of the welfare state is actually part of the history of the struggle against communism. After World War II, wise Europeans and Americans supported social reforms precisely as a way to hinder the spread of Soviet power. The Red Army had brought communism to Eastern Europe; the question was how to prevent its further spread to the nations liberated by the Western powers.
In war-torn Western Europe, democratic politicians of the left and right agreed that the extension of state services was the best way to assure democracy and to prevent revolution. Their policies were backed and enabled by the farsighted American aid provided by the Marshall Plan. American statesmen understood that the best way to prevent radical politics was to create contented societies. The welfare state worked so well that most recipients of Marshall Plan aid are now more prosperous than the United States.
In Western Europe, social democracy stopped Stalin. What about Eastern Europe, where Stalin’s supporters ruled by force? Under communism, Eastern European states indeed offered their populations public health care, retirement pensions and the like. When the peoples of Eastern Europe liberated themselves from communist rule in 1989, however, they did not do away with these institutions of the public good. Instead, they funded their public services with tax revenues drawn from their new market economies. If you tell Eastern Europeans that their public rail systems are a step toward Stalinism, they will think you are crazy.
Comparisons with Hitler are, if possible, even more far-fetched. The ideological foundation of the Nazi regime was racism. Hitler was a racist who believed that some Germans were real Germans and other Germans were not: the Jews, the handicapped, the long-term unemployed, the homosexuals, the Roma, the biracial. He thought that democratic politicians of the left should be placed in concentration camps. Hitler saw the outside world through the prism of a racial hierarchy, with Germans at the top and Jews and Slavs as racial enemies to be eliminated. He began the worst war in history to gain a colonial empire for the people he saw as a racial elite and killed millions of Jews and other Europeans along the way.
Had Barack Obama been born in Nazi Germany, of one white and one African parent, he would have been sterilized. His election as president was actually one of the strongest refutations ever offered to Nazi ideology.
It goes without saying that Hitler and Stalin controlled parties that opposed democracy and legitimated themselves by ideology, propaganda and force rather than free elections. In both the Nazi and Stalinist cases, the rise to power required violence, and the sustenance of the regime more violence.
That some people would compare their own peacefully elected president to ideological mass murderers is a sign of reckless and shameful disregard for some of the most important lessons of history.
And it is troubling to recall just who, in history, profited most from comparisons to Hitler and Stalin: Hitler and Stalin themselves. Each treated his political opponents as being in league with the other, and each thereby destroyed any middle ground for sensible debate.
In the 1930s, they together reduced political discussion to demagogic imagery, making it much harder for well-intentioned democrats to carry out sensible public discourse. No Western democracy recalls this age of totalitarianism. But the reckless comparisons of Obama or other democratically elected leaders to Hitler or Stalin do. Let us resolve to think and think deeply before we evoke them again.
Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale University and the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.