Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941
By Stephen Kotkin
Allen Lane – £35.00
It cannot be called virtue to kill one’s fellow citizens, betray one’s friends, be without faith, without pity, without religion; by these methods one may indeed gain power, but not glory.
Niccolo Machiavelli (The Prince, 1513)
Here he is, the greatest and most important of our contemporaries… In his full size he towers over Europe and Asia, over the past and the present. He is the most famous and yet almost the least known man in the world.
Henri Barbusse (Stalin, 1935)
Can any self be fixed on the page for more than a few moments – or is the truest sense of character caught only on the move?
Boyd Maunsell (Portraits From Life, 2018)
To perhaps consider this book a testament to analytical thoroughness, would be an understatement. To perhaps consider it as a biography of someone who was forever on the move – having wrought both undeniable (social) change and suffering to the largest landmass on the planet – might just as equally evolve unto colossal understatement.
Having not long read Boyd Maunsell’s Portraits From Life, I cannot help but feel that it is increasingly and idiosyncratically clear that ”there is far too much of life to be contained in any narrative.” Wherein many ”biographers cherish the illusive essences which define characters […]. A character can be caught in a sentence or phrase, or it can be endlessly redrawn over hundreds of pages” (Oxford University Press).
At 909 pages – excluding the most extensive Notes and Bibliography I have ever come across (not to mention a Preface, List of Maps, Credits and Index) – Stalin: Waiting For Hitler – 1928-1941 is surely to be read with an underlying knowledge that its author, Stephen Kotkin, has approached his subject with all the adroit acumen one would normally associate with a propulsive quest for the truth. A quest, which, given the most complex of ideological barbarity to which its subject wholeheartedly subscribed, really, really is no mean feat.
Kotkin himself concludes the end of the first chapter (‘Equal to the Myth’) with the words: Stalin was a myth, but he proved equal to the myth.”
Just as the unspeakably unpleasant, if not grotesque excuse for a president, Donald Trump, currently proves equal to that of his own egocentric, inflammatory folly; Stalin most definitely proved equal to the myth of his own (nigh impeccable) design. As if some sort of perplexing providence were enjoying a field day of reflexive history. A deadly, tempestuous hybrid of history at that: ”Like the twisted spine of Shakespeare’s Richard III, it is tempting to find in such deformities the wellsprings of bloody tyranny: torment, self-loathing, inner rage, bluster, a mania for adulation.”
‘A mania for adulation,’ which, much like today’s Trump, was in and of itself, a self-perpetuating myth; wholeheartedly stepped within the colossal realm of far too much considered violence and vendetta. Although the prime difference betwixt Stalin and Trump is that the former ”radiated charisma” (albeit ”the charisma of dictatorial power”).
As much partially explains why one cannot help but agree with The Times‘ George Walden, when he writes: ”one of the tragedies of Kotkin’s book is its eerie and troubling relevance today.” Indeed.
With immense authority and terrific aplomb, Stephen Kotkin has herein written and compiled perhaps the benchmark of a work, by which all other works on the subject will surely be compared – for many years to come.
Compartmentalized into three distinct parts (‘Equal To The Myth,’ ‘Terror As Statecraft’ and ‘Three-Card Monte’), along with a Coda (‘Little Corner, Saturday, June 21, 1941’) each of these fourteen chapters bequeath the reader with yet another saga over which Stalin fundamentally presided.
Akin to a literary monster with yet countless more heads to essentially come to historical terms with, this book enables the reader to refer to almost any part – with fleeting random – and still become both enlightened and entranced at the degree to which Stalin unashamedly moved. Not to mention of course, the undeniable effervescence with which Kotkin is able to keep unbelievable, political pace.
Yet believable it is.
Even when addressing many of Stalin’s opposing cohorts – be they Russian, American, British or indeed German.
For instance. Chapter eleven – simply entitled ‘Pact’ – opens with the following two quotes:
In his present mood, the PM [Neville Chamberlain] says he will resign rather than sign alliance with Soviet.
Sir Alexander Cadogan
(British permanent undersecretary for foreign affairs,
private diary entry, May 20, 1939)
Hitler: The scum of the earth, I believe?
Stalin: The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?
‘Rendevous,’ Evening Standard, September 20, 1939)
If said quotes (alone) weren’t enough to trigger a veritable tsunami of discussion, already on the second page int the chapter, Kotkin addresses the thorny issue of Germany’s Foreign Minister, Joachim Von Ribbentrop (whom unsurprisingly, Hermann Goring had already dubbed ”Germany’s No. 1 parrot”).
In relation to being more than instrumental in devising and convincing Hitler to make a deal with Stalin, the author writes: […] Ribbentrop operated by intuition and strove to be ”radical,” rarely invoking limits (or consequences), which pleased Hitler no end. And what could be more radical, in its way, than a deal with Communist Moscow?”
So no matter from which angle one decides to address the vast trajectory of Stalin: Waiting For Hitler, Stephen Kotkin has a superlative, if not very substantial answer.
Thereby accounting for the second unquestionable instalment of a landmark achievement – the first being its predecessor Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, which, according to Lucy Hughes-Hallett of The New Statesman was ”exhilarating, compelling, terrifying and utterly gripping.”
Lest one forget, this book concludes in 1941- the year Germany invaded Russia – so there is clearly more to come. I for one, can’t wait.