The History Channel is about to premier a new documentary series about the World Wars and the hook seems to be how the one effected the other, especially the leaders. The ad campaign is starting to cause some grief in how they portray Hitler and Stalin. For Hitler, the tag lines are “World War 1: Made him a madman; World War 2; Made him a monster”, while for Stalin it is “World War 1: Made him a man; World War 2; Made him a tyrant”. People are correctly pointing out that Hitler was a monster – and Stalin a tyrant – long before World War Two came along.
I don’t want to pre-judge the History Channel show – it might be good; I was intrigued when I saw an ad for it tonight – but it is clear that, as per usual for documentaries, it won’t get it exactly right. This is because film documentaries can’t get it right – time constraints prevent a full airing of all relevant facts, even when the documentary maker is determined to be as truthful as possible. To really explain Stalin and Hitler would take many hundreds of pages of closely typed information and to fully understand, the reader would already have to be familiar with a great deal of history leading up to their era. Most people simply lack this – and always will. Except for people with a genuine love for history, it just gets tedious (after all, who is going to want to get into the life stories of Georg Ritter von Schonerer and Victor Adler? Well, if you want to understand Hitler fully, you kinda have to – and then understand the complete intellectual collapse which was represented by Schonerer and Adler – who got together at one point to hammer out a social reform program only to go their separate ways…Schonerer to be the grandfather of Nazi Pan-Germanism and anti-Semitism, Adler to be the founder of the Austrian Social-Democrat Party…with the added kicker that Adler was Jewish). It is, in short, hard to nutshell people like Hitler and Stalin. And just about impossible to do a proper study of the men in a television documentary.
And, so, if anyone is expecting the History Channel’s new show to really provide insight into such men, you are doing to be disappointed, even if the actual show itself is interesting and, at points, informative. But there is a real danger in taking such people in a superficial manner as it can lead to gross misunderstanding of how they came about. Remember, while people can look back in horror upon them, it must not be forgotten that at one point tens of millions of people followed them…and, especially in the case of Hitler, followed them with extreme devotion. People really believed – and while we can comfort ourselves by asserting (correctly) that such people were tricked by scoundrels, we still have to think about just why they were tricked.
There are pat answers, of course – all of them sharing the basic fact that they are wrong. In the case of Stalin, the general line goes that he hijacked Leninism and fooled people into thinking he was the proper heir of the great man. For Hitler, it is asserted that he nursed German national pride which as bruised after the German defeat in World War Two – and both men selected enemies whom the people could hate with wild abandon (Hitler and the Jews, of course; but Stalin and the Kulaks, as well). There is some truth in that, but not even close to the actuality. The more important thing I’ve discovered, from my very extensive reading and long reflection, is that both men got on because the people they tricked had nothing else they actually believed in.
This, to me, is the key to understanding all the horrors we have subjected ourselves to this past 100 years. Most of us believe nothing, and so believe anything that comes down the pike. Solzhenitsyn put it neatly when he said the problem of the 20th century is that we had forgot about God. Not having anything real to repose our trust in, we have given our trust to one charlatan after another. Not all of us, of course – a few have had the saving grace of believing in something and thus keeping a clear eye. Of course, a great deal of precisely such people were mown down in the death camps of Hitler and Stalin.
People like Hitler and Stalin, like all good con artists, insert into unbelief something to believe in. Something which seems neat, logical and covering all bases. These two men used terror as a means of reinforcing their deceptions, but terror wasn’t needed all the time – and in Hitler’s case, was hardly needed at all, in the sense that most Germans weren’t terrified by the Hitler regime, but delighted with it (unlike Stalin’s, Russia, in Hitler’s Germany people could come and go pretty much as they pleased – Stalin dared not let anyone out, while Hitler was certain that any Germans he allowed to travel out of Germany would come happily come back…in the end, Hitler was the more astute liar than Stalin). But Hitler and Stalin weren’t alone – and they have their legion of successors in the modern world. People who give people lies to place where faith in God should be.
We can solemnly intone “never again” about the horrors of Stalin and Hitler, but unless we start to believe, in overwhelming majority, in something that is true, we’ll continue to be hoodwinked in large and small matters…and the rise of another megalomaniac mass-murderer is going to remain just around the corner.