Overlong history of Europe between 1914 and 1945, the age of totalitarian empires and what Gellately (History/Florida State Univ.) (Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 2001, etc.) calls “the great catastrophe” whose origins lie in Leninism.
Solzhenitsyn would approve, and so would the authors of The Black Book of Communism, none of whom would find Gellately’s thesis extraordinary. However, since by the author’s account so many academics hasten to distinguish the “good” Lenin from the “bad” Lenin, the idea that the 20th-century bloodletting somehow begins with him may prove controversial. Gellately defends his position well, and indeed even loyal Leon Trotsky allowed that Lenin “was driven to distraction,” as Gellately puts it, “when other Bolsheviks did not grasp or agree that Communism could be realized only by paying a heavy price in human lives.” The dictatorship that Lenin and his ambitious acolyte Stalin forced upon Russia was open to Jewish revolutionaries, a point not lost on Hitler when he came to power; Gellately argues that Hitler’s war on the Soviet Union was “an extension of his war against the Jews,” summarized by Hitler’s conflation of “Jewish Bolshevism”; had Hitler kept his war confined to the Jews, Gellately observes in passing, many citizens of the Soviet regime would have proved sympathetic and even would have collaborated, but Hitler chose to make war on all things Soviet instead. Interestingly, Gellately notes toward the end of his book, Stalin’s postwar pogroms may have been a delayed reaction to Hitler’s charge; Stalin was no fan of Jewish Bolshevism either, but even so his “turn to anti-Semitism was out of character…and a complete contradiction of what Marxists had said about the Jewish question for almost a century.” Such things will prove revelations for many readers, but much of Gellately’s narrative repeats well-known facts about the various dictators’ rise and fall.
A more streamlined narrative would have been welcome. All the same, a solid contribution to the literature of World War II, totalitarianism and the bloody 20th century.