USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945


Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish philosopher and political theorist, wrote a book after the Second World War trying to explain how the two most destructive states ever to come into existence, Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, rose at the same time. She called the system of rule under Stalin and Hitler “totalitarianism” and sought in her book the Origins of Totalitarianism to understand the dynamics that led to and then strengthened the power of these states.

Arendt was the first person to systematically link the ethos of the imperialist era to the political structures that caused the great wars, WWI and WWII. For her, it was not only politics but also broad worldviews that ultimately produced such horrors. War was one thing, but the ways in which modern nations mobilized to completely annihilate one another was something else. In addition, pathological states like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia did not just mobilize to confront enemies from beyond their borders – they also sought to purge domestic elements that for one reason or another challenged their rule or at least their ideological position. This domestic terror occurred both in Nazi Germany and in Stalin’s Russia, though on very different ideological grounds. We know that the Nazis were primarily targeting Jews and that the “Jew” was the central villain in Nazi propaganda. For the early Bolsheviks, the principle three enemies were the capitalistic class, the traditional monarchical/military elite (we see both of these in Eisenstein’s October) and imperialistic forces from abroad. By the time Stalin came to power at the end of 1927, beginning of 1928, a shift is underway.

Stalin realized that he badly needed to industrialize in Russia if the Soviet state had any chance to survive in the long-term, not to mention the ideological position he was in—he was the leader of a “workers’ state” that was actually mostly comprised of rural peasants. This had to change and it had to change quickly, according to Stalin. Additionally, all the nation-states on the Soviet Union’s western border—primarily Poland and Germany—were beginning to industrialize again as the world economy started to recover in the mid-1920s.

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