Joseph Stalin was the leader of Soviet Russia from the mid-1920s until his death in 1953. Though Stalin and Adolf Hitler never met or spoke, their lives and their fates were inextricably linked. Both men loathed and feared the other, yet there was much Hitler and Stalin had in common. Both were born into humble backgrounds, their early lives shaped by destitution and impoverishment. As young men, both were drawn to radical political movements. Both became revolutionaries and unlikely national leaders, rising to power in the tumultuous years between the two world wars. Both promised progress, modernisation and better lives for their countrymen – but both were more concerned with consolidating and expanding their own power, rather than pleasing the people. Where the fates of Hitler and Stalin intersected, there would be little but war, conquest and misery for millions of Europeans.
Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovitch Dzhugashvili in 1879 in the Russian province of Georgia. The infant Dzhugashvili contracted smallpox, a disease that left him with permanent facial scarring. At the behest of his mother, Dzhugashvili entered a seminary to train for the priesthood – but he was soon expelled for behavioural problems and not paying his school fees. In 1903 he took a liking to the communist theories of Lenin and joined the fledgeling Bolshevik movement. Dzughashvili was tasked with raising funds for the party through criminal means: he organised and led bank robberies, initiated kidnaps and ransom demands, and used threats and violence to extort money. Dzhugashvili soon became a wanted man: he was arrested several times and sent to Siberian labour camps, though he invariably escaped. In 1912 he adopted a revolutionary codename, Stalin, meaning ‘man of steel’.
By the start of World War I, Stalin’s importance within the Bolshevik party had risen. In 1912 he was appointed to the Bolshevik Central Committee to advise on racial minorities, chiefly because of his own Georgian background. In 1917 he became editor of the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda. Stalin did not play an active role in the October Revolution that elevated the Bolsheviks to power. After 1917 he served in the Bolshevik government as People’s Commissar for Nationalities. He held this post until 1922 when he became General Secretary of the party. It was a seemingly insignificant position that no other leading Bolsheviks wanted – however it allowed Stalin to build a power base by recruiting allies and appointing them to government positions. By the death of Lenin in 1924, Stalin wielded significant power at the highest levels and was in a position to push for control of the party. Lenin himself had expressed doubts about Stalin’s capacity for leadership, calling him “too rude” – but within three years, Stalin had cemented himself at the helm of the communist regime in Russia.
Stalin was a ruthless and often cruel personality, obsessed with the idea that those around him were plotting his downfall. To hinder these threats and enforce his will, Stalin placed himself at the centre of a cult of personality. Propaganda and Soviet culture portrayed him as the saviour of Russia: a military genius, an ideological mentor and a kindly father figure, the protector of Russian children. Stalinist historians revised the narrative of the Russian Revolution to glorify and exaggerate Stalin’s contribution; other figures – particularly his opponents, like Leon Trotsky, were either condemned as traitors or ‘written out’ of these histories. Stalin expanded Soviet secret police agencies, setting up a global network of agents and spies to report both on domestic opponents and the intentions of other nations. Within Russia, he instigated purges and show trials to eradicate potential opponents. In the 1930s he culled many of the ‘old Bolsheviks’ who had fought with him during the revolution; he then purged several high-ranking officers to limit the possibility of a military coup.
Martin Housden, historian
Stalin’s policy priorities were not building a ‘worker’s paradise’ or a classless society but protecting Russia from war and invasion. “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries,” Stalin told his people. “We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they will crush us.” In 1928, Stalin launched the first of two ambitious five-year plans to modernise and industrialise the Soviet economy. These programs brought rapid progress – but also significant death and suffering. Stalin’s decision to nationalise agricultural production dispossessed millions of peasants, forcing them from their land to labour on gigantic state-run collective farms. Grain was sold abroad to finance Soviet industrial projects, leading to food shortages and disastrous famines in the mid-1930s. Soviet Russia was dragged into the 20th century, transforming from a backward agrarian empire into a modern industrial superpower – but this came at an extraordinary human cost.
Despite Soviet Russia’s rapid modernisation, Hitler had a low opinion of Stalin, calling him a “cunning caucasian”. According to Hitler, Soviet progress had occurred in spite of, not because of Stalin. “Stalin is a clerk”, Hitler said in 1941, “and he has never stopped being a clerk”. As we have seen, Hitler loathed communism and those who preached and practised it. As early as 1934, the Nazi leader predicted a “final battle between German race ideals and pan-Slav [Russian] mass ideals”. The ultimate goal of this war was lebensraum or control of the eastern territories. “We alone can conquer the great continental space,” Hitler said, “and it will be done by us singly and alone, not through a pact with Moscow.” Yet Hitler also knew it would be years before the German economy and military would be strong enough to launch such a battle. Stalin was aware of Hitler’s aims and came to consider Nazi Germany to be the most pressing military threat to Soviet Russia. Both leaders trod carefully through the mid-1930s, careful not to provoke the other into a conflict – but pursuing policies of rearmament and military strengthening, in preparation for a war both knew was inevitable.
1. Joseph Stalin began life as a trainee priest, before becoming involved in radical politics and revolutionary groups.
2. By 1917 he was a high-ranking Bolshevik and played a leading role in the Russian Revolution and the early Soviet Union.
3. Though not groomed to lead, Stalin was cunning and manipulative and by 1928 was in charge of Soviet Russia.
4. Like Hitler, Stalin wanted to transform and militarise his country – and was paranoid about threats to his power.
5. Though they never met or even spoke, Hitler and Stalin loathed each other on political grounds. Both men hoped to buy time to prepare for the future Nazi-Soviet war they knew was inevitable.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Hitler and Stalin”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], https://alphahistory.com/nazigermany/hitler-and-stalin/.