Why the World Cannot Forget Stalin

Hitler and Mao still captivate our imagination, but one of the great monsters of the 20th century recedes. Historian Paul Johnson on why he decided to write a biography of Stalin.

I have undertaken to write a new short life of Joseph Stalin because I have discovered that, among the young, he is insufficiently known. Whereas Hitler figures frequently in the mass media, and Mao Tse-tung’s memory is kept alive by the continuing rise in power of the communist state he created, Stalin has receded into the shadows. I shall bring him forth and shine on him the pitiless light of history.

Stalin was a monster, one of the outstanding monsters civilization has yet produced. I do not share the view, stridently put forward by Marx and Tolstoy, that individuals are unimportant in the shaping of historical events, which—they say—are the work almost entirely of huge, anonymous forces. On the contrary, I believe, along with most historical writers from Thucydides to Carlyle, that what happens to humanity as a result of human agency is profoundly influenced and often determined by the will of the few, sometimes the very few. It follows that these remarkable individuals need to be closely studied, to discover how they acquired and exercised power, and whether lessons can be learned for the benefit of mankind. That is the reason why I have written essays on Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and why I produced an admonitory biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. All three were immensely important in the history of their times, and for long after. Napoleon was particularly influential in shaping the history of the twentieth century. Thanks to the tragic decision of the Whig government in Britain to repatriate his body from St. Helena to France, and the malign determination of the French to treat him as a national hero and enshrine his body in the Invalides, Napoleon’s spirit and his methods have lived on. The First World War, which began the miseries of the modern world, was itself the embodiment of total warfare of the type his methods adumbrated. In the political anarchy that emerged from it, a new brand of ideological dictator took his type of government as a model: first in Russia, then in Italy, and finally in Germany. No dictator of the twentieth century, from Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Tse-tung to minor tyrants like Kim Il Sung, Castro, Perón, Mengistu, Saddam Hussein, Ceauşescu, and Qaddaffi, was without distinctive echoes of the Napoleonic prototype. Collectively, this Napoleonic progeny of evil made the twentieth century the outstanding epoch of ideological oppression, mass murder, warfare on a colossal scale, and innovative technology that enabled humans to lie, deceive, and pervert the human mind to infernal purposes.

Of the three egregious monsters the twentieth century produced, Hitler detonated the Second World War, which cost forty million lives, and was personally responsible for the murder of six million Jews; Mao Tse-tung killed seventy million of his compatriots by execution and starvation. The death toll for which Stalin must bear the blame is not easy to compute, but it cannot be less than twenty million. He was also the creator or refiner of many aspects of totalitarian rule, including what Solzhenitsyn called “the gulag archipelago,” itself the model for the Mao concentration camp complex, which once contained twenty-five million human beings and still houses many unfortunate millions.

The world, then, should know about Stalin, and in my new book, I have tried to set forth the essence of his life, character, and career. It has been in some ways a grim task, but in performing it I have felt a powerful satisfaction in telling the truth, and in a brief and accessible compact form so that all, the young especially, to whom Stalin is but a name, can know and learn from it.

Excerpted from Stalin by Paul Johnson. ©2014 by Paul Johnson. Published by Amazon Publishing. All Rights Reserved.