Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin both achieved legal seizures of power, but their dictatorships were consolidated and ruled predominantly through the unrestrained and targeted use of violence. In both cases, the ‘establishment’ of power must be treated as a bipartite process; Hitler and Stalin initially rose to power and subsequently consolidated their positions as dictators. Furthermore, the transition from ‘establishment’ to ‘rule’ occurred for both leaders in 1934. By this point, both had eliminated their main political opposition, creating the authority and security that enabled them to govern through violence. Nevertheless, there has been considerable historiographical debate concerning the importance of violence in these dictatorships. Bessel’s argument for the centrality of violence to all Nazi activities is countered by Gellately, who coined the term ‘consensus dictatorship’ to describe his view that the Nazi regime was popular and supported by the German people. Meanwhile, Conquest stresses the individual role of Stalin in establishing power and ruling over Russia. However, his appraisal is contested by Goldman’s emphasis of the significance of the NKVD, specifically the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that they cultivated in Soviet society. Ultimately, Hitler and Stalin abandoned legality in favour of violence as the main tool to consolidate and rule their dictatorships. Nazi rule after 1933 cannot accurately be explained by Gellately’s argument. The establishment of a one-party state made the need for popularity redundant, while violence was no longer used as a method to gain support, but instead to impose fear and address the more pressing ‘Jewish Question.’ Furthermore, the combination of mass purges and the all-pervasive image of the NKVD created an environment of instrumental and symbolic violence that engulfed Soviet society. Therefore, while Hitler and Stalin rose to power through legal methods, they acted violently, behind a legal facade, to consolidate their positions and proceeded after 1934 to rule through the use of physical and psychological violence.
The aftermath of World War One (WW1) witnessed an increased threshold to violence and heightened tensions between social groups, creating radical and unstable political climates that provided the basis for Hitler and Stalin to establish power. Breitburg traces Hitler’s hatred of the Jews from the aftermath of the war, using a speech in Salzburg in 1920, where Hitler called for the Jew to be ‘banished from our midst.’ Furthermore, the injection of violence into domestic politics, ranging from street violence to assassinations of leading political figures, like Rathenau, paved the way for the formation of the Nazis. Thus, the way the Nazis used the diktat imposed upon the nation to gain popular support and increase anti-semitic sentiments through scapegoating the Jews, coupled with the inception of the party in 1920, demonstrates how the legacy of the war enabled the rise of the Nazis. Meanwhile, the Civil War and the Kronstadt Rebellion in Russia shortly after the war similarly illustrates the increased tendencies for violence that WW1 produced. However, the death of Lenin in 1924 was more significant in radicalising the political climate, creating a power struggle between the main leaders in the Politburo, which enabled Stalin to rise to power in 1929. On balance, the legacy of WW1 was more influential in aiding Hitler, rather than Stalin, to rise to power. WW1 acted as a constant reference point for the Nazis and led to their formation, while Stalin’s rise to power only became possible after Lenin’s death in 1924. Even so, both societies were clearly altered by the structural changes produced by WW1. The war produced political climates that were more radical and more accepting of violence, creating conditions which enabled Stalin and Hitler to thrive and ultimately rise to power.
Hitler sought to achieve electoral success in order to rise to power, gaining popularity in Germany through the use of rhetoric and propaganda. Bessel suggests the Nazis’ rise to power must largely be attributed to their use of violence; the aggressive appearance of the SA was matched by the violence on the streets, while the growth of the Nazi movement occurred concurrently with the rise of politically inspired violent incidents. Mazower, however, questions the importance of the paramilitary violence, arguing that much of this violence in the early 1920s was unsuccessful. Notably, he identifies the failure of the Munich Putsch in 1923 as a turning point for the Nazis towards seeking a legal seizure of power. Furthermore, Gellately’s argument for a ‘consensus dictatorship’ is supported by the electoral gains of the Nazis, who increased their share of the vote from 2.6% in 1928 to 37.3% in 1932. The Nazis used violence as a symbol in speeches and propaganda to outline their policies and the problems within Germany, blaming the Treaty of Versailles and the Jews for these issues. For example, in 1930, the Nazis blamed falling food prices on the defeat in 1918 as well as on foreign food products, tying the Jews into this. Therefore, Gellately’s thesis reflects Hitler’s popular rise to power by 1933. Bessel’s interpretation over-emphasises the importance of violence and fails to take account of the fact that violence was used symbolically as a political tool. Prior to 1933, it was used to gain support from German people as part of a wider electoral strategy. Thus, his argument remains overly simplistic in regard to how the Nazis rose to power.
The instrumental use of violence by the Nazis up to 1933 further confirms how the party aimed to boost the popularity of the party and achieve a legal seizure of power. The Nazis quickly established their paramilitary unit, the SA, in 1921 who instigated violent attacks against Jews. The SA destroyed Jewish businesses in 1930 and, in the following year, they marched and attacked ‘anyone who looked Jewish’ near the synagogue. However, the purpose of these violent attacks must be recognised; rather than aiming for a violent seizure of power, the SA specifically targeted the Jews in order to appeal to the anti-semitic sentiments of German people. Panayi further strengthens Gellately’s argument, outlining how violence was controlled and limited at times by the Nazis. For instance, the terror campaign in August 1932 led to a drop in the vote for the Nazis at the November elections. Consequently, the paramilitary groups were halted in their violent acts. Therefore, the notion violence was used to bring about a revolution is strongly called into question by the electoral strategy adopted by the Nazis, in addition to the use of violence as a method of gaining support. Ultimately, the work of Panayi and Gellately leads the way in illustrating how the Nazis aimed to become a credible political force and that, ‘the SA-inspired violence was a means to this end.’