The Totalitarian Temptation

Liberalism's Enemies, Then and Now

One evening in June 1940, an excited crowd in Berlin awaited Adolf Hitler's arrival at the opera. The German army was scoring victory after victory in Europe at the time, and when the dictator finally entered the room, the audience greeted him with impassioned cries of "Sieg Heil!" "Heil Hitler!" and "Heil Fuehrer!" With the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact still in force, one of the attendees that night was Valentin Berezhkov, an interpreter for Stalin. "As I am watching all that," he recalled in his memoirs, "I am thinking to myself -- and the thought scares me -- how much there is in common between this and our congresses and conferences when Stalin makes his entry into the hall. The same thunderous, never-ending standing ovation. Almost the same hysterical shouts of 'Glory to Stalin!' 'Glory to our leader!'"

The parallels between communism and fascism have often been noted, fueling endless debates over whether the movements were fundamentally similar or different. The Devil in History, a new book by the political scientist Vladimir Tismaneanu, presents a genuinely fresh perspective on this topic, drawing enduring lessons from the last century's horrifying experiments with totalitarianism.

Instead of writing a historical treatise, Tismaneanu set out to produce "a political-philosophical interpretation of how maximalist utopian aspirations can lead to the nightmares of Soviet and Nazi camps epitomized by Kolyma and Auschwitz." Prompted by the author's personal intellectual journey, the book is an extended essay that examines the evolving interpretations of communism and fascism. 

Tismaneanu touches on so many questions that he cannot possibly provide all the answers. But in doing so, he reinvigorates important debates about not only past ideologies but also present and future ones. The animus toward modern liberalism that he finds at the root of both earlier totalitarian move-ments has not disappeared, and the liberal world today should remain alert to its contemporary manifestations.