The black and the red

A French book on communism equates Hitler's "genocide of race" with Stalin's "genocide of class." Timothy Garton Ash considers the implications of comparing Nazism and communism
June 19, 1998

The most important books are not always the best ones-and the best books don't always make the greatest impact. The Black Book of Communism, which provoked much controversy when it was published in France last autumn, is a very important book-and quite good, as well.

Its importance is intellectual, moral and political. By cataloguing the "crimes, terror and repression" of all the communist regimes of the world it reminds us of that huge "asymmetry of indulgence"-to use a phrase coined by Ferdinand Mount-with which the historical memory and political conscience of the western world have long treated communism as opposed to Nazism.

For more than 50 years Nazism, especially the Holocaust, has been the central paradigm of evil in our time. The German historian Joachim Fest suggests that the contemporary, secularised world, no longer able to believe in the devil of the Bible, has found its own devil in Hitler. Stalin, let alone Mao, has never achieved remotely comparable diabolic status. Indeed, as St?phane Courtois points out in the Black Book, Stalin and Mao have been used by the French state lottery as part of an advertising campaign. Imagine if they had used Hitler. I recently had dinner in a restaurant in Copenhagen called KGB; when I asked the pretty waitress in dark green uniform what rank she held, she replied "but I am Stalin." Imagine a restaurant called Gestapo. I find that the phenomenon of the Stasi is an exception: universally known and already a synonym for evil. But I think this is precisely because it fits into the already existing stereotype of German evil. "Stasi" even sounds like "Nazi."

There is a further gradation to the "asymmetry of indulgence." Since the publication of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, the scale and horrors of the gulag have been known at least in principle to a wider public in the west. One thing the Black Book shows us-even while itself questioning the value of "macabre comparative arithmetic"-is that by far the largest number of victims was in fact in China. The first French edition displayed around its sober white binding, on the kind of red wrapper that would usually announce "winner of the Prix Medicis," the startling message: "85m victims." In the introduction the rough estimate actually comes closer to 95m, of whom an estimated 65m were in China. According to the Chinese dissident and former prisoner Harry Wu, the total number of people incarcerated in the laogai, the Chinese gulag, is about 50m. Perhaps the most shocking single detail, in a book full of shocking details, is a report of how, during the terrible Mao-made famine of 1959-61, Chinese peasant families swapped their children in order to eat them. It is the residue of moral taboo which makes this so haunting: "Thou shalt not kill" has regressed to "Don't eat your own child." Yet how many people in the western world know anything of that great famine, or have even heard of the laogai? Is not Mao, even now, widely seen as a benign or at least a faintly comic figure?

The essays in the book are not all of the same quality. The first, long one, by Nicolas Werth on the Soviet Union, is outstanding; others are weaker. Most of the facts reported have already been published elsewhere. But that is the point: they were known, yet unknown.

Why the asymmetry of indulgence? A number of reasons can be found. The Holocaust was a unique attempt to exterminate one of the most cultured, talented, articulate peoples on earth: the people of the book, of historical memory. They responded with a determination that this memory should never die. The French philosopher Alain Besan?on speaks of a "hyperamnesia" of Nazism as opposed to an amnesia of communism. Moreover, the horrors of Nazism were uncovered by the wartime victors, by the western allies in Bergen-Belsen and by the Soviets in the east. About their own camps, by contrast, the Soviet Union was able to exercise a sustained Orwellian denial. The very longevity of the Soviet regime, compared with the 13 years of Nazism, facilitated this. Even the survivors died before they could tell their tales.

In the west, there remained a strong residue of gratitude for the Soviet Union's part in defeating Nazism. Then, of course, there was the presence of powerful communist parties in France and Italy. But even the non-communist left in France, Italy and elsewhere in western Europe, fought shy of the equation of Nazism and communism as just two variants of totalitarianism-an equation identified with the anti-communist right in the early cold war years. In the class of 1968, this asymmetrical indulgence was a product less of pro-communism than of what I call anti-anti-communism. And then there was the fact that the original utopia of communism was universal, humane and noble in ways that the utopia of Nazi Volksgemeinschaft patently was not.

For all these reasons, there is a great deficit of memory and history to be made up. The Black Book is an important first step in that direction. Quantitatively, communism worldwide has been responsible for more deaths, tortures and incarcerations than any other political system in the 20th century. Of this plain fact there should no longer be any doubt. But what of the qualitative comparison? This question emerged as a central issue in the so-called "historians' debate" in Germany in the 1980s. Was the Holocaust unique? Some writers, profoundly moved by the sufferings of other peoples in this short, miserable 20th century, write of "the Ukrainian Holocaust" or "the Armenian Holocaust." And in the Black Book, St?phane Courtois puts Hitler's "genocide of race" beside Stalin's "genocide of class."

My answer is clear: the Holocaust was unique. Nowhere else was an attempt made systematically to exterminate a whole people, using the most advanced technology of mass killing. Utterly terrible though the fate of the Ukrainians was under Stalin, he was not seeking systematically to exterminate all Ukrainians. In any case, there is something tasteless about trying to appropriate a term coined for one particular people's suffering in order, as it were, to take some of its reflected "glory." You do not need to do this in order to show that the horrors suffered under communist rule were qualitatively as well as quantitatively comparable to those suffered under Nazism.

Another question which emerged already in the German "historians' debate" is that of a causal connection between the two. Was Bolshevism, as Ernst Nolte argued, "more original'' (urspr?nglicher) than Nazism, and could one even characterise Nazism as a reaction to communism? It is probably true that Hitler and Stalin took leaves out of each other's book. Hitler argued that such a ruthless, terroristic movement as communism could only be fought with its own methods. Alain Besan?on suggests that Stalin learned from Hitler's "night of the long knives" for his own great purges, while multiplying the number of victims a thousandfold. But to go further, as Nolte tries to do, and effectively "blame it all on communism" is historically indefensible. Hitler's murderous anti-Semitic ideology was fully formed by the early 1920s and, as the Austrian historian Brigitte Harmann has recently demonstrated, most of its roots can be traced back to pre-1914 Vienna.

Moreover, there was a real difference between the humanistic, utopian communist ideal and the racist, hegemonic Nazi one. This may not affect the final moral judgement. Here you may say: nothing counts except the effects. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Terror was a component of communist rule from the earliest years. It was not merely a subsequent Stalinist distortion. None the less, anyone who has had anything to do with the intellectual and political life of Europe over the last half century knows that there is a qualitative difference between ex-communist and ex-Nazi. Some of the greatest intellectual and moral authorities of our time were, in their earlier years, communists: Arthur Koestler, Leszek Kolakowski, Fran?ois Furet-to whose memory the Black Book is dedicated-the list could go on. Where exactly this difference belongs in the historical comparison is a difficult question, but it belongs somewhere. The paradox of communism is precisely that the great crime began with the great ideal. Communists set out to construct heaven on earth, and built hell.

Finally, there is the relevance of all this to current politics. Europe has only one or two significant post-fascist parties, but many post-communist ones. (Italy is one of the rare countries to have strong examples of both.) These parties are now called "socialist," "social democratic" or, in Italy and east Germany, PDS. How should they relate to this past? What might a wider public awareness of the past horrors of communism mean for them? Younger leaders and members of these parties, with genuinely democratic programmes, insist that they cannot be held personally responsible for what happened in the past of the predecessor-parties. This is clearly right. At the same time, it is plainly also true that they benefit from the continued loyalty to a tradition of many people who were members or supporters of those predecessor-parties. One can never prove "what would have happened if..." but it seems reasonable to speculate that if there had not been this asymmetry of indulgence-if there had been a more thorough and open reckoning with the past-they might have obtained at least a few votes fewer.

Politically, we can understand the desire to draw a thick line under the past and answer only for current policies. Intellectually and morally, the ideal would be an acknowledgement of all that went before, in its full historical complexity, with the conclusion that we have learned this particular lesson from that historical event. Both these positions are at least consistent. The position that seems to me inconsistent and intellectually indefensible is to say: we will claim the good bits from the past and discard the rest, like a schoolboy picking raisins from a bun. No: you take it all or you leave it all.
Le livre noir du communisme: Crime, terreur et repression

St?phane Courtois et al

Paris: Robert Laffont 1997. To be published in English by Harvard University Press