Was communism as bad as Nazism?

A debate between Anne Applebaum and Anatol Lieven
October 19, 2000
Dear Anne,

Let me be clear. I hate communism. I am vicariously proud of my great uncle's fight against the Bolsheviks during the civil war in the Baltic from 1918-20, and of my father's role in helping to undermine communism as head of the Russian and later the East European Services of the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s. I went as a journalist to report on the Mujahedin fight against Soviet occupation in the late 1980s, and the Baltic independence struggle of the early 1990s, partly as a result of this anti-communist sentiment. And I agree with every word of Nicolas Werth's recent chronicle of Soviet atrocities in The Black Book of Communism, which destroys for good the left-wing fiction that a line can be drawn between the "good" Lenin and the "wicked" Stalin.

But I also agree with Werth in rejecting the new conventional wisdom-represented in the Black Book by St?ane Courtois-which asserts that communism was worse than Nazism. Courtois argues that there is an essential similarity between communism and Nazism, and then, by comparing the number of alleged victims, comes up with a neat figure of 95m dead for communism against 25m for Nazism. Ergo, communism must have been worse.

Courtois's approach has four main flaws. First, it blurs the distinction between directly-willed actions and unintended consequences. The Soviet famine of 1921-2 was a consequence of the revolution and civil war, but it was not willed by the Bolsheviks, who even sought western aid. However, its victims are simply added by Courtois to those of the artificially created Ukrainian/Cossack famine of 1932-33. Second, there is a dangerous looseness in Courtois's use of the word "genocide"-a looseness characteristic of the old hard left. Third, Courtois fails to examine the very different nature of communist and Nazi ideology, above all on issues of race and nationality. Marxism preaches the common progress of mankind towards communism, which could not be more different from the Nazi beliefs in racial superiority and war as a good in itself.

Finally, Courtois and company fail to draw proper distinctions between communist regimes in different countries and at different times. To an unwary reader, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev might seem broadly the same as under Stalin; and Castro the same as Pol Pot. Understanding both the multi-nationalism and the not wholly unreal "socialist legality" of the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years is crucial to understanding how the Soviet bloc collapsed relatively painlessly under Gorbachev. A system based, like Nazism, on national superiority and the adulation of force would have gone down in fire and blood, taking Europe with it.

Countries such as Lithuania retained political identities and facades of autonomy as Soviet Republics. This allowed Lithuanians to defend their culture and in 1988-91 to recover their independence. By contrast, of the Lithuanian Jews who failed to flee before the Nazis, 95 per cent were killed (a fact scarcely visible in the Genocide Victims' Museum in Vilnius, which is about the 5 per cent of Lithuanians killed by the Soviets).

Nazi plans for the Poles, Russians and Ukrainians did not include any kind of territorial identity, let alone a role for Slavic Untermenschen in the Nazi party. Poland, however, recovered full independence in 1989, severely battered but still recognisably Polish. How much of Poland would have been left after 45 years of Nazi rule?

While there were extremely harsh labour camps in Stalin's Soviet Union, there were no death camps like Auschwitz. The Soviet Union carried out savage repressions against ethnic groups it saw as rebellious; but this was not killing for its own sake. Overall, the Soviets aimed to co-opt and assimilate. Soviet strategy was more like a ruthless version of the Roman, Ottoman, or even the French imperial approach to subject nations than that of the Nazis, who (in eastern Europe at least) aimed to enslave or destroy.

With regard to class origins, too, full communist repression tapered off in the mid-1930s, as the need for industrial and scientific specialists of any origin became more pressing. If this had been the Nazi attitude to Jewish or Slavic specialists, then Nazism would have been a much less evil phenomenon-and would probably have won the second world war.

Stalinist nationality policy was vicious-but it was not Nazism. This difference was rooted in Marxist and Soviet texts, which nowhere justify ethnic aggression as such, and hold up liberation and harmony as goals. Is this the spirit of Mein Kampf?

Anatol Lieven

Dear Anatol,

Let me be clear: I do not think that communism and Nazism were the same. Not only did the two systems diverge ideologically, but life and death within the two systems was also markedly different. On the one hand, for example, Hitler did not disband every association and organisation not wholly controlled by the state. There was no Nazi equivalent to, say, Stalin's attempt to dictate an ideologically correct theory of genetics. On the other hand, while both systems had labour camps, the Soviet Union never contained any equivalent to the Nazi extermination camps: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka and Birkenau (Auschwitz). I have spent much of the past three years reading archival documents and memoirs of the Soviet gulag, and I am thoroughly convinced that the Russian camps were never primarily intended to be death camps, even if some of them were extremely lethal. Nor did Stalin ever embark upon any genocidal programme as systematic as Hitler's obsessive persecution of the Jews.

Nevertheless, while I also agree that the word "genocide" is inappropriate to apply to all communist mass murders, I do believe that communism and Nazism can be said to have shared at least one essential trait: both kinds of regime legitimated themselves by using the rhetoric of dehumanisation, and by establishing categories of enemies who were persecuted and destroyed on a mass scale. In Soviet Russia they were the "former people" or, later, the enemies of the people. In China they were the "blacks" as opposed to the "reds." Even if you do leave out the 5m famine victims of 1920-21, millions of people in the communist world were thus systematically robbed of their humanity-and then murdered, deported, starved or used as slave labour in concentration camps.

I am not remotely interested in the question of "who was worse," and I don't want to contribute to the growing phenomenon of competitive victimhood, in which various persecuted or formerly persecuted groups scramble for public pity and financial compensation. But it seems to me that to compare and contrast the two main types of 20th century totalitarian regime, and to discuss them as evidence of similar evil tendencies in human nature, is not only legitimate, but banal: Hannah Arendt did it way back in the 1950s. The very fact that it doesn't seem banal to everyone-that to talk about Hitler and Stalin together can still raise hackles and cause offence-is indicative of precisely the phenomenon which St?ane Courtois set out to tackle.

I would therefore like to defend Courtois, not because I agree with every word that he wrote, but because I sympathise with his aims. His polemic was not, after all, addressed to the community of experts like yourself, but to the western general public. And, to put it bluntly, the western general public, particularly in France (where the Black Book was first published), is aware of only one mass murder committed in Europe last century: the Nazi Holocaust. You may have grown up knowing that communist regimes had committed horrible crimes on a grand scale, but I certainly didn't grow up knowing this, and the vast majority of my contemporaries in the west didn't grow up knowing this either.

By comparing the two regimes, and by using the blunt instrument of numbers and statistics, Courtois was trying to make his readers feel precisely the sort of revulsion that they don't now feel-and I applaud his effort. For the west's poor historical memory for communist crimes both distorts our understanding of what is happening now in the former communist world, and of what we ourselves did in the past. Why did we fight the cold war, after all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole thing? If we don't feel at least as much revulsion for the crimes of communism as we do for the crimes of Nazism, we will be condemned to misunderstand both our own past and that of others.


Dear Anne,

Of course we should feel continuing revulsion at the crimes of communism. You are also right about the wilful ignorance of many people in the west who should know better. Your letter reminded me of many conversations with educated, sensible people who nonetheless believe that the crimes of Nicholas II were greater than those of Lenin, and that the Bengal famine of 1943 was a "colonial crime" greater than Stalin's famine of 1933.

However, I still think that the comparison of "communism" and "Nazism" tout court is misleading. For if one consequence of the fact that communism spread further and lasted longer is that it produced more victims, another is that it also evolved many distinct forms-unlike Nazism which lasted for 12 years in one country. It might make more sense to compare communism not to Nazism, but to fascism. While overall a most unpleasant phenomenon, fascism also spanned a range of different forms and moral shadings, from the relatively civilised ideology of a Primo de Rivera, through the mix of brutality and pluralism of the first decade of Italian fascism, to the savagery of the Balkan varieties and the nihilistic evil of Nazism. It would be unfair to call Franco a "Nazi," as it would be unfair to compare Castro to Stalin or Mao. This is not to support either Franco or Castro, only to recognise differing degrees of evil.

Further, in the post-Stalin Soviet Union, elements of a more humane Marxism did have a real effect, especially among the intelligentsia-think of the Medvedevs, or the films of Eldar Ryazanov. And some members of minority groups thrived. Among the Chechens, Djokhar Dudayev became a general, and stressed to his dying day that he was a loyal Soviet officer who wanted Chechnya to become a Soviet Republic, while Doku Zavgayev became Communist party first secretary. From the Karachai-also deported-General Vladimir Semyonov became head of the ground forces. Don't forget that it took until 1989 for a black American to become chief of staff in the US. In its own confused way, the Soviet Union after Stalin did improve, and did give opportunities to people of different nationalities.


Dear Anatol,

I am happy to compare communism to fascism, if that seems more appropriate, so long as Hitler and Stalin can be put into the same moral category too. After all they did live at the same time on the same continent, and they were, at one point, allies.

I also think that such comparisons matter. You mention your past conversations with educated people who thought Czar Nicholas II was worse than Lenin, and so on. I hate to tell you, but those educated people still exist. All of those charming, na? people who wrote with admiration of the wonderful healthcare system in East Germany, or merrily questioned whether Stalin really killed so many people in the 1930s-they're still there. They have tenure.

Nor is any stigma attached to former communist fellow-travellers in the way a stigma is very much attached to Nazi and fascist fellow-travellers. This produces some odd anomalies. In Britain, for example, a "war crime" is legally defined as a "Nazi" war crime, meaning that British courts have no compunction about prosecuting ageing Belorussians, while Stalinist war criminals-and there are some around-are off-limits.

There is also the small matter of the Chechen wars. Although I realise that there was no point in asking the west to "do" much more than it did in Chechnya, I continue to be amazed by the absence of moral horror among the western public in general-I believe the French are an exception-at the sheer level of destruction in Chechnya. This is a nation, after all, which Stalin deported en masse in the 1940s-men, women and children-and dumped unceremoniously in Kazakhstan, where many of them died and the rest were meant to disappear, along with their language and culture. For Russia to invade Chechnya in the post-Soviet period, not once but twice, is the moral equivalent of a post-war Germany invading the Sudetenland. Yet everyone from the Council of Europe to the UN hems and haws and can't decide whether to condemn the Russians or let them get on with their "internal affairs." This is direct evidence of what happens when historical memory has been distorted.

I also think that we disagree about the nature of the post-Stalin Soviet Union. Certainly it was a less horrible place to live in than the Soviet Union of the 1940s, when the repressive machine was working at full capacity and millions of people worked as slave labourers. I am convinced by my own research that Khruschev did put an end to the camp system as a mass phenomenon, mostly because the Soviet leadership had finally concluded that slave labour was not economically viable.

Nevertheless, it is hard for me to see how the fact that Roy Medvedev flourished, or that some good films were made, or that a handful of ethnic leaders were allowed to collaborate, justifies any praise for post-Stalinist Marxism. In the name of Marxism, concentration camps were still being built in Russia well into the 1980s: the treatment meted out to human rights advocates, dissidents, and nationalist activists in the Perm-36 camp, for example, matches anything you can find in the colonels' Greece or the dungeons of Latin America. In the name of Marxism, the Soviet Union also wreaked huge damage in Ethiopia, and elsewhere in Africa, and in Afghanistan, where 1m people are thought to have died as the result of Brezhnev's desire to spread the benefits of the Soviet system to his fraternal Muslim brothers. Back at home, millions more Soviet citizens were, in the name of Marxism, mis-educated, impoverished, poisoned and killed in the industrial and environmental accidents which were tolerated in the cause of building up the Soviet military machine. The Kursk tragedy is really only the latest in a long series of similar catastrophes. We just did not get to hear about the earlier ones.

As far as the promotion of tolerance goes, even I was recently stopped walking into a government building in Moscow, because a guard thought I looked "black"-meaning Chechen. So much for Marxism's legacy of racial harmony in Russia.


Dear Anne,

A Russian friend of mine was a secretary in a state office in Leningrad when the news came that Brezhnev had died. The chief of the office had to come into the room to ask her and her colleagues-but quite mildly-not to laugh so loudly. By then, you really had to stick your neck out in Russia to get penalised.

And you know very well that Soviet nationality policy did not involve "a handful of leaders being allowed to collaborate." In most republics, local communists enjoyed real authority, albeit under the watchful (or rather, increasingly lax) eyes of the Russian-dominated KGB.

Opportunities for local linguistic culture varied from republic to republic, with Georgia the strongest and Ukraine probably the most restricted. Nowhere, however, were they wholly absent. Members of non-Russian nationalities-including Jews-also played a big role in state-sponsored Russian-language culture, whether in cinema, television, theatre or literature. By no means all were co-opted "sell-outs." Can you imagine a Nazi Chingis Aitmatov?

But our disagreement is not really about the past at all. Where we differ is about the uses of the past in various current disputes: above all, concerning relations with Russia.

And what about Chechnya? The truth is that Russian tactics in both Chechen wars, like Soviet tactics in Afghanistan, were not specifically Russian, or communist, at all. From institutionalised torture to indiscriminate bombardment, they were almost identical to French tactics in Algeria and Indochina, and produced similar results in terms of casualties.

These facts are drawn not from left-wing propaganda, but from A Savage War of Peace by the eminently conservative historian Alistair Horne. It is true that the French never bombarded a city as Grozny has been bombarded-but only because they never had to storm a heavily-defended city. However, the Americans largely destroyed both Seoul in 1950 and Hue in 1968-and both were populated by allied civilians. I was in Grozny, on the Chechen side, in January 1995, and I can't see the difference. This is not to say that Russia's invasion of Chechnya in 1994 was justified, or that the US fight in Korea was unjustified-I denounced the first and approved of the latter. But the fact is that urban and anti-partisan warfare are horribly destructive whether "communist" or "democratic" troops are engaged in them.

Similarly, the Tiananmen massacre was odious-but it was a crime of authoritarianism, not communism, and all too reminiscent of massacres by pro-western authoritarian regimes in Mexico, South Korea, Indonesia and elsewhere. All of these crimes were very dissimilar to the much greater, totalitarian crimes of a Mao or a Kim Il-Sung. You say that Perm-36 matched anything in the colonels' Greece. That's precisely my point.

At the time of the Indochinese and Algerian wars, France was neither totalitarian nor authoritarian. None the less, so far as I am aware, no French officer has ever been sentenced for crimes committed against civilians in Algeria. The French commander in Algiers at the time of the worst of the torture, General Jacques Massu, became commander of France's Nato forces. I share Horne's admiration for the courage of many of the French generals-but what price western democratic morality?

The suggestion that post-Stalinist crimes in the Soviet Union and Russia be singled out-if only rhetorically-for "Nuremberg" treatment raises acute questions for the west, both politically and morally. Zbigniew Brzezinski and Alexander Haig have been loudest in their condemnation of Russia over Chechnya and other issues-but are firmly in favour of cultivating good relations with communist China, and firmly against US support for Tibetan rights. No wonder so much of the world sees the west as contemptibly hypocritical.

Time does make a difference to our attitude to communism, as does the fact that the Soviet bloc was dismantled by communist and ex-communist leaders with astonishing lack of bloodshed, and that Mao's China was transformed by communists into a far more civilised place.

If Soviet communism had collapsed on Stalin's death-or at any point while Stalinist leaders were still alive-I would have been in favour of a mass Nuremberg-style trial, and the execution of many senior officials. I support the moves of the Baltic states to hunt down and sentence surviving NKVD officers. But when Baltic nationalists and others today call for a "Nuremberg trial of communism," Stalinist atrocities are only part of what they are talking about. Rather, they want to lump all Soviet crimes into one undifferentiated heap, plant a Russian flag on top, and then use this to serve their various anti-Russian agendas.


Dear Anatol,

Let us for a moment leave aside the question of what we in the "west" think about these issues, and look instead at how their successor states, the German Federal Republic and contemporary Russia, have dealt with their respective legacies.

In my view, contemporary Germany has atoned for the crimes of Nazi Germany about as much as it was possible for a nation collectively to atone. I know there are still disputes about compensation and Holocaust memorials and whether Germany needs to continue to feel guilt-and I interpret these periodic eruptions as evidence that the memory of the war remains alive, and continues to influence German politics. As a result, Germans still agonise about sending troops abroad, are hyper-sensitive about their relations with France and Poland, and worry so much about being "too dominant" in Europe that they have sacrificed their currency in the name of European unity.

By contrast, contemporary Russia conducts no such debates about the past. For a brief period in the 1980s, gulag and Stalinist-era memoirs were bestsellers, but now such books are not even published, let alone read: compare that to the wild success, in Germany, of Daniel Goldhagen's book, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Other than those whose close family members were deeply affected, Russians often don't know about the repressions-or if they know they don't want to talk about them. Apart from a few intellectuals in Moscow and St Petersburg, they don't know about the damage the Soviet Union caused abroad, either. An example: because I speak Russian with a Polish accent, I am constantly being accosted by Russians who want to know "why the Poles hate us so much." Why indeed: the invasion of 1939, the deportation of 1.5m Poles to Siberia, the destruction of the people who would have led post-war Poland, the de facto occupation of the country for 50 years-all that is unknown to most Russians.

The results are clear: if the Russians truly remembered their past-really remembered, the way the Germans remember-they would not have invaded Chechnya, not once and not twice. For that matter, they would not have elected Vladimir Putin to the office of president-a man who proudly describes himself as a former "Chekist," the word used for Lenin's secret police.

Yes, I am in favour of a post-Soviet Nuremberg, but this doesn't mean I want a bunch of UN bureaucrats or self-righteous Americans sitting in judgement on ageing Russian torturers. For these things to be successful, they have to be conducted domestically: the true reckoning in Germany came not in the late 1940s after Nuremberg, but in the late 1960s, when, sparked by trials of Auschwitz guards, a younger generation of Germans began asking their parents, "what did you do in the war." Nor does dealing with the past have to take the form of actual trials: I would be happy with public investigations, of the sort that were started and then abandoned during Yeltsin's presidency, or even a truth commission, on the lines of the South African one. The point is for the new Russian state to acknowledge that the Soviet Union, in its longevity and its destructiveness, both domestically and internationally, played a unique role in 20th century history.


Dear Anne,

You are forgetting something. De-nazification in Germany was not voluntary. The country was defeated and under military occupation. If the Germans had been left to themselves, the whole of Europe would still be under Nazi rule. Russians, by contrast, played a critical part in overthrowing communist rule in 1990-91.

Nazi Germany was called Germany; and the Nazi state acted in the name of Germany and an idea of German racial superiority. Its high officials were all Germans, and could not have been anything else. Hitler was chancellor of the German Reich; Stalin was secretary-general of the Communist party of the Soviet Union.

The vast majority of the victims of the SS and Gestapo were non-Germans. By contrast, Russians themselves were the main victims of the various Soviet terrors. The Russian elites were decimated. Russian national monuments were dynamited, like those of other nationalities. Because they fought against communism in the civil war, Russian Cossacks were the first people to suffer deportation and famine.

Was Stalin a Russian? Was Beria? Of the five leaders of the Soviet secret police under Lenin and Stalin, only one was Russian-the founder was a Polish nobleman by origin (Dzerzhinsky), one was Latvian, one Polish-Jewish, and one Georgian. The secret police during this time was disproportionately non-Russian. Was this true of the Gestapo? Of course Russians should be much more aware of their country's role in communism's crimes, and should acknowledge the role Russian chauvinism came to play in communism (a role which Lenin explicitly feared). But they will not do so until other nations accept that communism was not a purely Russian phenomenon and that Russia also suffered terribly under communism.

Both Lenin and Stalin operated by playing Russians and other nationalities off against each other. By contributing to anti-Russian chauvinism, you yourself are doing no service to the cause of creating a united, civilised and peaceful Europe.


Dear Anatol,

You don't have to tell me again that Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia were different, or that Hitler was the greater fanatic about ethnic identity: I couldn't agree more wholeheartedly. Nor do you have to tell me that Germany was occupied and the Soviet Union was not: I just don't think it matters. As I said, it was not the Nuremburg trials which made the difference to Germany's collective memory. It was the debate begun by the Germans themselves-precisely the sort of debate which is not taking place in Russia.

I simply do not care in the name of which ideology atrocities were committed. I am interested in the atrocities being remembered, so that they are not repeated. I am interested in westerners remembering them-which they largely don't-and I am interested in all the citizens of the former Soviet Union remembering them-which they largely don't. If I am primarily interested in the Russians remembering them, it is for three reasons.

First, because after 1991, Russia took over the Soviet Union's embassies, debts, KGB operatives, nuclear weapons, UN Security Council seat, and great power complex. Russia is the successor state to the Soviet Union. Latvia is not. More to the point, Russia is in a position to make use of the Soviet Union's military resources, and can still, as in Chechnya, cause enormous damage. Latvia cannot.

Second, because although the Russians did suffer under their system, they were also largely responsible for creating it. To suggest otherwise is simply disingenuous: the language of the Soviet communist party was Russian, the culture of the Soviet communist party was Russian, the geopolitical aims of the Soviet Union were those of the historical Russia, and Stalin himself, as you know, relied heavily on Great Russian nationalist symbolism, particularly during the war and afterwards, despite his Georgian origins.

Third, because the Russians seem, of all the former citizens of the USSR, to have the worst collective memory. At least the Latvian state is engaged in some kind of debate about the Latvian Red Rifles; at least the Lithuanian state has set up a national museum to commemorate the past. You may find their efforts biased or offensive, but at least they exist for you to challenge, for the next generation of Balts to challenge. In Russia there is no such debate, and the only museum actually dedicated to the gulag is run privately, funded largely by the Ford Foundation.

As for a united, civilised and peaceful Europe-I am sorry, but I do not believe it can be founded on an erasure of memory. Above all, I do not think we will ever see such a thing until Russia comes to terms with its terrible past.