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 communismby Timothy Garton-Ash / June 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
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…