Commentary Magazine

Forgotten Communism

In my country, it is still possible to provoke a scandal by raising in public the issue of the crimes committed by Communism—and an even greater scandal by suggesting that not only in the enormity of its crimes but in its very nature, Soviet Communism can be compared with that other great evil of our century, Nazism. This was illustrated once again by a recent French best-seller, The Black Book of Communism, an 846-page compilation by six historians with an introduction that points out a number of commonalities between the two totalitarian systems. The book has raised a storm of controversy in intellectual and political circles, and has even caused an uproar in parliament.

The controversy is illuminating, less for the particular positions being espoused than for revealing just how great, still, is the resistance to an idea that has long achieved the status of a consensus among those who have studied these matters closely—the idea, that is, that Bolshevism and Nazism are related phenomena: fraternal twins, to use the apt phrase of the French historian Pierre Chaunu.

These two monstrous ideologies, each a bastard offshoot of German Romantic philosophy, came to power in the 20th century, and each took it as its goal to bring about a perfect society by uprooting the element of evil that stood in its way. In the case of Communism, the malignancy was defined as property, hence as the owners of property, and hence, since evil would persist even after the liquidation of this “class,” as anyone corrupted by the spirit of “capitalism,” which had made its insinuating way into the ranks of the Communist party itself. In the case of Nazism, the malignant principle was located in the so-called inferior races, first and foremost the Jews but, since evil would persist even after their extermination, in others as well, even in those elements of the “Aryan race” whose “purity” had become polluted.

In addressing the problem of evil as they saw it, both Communism and Nazism drew their authority from science. They were creating a “new man,” and to this end they proposed to reeducate all of humanity. More: each professed to be motivated by philanthropic impulses. It was because it sought the welfare of the German people, and meant to render a service to humanity, that National Socialism was willing to shoulder the “burden” of ridding the world of Jews. Leninism was even more solicitous of humankind and by definition more universalist in its mission than Nazism, whose program was not so easily exportable. But both doctrines held out elevated ideals, calculated to arouse enthusiastic devotion and heroic deeds in their followers.

It was, finally, in the name of those selfsame ideals that Nazism and Communism alike arrogated to themselves the right to murder whole categories of men, which is exactly what they proceeded to do upon assuming power, and on a scale previously unknown in history. And that is why it is proper to judge them both, in their very nature, as criminal systems. Equally criminal? Anyone who has studied the two systems’ record of homicide—the Nazi unparalleled in its ferocity, the Communist unparalleled in its extent—or contemplated the fate of the millions upon millions of human beings whose souls and spirits were crushed even though their bodies survived, must respond, I think, simply and firmly: yes, equally criminal.

But this raises another question: how is it that, today, the two systems are treated so unequally in historical memory, to the point where one of them, Soviet Communism, though a still-recent presence on the world scene, has already been all but forgotten?



There is no need to rehearse the facts in detail. As early as 1989, the Polish opposition itself urged that the former Communist regime in that country be forgiven its sins. In most of the former East European satellite nations, there has been no strong drive to punish those responsible for depriving their fellow citizens of their liberty or for corrupting, brutalizing, and murdering them over the course of two or three generations. Except in Germany and the Czech Republic, Communists have been allowed to remain active politically, and indeed they have regained power in a number of places. In Russia and other former Soviet republics, Communist officials have likewise remained in place, including in the police.

In the West, this de-facto amnesty has met with widespread approval—but then, many in the West have their own history of accommodation with Communism, which they appear no more eager to confront. To speak only of France, the fact that the Communist party compiled over the decades an ignominious record of collaboration with the Kremlin, a record now fully exposed and documented, in no way prevents it from being accepted at the heart of French democratic politics.

By contrast, the cursed memory of Nazism seems to intensify every day. An ample literature expands yearly. Museums, library exhibitions, movies, novels, and memoirs are devoted to keeping the horror fresh in mind, and the term Nazi itself has become a shorthand for the most heinous opprobrium conceivable. Being linked to it, however tenuously, is enough to bring utter disgrace upon an artist or writer: in the same year the French-Romanian writer E.M. Cioran was revealed to have had a prewar past tainted with Nazi associations, and was unanimously condemned for it, the works of the surrealist Louis Aragon were published in a Pléiade edition to a no less unanimous concert of praise; no one mentioned Aragon’s record as a Stalinist, other than to excuse it.

Through the French Minitel network I recently checked the frequency of certain key words in one of the country’s major evening newspapers during the period 1990 to mid-1997. Under “Nazism” I found 480 mentions; under “Stalinism,” seven. In the same period, the word “Auschwitz” occurred 105 times, but “Kolyma” only twice, “Magadan” once, and “Kuropaty” not at all. The phrase “famine in the Ukraine,” referring to an event that in 1933 alone killed five to six million people, occurred not even a single time in the seven years following the collapse of the regime that had been directly responsible for this human disaster.

It is right and proper to feel indignant at this disparity. “All I ask,” declared the French writer Alfred Grosser in 1989, “is that, when one weighs responsibility for past crimes, the same criteria be applied to everyone.” Exactly so; but the same criteria are not applied, and for the historian (as opposed to the political moralist) the first question is, why? Without pretending to exhaust this very difficult subject, I want to enumerate a number of possible reasons.



• Nazism is better known than Communism. The closet, so full of skeletons, was opened wide by the Allied troops in 1945, and the worst was known right away. Then, too, several West European countries had directly experienced Nazi occupation and/or military aggression, and even today the memory has still not faded. The crimes of the Nazis, moreover, were flagrant and relatively open, with clear victimizers and clear victims—unlike in the case of Communism, many of whose victims were morally compromised by virtue of their membership in the party. The gas chambers, devised to exterminate industrially a defined portion of humanity, were a unique phenomenon, and when the camps were liberated the awful human evidence they revealed was blatant and undeniable. By contrast, the Gulag and the Chinese Laogaï are still shrouded in mist, distant objects that are only indirectly known, mostly through literary rather than photographic testimony. (In Cambodia, the mass graves are now open.)



• The Jewish people have taken upon themselves the solemn duty of remembering and memorializing the Holocaust. For Jews, this is a moral, indeed a religious, obligation, and humanity as a whole is indebted to them for assuming and fulfilling it with thoroughness and determination. Thanks to the power of Jewish memory, the facts of the Shoah have imprinted themselves on the consciousness of all, and a truly perverse stubbornness is required to forget or evade them. Representatives of the Christian world, too, have come to examine their collective conscience, and to acknowledge in sorrow and penitence the Church’s role in perpetuating anti-Semitism.1



• The experience of World War II, in which a military alliance was formed between the democracies and the Soviet Union, weakened Western sensitivity to Communism both as an idea and as a reality, producing a sort of breakdown of the intellectual immune system. To fight with a whole heart, a democracy needs its allies to possess a certain degree of respectability; if necessary, that respectability will be conferred on them as a gift. Stalin encouraged this process by making sure that Communist ideology and Communist slogans were kept in reserve, hidden from view, while the military efforts of the Soviet people and the heroic exploits of Soviet soldiers were brought to the fore and lauded in purely nationalist terms.

Unlike East Europeans, West Europeans did not directly experience the arrival of the Red Army or witness its brutality. On the contrary, it was seen as a liberating force, just like the other Allied armies—hardly the impression of the Baltic peoples or the Poles. And the Soviets were also among the judges at the war-crimes tribunal at Nuremberg (where they tried to foist onto the Nazis a number of crimes committed by Communist-led forces, including the 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish army officers at Katyn in Poland).

All this contributed to the inconsistent and sometimes lackluster postwar response of the West to the Communist menace. The democracies had consented to very heavy sacrifices in order to defeat the Nazi regime. They would consent only to lesser sacrifices in order to contain the Soviet Union, and in the end would even help it hang on out of a concern for “stability.” Their attitude was not—could not—be the same as it had been toward Nazism, nor their judgment balanced, nor their memory impartial.



• One of the great successes of the Soviet regime was to promulgate and, eventually, to impose on the world its own ideological understanding of how political systems should be classified. Lenin reduced them essentially to two polar opposites, socialism and capitalism, a dichotomy preserved by Stalin until the 1930’s. According to this scheme, capitalism, also known as imperialism, included in its purview liberal, social-democratic, and fascist regimes, as well as National Socialism. A different scheme emerged in the 30’s to accommodate the new Soviet policy of building “popular fronts.” Now the spectrum ranged from socialism—that is to say, the Soviet Union—through the bourgeois democracies (liberal and/or social-democratic), to, finally, fascism. Grouped together under the last category were Nazism, Mussolini-type fascism, the authoritarian regimes of Spain, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Poland, and so forth, and extreme right-wing factions in liberal societies.

Whatever the specific typology, Nazism in these schemes was erased as a category unto itself, and attached definitively either to capitalism or to right-wing fascism. It became the absolute incarnation of the Right, while Soviet socialism represented the absolute incarnation of the Left. In this way Nazism and Communism took their respective places in the great magnetic field of 20th-century politics.

To appreciate the sleight of hand involved, one need only recall that to an earlier generation of historians, it had been perfectly clear that both Italian fascism and German Nazism had socialist roots. Thus, Elie Halévy’s classic History of European Socialism (1937) devotes a chapter each to the socialism of fascist Italy and the socialism of Nazi Germany. (The latter, indeed, had explicitly declared itself to be anti-capitalist.) Then there is the no less compelling scheme proposed as early as 1951 by Hannah Arendt, who spotlighted the essentially consanguineous nature of Nazism and Communism that I remarked upon at the outset, and divided these two representatives of modern totalitarianism from liberal and authoritarian regimes alike.

So great was the triumph of the Communist definition of reality, however, that even today it remains deeply embedded in historical consciousness. French high-school and university textbooks, for example, still “read” the political spectrum from Left to Right, going from the Soviet Union on the Left, to the liberal democracies (with their own Lefts and Rights), to the various fascisms (German, Italian, Spanish, and so forth). This is but an attenuated version of what might be called the Soviet Vulgate.



• Nazism lasted twelve years; European Communism, depending on the country, between 50 and 70. This inordinate length of time produced a kind of auto-amnesia in the affected lands themselves. In the course of it, civil society was smashed, elites were successively destroyed, reeducated, and replaced, and almost everyone, from top to bottom, was exposed to the perils and the temptations of compromise and self-betrayal. As for those capable of disinterested thought, they were largely deprived of an accurate knowledge of their history or the proper tools of scholarly research. In reading the works of the Soviet dissidents, which comprise the regime’s only true literature, one is exposed to heartrending laments and boundless grief, but very little dispassionate analysis. (Exceptions include Andrei Amalrik’s Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?, which appeared in English translation in 1969, and certain essays by Aleksandr Zinoviev.)

Today, too, however painful the memory of the past—or just because it is so painful—young Russian historians tend to avert their gaze from the Communist period, and thereby to consign it to oblivion. Meanwhile, the Russian state is again closing the relevant archives. As for the circle of dissidents, who did preserve a lucid memory of Communism, it rapidly broke down after 1991 and has not found a place for itself in the new order of things. An entity that means to perpetuate memory must attain a certain critical mass in society, whether by dint of numbers, political strength, or cultural influence. This the dissidents have not done—and neither, for that matter, have the spokesmen for the Armenians, the Ukrainians, the Kazakhs, the Chechens, or the Tibetans, not to mention many other victims of Communist terror.



• After the dissolution of a totalitarian regime, nothing is so problematic as the effort to reconstitute the normal workings of conscience, to revive the capability of making normal political and moral discriminations. In this respect, post-Nazi Germany was in a better position than post-Soviet Russia. In Germany, civil society had not yet been destroyed down to the ground. Judged, punished, denazified under the scrutiny of the Western allies, Germany was able to participate, however imperfectly, in a process of purification, of self-judging, of remembering, and even of repenting.

This has not been the case in Eastern Europe, partly for reasons that I have already adumbrated but partly because of circumstances for which the West bears its share of historic responsibility. Not only, for 70 long years, did the democracies fail to call the Communists adequately to account, but Western political and cultural elites tacitly or explicitly accepted what I have called the Soviet Vulgate, according to which political virtue resided inherently on the Left (under “socialism”), and the presumption of political sinfulness on the Right (under “capitalism”). Among Western scholars and others, Leninism is still too often characterized as a kind of meteorological accident, an unfortunate detour from a project that in all essential aspects remains as honorable as it ever was.

For centuries, indeed, the conscience of the West has been fixated on finding the seat of absolute evil in the heart of the West itself. In our own day, the evil has been located now in South Africa during the era of apartheid, now in the United States during the period of the Vietnam war, but always in Nazi Germany, the touchstone to which all other local manifestations of evil are constantly referred. From this exercise in radical fault-finding the Soviet Union, North Korea, China, Cuba, and other Communist countries have been exempted. Or perhaps one could say that the unflinching attention to Nazism and its various alleged successors has functioned as a kind of cover, making it possible to scant the no-longer-deniable crimes of Communism.

This attitude enormously complicates and burdens the indispensable task of achieving moral clarity in post-totalitarian societies. If our century has been marked by unprecedented barbarity, it has been marked no less by a disastrous blurring of conscience, and it would be a vast shame if we were to bequeath our own falsified notions of history to the century now coming upon us.



But perhaps there are grounds for hope. We forget that it took years for a full awareness of Nazism to make itself felt in the consciousness of the West. The simple fact is that Nazism, as a political phenomenon, exceeded what people thought possible, and the imagination was often powerless to grasp it. The deeds done in the name of Communism open an abyss no less deep, one that has been protected by the same human reflex to avoid or deny the unthinkable. Could it be that time, whose function is to unveil the truth, will here again do its indispensable work? One can only pray that it will.



1 It is relevant here that in the Soviet Union under the Communists, it was forbidden to single out the Jews as objects of Nazi genocide; only undifferentiated “victims of fascism” were recognized. No doubt this was in part intended to mask the regime’s own anti-Semitic policies, not to mention the notorious record of collaboration with Nazi death squads that had been compiled in places like Ukraine. To this day, I have been told, Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 film Shoah has not been shown in Russia.


About the Author

Alain Besançon is a historian and a member of the French Academy.

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