Cold War Studies at Harvard University

The Black Book of Communism
translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer

Now available from Harvard University Press

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In late 1997 a leading French publishing house, Robert Laffont, published Le Livre Noir du Communisme (The Black Book of Communism), an 850-page book of scholarly essays that collectively provide a history of Communism in the 20th century. The contributors to the book include some of the finest scholars from both East and West, who have drawn extensively on new archival findings. Every country that lived (or is still living) under Communism -- the Soviet Union, the East European countries, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, Mongolia, and so forth -- is covered. The book also features many crucial, previously unpublished documents from the former Communist archives.

Le livre noir du communisme begins with a 38-page introduction, "Les Crimes du Communisme," by the editor, Stephane Courtois. This introduction and the conclusion (also by Courtois) are what caused most of the controversy in France. Some prominent French intellectuals and politicians, especially those affiliated with or sympathetic to the Communist Party, argued that Courtois had gone too far in drawing a parallel between Stalinism and Nazism as systems that relied on violent terror. Some claimed that Courtois had overstated the intrinsic role of mass violence and repression in Communist systems. Courtois and numerous other scholars responded in a series of heated exchanges in the French press and academic journals. (At times, these exchanges bore only a scant connection to the book itself.) The next 800 pages of the book are separated into five large parts.

The first part is a 250-page study by the distinguished French historian Nicolas Werth, "Un Etat contre son peuple: Violences, repressions, terreurs en Union sovietique" ("A State Against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union"), which draws extensively on new archival findings. The essay is divided into 15 sections, beginning with "Paradoxes et malentendus d'Octobre" ("Paradoxes and Misunderstandings About the October Revolution") and then covering the whole period of Bolshevik and Stalinist terror as well as some of the events that followed the death of Josif Stalin.

The second part is a 100-page study of the Comintern and the Soviet Union's role in the international Communist movement, "R™volution mondiale, guerre civile et terreur" ("World Revolution, Civil War, and Terror"), by Stephane Courtois, Jean-Louis Panne, and Remi Kauffer. This part is divided into three essays, "Le Komintern de l'action," by Courtois and Panne; "L'ombre portee du NKVD en Espagne" (" The Shadow of the NKVD in Spain") by Courtois and Panne; and "Communisme et terrorisme," by Kauffer.

The third part, "L'Autre Europe: Victime du Communisme," is a 100-page overview of Communism in East-Central Europe. The author of the first section, focusing on Poland, is the most eminent historian in Poland, Andrzej Paczkowski, who has been of great help to Western scholars in gaining access to archival materials in Poland. (He also is a member of the HPCWS Editorial Board.) The other section, of roughly 70 pages, by the distinguished Czech historian, Karel Barto‘ek, covers the rest of Central Europe and the Balkans. These two sections together provide a rich and nuanced reassessment of the Communization and Sovietization of Eastern Europe, drawing on a wealth of new archival material.

The fourth part, "Communismes d'Asie: Entre 'reeducation' et Massacre," focuses on East Asia (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). It is divided into three sections. The first is a 100-page study by a distinguished French historian, Jean-Louis Margolin, of China under Mao Zedong. It covers the civil war in China as well as all major episodes in post-1949 Chinese history (the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, etc.) and China's occupation of Tibet. The 30-page second section, also by Margolin, focuses on North Korea, Vietam, and Laos. The third section, by one of the world's leading specialists on Cambodia, Pierre Rigoulot, looks at Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. This 80-page section is both riveting and profoundly disquieting.

The fifth part of the book, "Le Tiers-Monde" ("The Third World"), deals with Communist regimes in other parts of the Third World. This part is divided into three sections. The first section, by Pascal Fontaine, is a 35-page overview of Cuba, Nicaragua (under Sandinista rule), and the Sendero Luminoso in Peru. The second section is a 30-page overview of Marxist (or formerly Marxist) states in Africa -- Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique -- by the leading French expert on Africa, Yves Santamariabe. The third section, by Sylvain Boulouque, is a 25-page analysis of Afghanistan from the late 1970s to the early 1990s.

The book ends with a 30-page conclusion by Stephane Courtois, "Pourquois?," which tries to come to grips with the destruction and terror that have been extensively cataloged in the previous 800 pages. Courtois maintains that "[despite] the availability of rich new sources of information, which until recently had been completely off-limits [and which have led to] a better and more sophisticated understanding of events, . . . the fundamental question remains: Why? Why did modern Communism, when it appeared in 1917, turn almost immediately into a system of bloody dictatorship, and a criminal regime? Was it really the case that its aims could be attained only through extreme violence?"

In a dense analysis of how violent terror became a way of life under Lenin and Stalin, Courtois concludes that "the real motivation for the terror ultimately was Leninist ideology, and the perfectly utopian will to impose a doctrine that was completely at odds with reality." This totalizing ideology, Courtois argues, generated murderous intolerance toward all those who were perceived as obstacles to the new regime: "Terror involves a double sort of mutation. The adversary is first labeled an enemy, then a criminal, and is excluded from society. Exclusion very quickly turns into the idea of extermination." That basic outlook, he writes, has been present, "with differing degrees of intensity, in all regimes that claim to be Marxist in origin."

In addition to the introduction, the five main parts, and the conclusion, the book features several dozen full texts or excerpts of recently declassified (and, with a few exceptions, previously unpublished) documents as sidebars. These documents appear in the book in French translation, but the French publisher has supplied copies of all the original documents to permit direct translations into English. Among the items featured are orders for the ruthless suppression of the Tambov rebellion in 1921, correspondence between Stalin and the writer Mikhail Sholokhov, transcripts of interrogations from the Great Terror, reports from the show trials in both the USSR and Eastern Europe, the 1940 memorandum ordering the execution of Polish officers in Katyn Forest, decrees on the deportations of ethnic minorities, reports from the commandants of Siberian gulags, several items pertaining to activities of the French Communist Party, documents on the treatment of prisoners of war in the USSR, reports on the actions of Communist guerrillas during the Greek civil war, a memorandum outlining the East German state security ministry's ties to the terrorist Carlos, reports on forceful measures against religious believers, directives issued by the secret police in several East European countries, reports on political repression in Romania and China, documents on prison camps and forced labor in China, reports and directives from the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and many others.

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