The Gruesome Consequences of a Political Idea

THE BLACK BOOK OF COMMUNISM By Stephane Courtois, Nicholas Weth, et. al (HARVARD UNIV PRESS, 858 PAGES, $37.50)

The history of communism has not just been about terror, torture deportations and massacres. It has also been about the illusions of Western intellectuals. Whether it is Gunter Grass receiving the Nobel Prize partly for his novelistic effusions about the coziness of East Germany or revisionist historians playing down Stalin's culpability for the great purges, communism has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, a reputation as an ideology that supposedly pursued lofty humanitarian ends, even if it went astray at times. Indeed, the big intellectual no-no has been to liken it to the other great totalitarian movement of the 20th century-Nazism.
So when "The Black Book of Communism" appeared in Europe in 1997 detailing communism's crimes, it created a furor. Scrupulously documented and soberly written by several historians, it is a masterful work It is, in fact, a reckoning. With this translation by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer, English-language readers may now see for themselves what all the commotion was about.

In his introduction, Stephane Courtois himself a former communist, breaks with the postwar taboo on comparing the Gulag with the Holocaust. He notes that the communist body count of more than 100 million exceeds that of the Nazis. He compares the "class genocide" of communism with the "race genocide" of Nazism and states that both were "crimes against humanity."
So controversial was this comparison that two of Mr. Courtois's editor-collaborators--Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin--later distanced themselves from what he wrote. And predictably, the French left lashed itself into a frenzy, denouncing the book's contributors for traducing the noble communist fight against fascism.

In Germany, by contrast, Mr. Courtois's views met with a somewhat less chilly reception. A decade before a bitter historians' dispute had erupted when leftist intellectuals such as Jurgen Habermas accused conservative historians of attempting to whitewash the Nazi past by playing up communist atrocities, which some, not all, were indeed trying to do. But this didn't justify the left's refusal to confront the horrors of communism. Eventually, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the revelation of communist abuses in East Germany helped to overturn old dogmas, and "The Black Book" prompted many Germans to take an other look at the relationship between communism and Nazism.

That relationship may never be fully understood. But the Russian Red Terror, in its emphasis on the elimination of entire classes of peoples, in its description of opponents as "vermin" to be exterminated, does seem like a precursor of the German concentration camps. Moreover, Nazism profited greatly not only from Lenin's and Stalin's Gulag system--Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, solicited reports about the operations of Soviet camps--but also from Bolshevism itself, which served as both a whipping boy and, at times, a political idea that could be collaborated with. The two ideologies validated each other.
After World War II, the prestige of the Soviet Union was at its height. The country had fought on the side of the democracies, U.S. war propaganda had painted pipesmoking "Uncle Joe Stalin" as a friendly fellow. In Europe, communists made a comeback in France, Italy and Germany with the flowering of the myth that communists were merely heroic anti-fascist freedom fighters. Thus the gruesome Soviet record was suppressed.

"That the Soviet Union had paid the heaviest human toll for its victory over Nazism," writes Mr. Werth, "served to mask the character of the Stalinist dictatorship." In fact, "the Soviet prisons had never held as many prisoners as they did in the year of victory: a grand total of nearly 5.5 million people." Mr. Werth astutely notes that the Gulag was filled with "criminals" because almost any action, however innocuous, could be
branded as illegal dissent. The Gulag, you might say, was the distilled essence of the Soviet Union. Once Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, the Soviet Union began to unravel, however slowly, having lost its reason for being.

After the halo wore off the Soviet Union, China emerged as a new beacon for credulous Westerners. .Mr. Margolin writes that "one myth was common in the West: the idea that China was far from being a model democracy, but that at least Mao had managed to give a bowl of rice to every Chinese person." In fact, nothing was further than the truth. Mao, like Stalin deliberately engineered a famine that killed untold millions.
Today the hermit kingdom of North Korea is, by all accounts continuing this tradition by systematically starving much of its population. Pierre Rigoulot estimates in "The Black Book" that the regime has already killed 500,000 people through malnutrition. Over the past 50 years, he concludes, North Korea's Communist Party has wiped out three million people in a country of 23 million. The more we learn about communism, the worse it appears.

Still, communism remains in better odor than Nazism. Martin Malia, in his fine foreword to this edition of "The Black Book," observes that, whereas Nazism w as defeated at the height of its evil, "by the time of communism's fall the liberal world had had fifty years to settle into a double standard regarding its two late adversaries." Indeed, almost no communist officials have been put on trial and communist parties have become reborn under new names in Poland, the former East Germany and other countries. Yet when Jorg Haider, the far-right leader of the Austrian Freedom Party, comes in second in national elections, as he did a few weeks ago, the Western media sound the alarm.

Is this a double-standard? Or was there something uniquely odious about Nazism that justifies the different response? This work is surely not the last word on the subject, but it superbly illuminates the shocking record of communist regimes and their Western votaries.