Was communism as bad as Nazism?
A debate between Anne Applebaum and Anatol Lieven
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?
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.