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Victims of totalitarianism

Day of Remembrance

Evil meets evil. The Non-Aggression Pact between Stalin and Hitler signed in Moscow on 23 August 1939. Photo: Bundesarchiv.

In the twentieth century, communism claimed the lives of more than 100 million, and it destroyed the lives of many more...

If a university professor would keep a stately portrait of Lenin or Mao on a prominent place in his office, he would gain a reputation as an eccentric. But if this was a similar portrait of Hitler or Mussolini, he would probably lose his job. This is just one example of the leniency with which communists are usually judged, in contrast to old Nazis or fascists. Why is it considered to be less reprehensible to be, or have been, in sympathy with communism than with national socialism? Why do ex-Nazis carry an indelible stain whereas ex-communists merrily go around and even stand in democratic elections? Surely the explanation is not that communism was less murderous. According to the Black Book of Communism, in the twentieth century communist regimes claimed the lives of 100 million people, and national socialism 25 million. The estimate of the total number of communist victims may even have to be adjusted upwards after recent research on Chinese communism presented by Professor Frank Dikötter: In Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in 1958–1961 about 45 million starved to death.

Explanations for the Asymmetry

One obvious answer to the question about the asymmetry is that the Soviet Union was allied with the West in the Second World War, and that ample evidence was found and presented about Nazi atrocities at the Nuremberg trials after the war. No similar trials were ever held of communist leaders, and until recently scant evidence was available about their misdeeds. Another explanation is that communist revolutions mostly took place in backward countries like Russia and China, whereas the Nazis perpetrated their crimes in a developed, civilised, Western country, the homeland of Gutenberg, Bach, Goethe, and Schiller. A third explanation is that there was something uniquely evil about the Holocaust planned and implemented by the Nazis. One has to distinguish between extermination as the unintended consequence of pursuing a goal, for example when Stalin sacrificed millions of farmers (‘kulaks’) in the early 1930 in order to build up an industrial society, and extermination as a goal in itself, as was the case in the Holocaust.

There is some truth in all these explanations, I think. None of them is however without flaws. From the beginning, information was available about the atrocities of the Russian Bolsheviks, although much further evidence came to light after the collapse of communism in Russia and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. The same can be said about other communist countries, such as China, Cambodia, and Cuba. In the second place, the communist oppression in Russia and China was on a totally different scale from what had taken place before. In Tsarist Russa between 1825 and 1917, 6,321 political executions were carried out (most of them after the 1905 rebellion), whereas in two months of the ‘Red Terror’ in the autumn of 1918 the Bolsheviks killed about 15,000 people. Mao boasted in 1958 that he had surpassed the notorious Emperor Ch’in-Shih-huang hundred times: ‘He only buried alive 460 scholars, while we buried 46,000.’

The third explanation is correct, as far as it goes. There is something uniquely evil in singling out a group in society and trying to exterminate it, as the Nazis did. The Jews were killed because of who they were, not because they had done anything wrong. I know of no comparable crime in history. Usually mass murders occur during the conquest of new territories or in wars when some of the participants feel threatened. Examples could be the numerous victims of Genghis Khan in the Middle Ages and the Armenians during the First World War. But the objection can be raised that from a moral point of view it may make a cause even worse if it implicitly requires human sacrifices for its goals than if the extermination of certain groups is explicitly one of its goals.

Communism and Nazism Criminal in Nature

Personally I would acknowledge the uniqueness of the Holocaust, while I would add that any political cause which requires human sacrifices, in the sense of the exclusion or even extermination of certain groups in society, has to be criminal in nature. It goes without saying that I am not speaking about wars of self-defence where inevitably there will be casualties, but rather about defining certain groups in society as somehow not worthy of belonging to it, of treating them as outcasts, even subhuman. This was something that both national socialism and communism had in common. The Nazis wanted to exclude from society Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped and gays and the communists to exclude from it capitalists, owners of big and small enterprises and independent farmers. (It is telling that after the Bolshevik Revolution members of the former middle and upper class in Russia were called ‘Former People’ and denied full civil rights.) This is in stark contrast to the conservative-liberal political tradition of the West where it is accepted that individuals and groups have different and sometimes incompatible goals in life and that the state should mostly confine itself to being a mediator, developing rules facilitating the mutual accommodation of these individuals and groups. Perhaps the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott has provided the most elegant and sophisticated articulation of this tradition.

My conclusion is that both communism and national socialism are evil. It is however futile to try and measure one against the other on the same scale. National socialism was more evil in some ways, while communism was more evil in other ways. But it was really only with the publication of the Black Book of Communism in November 1997, 80 years after the Bolshevik Revolution, that communism was widely seen as being criminal in nature, in the sense established by the judgements of Nazi leaders in Nuremberg in 1946. As the editor, Professor Stéphane Courtois, comments, ‘the deliberate starvation of a child of Ukrainian kulak as a result of the famine caused by Stalin’s regime ‘is equal to’ the starvation of a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto as a result of the famine caused by the Nazi regime’. My translation into Icelandic of the Black Book was published in 2009. I had originally intended to write just a short postscript about the Icelandic communist movement, but I found that many questions were still unresolved and that much new evidence had to be presented. The result was that in 2011 I published a history in 624 pages of the Icelandic movement between 1918 and 1998.

Platform of European Memory and Conscience

I was certainly not alone in wanting to recognise communism as a totalitarian creed, closely related to national socialism, and criminal in nature. In June 2008, an international conference in Prague adopted the ‘Prague Declaration’ calling for a platform of European memory and conscience which would promote public awareness of communist crimes. A year later, the European Parliament endorsed the idea of such a platform. It was then formally founded in September 2011, and I became active in it a year later. The Platform of European Memory and Conscience, based in Prague, holds conferences, publishes books and monographs, gives out a prize each year and issues statements and resolutions. But the reason I am writing this is that today, 23 August 2021, is the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Communism and Nazism, proclaimed by the European Parliament, and known in the United States and Canada as Black Ribbon Day. The choice is not random. On this day in 1939, Stalin and Hitler made the Non-Aggression Pact in Moscow in which they divided up Central and Eastern Europe between themselves.

It should be recalled that for the West, the Second World War had two distinct phases. The first one was from September 1939 to June 1941 when the United Kingdom and her Commonwealth allies (and initially France as well) fought against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Then Stalin and Hitler were allies for all practical purposes, although Stalin did not formally join the war. The second phase was from June 1941 when Hitler revoked the Non-Aggression Pact and attacked the Soviet Union which subsequently became an ally of the Western powers, and it lasted in Europe until May 1945. It is a sobering thought that on the basis of their Pact the two dictators nearly succeeded in subduing the whole continent. In the spring of 1940, there were only six functioning democracies in Europe: the United Kingdom, Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland. The history of Europe in the twentieth century shows that we cannot take freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the toleration of minorities for granted. We should therefore pause each year on 23 August, turn our gaze upon the past, remember the victims both of communism and Nazism and try to prevent history from repeating itself. 

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