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The Guilty Party
BY Adam Shatz

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression • By Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin
Harvard University Press • 858 pp • $37.50 • October 1999

In 1946, the Russian journalist Ilya Ehrenburg and the novelist Vassily Grossman published The Black Book, an explosive report on the German Einsatzgruppen's campaign of terror against Soviet Jews. The book did not sit well with Stalin, who thought it placed too much emphasis on the identity of Hitler's victims. After all, mused the Soviet dictator, the Red Army did not fight fascism merely to save the Jews. As was his custom in such cases, he suppressed the book, which ultimately entered the subterranean culture known as samizdat.

A half century later, there is a new Black Book, only this time it is not about the Nazis but about regimes like the one that banned Ehrenburg and Grossman's study. The Black Book of Communism is a collection of essays by French historians on the "crimes, terrors, and repression" committed by the socialist governments that once flew the red flag over one third of humanity.

When the book was published in France two years ago, during the eightieth anniversary of the October Revolution, its introduction set off an incendiary debate by suggesting that communism was more murderous than Nazism--so incendiary, in fact, that the disillusioned ex-communists who assembled the 858-page book had a bitter falling-out. The cover of the Harvard edition lists six editors below the title, giving them the appearance of an anticommunist united front. But, as the secret history of our century ought to have taught us, such appearances are often deceptive.

Just weeks after The Black Book of Communism was published, in late October 1997, the volume's two most distinguished contributors--Nicolas Werth, a historian of the Soviet Union, and Jean-Louis Margolin, a China expert--angrily repudiated the editor Stéphane Courtois in a series of interviews and articles published in Le Monde. The scholars were infuriated by Courtois's introductory screed indicting international communism for "crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity" and characterizing fellow travelers as "common prostitutes." Worst of all, they complained, Courtois had not permitted them to see the introduction prior to publication. On October 31, Werth and Margolin were quoted in Le Monde excoriating Courtois for effacing "the historical character" of communism and for vastly inflating the number of deaths that occurred under it.

The introduction had originally been assigned to François Furet, the dean of French Revolution historians and one of France's most prominent ex-communists. But when Furet died--shortly after publishing a passionate inventory of communist crimes and his own intellectual complicity in them, The Passing of an Illusion--responsibility for the introduction fell to Courtois. In venom, if not in vim, he outdid the great scholar, blasting Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, and dozens of others for turning "mass crime into a full-blown system of government." Moreover, he claimed that communism had caused four times as many deaths as Nazism: 100 million as compared with Nazism's 25 million. On the scale of what Hannah Arendt called "radical evil," Courtois implied that communism deserved a ranking as high as, if not higher than, Nazism.

Courtois was careful to distinguish his approach from the exculpatory arguments of German revisionist historians like Ernst Nolte, who have let Hitler off the hook by asserting that Stalin's campaign against Ukraine's kulaks was the original genocide. He was less careful in charging that "a single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide," cynically encouraged by communists after the war, "also prevented an assessment of" communist crimes. In fact, the Jewish genocide barely registered among French intellectuals until the late 1980s, when Raul Hilberg's seminal study, The Destruction of the European Jews, finally appeared in translation. The Russian gulag, as exposed by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, had received far more attention thanks to the new philosophers of the 1970s.

To some French readers, Courtois's recitation of communist crimes against humanity smacked of fascist apologia. After all, this was a country where, as the Princeton historian Anson Rabinbach observed in Dissent last year, "the demand for a 'Nuremberg trial of communism' has a particular connotation, frequently reiterated by Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the National Front, to justify not prosecuting French crimes of the Vichy era." Since the book's publication coincided with Maurice Papon's trial on charges of Nazi collaboration during the Vichy years, French readers were invited to contemplate the notion that partisan resistance fighters, many of them communists and all of them in alliance with Soviet Russia, were on no firmer moral ground than a pro-fascist bureaucrat who sent Jewish women and children to the ovens.

Whether or not this was Courtois's intention, and it probably wasn't--Courtois considers himself an anticommunist social democrat--The Black Book of Communism aroused tremendous ire on the French left. Indeed, Courtois's hyperbole provided some leftists with the perfect excuse for a display of antifascist indignation, one that conveniently swept under the rug their own compromised history of pro-Sovietism. On November 7, 1997, Claude Cabane, the editor of the communist daily L'Humanité, assailed the book as an exercise in rightist propaganda, quoting Primo Levi's remark that "one cannot imagine a Nazism without the gas chambers, but one can imagine a Communism without the camps." The historian Annette Wieviorka chimed in with a denunciation in Le Monde: "Stéphane Courtois proposes simply and purely to substitute in popular memory communist criminality for Nazi criminality." Is it any wonder, she asked, that the book has been greeted with "jubilation" by Le Pen supporters? The Black Book of Communism, in her view, amounted to little more than "agitprop scholarship." "One could just as easily write a Black Book of capitalist crimes," she quipped.

On November 12, the debate reached the chambers of parliament. Armed with grisly figures from The Black Book of Communism, Michel Voisin, a deputy from the center-right UDF coalition, interrogated the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin about his party's governing coalition with the French communists. While acknowledging the brutalities inflicted by Stalin, Jospin petulantly instructed his listeners in the history of World War II and vigorously defended his communist allies as patriotic heirs to the resistance whom he was "proud" to have in his government.

By now it was Courtois's turn to reply to his critics. He did, in a pungent rejoinder of nearly three thousand words in Le Monde. Considering that communism so often betrayed its commitment to "an ideal of generosity, fraternity and equality," he asserted, "one is entitled to ask whether [killing in the name of such an ideal] is more excusable than murder linked to a racist doctrine. To what extent do illusion or hypocrisy constitute extenuating circumstances in mass crimes?" Finally, he scoffed at the charge that he was offering comfort to the extreme right by calling attention to communist crimes, declaring, "The victims of communism do not erase the victims of Nazism."

At this point, The Black Book of Communism was so enveloped in charges and countercharges that its contents risked becoming a casualty of all the publicity. Last January, Nicolas Weill, a journalist with Le Monde, worried that "the transformation of this book into a pamphlet still prevents it from being taken for what it is: an excellent book of history."

This is only partly true. Of the fourteen essays in The Black Book of Communism, only two stand out as impressively researched contributions to scholarship: Werth's study of Russia, which is the length of a short book, and Margolin's survey of Mao's bloody carnival of ideological correctness in China.

Werth's monograph, "A State Against Its People," is the first and most rewarding section of The Black Book of Communism. Drawing on recently unsealed archival material, he shows how, in the early years of the civil war, state terror became a "means of government" for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, laying the foundations for Stalinism. Determined to requisition grain from rebellious peasants, Lenin encouraged soldiers--as he wrote to his comrade Zinoviev--to "make use of the energy of mass terror." Although the Bolsheviks faced a brutal adversary in the anti-Semitic White Russian armies that carried out murderous pogroms in the Ukraine, Werth argues that the Bolsheviks planned their killings more systematically and on a wider scale. Contributing to the death toll on the rural killing fields of 1919--1920 was the Soviets' idealism, since it permitted them to justify "massacres on the basis of class...with the claim that a new world was coming into being, and that everything was permitted to assist the difficult birth."

As one newspaper explained at the time, "Our morality has no precedent, and our humanity is absolute because it rests on a new ideal....To us, everything is permitted, for we are the liberate humanity from its shackles.... Blood? Let blood flow like water!" According to Werth, these clashes with the independent peasantry opened the way for the exterminationist solutions of the early 1930s, when Stalin used hunger as an "objective ally" in his efforts to subdue the kulaks and collectivize agriculture.

Unfortunately, Werth and Margolin's contributions are the exception. The trouble with The Black Book of Communism does not end with the introduction. While there is no denying the atrocities visited on the victims of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, the book's treatment of communism in Latin America is so one-sided that it might as well be plucked from a U.S. State Department report. We are given the total count of war victims in Sandinista Nicaragua, but we are not told that most of those deaths were caused by the U.S.-funded contras, referred to here as the "anti-Sandinista resistance." In his treatment of Cuba, luridly titled "Interminable Totalitarianism in the Tropics," Pascal Fontaine describes Che Guevara as "dogmatic, cold, and intolerant...there was almost nothing in him of the traditionally open and warm Cuban temperament." Che was Argentine.

While conceding that in Batista's Cuba, an authoritarian, racist state where blacks were second-class citizens, "wealth remained unevenly distributed," Fontaine argues that Che was inspired not by the sight of social injustice but by his "passionate hatred for the United States." (Nowhere does Fontaine consider why Che's feelings toward his superpower neighbor might have been less than warm--the history of U.S. meddling in Cuba's internal affairs, for instance, or the Central Intelligence Agency-- sponsored overthrow of Guatemala's democratic re former Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, which haunted Cuban revolutionaries.) And, although he supplies important and disturbing information about Cuba's political prisons, Fontaine fails to mention the regime's achievements in health care, literacy, and education, which, while not excusing human rights abuses, at least help explain why the Cuban model long proved attractive to revolutionaries throughout Latin America and Africa.

In fact, the authors of The Black Book of Communism are unable to discern anything remotely redeeming about a cause that once inspired many people of conscience and that played a significant role in defeating both Nazism in Europe and apartheid in South Africa. Although communism was a catastrophe that perverted its followers' idealism, it sometimes honored that idealism--something that cannot be said of fascism.

Unfortunately, even Nicolas Werth succumbs to the gratuitous finger-pointing of the embittered ex-communist. His lament for the fate of the Vlasovtsky is particularly bizarre. Named after their leader, Andrei Vlasov, the Vlasovtsky were a group of Russian prisoners of war who defected to the German side in 1942. "On the basis of his anti-Stalinist convictions," writes Werth credulously, "Vlasov agreed to collaborate with the Nazis to free his country from the tyranny of the Bolsheviks." Vlasov paid with his life, and his 150,000 soldiers ended up wasting away in the gulag, an unhappy fate, to be sure. But it's hard to get worked up, as Werth does, over the imprisonment of traitors whose "anti-Stalinist convictions" led them to embrace the Nazis.

How is The Black Book of Communism going to play in post--Cold War America, awash in both fresh evidence of communist espionage and recently declassified documents revealing Washington's sponsorship of murderous dictatorships in Guatemala, Chile, and Indonesia? A quick survey of American scholars of communism suggests the book will not be quite the sensation it was in France. "It's always a sign of stupidity when you approach a big subject by playing the numbers game," says Arno Mayer, a historian at Princeton. "It just doesn't make any sense to conflate all these figures without the least attention to social, political, and cultural contexts." The Harvard historian Charles Maier, though more partial to the book's treatment of the communist experience, is also troubled by Courtois's use of numbers: "If you consider communism as a monolithic phenomenon, naturally you're going to get a higher body count. After all, there's only one Nazi regime, a regime created in the name of the German people and race, whereas communism is based on an ideology that claims universalism and extends from Russia to Vietnam, China, Cuba."

Still, the most common reaction will probably be "Shocked, shocked," to quote the weary Claude Rains in Casablanca. As Maier observes, there is something strangely provincial about this ostensibly global assault on communism: "What's curious to me is how the French discover the horrors of communism every twenty years or so. First it was the debate over the trials in the 1950s, then it was the film based on Arthur London's memoir The Confession, which the French intellectuals lined up dutifully to see. Then came the new philosophers, and, wow, they discovered this stuff was bad news. And now Courtois. So my first reaction in seeing this is to ask, 'What's new?'"

Maier is probably right, but the French discussion shows no signs of abating anytime soon. The Black Book of Communism has whipped French intellectuals into a frenzy of reflection over the meaning of the Bolshevik revolution, which is deeply intertwined in the memory of the left with their own Revolution of 1789. Spin-offs--"satellite books," Le Monde calls them--are either already here or on their way, including Le Malheur du siècle, Twenty-Five Reflections on Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century, and, of course, The Black Book of Capitalism.

Adam Shatz is a contributing writer to Lingua Franca.

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