The Arithmetic of Atrocity

Counting the victims of communism obfuscates more than it clarifies.

Issue: Winter 1999-2000

Stephane Courtois et al., The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, trans. Jonathan Murphy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Two years ago a group of French intellectuals published The Black Book of Communism, an 860-page indictment of the bloody swathe that communism cut across the twentieth century. The book, timed to coincide with the eightieth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, sold 150,000 copies and produced a storm of controversy, whose waves reached the shores of Cambridge and Manhattan.

Editor Stephane Courtois argued in his introduction that there was a moral equivalence between Stalinism and Nazism, that Stalin's "class genocide" paralleled Hitler's destruction of the Jews. Indeed, communism was even worse, because it lasted longer, spread to more countries, and thus killed more people: nearly 100 million, versus 25 million for the Nazis.

The Black Book is now available in English from Harvard University Press. Books about communism and atrocities sell well: they are the thinking person's equivalent of the horror movie. But the book's impact in the United States is likely to be more muted than in France. The political context of anti-communism in the two countries is radically different; and the scholarly merits of the book, while significant, do not substantially add to the picture presented in the earlier works of Robert Conquest and others.

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