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Judging Nazism and Communism

Judging Nazism and Communism

Mini Teaser: Judging between the totalitarian evils of the 20th century need not wait for a more balanced historiography; alas, the long farewell is not quite over.

by Author(s): Martin Malia

Now that the 20th century is at last "history", what does this enhanced perspective tell us about the relationship between that century's two great threats to liberal democracy, Nazism and Communism? During the high Cold War decade following 1945, the matter appeared simple to the majority of Western opinion: the two systems should be equated in their infamy. Yet, as anti-Communism came under fire in the 1960s, and as the Cold War itself dwindled into detente in the 1970s, the Hitler-Stalin comparison largely fell into disrepute. At the end of the 1980s, however, European Communism's ignominious end re-opened the question, thus inaugurating a decade of debate over the issue of which "totalitarianism" was the greater scourge. Nor will this issue ever really go away again. For while Nazism and Communism are most unlikely to recur in the historical forms in which we knew them, the political impulses underlying them are still at work in modern political culture, indeed in the human condition itself.

Thus far, however, the renewed debate has suffered from an exceptional imbalance between heat and light. And this is because when we ask whether it is Communism or Nazism that must be judged the greater evil, we are too often unclear about what exactly should be compared in order to frame an answer. The usual procedure is to contrast inventories of horror: numbers of victims, means and circumstances of their deaths, types of concentration camps. Yet how do we make the transition from the raw facts of atrocity to a judgment of their moral meaning? Why, for example, is the industrialized extermination mounted by Hitler more evil than the "pharaonic technology" employed by Stalin and Mao Zedong? It would be an error to suppose a simple or direct answer to such a question. Rather, this greatest of vexed issues handed down from the 20th century must be approached on three interrelated levels: moral, political and historical.

On the moral level we are concerned with the philosophical matter of ascertaining degrees of evil; it is this exercise that arouses the greatest passion and that has produced the most extensive literature. On the political level, we are inquiring whether the two systems may be legitimately equated as totalitarian polities; and since totalitarianism is clearly a bad thing, this subject also has moral ramifications that make it almost as contentious as the first. Yet to give convincing answers to either of these questions, the indispensable preliminary is to confront some basic historical problems: Nazism and Communism's two-decade relationship with each other, their organizational structures, their ideological purposes, and their actual res gestae.

It is to delineating a perspective on this third, historical level that the present essay is devoted. The first level will be touched on only by implication; the second level, which is more easily grounded in history, is given greater direct attention and evaluation, and something like a concept of generic totalitarianism will emerge by the end. As for the third level, the task here is not to make a substantive, still less a systematic, historical comparison, but rather to trace the historiographic parameters of such an investigation. The reason for this, as we shall see, is that scholarly writing on Nazism and Communism has developed so unevenly that most combined analyses of the pair to date can hardly qualify as serious. To compare and contrast them from a moral or a political perspective presupposes an equal level of understanding of both as historical phenomena. Since this is alas lacking, dissecting their two somber historiographies is the necessary preliminary to any other judgment.

Sorting Out the Basics

Even within this narrowed-down task we encounter a complex mixture of overlapping and asymmetry. As to the former, there is, first and obviously, a temporal overlapping: Hitler and Stalin were contemporaries; Nazism developed in part in opposition to Communism while Communism's primary defining adversary was always claimed to be "fascism"; and in this interlocking relationship the two went to Armageddon together in the most traumatic moment of the century. Conversely, there is a major temporal asymmetry: Nazism lasted only twelve years and centered in a single country, spreading outward only by conquest, whereas Soviet Communism lasted 74 years and eventually cloned itself over a third of the planet. Indeed, Communism is still with us, though in anemic form, in East Asia and just offshore from Miami.

Then, too, there are asymmetries of a conceptual sort. Is Nazism a unique case or part of a generic "fascism", beginning with Mussolini's March on Rome in 1922 and embracing the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War, the Romanian Iron Guard, and Tojo's generals in Japan? After all, Hitler and Mussolini intervened together to aid Franco, they formed a Rome-Berlin Axis and eventually, with Japan, an Anti-Comintern Pact. Until well after the war, the term "Axis" was colloquial shorthand for everyone on the "fascist" side (only Finland escaped obloquy for its involvement).

With the passage of time, however, this picture was significantly blurred. Throughout the century the Communists alone adhered consistently to the category of generic fascism (which they had indeed invented in the 1920s). From the mid-1930s onward the slogan "anti-fascism" beckoned liberals to their side in one or another "popular front", and even today it remains a mobilizing watchword. Non-communist historians, for their part, wavered on this issue; most have distinguished "national authoritarian" regimes, such as Franco's Spain or Salazar's Portugal, with their commitment to social conservatism, a purely defensive foreign policy and traditional religion, from the "neo-pagan" and imperialistic "mobilization regimes" of Germany and Italy. The exceptional nature of the Nazi death camps and the growing postwar awareness of the Holocaust, in conjunction with the thesis of its world-historical uniqueness, have also increasingly argued for Nazism's singularity among European "fascisms."

By contrast, the existence of a generic Communism can scarcely be questioned. It has existed everywhere a Leninist party with the mission of "building socialism" has taken power, that socialism requiring the suppression of private property and the market in favor of institutional dictatorship and a command economy. Even so, this formula has in practice yielded significantly different results from one case and period to another. Thus, within the Soviet matrix there were marked fluctuations in coercive power: from Lenin's War Communism of 1918-21 to the semi-market New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921-29; from Stalin's "revolution from above" of the early 1930s to his Great Terror of the decade's end; and so on to the perilous wartime and imperial postwar periods. (Nazism, on the other hand, subdivides chiefly into prewar and wartime periods, and public attention has focused overwhelmingly on the latter.) Finally, in the Soviet case, the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras are distinguished from Stalinism by diminished revolutionary vigor and a much-reduced level of terror.

Outside the Russian matrix, variations in the Leninist formula are even more notable. The Soviets' postwar "outer empire" in Eastern Europe was significantly different from the "inner empire" of the USSR itself. There were no real revolutions in Eastern Europe (outside of Yugoslavia, which soon left the Soviet orbit, and the strange case of Albania), but instead a diversified process of conquest and absorption. Postwar Poland, for example, where the peasantry was never collectivized, is hardly comparable to Russia under Stalin, or even to Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu. And although political police were active everywhere in Eastern Europe, there was simply not space enough for real Gulags.

When we move from the Soviet zone in Europe to the Communisms of East Asia, we find greater differences still. Not only were all these regimes institutionally independent of Moscow, but each was different from the other. Kim Il-sung's socialism in North Korea meant a hermetically closed family dictatorship as surreal as that of Ceausescu; yet the "Great Leader" retained the Soviet alliance as a shield against China. Mao Zedong, on the other hand, was Moscow's greatest enemy on the Left; so to prove his superiority over Khrushchev and his "capitalist roaders", he outdid even Stalin's terror in seeking instant socialism through the Great Leap Forward of 1959-61 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76. Ho Chi Minh, by contrast, though as authentically Leninist as his predecessors to the north, at least channeled his party's energy into a war his population supported. Pol Pot, finally, produced the demented reductio ad absurdum of the whole Communist enterprise as he attempted to out-radical not just Moscow, but Beijing and Hanoi as well. All these Communisms, moreover, varied in the intensity of their fury from one period to another, most notably as Maoism gave way to Deng Xiaoping's "market Leninism."

Essay Types: Essay