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

The answer depends on what we consider to be Communism's social base. If we take the rhetoric of the "international workers' movement" literally, then worker addiction to nationalism argues against generic Communism's importance. In truth, however, that "movement" has always been a movement of parties, not of proletariats. These parties, moreover, were founded and largely run by intellectuals, at least in their heroic phase, not by their alleged worker base; only later were any Communist parties run by such ex-worker-apparatchiks as Khrushchev or Brezhnev. By then, of course, the full administrative autonomy of the East Asian parties (and the relative autonomy of the East European ones) had fragmented Stalin's genuinely international movement into sovereign entities. Even so, each entity preserved its Leninist structure and goals.

Resolution of the question of nationalism prevailing over Communism also depends on historical period: in the case of Lenin's and, indeed, Stalin's Russia, the answer is definitely no; in the case of Jiang Zemin's China it may turn out to be yes. We will not know for sure until we see how the last Leninist regimes disappear. An even deeper answer to this question, however, is that Leninist parties, whether united or at odds with each other, have mastered their populations' nationalism only so long as their millenarian zeal lasted; when that zeal waned, nationalism returned to the fore. Indeed, the withering away of zeal is what explains the fate of both the former Soviet Union and the Yugoslav federation. In each case it was the prior death of the party that produced the collapse of the unitary state, with such former apparatchiks as Slobodan Milosevic and Nursultan Nazarbaev taking up the nationalist cause to retain power.

Compare and Contrast

Given this range of asymmetries between Nazism and Communism, as well as the differences among the Leninist cases, what should we compare in assessing their political kinship or the depth of their criminality? Psychologically satisfying though it may be for some to find sharp distinctions between the two systems and for others to find close kinship, it should be obvious that the vagaries of history force us to settle for a mixture of similarities and differences.

The basic similarity is that both movements, whatever they claimed to be themselves, had the same enemy: liberal democracy. Both emerged in the wake of World War I as explicit negations of Europe's long-term movement toward constitutional government founded on universal suffrage; and so both replaced rule-of-law parliamentarianism with a one-party regime under a supreme leader, exercising dictatorial power and employing police terror. Both regimes, furthermore, instituted command economies, whether through outright nationalization as in Russia or by administrative pressure as in Germany. Finally, both were driven by millenarian ideologies: in the case of the Nazis, the quest for the world hegemony of their Aryan Volksgemeinschaft (people's community), and in the case of the Communists, the triumph of world socialist revolution.

These political and ideological characteristics, of course, amount to what is known as the "totalitarian model", as this was defined in the wake of World War II by such figures as Hannah Arendt and the political scientists Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In truth, however, this perception of similarity antedates the war. In the 1930s it was commonplace to refer to Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin collectively as "the dictatorships." Indeed, this perception had been given scholarly conceptualization as early as 1937 by Elie Halévy in his brilliant book, The Era of Tyrannies, which explained the emergence of the dictatorships by a conjunction of the socialist ideal with the mass mobilization of modern war.

When modern war actually came a second time it confirmed the 1930s' prior judgment, first of all in the collusion between the two chief dictators in the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact of 1939. Even more important, however, was the revelation of the Nazi death camps, which made it starkly clear that modern "dictatorship" was an unprecedented phenomenon in world politics. At the same time, Communism's victory did nothing to mitigate its own, equally unprecedented state terrorist power. In the face of these realities, the classical terms "tyranny" and "despotism" were inadequate, as was the limp modern label "authoritarianism"; so "totalitarianism" carried the definitional day. This choice was confirmed as militant Communism spread during the next five years over a third of the planet to reach its historical apogee. Thus, as World War II gave way almost immediately to the Cold War, Stalin came to fill the whole totalitarian space, becoming in the eyes of the liberal world Hitler's moral heir.

This unitary perception of totalitarianism, however, progressively lost ground after Stalin's death in 1953. As Khrushchev attempted limited reform and as open dissidence appeared under Brezhnev, the Soviet party-state, though it remained tyrannical, appeared distinctly less total and monolithic. Concurrently, as scholarship accumulated about the Third Reich, the Nazi dictatorship came to seem less Behemoth-like--to acknowledge Franz Neumann's early contribution to our understanding of Nazism--and more "polycratic" than had earlier been supposed. Finally, as public awareness of the Holocaust grew after the 1960s, the Nazi case came to be increasingly distinguished from the Soviet one until it was widely regarded as a historically unique manifestation of "absolute evil." In this perspective, Mussolini's regime, with a weak party-state, no camp system, and only belated anti-Semitism, came to be treated as distinctly less evil than Hitler's. In consequence, the concept of generic fascism retreated into the background.

Concurrently, throughout the postwar period the evil of Nazism was increasingly dramatized to the world: the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46, the Eichmann trial of 1961-62, Claude Lanzman's film Shoah of 1986, and so on to Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993. But beyond the writings of Soviet dissidents such as Evgeniia Ginzburg and especially Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, there have been no comparable popular dramatizations of the Gulag to world opinion. Nor has any major Communist figure ever stood trial. East Germany's Erich Honecker was permitted to leave for Chile, and sensitive souls, later so zealous in extraditing General Augusto Pinochet to the same destination, were not at all disturbed. The second-rank figures now being considered for trial in Cambodia (who even knows their names?) will surely not be brought to justice in any foreseeable future.

Thus, by the time of European Communism's collapse in 1989-91, most specialists of both Nazism and Sovietism had renounced not only generic fascism but the totalitarian model as well, emphasizing instead the absolute singularity of Hitler's Reich. This may well be the historically justified evaluation, but, for present purposes, the relevant point is that the disproportion between the attention accorded Nazi and Communist crimes has been so great as to constitute, a priori, a double standard in judging them. Indeed, the disproportion has made the exercise of comparison as such a sign of political bad taste.

This double standard, however, was challenged by the Communist collapse--and it has not been sufficiently emphasized that this collapse was not just Soviet, but eminently generic. It began with Deng Xiaoping's conversion to the market in 1979 and the 16-month "self-limiting revolution" of Solidarity in Poland the following year; it became irreversible in 1989 with the simultaneous destruction of the Maoist mystique on Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Soviet "outer empire" in Europe; and it culminated in 1991 with the disintegration of the Soviet matrix itself. Not only were the geopolitical results of World War II undone, but the "short 20th century", as inaugurated by World War I and Lenin's October, was brought to a close.

The impact of this revolution on our understanding of the old century was not that it revealed the full extent of Communist crime: this had long been no mystery to researchers who really wanted to know. The impact came, rather, from the liberating effect that the system's universal failure had on Western minds: It at last became possible to discuss Communism's record realistically and yet remain in good taste. Hence, the 1930s' inclination to compare it with Communism's fascist adversary inevitably returned. The publication of The Black Book of Communism in 1997 was the boldest and most systematic expression of this change. A work of solid scholarship, its greatest originality was to treat the subject of Communist crime not just in terms of the Soviet case, but of Communism worldwide. In this perspective, of course, Communism turned out to be far bloodier than Nazism, totaling roughly 85-100 million as opposed to 20-30 million victims, depending on who is counting and what manner of death is being considered.

Moreover, this unavoidable--and to most people startling--fact raises the question of whether such a quantitative difference translates into a qualitative difference in the degrees of evil embodied by the two systems. At the same time, the geographical extension of the problem affected existing arguments for distinguishing, or conflating, the two systems, in particular as regards the viability of the concept "generic Communism." Is urban, European Communism comparable to rural, Asian Communism? Must generic Communism therefore be broken down, once again, into more basic national and cultural units? Or does the already-noted fact that Communist leaders everywhere were neither workers nor peasants but intellectuals outweigh this sociological consideration? There indeed exists a human bridge between the Red East and its Western godfather: Zhou En-lai embraced Communism in France in 1921, and Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot were members of the French Communist Party in Stalin's time.

Essay Types: Essay