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

As of the 20th century's calendar end, however, the verdict of 1989-91 had not really been absorbed into our historical consciousness. The Black Book in particular has provoked a mixed reaction. Although almost a million copies have been sold worldwide, including in both Russian and Chinese (Hong Kong) translations, thus indicating widespread interest, the intelligentsia's reception has been distinctly chilly, beginning in France itself but especially in the United States. For reasons addressed below, this split reaction is indeed part of the problem of comparison itself.

The Historiographic Predicate

In this confused situation, then, the first step toward clarification must be to compare not actual historical cases, but historiographies. As Benedetto Croce long ago remarked, "all history is contemporary history"; and though it is going too far to embrace the post-modern inflation of this point, which would make the past a mere discursive construct or "text", it is true that we invariably read that past through the prism of the present with all of its political, cultural and ethical passions. This circumstance has bequeathed us radically asymmetrical historiographies for Nazism (and/or "fascism") and the different varieties of Communism.

The basic factor in explaining this asymmetry is that the Nazis lost World War II while the Soviets won it. Beginning in 1945, therefore, Nazism's disastrous balance sheet was clear to everyone, and historians had its archives to hand. By contrast, the Soviet "experiment" appeared open-ended until 1991; its records remained secret, and for another half century the liberal world was confronted with the global challenge of its power. Moreover, Nazism's historiography was developed primarily by Germans who had to live with the consequences of the disaster, and hence could not avoid treating it for what it was. The historiography of the various Communisms, on the other hand, offers the bizarre case of a scholarly corpus developed almost entirely by foreigners (we may ignore the official, heroic histories of the various Communist regimes). These outsiders, moreover, were deeply divided over the meaning of Communist revolution as it moved from Stalin to Mao to Castro.

Some of them, who for simplicity's sake we may call cold warriors, sought to mobilize Western opinion against Communism's progression, while others, ranging from cautious doves to outright fellow travelers, sought to justify détente with the adversary, active sympathy for its "achievements", and even "convergence" with its institutions. Our historiography of Communism, therefore, has always been as much a debate between the domestic Left and Right about Western hopes and fears as it was an inquiry into Soviet and Maoist realities. So, for almost a century intelligentsia "political pilgrims" trudged from Lenin and Trotsky to Mao and Ho and on to Castro and Ché. Nazism, on the other hand, has found foreign admirers since 1945 only among such fringe figures as the British historian and Nazi apologist David Irving.

The result of these contrasting circumstances is that we have radically different "databases" for our two cases: the historiography of Nazism is voluminous, rich and varied, whereas the historiography of Communism, though copious (at least for the Soviet case) is fragmentary, thin and defective. In fact, much of it is out-and-out misleading.

This historiography's weakest link is East Asia. Despite the brief popularity of the "Little Red Book", the Maoist mystique in the West never rivaled that of Lenin and Stalin, and the premier American school of Sinology, that of John K. Fairbank, was, to say the least, lacking in lucidity about the Chinese regime while the Great Helmsman was still in charge. It is no exaggeration to claim that the Western-language historiography of 20th century East Asia (except for defeated Japan) has developed seriously only in the last two decades; and even then the archives of all the East Asian Communist regimes remained closed. Nor was the historical investigation of modern East Asia driven by the quest to measure evil that the Holocaust has provided to the Nazism-Stalinism comparison: Hitler and Auschwitz, or even Stalin and the Gulag, have never been a focus of moral debate in East Asia. These issues, then, are not a universal preoccupation, but only a European or Western one.

So we are returned to our point of departure in the Nazi-Communist confrontation in Europe during the period 1930-45 and its treatment in German and Western Soviet historiography. In both bodies of literature, the first mode of explanation was Marxist, or at least marxisant. In the Russian case, this was for the obvious reason that the Revolution was supposedly "proletarian", and Westerners wanted to find out if this were really true. So émigré Mensheviks, until 1939 in Berlin and Paris and after the war in New York, were prominent in spreading this perspective, powerfully aided by the Revolution's great loser (who nonetheless remained its prophet), Trotsky, and such of his disciples as Isaac Deutscher. In the German case, émigré Social Democrats or other Leftists, such as Franz Neumann or Arthur Rosenberg, played a similar role in molding Western perceptions, with the result that Nazism, when it was not explained in the Communist manner as the product of "finance capital", was given a social base in "lower middle classes threatened by proletarianization."

After the war, however, the two historiographies diverged, with that of Nazism emerging as by far the more complex and variegated. If this scholarly corpus has a leitmotiv, it may be called Vergangenheits-bewältigung; that is, mastering or overcoming the past. In broad outline, this enterprise developed as follows.

After an initial postwar phase of conservative resistance to facing up squarely to that past, in the 1970s a new generation produced a "Hitler Welle", or Hitler wave, an increasingly probing body of literature, as researchers moved from classical prewar Marxism to the para-Marxist Frankfurt School, to Max Weber, to the French Annales School or American structural-functionalism. The first fruit of this methodological mix was a sophisticated elaboration of the totalitarian thesis's emphasis on politics and ideology. This effort in turn, and in conjunction with extensive explorations in social history, fueled a debate over Nazism as the product of a long-term German Sonderweg, or special path of development. In due course, the first of these interpretations was challenged for exaggerating the Nazi regime's internal coherence and the second for oversimplifying German historical development.

All these debates, moreover, were stimulated by the Holocaust's growing centrality in the German national consciousness, a problem clearly resistant to ordinary political or social interpretation. This issue, therefore, engendered still another debate, this time between intentionalists, who emphasized Hitler's racist ideology, and functionalists, who emphasized the regime's institutional dynamics and the unfolding of the war--that is, politics. As was only to be expected, in the late 1980s these developments produced a conservative reaction explaining Nazism as a response to Bolshevism, though in the ensuing Historikerstreit (historians' quarrel) these dissenters clearly lost out. Down to the present, therefore, political, ideological and indeed millenarian explanations have been further refined, and the thesis of Nazi singularity has essentially prevailed. The conclusions of this historiography, moreover, are known in general outline to social scientists in other fields. Who among them has not heard of the German Sonderweg, the intentionalist-functionalist debate or the Historikerstreit? And if anyone needs a refresher course on these matters there exist whole books that sum them up.

By contrast, Soviet Communism has never been integrated into the common historical culture of Western academia. For example, a prominent historian of Nazism, in commenting on a recent book venturing some comparisons of Hitler and Stalin, objected that the author "tends to rely more on older scholarship more closely associated with the politicized arguments of the Cold War than on the heavily documented studies by younger scholars of the Soviet Union who have worked extensively in recently opened former Soviet archives." In other words, this Germanist believes that scholarship on Soviet Russia in recent decades has been non-political, "value-free" and archivally based to the same degree as the scholarship on Nazism. This is decidedly not the case. When comparing Nazism with Communism, Westerners are in fact hobbled by a great disparity in our knowledge of the two cases.

Thus, although most Soviet specialists are literate in what academia's common historical culture tells us about Nazism, specialists of Nazism have no comparable literacy about the development of Soviet studies. Who among them knows that calling October 1917 a "coup d'état" was long a fighting matter within the profession? Who understands what was at stake in the debate over the "Bukharin alternative" versus the "Cultural Revolution" of 1928-31? Or how many non-specialists are aware that Sovietology's still dominant explanations of Stalinism were laid down in the 1970s, two decades before Moscow's archives were opened? In consequence, the comparison of Nazism and Communism has been largely the affair of people who know a great deal about the former but precious little about the latter--if they are not downright misinformed about it.

The Soviet Deficit

Consequently, Soviet historiography must be outlined here more fully than was done for Nazism--all the more so since there exists no handy short course of Sovietology to which an outsider might turn. A still more crucial difference is conceptual: if the Sovietological corpus has a leitmotiv, it is not overcoming a painful past; it is mining it to divine a future in which the "experiment" would at last turn out right.

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