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

Well, we have just spent a near century finding out that Marxism's perfect egalitarian society does not exist, and that on the far side of capitalism there is only a Soviet-type regime. Thus the Great Collapse of 1989-91 brought not only Communism's fall but that of generic socialism, as well. To be sure, there are still numerous socialist parties and governments in the world, but none proposes to make the world-historical leap out of capitalism. (It is noteworthy, for example, that the anti-globalization surge of 1999--2001 never called itself "socialist.") Still, this second fact has not yet penetrated the contemporary consciousness; and until it does, the specter of socialism will haunt the Hitler-Stalin debate.

For that specter brings with it all the passion of the Left-Right polarity introduced into history by 1789. In the 19th century this polarity focused on the universal-suffrage republic versus monarchy and aristocracy, and in the 20th it graduated to the antithesis socialism versus capitalism antithesis. Yet, though the 19th-century political republic could be achieved, the 20th-century social republic proved to be a far more elusive goal. Most modern societies have therefore been governed in an alternation of Left-center reformism and Right-center prudence, and so rarely faced the stark choice: either capitalism or socialism. In the great crises of 1914--45, however, this centrist equilibrium broke down, and both "fascism" and Communism attempted the impossible millenarian leap. Ever since, in the modern political dynamic Communism has functioned as the absolute Left and Nazism as the absolute Right.

This absolutizing of extremes clearly favors the former--and at the expense of the center. In the 19th century the outer limit of the Right had been the Bourbons, and the first principle of progressive politics was "no enemies to the Left." In the 20th century the outer limit of the Right became Hitler, and the Golden Rule received the ironclad corollary of "no friends to the Right." In consequence, the thesis that Hitler was incomparably evil places moderate conservatives on permanent warning against all "unsavory" allies to their right, and indeed against their own dark demons. Their comparing Stalin to Hitler only "plays into the hands of the Right"; for is not the real target of the comparison the Social Democratic Left?

It is because of this dynamic that The Black Book met with the chilly reception it did--beginning with France's most prestigious newspaper, Le Monde. For did it not deflect attention from the far Right racist, Le Pen? And of course, in the light of 20th-century experience, racism must always be denounced and combated. Yet in strict logic, it hardly follows that this means refraining from honest (if belated) recognition of Soviet crime, any more than the scholarly "historicizing" of Nazism entails its moral "trivialization."

Clearly, such passionate reactions cannot be explained by the economic and institutional differences between "capitalism" and "socialism"; only the moral and philosophical values grounding those differences provide an answer. At this most basic level, what the Left is about is equality and universality, or the fraternal unity of the human species; the Right, on the other hand, is about hierarchy and particularity, or the functional differentiation indispensable to making any society work--and this inevitably means inequality. By extension, moreover, the Right, which in the 19th century defended the Old Regime cause of "altar and throne", in the democratic 20th century came to defend both capitalism and the various national particularities defining competing societies. In American usage, the shorthand contrast for the Left-Right difference is "compassionate" versus mean-spirited." (In France, it is the presence versus the lack of "generosité.") In modern political rhetoric, therefore, it has always been easier to make a vibrant plea for equality and fraternity than for hierarchy, distinction and privilege, or even for individual liberty. So the moral economy of modern politics gives the Left a permanent, built-in advantage.

This fact grounds what is perhaps the most frequently drawn moral distinction between the two regimes: the claim that no matter how criminal Communism became, it was inspired initially by "good intentions" and humanistic universalism (in Le Monde's high style: the contrast is between la face lumineuse of Communism and its face tenebreuse). Nazism, on the other hand, was never motivated by anything but national egotism, racism, and conquest. (Of course, it is these associations that explain the already-noted double standard for judging crimes that are in effect comparable.) Thus such a strong anti-communist as Raymond Aron had at one time advanced what is now a standard argument: Nazism must be judged worse than Communism since it practiced extermination as an end in itself while the latter did so as a means to some other political or economic end.

This popular Western distinction, however, may be contrasted with the opinion of such East Europeans as Vasilii Grossman, Aleksander Wat, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, all of whom had direct experience of both Nazism and Communism and all of whom held the two to be comparably criminal. The crux of their judgment is that Communist mass murder remains mass murder whatever its ideological inspiration; indeed, they suggest that crimes against humanity committed in the name of humanity are in a sense more perverse than the blatant criminality of Nazism. This view arises from the insidious nature of the Soviet "Lie." A colloquial Soviet term for "the system" made famous by Solzhenitsyn, the Lie denotes the fatal contradiction of a universalism driven, not by charity, fellow feeling or natural Reason, but by the ideological principle of "class war", or more exactly pseudo-class war. And of course, the Soviet "building of socialism" was not a genuine social contest but a political struggle in which the redeemer cl ass (that is, its ideological substitute, the party) was destined to eliminate all exploiting classes (namely, anyone resisting party policies). So, as Solzhenitsyn put it, "in the twentieth century ideology made possible evil on a scale of millions."

THESE TWO antithetical moral judgments point to a moral of their own: that our efforts to frame value distinctions between Nazism and Communism will continue to seesaw back and forth with the contrasting magnetisms of the Right-Left polarity. Nor will this cease to be true even as the historiographies of the two movements approach each other in empirical grounding and analytical sophistication.

Nevertheless, achieving that rapprochement remains the precondition for all serious comparison. And for this, the first priority is to overcome the pitiful lag a half-century has put between the historiographies of Stalinism and Nazism. Consider the distance the latter has traveled. No one talks any longer about "finance capital" or "proletarianized lower middle classes" as basic causes of Nazism. Instead, among our most recent authorities, Ian Kershaw highlights Hitler's "charismatic" Führerprinzip and Michael Burleigh the "political religion" of Aryan racial supremacy. Nor is anyone allowed to be value-free; rather, moral judgment is de rigueur and crime is called by its proper name. Rightly so, for moral judgments are indeed intrinsic to all historical understanding.

So how to narrow the discursive gap? A solution might well be for historians of the Soviet phenomenon to read each other less and their Germanist colleagues more. This, in turn, might give the latter a worthy incentive to help close the literacy gap on their eastern flank

Martin Malia earned his Ph.D. at Harvard and spent most of his teaching career at the University of California, Berkeley. His principal works are The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 and Russia under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum.

Essay Types: Essay