The Arithmetic of Atrocity

The Arithmetic of Atrocity

Mini Teaser: Counting the victims of communism obfuscates more than it clarifies.

by Author(s): Peter Rutland

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.

In France there are still plenty of people willing to believe that communism has some redeeming features. At the time of the book's publication there were three communist ministers in the French government, and some of the book's eleven authors were themselves recovering Maoists and Trotskyites. The Russian Revolution was modeled after its French predecessor, after all; and French society had signally failed to deal with the Vichy regime's collaboration with the Nazis. This meant that French Leftists were willing to turn a blind eye to communism's failings. Things only started to change with the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in the mid-1970s, and with the contemporaneous news of the Cambodian genocide.

In contrast, since the 1940s communist ideas have made minimal inroads into American society, even among American intellectuals. Indeed, what French intellectuals were shocked to discover in the 1980s (that communism was bad news) had long been conventional wisdom for ordinary Americans--for anyone who subscribed to Reader's Digest or read George Orwell's 1984 in high school. That did not stop most American reviewers of the French edition of The Black Book from praising it for its willingness to confront the legacy of Stalinism.

Grappling With the Beast

The Black Book sets out to provide a comprehensive and definitive account of communism's "crimes, terror and repression" worldwide, drawing upon the latest available archival materials and secondary research. It also seeks to furnish an explanation for why and how these crimes occurred. Unfortunately, due to unevenness in the quality of the written chapters, the book does not quite deliver on either of these two goals. It is more successful with respect to the first (description) than the second (explanation).

The geographical sweep of the book is impressive, encompassing not only Russia and Eastern Europe, China and Cambodia, but also the minor-league players and wannabes: from Afghanistan, North Korea and Cuba down to Peru's Sendero Luminoso and even Carlos the Jackal. Unfortunately, in practice the book's coverage is rather lopsided.

The first third is rightly devoted to the mother ship of communism, the Soviet Union. However, author Nicholas Werth devotes 220 pages to a detailed historical study of the first 35 years of Soviet power, leaving only 10 pages for the next 40 years. Certainly it is important to document the years of high Stalinism, and to show that repression began as soon as Lenin took power. But surely any catalogue of communism should include a thorough account of the stultifying decades of the Soviet Union after 1953: the persecution of dissidents; the oppression of workers (such as the shooting of dozens of protestors in the city of Novocherkassk in June 1962, which is not mentioned); and the reckless and near-suicidal nuclear arms race with the West.

Also excluded from Werth's analysis is the Soviet collapse, a regrettable omission. Gorbachev's efforts to confront the Stalinist legacy led to the speedy demise of all the communist states in Europe, including the break-up of the Soviet state itself. But the repression continued, on a lower scale, even during the Gorbachev years. One can learn a great deal about how an organism worked by studying how it died. The ability of the Russian state to escape its Stalinist past is still an open and urgent question (especially now, with bombs once more falling on Chechnya).

In contrast to Werth, the other chapters take history right up to the present. Karel Bartosek contributes a brilliant chapter in which the entire sweep of communist rule in Eastern and Central Europe and the Balkans is surveyed in a mere sixty pages. He covers the Stalinist terror, the long decades of "normalization", and the final collapse. Provocatively, he suggests that the purges of the early 1950s may in part have been intended to prepare for an all-out war with the West. Poland gets a whole chapter to itself, a fine dissection of the mechanics of repression by Andrzej Paczkowski. Curiously, East Germany is ignored, and that most striking icon of the evil of communism, the Berlin Wall, is mentioned in only two sentences. (A special chapter on East Germany was added for the German edition.) A whole sixty-page chapter is devoted to the machinations of the Comintern, and another to the Spanish Civil War. The sacrifice of international socialism on the altar of Soviet national interests is not news, nor was it particularly evil. (Would it have been better if Stalin had been a true internationalist?) The most damaging action of the Comintern--its refusal to work with the socialists to block Hitler's rise--is discussed in a single paragraph.

Jean-Louis Margolin contributes three chapters. His pieces on China and Cambodia are superb examples of the historian's craft: concise yet comprehensive, replete with analytical insight and graphic detail. In contrast, his chapter on Vietnam and Laos is a cursory eleven pages, with only one sentence each on the 1968 Hue massacre and the tragedy of the Boat People. Pierre Rigoulot's chapter on North Korea gives some sense of that curious regime, but lack of information hinders a full analysis (one suspects a South Korean scholar would have had more to say). The final section of the book tries to cover Cuba, Nicaragua, Peru, Afro-communism and Afghanistan in just seventy-five pages. This leaves room for little more than capsule histories and quick estimates of country-by-country death tolls.

Chasing After Numbers

The Black Book's guiding principle, as laid down by its editor, is to count the victims of communist regimes. Much of the debate sparked by the French edition revolved around Courtois' claim that communism's death toll approached 100 million. Leftists countered with death lists of the victims of imperialism and global capitalism. (This year saw the publication of Le Livre Noir du Capitalisme.) Some of the authors openly resisted the pressure to define victimization in terms of death estimates. Margolin and Werth accused Courtois of being obsessed with arriving at a total of 100 million.

This whole approach is misguided, not least because the data regarding victims are not systematically and carefully presented. Courtois provides a "rough approximation" table which adds up to 95 million, but his list of specific campaigns leaves out any numbers for deaths in the Soviet Gulag or in Maoist China.

The country authors note that death estimates vary widely and definitive figures are not available. Werth, for example, points out that estimates of Polish deportations in 1940 range from 381,000 (the official NKVD figure) to 1 million (Polish estimates). Margolin's estimates for Chinese deaths in the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward (1959-62) range from 20 to 43 million. Given such variations, any attempt to come up with aggregate figures is bound to be shaky, and is a sick echo of Stalin's warning against "chasing after numbers" during the collectivization drive. The really big numbers of dead come from the famines in 1921, 1932 and 1959-62. The second-largest source is deaths during deportations and the attrition of daily life in the camps. Death rates of 5-10 percent a year were common, with average internments in peak years of 5 and 10 million in Soviet and Chinese camps respectively.

Courtois' obsession with the body count draws attention away from "the immense sea of suffering" of communism's living victims, who outnumber the dead. Bartosek warns of pursuing "the myth of the number of victims", in which "the figure becomes a key symbol, a mathematical truth. . . . it transforms mass deaths into a kind of sacrament." The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia killed "only" 90 people, and "only" 3,000 died during the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 (followed by 100,000 arrests). But these displays of force were sufficient to terrorize tens of millions of people into obedience for decades to come. The Soviets used 6,300 tanks to invade Czechoslovakia--twice as many as Hitler used to attack Russia. Similarly, Margolin notes that the Cultural Revolution was not particularly bloody by the standards of previous years. Perhaps 100,000 were killed by the Red Guards, and another million in the army's crackdown. Still, this proved sufficient to paralyze society. "What use was killing, when the leaders could terrorize so effectively?", he writes. And since then, the system has learned how to function without mass killing, as did Russia after 1953.

The communists' ability to strip their subjects of their freedom, their dignity, and their ability to control their own lives is just as important a part of the communist legacy as the sheer number of dead. It was the communists' ability to use fear as an instrument of rule, not their ability to kill large numbers of people, that kept them in power for decades. This is where they differ from the Nazis, who only ruled for thirteen bloody years.

The Reason Why

The fact that The Black Book starts out as a body counting exercise diminishes its value as a work of historical inquiry. Courtois devotes a final chapter to the question "Why?", but fails to come up with a clear answer.

The general argument seems to be as follows. In the beginning was the Idea--that of a communist utopia--which served to legitimate the ruthless seizure of power. Lenin and the Bolsheviks began in Petrograd in 1917 and expanded outwards, city by city, province by province, country by country. Communism spread around the globe like a virus. The model is an evolutionary one, except this is survival of the unfittest, of an Idea that Kills. The communist idea seems to have sprung up independently in Hunan in 1928, with the first peasant communes under Peng Pai. Echoing the debate over the African origins of Homo sapiens, Homo Stalinus appeared simultaneously in Europe and Asia. Courtois does not explain why this Idea arose or why Leninist believers were so amazingly successful, grabbing 40 percent of the planet's surface in a single generation.

The book is on firmer ground when it comes to explaining the mechanics of Terror: the how rather than the why. Leninism was the triumph of means over ends, the application of physical force unchecked by law or morality. Key techniques were assassination, execution, imprisonment, deportation, hostage-taking and famine. Wherever communists took power, food quickly disappeared (Russia, Cuba, Ethiopia). Men with guns controlled the food supply, and through food, controlled the people. It is numbing to read how a similar apparatus of purges and prisons was created in country after country.

Still, many questions remain, questions which cannot be answered within Courtois' moralistic model of an Evil Idea triggering an apparatus of repression. Why was communism so successful in gaining power? How were the communists able to recruit the 20,000-50,000 men required to initiate and maintain their terror program? Why were rebellions so unsuccessful? One can see that the Red Terror of 1918-21, and even the collectivization of 1930-32, were useful in consolidating the power of the Stalinist regime. But what purpose was served by the Great Purge of 1936? What was the relation between communism and nationalism? Did communists share technologies of power with fascists--or for that matter imperialists? (The book fails to note that concentration camps were invented by the British during the Boer War.)

Merely listing the crimes of communism will not necessarily help us to understand why they occurred. The focus on crimes is unidimensional and leads to a distorted sense of history. Paczkowski notes that, "Looking at the past only from the point of view of repression risks a somewhat deformed assessment of the communist system, since even in the most repressive periods the system did have other functions." The book pays remarkably little attention to the role of propaganda, economics and foreign relations. These were vital aspects of the communist system in general and of the camps in particular. Developments in international relations, for example, often triggered waves of repression. Purge victims were frequently accused of collaboration with foreign countries, and this was the excuse Stalin used to deport entire peoples. Indeed, the Stalinist system cannot be understood in isolation from its global context.

Treating communism as an absolute evil leads to an ahistorical approach in which complicating and contextual factors are downplayed. Differences between countries are not systematically addressed; rather, the assumption is that the countries are variations on a single theme. Perhaps it was not accidental that Stalinism happened in Russia?

One should note that many of the authors try to break out of the book's framework and stress culture-specific factors. Margolin stresses that communism in Asia is a "national affair", differing from country to country. Ideology played a pivotal role in the Maoist system, which stemmed in part from China's Confucian tradition. Cambodia, where communism turned into genocide, was not touched by Confucianism, although Pol Pot did take from China the idea of a Great Leap Forward, with murderous results.

How Good a Documentary Record?

If The Black Book does not break new ground in explaining the phenomenon of communism, then its main value should be as a documentary record. Regrettably, there are some lapses from scholarly propriety that inhibit its contribution.

Scattered through the Soviet chapters are fascinating new documents from the archives, such as the correspondence between Stalin and Mikhail Sholokhov about the torture of peasants during collectivization; a 1937 note from Ezhov ordering the liquidation of Polish communists; a letter from Beria to Stalin, in which he reports ordering 25,700 Polish officers killed in 1940; and a 1941 Gulag commandant report. Strangely, no citation is given for the source of these documents. There is no reason to believe that they are fake, but it would have been nice to know where they came from.

The use of sources is erratic. While some authors provide scrupulous documentation, others litter the text with figures and quotations seemingly plucked from thin air. Thus, for example, we learn that 70 percent of respondents in the 1937 Soviet census said they believed in God; or that there were 2,044 Soviet military advisers in Spain "according to one Soviet source"--but no source is assigned in either case. A whole paragraph of data is presented without sources on postwar expulsions of Greeks. Chapter one has no footnotes at all. Estimates for deaths in Chinese purges are said to range from 81,000 to 770,000 in 1954 and from 400,000 to 700,000 in 1957--again without any citations provided.

Inevitably, some important atrocities are left out. There is a cryptic sentence on page 323: "This survey would not be complete without mention of the 900,000 Japanese soldiers taken prisoner in Manchuria" (in 1945). But that is all the reader will learn of their fate. The deportation of 400,000 Japanese civilians from Sakhalin, which also took place in 1945, is not mentioned. Surely if a shoot-out in the Norwegian communist offices in 1949 rates a paragraph, one could give a couple of sentences to 1.3 million Japanese? The Soviet takeover of Mongolia and the systematic destruction of its culture is not included, nor is the devastating effect of the purges on the Kazakhs. Kazakh intellectuals claim Stalin killed one-third of the Kazakh population, a level of suffering close to that of the Tibetans. The Black Book merely mentions that some Kazakhs fled to China. The Kuropaty graves, where thousands of slain Belarusians were buried, are not discussed. They are significant because they were the first mass graves uncovered in the Gorbachev era.

The Black Book can also be faulted for failing to systematically explain how its findings differ from the work of earlier authors. Werth's chapters are the only ones that are based on serious new archival research. He adds much interesting detail, particularly regarding the severity of repression during the early years of Bolshevism, and again during World War II. But it is not clear that he decisively advances our understanding beyond the work of Conquest or Solzhenitsyn. He writes, "Current research seems to negate many of the conclusions previously drawn by Sovietologists", and "Some of [Conquest's] extrapolations about the power structures and number of victims involved have subsequently been disproved." Maddeningly, he does not back up these statements with any specific examples. Werth makes only one reference to the Smolensk archive, a vast cache of documents captured by the Nazis that were mined by Fainsod, Conquest and others.

Werth concentrates on archival material and provides only one eyewitness report in 260 pages of narrative. This is regrettable since the victims' experiences are at least as valuable as the bureaucratic paper trail. (Margolin and Bartosek include some excellent victim accounts in their chapters.)

In requiem

There is much to learn from this tombstone of a book. However many accounts one has read of the Soviet Gulag and Chinese laogai, there is always some new detail that takes one by surprise. One learns, for example, that in Romania prisoners were trained to torture each other; that some Chinese swapped their children in order to eat them; and that Kim Il Sung ordered the liquidation of dwarves. It is impossible to imagine the extent of man's capacity for cruelty--one has to read it to believe it possible.

But it is doubtful whether the contemplation of evil is best done through a tabulation of victims. As the saying goes, "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." The best way to comprehend the evil of communism is through individual victims' memoirs. And the best way to understand communism as a historical phenomenon is through the traditional historian's craft, including the consideration of all variables and the weighing of rival hypotheses.

Essay Types: Book Review