History

Still struggling with Stalin

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As we grapple with the problems and perils of the 21st century, the great debates of the 20th have not gone away. Some of the most contentious questions have to do with the history of Communism, whose unholy ghost continues to haunt us more than a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union. Was Communism as evil as Nazism? Did the Western left collude in its evil?

These issues are powerfully confronted by the British novelist Martin Amis in his new book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million. Koba was a nickname for Stalin, and the 20 million are the victims of Soviet terror.

Some of the most stirring pages in this short book chronicle Soviet crimes against humanity, many of them preceding Stalin—from catastrophic famines (caused by confiscation of grain from peasants) to mass executions to labor camps where millions lived, and often died, in hellish conditions. Much of this story will be familiar to those who have read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago or Robert Conquest's The Great Terror.

But one of Amis's main points is that it's not familiar enough. Everybody knows of Auschwitz and Belsen, he writes. Nobody knows of Vorkuta and Solovetsky.

Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens, who comes under some sharp criticism in Koba the Dread for his own flirtations with the left, challenges that statement as an insult to all those, including leftists, who have denounced and exposed Stalin's atrocities for at least the last 50 years. But it should be obvious that nobody, like everybody, is a hyperbolic figure of speech. What Amis means is that Soviet terror has not entered general consciousness, the consciousness of the average literate person, the way the Holocaust has. With a few obscure exceptions, it has not been dramatized on film or on TV. The name of Stalin does not viscerally evoke evil incarnate the way the name of Hitler does.

Amis concedes that regardless of overall body counts, Nazism's purposeful, systematic extermination of human beings based solely on their ethnicity was more evil and repugnant than Communism's more haphazard slaughter. But this tiny moral differential between the two regimes does not justify the vast gap in general awareness of their crimes—or the stark double standard in their public judgment.

Thus, Amis notes that at a 1999 public event in London, Hitchens's joking remark about his Communist past was received with affectionate laughter; a similar casual reference to one's past as a Nazi sympathizer would be unthinkable.

There is an even more striking example of this double standard that Amis does not mention. In 1996, a firestorm erupted over the scheduled publication of a biography of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels by British Holocaust revisionist David Irving. After vehement protests, the publisher, St. Martin's Press, withdrew the book.

Around the same time, the Yale University Press published Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941, by Miami (Ohio) University professor Robert Thurston, who argued that the death toll of Stalin's terror had been greatly exaggerated.

Thurston also asserted that Stalin never planned to rule by terror, he just reacted to events and let things spin out of control—ironically, much the same argument Irving makes about the Nazi murder of the Jews.

While the critical response to Life and Terror was generally negative, the book sparked no outcry. In Publisher's Weekly, Irving's book was called repellent; Thurston's book, controversial.

Why the double standard? Unlike Nazism, Communism claimed to champion the noble ideals of equality, fairness, and brotherhood. To many well-meaning liberals and progressives, it was an expression of the enduring human hope for a good and just society; a nostalgic fondness for that hope, Amis argues, endures to this day. That's why, he says, Hitchens can still profess admiration for Lenin and Trotsky, who laid the foundations for Stalin's brutal police state. (In his essay, Hitchens evades Amis's blunt question: "Do you admire terror?")

Today, the issues raised in Koba the Dread could be seen as purely academic; but they are not. The left's reluctance to acknowledge that Communism wasn't just a failure but an evil is due to more than stubbornness. Such an acknowledgment would amount to (1) validating a view of the West, Communism's Cold War adversary, as good (albeit imperfect), and (2) admitting that the left spent much of the 20th century cozying up to mass murderers and therefore has precious little moral authority to criticize the West today. And that's very relevant to present-day global conflicts.