After more than half a century you would not think much more could be learned about the Holocaust. But recently completed archival research indicates there were far more ghettos and death camps than commonly believed. Scholars at the Holocaust Museum now estimate that Europe held as many as 42,500 – not a typo – concentration camps, forced labor camps, ghettos, P.O.W. camps, and sex-slave brothels. The Third Reich began putting the system into place as early as 1933, when Hitler's henchmen began building camps to hold political foes. At its height it held perhaps 20 million souls.
The findings render all the more implausible claims that average Germans had little notion of what was going on. Martin Dean, one of the researchers, said recently that a person "literally could not go anywhere in Germany" without encountering a detention camp of some sort.
The Nazi regime distilled evil to such a concentration it almost beggars the imagination. And yet it was not alone. The century's other great ideology of evil, Communism, killed far more people – perhaps as many as 100 million – over a far longer period. Many died through contrived famine or political purges. The rest were worked to death in the gulags and laogai. Only the willfully blind could not have known.
Decades later, everyone says: never again. But you have to wonder how the world might treat the modern-day equivalent of a Third Reich or a Stalinist state – a regime so thoroughly evil that not even the romantic lie of utopia can whitewash its atrocities. You hope the world would recoil in unanimous horror.
And yet we do not have to wonder, because we have North Korea: a prison state where all TV sets are permanently tuned to state channels. Where the state has a Byzantine classification system that divides the citizenry into 53 categories of loyalty. Where there is no freedom of movement. Or the press. Or religion. Or, for that matter, anything else.
In the DPRK, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment are common. Approximately 200,000 people are worked and starved to death in prison camps whose guards routinely torture prisoners with beatings, bamboo splinters, and methods such as the "solitary cell," a box so small the prisoner can neither stand up nor lie down. Amnesty International reports one 13-year-old boy was held in such a box for eight months. According to escapee Shin Dong-hyuk, who saw a six-year-girl beaten to death in front of his class for stealing five kernels of corn, the camps are places where scraping dried feces off a toilet for later use is simply a survival skill.
To this world Dennis Rodman came last week, where he watched some basketball and yukked it up with North Korea's new dictator, Kim Jong-un. "They had a grand old time," according to the organizer of the trip. Rodman publicly told Kim that "you have a friend for life."
Three members of the Harlem Globetrotters joined Rodman. In January, Google CEO Eric Schmidt also visited the prison state. Some see such visits as hopeful signs that North Korea is opening up. Cultural diplomacy, they say, is the way to thaw this cold war. They note that Kim likes Disney characters, which must mean – well, something.
Isn't it pretty to think so? Unfortunately, the historical record is not impressive. Americans have a long and embarrassing habit of viewing savage dictatorships in the naivest possible terms. Prominent Americans from Charles Lindbergh to Ezra Pound expressed sympathy, or worse, for fascism in the Thirties and Forties. Of the Soviet Revolution, Lincoln Steffens declared, "I have seen the future, and it works." Years later Walter Duranty would dismiss reports of Soviet famine as "malignant propaganda"; decades later the American Friends Service Committee would describe Maoist China as a paradise where everyone was "imbued with an immense youthful revolutionary fervor."
Yuri Andropov was thought a closet reformer because he liked jazz. Just a few years ago, Newsweek described Cuba as "a more peaceable society that treasures its children."
The late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez received glowing praise from Sean Penn, Oliver Stone and other Hollywood big shots. He was, they say, the people's hero — even as Human Rights Watch observed that the human rights situation in Venezuela became "even more precarious." Hollywood didn't rub off on Chavez; if anything, the reverse seems to be taking place. A while back, Penn said that any journalist who calls Chavez a dictator should be arrested: "There should be a bar by which one goes to prison for these kinds of lies," he fumed.
At the end of his trip last week Rodman said of Kim, "His country and his people love him." Then, like every other American naïf, he boarded a plane and headed home. When Lindbergh returned to the U.S. in 1939 he carried with him the German Service Cross, which had been given to him by Hermann Goering. No word yet on what bauble Rodman brought back.
This article originially appeared in The Richmond Times-Dispatch.