Crimes, Terror, Repression

By Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek and Jean Louis Margolin

Translated from the French

By Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer

Harvard Univ. 858 pp. $37.50

Reviewed by Jeffrey Herf

The publication of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression attests to the emergence of Paris as a center of liberal rather than leftist revolutionary thought. In place of Marxists and leftist existentialists a la Jean-Paul Sartre, France's liberals, from Alexis de Tocqueville to Raymond Aron and Francois Furet, now influence the intellectual agenda more than at any time this century.

The core argument of The Black Book is that violence was integral to the theory and practice established by Lenin between 1917 and 1923 in the Soviet Union. Communism, not only the terrible episode called Stalinism, had repeated cycles of terror at the center of its history, both in Russia and in all the other countries in which communists established regimes. The Black Book authors arrive at the following death toll: U.S.S.R., 20 million; China, 65 million; Vietnam, 1 million; North Korea, 2 million; Cambodia, 2 million; Eastern Europe, 1 million; Latin America, 150,000; Africa, 1.7 million; Afghanistan, 1.5 million; international communist movement and communist parties not in power, about 10,000.

The Black Book of Communism is not a definitive work. The authors of only three of the nine chapters, those dealing with the Soviet Union, Hungary and Poland, are able to work in the relevant local languages. The chapters on China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, Latin America, Africa and Afghanistan offer grim assessments based on French- and English-language sources. One wishes that the contributors had collaborated with authors able to read sources in the original languages, and also that the editors had included a chapter on East Germany, especially now that its archives are fully accessible to scholars.

In an unnecessarily provocative introduction, Courtois asks why the total of almost 100,000 million killed should arouse so much less indignation in the Western academic world than "the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis." Though the book is more than a list of victims, numbers do matter, and such comparisons can be a source of mischief. The Nazis were responsible, historians now estimate, for 26 million deaths of soldiers and civilians in the Soviet Union alone. Add to that the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, up to 3 million non-Jewish Poles and hundreds of thousands of other non-Jewish East Europeans in the Nazi search for Lebensraum in Eastern Europe, and the 6 million German soldiers and civilians who died in World War II, and we have a figure of about 40 million deaths, not including American and British deaths in Europe between 1939 and 1945. If we add those killed by Italian and Japanese "fascist" aggression, we get back to the conventional figure of 55 million deaths due to Nazism and fascism, more than twice Courtois's citation of 25 million.

The toll of dead due to communism encompasses seven decades and many regimes. The proper comparison with Nazi and fascist crimes and terror, then, would involve asking what the death toll would have been if the Nazi and fascist regimes had either won World War II and/or if these regimes had lasted 70 years (not to mention asking what a Hitler with nuclear weapons would have done). Hitler's visions of a racist utopia in the East could well have led to another 30 million deaths in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union alone. Courtois's neglect of the time span in which crimes were committed and the duration of respective regimes clouds what Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt rightly understood, namely that the "the unnatural alliance" with the Soviet Union was essential to defeat the greater threat to civilization posed by Nazi Germany and its allies.

To explain why the crimes of communism have met with such "a deafening silence from the academic world," Courtois offers a three-fold answer: fascination with the idea of revolution, the role of the Soviet Union in the victory over Nazism and the enduring impact of antifascism on the left, and "a single minded focus on the Jewish genocide" and its uniqueness that has "prevented an assessment of other episodes of comparable magnitude in the Communist world." Courtois has a point, but he pushes it too far. During most of the half-century Cold War in Western Europe and the United States, it was precisely the crimes of communism that preoccupied official and often academic attention. The Holocaust, on the other hand, until the late 1970s was a concern of a minority of intellectuals and scholars. Moreover, as several essays on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in this volume again remind us, communist anti-fascism, especially during and after the "anti-cosmopolitan purges" of the 1950s in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, repressed a focus on the Holocaust while many Marxists in the West relegated it to the margins of class analysis.

Nevertheless, despite some important exceptions, Courtois has a point: In Western academia, scholars who chose to focus on the crimes of communism were and remain a minority and face the career-blocking danger of being labeled as right-wingers. The Black Book, whose authors remain unabashed liberals, seeks to break with this camp mentality of scholarship.

Nicolas Werth's excellent 235 pages on "cycles of violence" in the Soviet Union is the most compelling section of the book. With a mixture of anecdotes, institutional analysis and statistics drawn from recently available Soviet archives, Werth lays bare the roots of terror in the earliest days of the Soviet regime. Here, for example, is a telegram from Lenin on August 10, 1918 to the central executive committee of a local soviet:

"Comrades! The kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole revolution demand such actions, for the final struggle with the kulaks has now begun. You must make an example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so the people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. (2) Publish their names. (3) Seize all their grain. (4) Single out the hostages per my instructions in yesterday's telegram. Do all this so that for miles around people see it all, understand it, tremble, and tell themselves that we are killing the bloodthirsty kulaks and that we will continue to do so. Reply saying you have received and carried out these instructions. Yours, Lenin. P.S. Find tougher people."

Werth estimates that the Cheka, the repressive arm of the new Soviet regime, executed between 300,000 and 500,000 people during the Civil War. He presents report after report from officers of the Cheka itself to the Central Committee documenting the zeal and thoroughness with which its officials arrested, deported and executed a host of "class enemies." He makes a powerful case that the old distinction between the golden era of Lenin followed by the dark night of Stalinism will no longer do. Stalin's terror had firm roots in the dictatorship and mentalities which bore Lenin's imprint. That said, he offers stunning documentation of Stalin's personal role in approving hundreds of thousands of executions during the Great Terror 1937-1938. There were 680,000 executions in those two frightful years.

One of the themes that link the two key chapters on the Soviet Union and China is that of politically induced famine. Jean-Louis Margolin concludes that repression in China replicated practices originating in the Soviet Union and led to a staggering total of 65 million deaths, including 20 million who died in the Chinese prison system, and between 20 million and 43 million who died in the famine due to the "Great Leap Forward" of 1959-1961. It was, he says, "the most murderous famine of all time, anywhere in the world." Margolin lays the blame above all on Mao's ideological fanaticism. Mao had proclaimed that "in company grain grows fast; seeds are happiest when growing together." Hence seeds were planted at five to 10 times the normal density, with the result that millions of young plants died. Sparrows that ate the grain were exterminated, leading to a massive increase in parasites.

In the 1950s and '60s it was commonplace to contrast China favorably with India. Yes, the argument went, China was a dictatorship, but at least, in contrast with democratic India, the Chinese had eliminated hunger. Those sections of The Black Book dealing with famine due to political assaults on "enemies," sheer incompetence, and ideologically driven economic illiteracy in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Africa should consign the argument about a tradeoff between democracy and the provision of basic food necessities to a well deserved historical dustbin.

For communists, "civil war became . . . a permanent form of political struggle." Their identification of the enemy was not new. "What was new was Lenin's insistence not only that those who were not with him were against him," Courtois writes, "but also that those who were against him were to die." Hence, he claims, the communists broke with the idea of a common humanity, began categorizing people by groups -- kulaks, capitalists, counterrevolutionaries, etc. -- and then concluded that those groups had no right to stay alive.

True enough, but for this observer one piece of conventional wisdom remains intact: Of the two great political evils of the 20th century, Nazism and fascism, on the one hand, and communism, on the other, the former constituted the greater and more overwhelming threat to civilization. That said, the authors of The Black Book of Communism are part of a welcome change in the moral-political landscape in Paris, and one hopes elsewhere, as a result of which liberal and left-of-center intellectuals, scholars and politicians judge the crimes of communist regimes with the same severity they've applied to those of Nazism and fascism.

Jeffrey Herf is professor of history at Ohio University. His most recent book is "Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in the Two Germanys."