The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C.’s new Victims of Communism Museum tells a vital, unfinished tale

A surveillance camera is seen near a Chinese flag in Shanghai, on Aug. 2. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Most Americans who travel to their nation’s capital as tourists come happily oblivious of the hectoring scolds who insist that American history is a long story of shortcomings. The visitors come for cheerful immersion in celebrations of the national story, as narrated by marble monuments, the Capitol, the White House and museums. Many tourists, however, take time for less-than-pleasant moments.

The inspiriting Air and Space Museum is a tourist favorite, but the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which gives visitors the stern gift of an excruciating understanding, has received more than 47 million visitors since it opened in April 1993. And now there is a new museum where Americans can stare into the dark sun of totalitarian evil — and can take pride in their nation’s record of ongoing resistance to it.

In a portion of an elegant Beaux-Arts building put up many decades ago for a posh club in downtown Washington, the Victims of Communism Museum opened in June. It is small. What it commemorates is enormous: 100 million dead.

And the carnage continues. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute has written:

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“At its zenith — just before the 1989-91 collapse of Eastern European socialism, and the Soviet Union — the reach of Communist-style governments stretched across Eurasia from Berlin and Prague to Vladivostok and Shanghai, and from the frozen Siberian tundra down to Indochina; additional Communist outposts could be found in the New World (Cuba) and in sub-Saharan Africa (Ethiopia). In 1980, the world’s seventeen established Marxist-Leninist states presided over roughly 1.5 billion subjects (out of a total world population of approximately 4.4 billion). At that apogee, over a third of humanity lived under regimes that professed the ‘communist’ intent.”

Today, the global population is approximately 8 billion, and still about 1.5 billion suffer under communism. Aside from in the ramshackle states of North Korea and Cuba, communism is a China problem, one compounded with genocide (concentration camps, forced abortions, linguistic and other cultural erasures) and domestic surveillance far beyond Stalin’s low-tech dreams.

The Victims of Communism Museum is small because an aphorism widely but unconvincingly attributed to Stalin is right: “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Our modern sensitivity — actually, our desensitized condition — challenges the museum. The 1770 Boston Massacre involved five deaths. The 1937 German bombing of the town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, which shocked the world and elicited Picasso’s “Guernica,” produced an estimated 1,600 deaths. How does a museum present the 100 million deaths?

By using small things: e.g., a slice of the black bread that merely prolonged starvation. There are also paintings from survivors of the gulags and recorded narratives of communism’s arc of suffering. Before the museum’s planners could have known how dreadfully timely it would be, they included something big: the Soviet-engineered famine, complete with cannibalism, that killed at least 4 million Ukrainians.

Communism, the theory of which is that ideas are mere reflections of material conditions, is a uniquely murderous idea. Leon Trotsky, who created the army that secured Lenin’s subjugation of Russia after 1917, had undoubted intelligence, substantial political skills and no respect for reality. In his 1924 book “Literature and Revolution,” he wrote that under communism “man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.”

Such thinking — fervor in the service of insanity — has been a recipe for 100 million deaths. So far.

The foundation operating the museum was chartered by Congress in 1993 but has never received government funding. It has been turned into a reality by an implacable advocate who will be 90 in December. Lee Edwards has been a fixture in the conservative movement since he helped found Young Americans for Freedom at William F. Buckley’s Sharon, Conn., home in 1960. Edwards was a senior communications official for Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign.

Most of the 27 million Americans who voted for Goldwater, winner of just six states, are gone. One of them, however, has planted a reminder of the Arizona senator’s anti-totalitarian legacy at the corner of 15th and I streets in D.C. There, anti-communism, which was and is the duty of this nation conceived in liberty, is made vivid.

Visitors to the museum will experience a wholesome immersion in the nation’s anti-communist success. And they will be reminded that this work is unfinished.