Have the 20th century’s “isms” been vanquished?
Hitler and his extermination camps alone are enough to place the mark of Cain on the 20th century. No pittance of financial reparations is likely to change that.
But Germany was far from alone as a source of evil in the century now ending. Indeed, as historians look back on the century, they may focus as much or more on communism as on Nazism. We have had more than 50 years to take account of the crimes of the latter. The moral accounting for the crimes of communism appears to be just beginning.
Two recent books have underscored the scale of the communist horror.
One is Reflections on a Ravaged Century (W.W. Norton, $26.95) by
Robert Conquest, a distinguished British historian now resident at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Conquest was reviled 30 years ago by many of his colleagues for an earlier book focusing on the appalling carnage of the Stalinist terror. It turns out that he was more right than he knew.
In his latest book, Conquest sums up what we now know about the frightful toll: 25 to 30 million dead at the hands of the Third Reich, more than 90 million under Bolshevism. Moreover, a second book, The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, $37.50), a collection of essays named after The Black Book, one of the first comprehensive accounts of Nazi crimes against the Jews, uses newly available archives to make clear that murder and terror were a deliberate part of the communist strategy from the beginning.
By 1921 at least seven concentration camps had been established in the Soviet Union (providing the model for Hitler later). “Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks [private farmers], rich bastards and known bloodsuckers,” ranted Lenin in 1918, outraged that dissidents were resisting his crazed efforts to create a “new Soviet man.”
Catching the spirit of things, Felix Dzerzhinsky, Lenin’s first secret police chief, outlined the Bolshevik view of how the workers would be liberated from their oppressors: “Do not imagine, comrades, that I am ... looking for a revolutionary form of justice. We have no concern for justice at this hour.”
Much as Nazism moved from Kristallnacht to concentration camps,
Bolshevism moved from “sacramental murder” intended to terrorize the
population to wholesale genocide against the so-called enemies of the state. The pattern was repeated, with equal or worse results, in China, Cambodia and other countries.
An honest accounting for communism is necessary not just so formerly
communist countries can move on, as Germany did after de-Nazification. It is also needed to confront the moral error of those on the outside who turned a blind eye to — and in many cases embraced — the murderous “isms” of the 20th century.
One can more or less understand the mistake of those who “efficiency” in the early stages of fascism or “idealism” in the professed goals of communism. It is less easy to understand those who refused to acknowledge the truth even after it became apparent.
Famed French author Jean-Paul Sartre went to his death denying the existence of the GULAG. The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize in the 1930s for glowing reports on the “communist experiment,” even as Soviet citizens were dying of starvation in the streets. Prominent Western economists were predicting as late as the 1980s that communism would surpass democratic capitalism. Even now, there are those in academia who view the Soviet experiment as simply a case of socialism gone a little askew.
Will the 21st century be safe from what Conquest aptly terms the
“mindslaughter” of the 20th century? Not if we forget. And not if there isn’t a more honest accounting of the damage done by all the ideological frenzy of the past 100 years.
The dangerous seeds of Utopian excess live on — extreme forms of feminism, environmentalism and multiculturalism, for example, which require governmental force to do things that human nature resists. The 20th century may not be over.
Thomas J. Bray is editorial page editor of The Detroit News. His column
is published on Sunday. Write The News at 615 W. Lafayette, Detroit,
Mich. 48226, or fax to (313) 222-6417, or send an e-mail to
I can hear the howls of denial now. "No! No! No!, THAT'S NOT US!! WE'D NEVER DO ANYTHING LIKE THAT!! WE'RE THE KINDER, GENTLER SORT OF COMMUNISTS BECAUSE WE CALL OURSELVES 'GREENS'!" or some such.