The Black Book is a groundbreaking effort by a group of French scholars to document the human costs of Communism in the 20th century. Its publication caused a sensation in France when it was first released in 1997, but Americans were not able to see for themselves what the furor was all about until October 1999, when Harvard University Press finally released an English translation.
It was worth the wait. Taking advantage of many newly available archives in former Communist states, the authors (many of them former Communists themselves) have meticulously recorded the crimes, terror, and repression inflicted by Communist regimes across the world. It is a powerful work.
The death toll they present is simply staggering. The USSR: nearly 20 million dead; 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. Stephane Courtois and his colleagues conclude that between 85 and 100 million human beings were killed this century by Communist regimes.
Yet despite all the death and destruction left in its wake, Communism is still viewed by many intellectuals as a noble cause, the murder committed in its name simply an aberration. On the book’s release in France, Communist Party chief Robert Hue declared that Communism was “a system dedicated to human liberation which was subsequently perverted.” The Black Book’s authors set out to prove that this is a lie. They show in painstaking detail — case by case, country by country, terror by terror– that Communism was from the very beginning a criminal enterprise. As historian Martin Malia puts it in his foreword, “there never was a benign, initial phase of Communism before some mythical ‘wrong turn’ threw it off track.”
In his chapter, “A State Against Its People,” Nicolas Werth debunks the myth that Lenin’s revolution was a humane experiment that was later corrupted by Stalin. The terror, he shows, began in the very first days of the Bolshevik revolution. Indeed, Werth establishes that in the first four months of their rule, the Bolsheviks executed more of their political opponents than had the czars in the entire previous century.
Here is Lenin, in a telegram sent on August 9, 1918, ordering the roundup of all “kulaks, priests, White Guards and other doubtful elements in a concentration camp” (a term coined by the Bolsheviks). Here he is again, ordering the Cheka (the predecessor of the KGB) to summarily execute “kulaks,” who were small landholders: “You must make an example of these people. (1) Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers. Yours, Lenin.” (The telegram concludes with an eerie “P.S. Find tougher people.”) And here he is replying to his Commissar of Justice, Isaac Steinberg, who, complaining that the Cheka is carrying out summary executions, asks, “What is the point of a People’s Commissariat for Justice? It would be more honest to have a People’s Commissariat for Social Extermination.” Lenin responds: “Excellent idea! That’s exactly how I see it. Unfortunately it wouldn’t do to call it that.’“
Lenin’s terror was, of course, followed by Stalin’s, and from there the cancer metastasizes. Its spread is documented in subsequent chapters: Andrzej Paczkowski and Karel Bartosek document the brutal subjugation of Central and Southern Europe; Jean-Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulot document its spread through China and Asia (from Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Leap Forward”–the worst man–made famine in history–to Pol Pot’s murderous aping of Mao’s policies in Cambodia); Pascal Fontaine, Yves Santamaria, and Sylvain Boulouque document Communism’s bloody rampage through the Third World, in Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan. The whole montage, Courtois explains, shows that “each national Communism has been linked by an umbilical cord to the Soviet womb.”
Yet despite the deaths of nearly 100 million people at the hands of this Communist system, Malia notes that “virtually none of the responsible officials has been put on trial or punished.” The same week that Pinochet was arrested in London, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was in Portugal clinking glasses with heads of state at the Ibero-American summit. His crimes, too, are well documented in The Black Book: “From 1959 through the late 1990s more than 100,000 Cubans experienced life in one of [Castro’s] camps [or] prisons [and b]etween 15,000 and 17,000 people were shot.” Yet Pinochet (who relinquished power, and left Chile a prosperous, thriving, free-market democracy) is held prisoner, while Castro is free, feted by world leaders.
The furor the book caused on its release in France is recounted in Malia’s excellent introduction to the English edition. Few of the book’s critics questioned the facts presented in this scrupulous study. Rather, the controversy centered on several provocative conclusions in Courtois’s introduction, where he addresses not only the guilt of Communism’s butchers but the “complicity” of Western intellectuals who hailed Lenin, Stalin, Mao, “Uncle Ho,” and Fidel Castro as heroes, ignored their crimes, and never repented or repudiated their former allegiances. “Many will say that they ‘didn’t know,’“ Courtois writes. “But quite often this ignorance was merely the result of ideologically motivated self- deception. And although many of these apologists have cast aside their gods of yesterday, they have done so quietly and discreetly.”
These charges struck a nerve in France, where Socialist premier Lionel Jospin had established a coalition government with France’s Communist Party and had three Communist ministers in his cabinet. His conservative opponents read excerpts from The Black Book in the French parliament, forcing Jospin to publicly defend his alliance with the Communists. The Black Book quickly shot to the bestseller lists, selling 70,000 copies in just three weeks.
Controversy also exploded over the inevitable comparison to Nazi Germany, and Courtois’s complaint that while Communism killed nearly 100 million- four times the number killed by Hitler–”the status of ex-Communist carries with it no stigma [whereas] past contact with Nazism no matter how marginal or remote, confers an indelible stain.” Critics argued that Nazism is clearly a greater evil because while Communism employed extermination for political ends, Nazism viewed extermination as an end in itself. But as Martin Malia notes, this argument can also be turned on its head: “Eastern European dissidents have argued that mass murder in the name of a noble idea is more perverse than it is in the name of a base one.” There is something discomforting about drawing such distinctions between horrors, and some commentators (notably historian Alain Besancon) suggested a simpler conclusion: that murder is murder, that the Jew and the kulak are equally dead. But this is precisely Courtois’s complaint: While the Jew and the kulak are equally dead, today an adherent to the ideology that killed the Jew is a pariah, while adherents to the ideology that killed the kulak are not.
Reading Courtois’s essay, it is hard to see what was so offensive. His is not an effort to demonstrate that Communism was more evil than Nazism. It is a simple plea that both be viewed as evils. But Communism is not in fact viewed as an evil comparable to Nazism. Just a few years ago, the New York Times published a long, whimsical story about the CP-USA’s 75th- anniversary celebration (octogenarian party chief Gus Hall was described as “hale and hearty”). Can one imagine the Times running a similar story about a meeting of American Nazis?
Or witness the furor that erupted earlier this year, when director Elia Kazan was given an Oscar for lifetime achievement, because Kazan had admitted before a congressional committee that he had been a Communist and named his former comrades. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the liberal historian, asked whether similar outrage would have burst forth had Kazan been a repentant Nazi who had denounced his former comrades. To the contrary — he would have been hailed as a hero.
Why the double standard? Part of the reason, The Black Book suggests, lies in the fact that while Nazism was completely vanquished in World War II — its crimes exposed, its leaders tried and condemned — Communism was never clearly and publicly repudiated in the eyes of the world. After all, the Communists were our allies in the war against the Nazis; Soviet judges even participated in the trials at Nuremberg.
Nearly as shocking as the deaths recorded in The Black Book is the fact that the work is the first effort to document the full extent of Communism’s crimes. “Why has it been necessary to wait until the end of the 20th century for this subject to show up on the academic radar screen?” Courtois asks. Why are “names like Himmler and Eichmann recognized around the world as bywords for 20th-century barbarism, [while] the names of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Genrikh Yagoda and Nikolai Ezhov languish in obscurity”?
This, the authors rightly conclude, is a scandal. Courtois and his colleagues have taken a first, bold step to end this ignorance. But they have done so without illusions. Martin Malia predicts a “very Long March indeed before Communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil.” Perhaps he is right. But at least now, when our children one day ask what the Cold War was about, we can hand them this book.
<title>The Black Book of Communism</title>