Harvard University Press • 1999 • 858 pages • $37.50
My junior high-school English teacher once presented me with a small gift, a button bearing the likeness of Mao Zedong. In a PBS travel video, Monty Python alum Michael Palin gushes about sleeping in Mao’s bed. He nods off reading The Little Red Book. During a CNN profile of Progressive Auto Insurance CEO Peter Lewis, the camera pans through Lewis’s office to reveal a large lithograph of Mao.
Had those cases featured Nazi iconography, there would have been outrage. What if Lewis had displayed a lithograph of Hitler, if Palin had curled up lovingly with Mein Kampf, if a teacher had given a student a Hitler button? It simply would never happen. But somehow Mao is inoffensive, even though he is responsible for as many as 65 million deaths. We are justifiably outraged by Nazism; why are we so ambivalent about communism?
Black Book offers some thoughtful explanations why many Americans have never taken communism seriously. “Uncle” Joe Stalin was our World War II ally. There was no Nuremberg for communist crimes. (Soviet jurists were actually among the prosecutors at the Nazi trial.)
Public perception was important to communism’s expansion. For this reason we are left with few visuals of communist crimes. Many Americans have associated anti-communism with paranoia. Many Western intellectuals celebrated the rise of regimes that murdered Eastern intellectuals. We were told to overlook communist missteps and remember the promise of utopia.
For many, Nazism’s blatant racism justifies special contempt. Black Book, written by six former proponents of communism or fellow travelers, properly notes that both Nazism and communism murdered people not for what they did, but for who they were. Both totalitarian incarnations decreed that certain segments of society were too loathsome to exist. Lenin regarded his enemies as “bloodsuckers” and “noxious insects.” Such language eerily anticipates Hitler.
Black Book underscores the enormity of communism’s impact. Communism once stood on four continents, ruling one-third of humanity, always poised to expand. There was a clear line of inheritance from regime to regime. Each received material aid and ideological inspiration from its predecessor. Most important, individuals were as expendable as grains of sand. According to the authors, the communist death toll approaches 100 million people.
The authors’ research offers a rough exposition of the crimes of communism: USSR, 20 million deaths; China, 65 million deaths; Vietnam, 1 million deaths; North Korea, 2 million deaths; Cambodia, 2 million deaths; Eastern Europe, 1 million deaths; Latin America, 150,000 deaths; Africa, 1.7 million deaths; Afghanistan, 1.5 million deaths; the international communist movement and communist parties not in power, about 10,000 deaths.
Communism compiled a lengthy enemies list, which included political parties, clergy, intellectuals, shopkeepers, many ethnic groups, and other “socially dangerous elements.” Enemies were starved and worked to death; executed with bullets, shovels, and hammers; devoured by dogs; lit on fire; and made to kill one another for their capturers’ amusement.
More than bodies endured torture. Language was tortured: concentration camps became “re-education” camps. Minds were tortured: executions often followed “confessions” of guilt. The list of crimes punishable by death or imprisonment included criticizing the regime, owning a gun or radio transmitter, stealing a few ears of corn from the collective, and “taking part in commerce.”
Black Book puts to rest the odious fiction that has softened communism’s image for so long: that communism was the salvation of the downtrodden. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” needed only two years to destroy tens of millions of peasants. Peasants often resisted communism more fervently than any group. In 1930 alone, nearly 2.5 million took part in approximately 14,000 revolts against the Soviet regime. Brandishing axes and pitchforks, peasants defended themselves against the Soviet wave. Sometimes they reclaimed their villages for a few days and quickly worked to reopen churches and markets, break up the collectives, and return stolen goods.
By meticulously compiling old and newly available information, Black Book offers an account of communism so damning that readers will add the likes of Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Kim Il Sung, and Pol Pot to their list of history’s most wicked villains. Black Book should be read by every college student wooed by Che Guevara, every intellectual who equates anti-communism with kookery, and every victim of communist terror. Never has communism’s black heart been more exposed.
Communism promised paradise for the masses of people who were controlled and murdered to fulfill someone else’s grand plan. We ought to absorb the ghastly numbers of communism’s death toll, but occasionally Black Book‘s seemingly endless accounts of large-scale atrocities risk obscuring personal suffering. Perhaps we should focus first on communism’s archenemy, the individual. As with the intimacy of The Diary of Anne Frank, Black Book is most meaningful when it is most particular. Consider just one victim of communism—a man whose file was marked “ordinary.” Vasily Klementovich Sidorov, a peasant who lived near Moscow, stood accused of “spreading counterrevolutionary ideas.” At the time of his arrest he had a wife and daughter. He owned one wooden house, one cow, four sheep, and two pigs. On August 3, 1938, he was shot and his property confiscated. Just an ordinary case.
Theodore Balaker works in network news. He is also currently writing a book on intellectual history with Professor Daniel Klein.