“They Meant Well, After All…”

Man, just when I get done yammering about Hugo Chavez and digging up another hilarious joke from the former Soviet Union, I go and check the BBC to find this news:

The European Commission has rebuffed a call from several former Soviet bloc countries for the EU to legislate against the condoning or denial of totalitarian crimes.


Last week Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis sent a letter to the Commission seeking to criminalise the approval, denial or belittling of communist crimes. He was supported by the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia and Romania.

If indeed the legislation was meant to outlaw the “condoning or denial” of communist crimes, then I think that the EU, by rejecting this demand, is mounting an appropriate defense of free speech. Whether that was indeed the intent or whether this has more to do with the mindset among a certain segment of the Western public that Communism was somehow qualitatively different than Nazism and therefore, despite the inhuman crimes committed in its name, was somehow less monstrous, is in a sense immaterial.*

The point is that no one, including people who still maintain their Hitler or Lenin fetish, should be punished by the state for expressing their views on such matters. As disgusting a person as David Irving is, for instance, I find it shocking that people thought it was okay that he was imprisoned for airing his absurd views on the Holocaust.

What is interesting to me about this case is how the EU justified its decision:

The EU is treaty-bound to combat hate crimes that target national, religious or ethnic groups.

But the Commission says crimes based on politics are a national-level matter.

This dovetails nicely with the topic of a recently published book by Stanford historian Norman Naimark called Stalin’s Genocides, which tackles the question of what genocide actually is and how it came to be defined in the way that it did. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book at hand at the moment, but the gist of his argument is that a definition of genocide that included class and/or politics was originally included in the 1948 Convention on Genocide, but that the Soviet Union — for fairly obvious reasons — lobbied to exclude these categories.

At first glance, the inclusion of class or political persuasion (and let’s not forget that Stalin spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of blood trying to root out putative “Rightists” and “Trotskyites”) seems normal. To us, these categories do not seem as “primordial” as something like race or ethnicity. But then categories like “race,” “ethnicity,” or “nationality” are, by many standards, no less “constructed” than the category of “kulak.” This is doubly the case in Nazi Germany, where I think a good argument can be made that the Nazi regime — at least in terms of its own rhetoric —  was not exterminating Jews as such, but rather “the Jew” as a category. Looked at in this way, the Holocaust bears far more in common with the wholesale murder of “political” enemies in the Soviet Union than the usual sharp dichotomy between the mass slaughter of a “primordial” ethnic group and the terror against a clearly constructed political category might suggest.

This can be demonstrated by a simple comparison.

Consider, for instance, the ways in which “the Jew” as a category was defined and created in Nazi Germany:

“… Jews were an amalgam of all evils. Hitler and many of his early followers were convinced that there was a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. The saw Jews as all-powerful and the cause of Germany’s predicament. Although the vast majority of antisemitic caricatures and Nazi propaganda attacked Jewish men, portraying them with hideous facial features and distorted bodies, all Jews, including women and children, were implicated. The Nazis argued that Germany was locked in a life-and-death struggle with a powerful enemy they called “Jewry…”

(From Marion Kaplan – Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany)

From this it is clear that in Nazi Germany a “Jew” was not merely a person of the Hebraic faith. The “Jew” that was terrorized on Kristallnacht and who died in the camps — was a “Jew” that never existed, an imaginary “Jew” invented by the Nazi regime.

That is to say that the Nazis believed themselves to be engaged in the project of eradicating something that did not actually exist: the evil, misshapen wrecker of civilization. The people who actually died in the camps, of course, were guilty of no such thing and, moreover, never had anything in common with any of the other people who shared their fate.

The “Jew” in Nazi Germany was thus a category into which actual Jews were placed by the regime, whether they were music teachers, academics, shop owners, or simple workers, Hasidic and segregated or totally secular and Germanized. The identity that was ascribed to them — “the Jew” — was an invention of the Nazi regime, and the “justification” for their murders was based solely upon that identity, not on any reality.

Now consider this passage describing the people caught up in Stalin’s Great Terror:

Apart from their more flamboyant crimes, such as the murder of Kirov and the writer Maxim Gorky, the conspirators confessed to many acts of economic sabotage designed to provoke popular discontent against the regime and facilitate its overthrow. These included organizing accidents in mines and factories in which many workers were killed, causing delays in the payment of wages, and holding up distribution of goods so that rural stores were deprived of sugar and tobacco and urban bread shops ran out of bread. The conspirators also confessed that they had habitually practiced deception, pretending to have renounced their Oppositionist views and proclaiming their devotion to the party line, but all the while privately dissenting, doubting, and criticizing.

(From Sheila Fitzpatrick – The Russian Revolution)

The “class enemies” described in that passage are accused of crimes not entirely dissimilar to those attributed to “Jews” in Nazi Germany. Their predicament, too, was not unlike that of the disparate Jews murdered by the Nazi regime: people who likely shared no actual connection whatsoever were ascribed an identity — “wrecker,” “class enemy,” “Rightist,” etc. — and executed based solely upon that fact, rather than on any actual crime.

The markers might have been different — the Nazis used pseudo-scientific means of determining who was a “Jew,” while the Soviet method was altogether more arbitrary and random (Though let us not forget that “class” in the Soviet Union was a category supposedly derived from one’s parents and which was inscribed on one’s internal passport. While this practice was eventually phased out, in the early Soviet period, when most of the worst abused of human rights occurred, being born of the wrong class could most certainly result in discrimination and persecution by the state).

And yet we somehow continue to qualitatively distinguish between Soviet crimes against the wholly invented categories of “wreckers” and “class enemies” and Nazi crimes against an equally disparate and innocent group of people who were similarly categorized as “the enemy” and discriminated against on that basis. Perhaps it is because simply being shot in the head in the basement of a prison or dying of exposure in a Siberian GULAG seems to us far a more mundane end than in the hellish ovens of Auschwitz or the almost mechanized murder factory at Treblinka.

But is it right to make such a distinction? If Treblinka offends our sense of humanity more than a GULAG work camp, it does not make its victims any more dead than the zeks sent into radioactive tunnels to mine uranium for the Soviets, or the Ukrainians who were reduced to eating dust in a vain attempt to derive some sustenance from it, living in constant fear that the authorities might show up and find a single kernel of corn under a floor board and execute them for “hoarding.”

What makes a Nazi worse than a Communist? How is it that we distinguish between the crimes of one ideology and the crimes of another, even though they were carried out on similar scales and justified by similar discursive strategies?

Is it simply because we somehow feel that communism, in the end, and despite the price, “meant well?”

I can’t truthfully answer that, because, when push comes to shove, I myself am somehow more horrified by Hitler than Stalin, more by Heydrich than by Beria. But I find that I have little patience for kids wearing Che Guevara apparel or naive leftists swooning over Hugo Chavez. I even found myself wanting to barge into the graduate student office over in the English Department a month or so ago when I noticed a picture of Mao hanging on the wall.

Because even if we have somehow  reserved a place, emotionally, for Nazism as the ultimate evil, we should not lose sight of the fact that Communism was not — and is not — a benign ideology. Even if it “meant well,” the tens of millions of bodies it has left in its wake have long since discredited it and its adherents.

In the end, it would seem that the EU’s refusal to criminalize “denial” of communist crimes is — quite ironically — premised partly on legal definitions based in large part on the Soviet Union’s desire to avoid being held to account for these selfsame crimes.

It seems to have succeeded, in more ways than one.

* There was a lengthy series of posts over at Instapundit recently — some I agree with, others not so much — on this very question of why Communism tends to get a “pass.”


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