Friday, May 14, 2010

Nazis and Commies

Claire Berlinsky has written a piece for City Journal titled "A Hidden History of Evil". In the subtitle she asks the question: "Why doesn’t anyone care about the unread Soviet archives?" She then sets up the rest of the article, in which she points out the relatively easy availability of those archives, with this introductory paragraph:
In the world’s collective consciousness, the word “Nazi” is synonymous with evil. It is widely understood that the Nazis’ ideology—nationalism, anti-Semitism, the autarkic ethnic state, the F├╝hrer principle—led directly to the furnaces of Auschwitz. It is not nearly as well understood that Communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture, and slave-labor camps. Nor is it widely acknowledged that Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.
Several years ago I heard Anne Applebaum in an interview with Brian Lamb on C-SPAN's "Booknotes" ask essentially the same question. Her appearance on the program more or less coincided with the release of her Pulitzer Prize winning book that chronicled exactly what its title suggested, Gulag: A History. If I remember correctly, she opened the interview by noting that Nazi paraphernalia was fairly difficult to get one's hands on, and even if you did manage to take possession an artifact, it was likely something you kept out of sight. For obvious reasons, Nazi contraband makes for somewhat embarrassing mementos. Not so trinkets from the former Soviet Union, however. They were at the time everywhere available behind the former Iron Curtain and no particular discomfort attended their possession. In point of fact, I myself have a cheap Soviet-era lapel pin that bears the images of Marx and Lenin. (Maybe Engels too; I can't remember.) A former student of mine gave it to me after he returned from a visit in the early 1990s to the former East Germany. It's presently at home, tossed casually aside in some drawer or other.

So, the question stands: Why are we so relatively less interested in and troubled by the undeniable evils perpetrated by those guided by a communist ideology than by those who performed similar acts as adherents of national socialism? As you would expect, I have a few notions.

Academe in the West, by whom we would expect a more complete and accurate history to be written, is still overwhelmingly a stronghold of the Left, and, to state the obvious, the Left finds Nazis much easier to hate than Commies. But, to be fair, in this respect their inclinations are really no different than our own. Our inclinations, however, are informed mainly by that which the leftist academics choose to record and report, and they choose mostly not to record and report Commie atrocities. So again, why?

1. Some reasons are obvious. During World War II, the West made a necessary alliance with the Soviets in order to defeat the more immediate threat posed by the Nazis. Hence, we have a history of having been on the same side, at least for a time.

2. But some are not so obvious. Nazis and Commies are socialists alike, so you might expect the Left, as it is partially defined by its enthusiasm for socialism, to extend the muzzling of its criticism to both parties. But here an important distinction is at play. Nazis are national socialists, while Commies are international socialists. The latter is much more acceptable to men and women of the Left, and when the two are at war with each other and you have to choose, if you're a Lefty, it's clear where your sympathies must lie. (I've often wondered what more completely describes a Lefty: His hatred of free-market capitalism or his hatred of the modern nation-state? Maybe you have a thought on that?)

3. The Left in the West were fellow traveling socialists with their Soviet comrades and had a long-standing, almost romantic relationship with them. "I have seen the future and it works," cooed American journalist and Soviet apologist Lincoln Steffens in the 1930s. You simply don't abandon that kind of love affair for light and transient causes like the deliberate starvation of untold millions in the Ukraine. Whenever the Left was confronted with a terrible fact such as this, along with innumerable others, they chose not so much to deny, as to ignore them, and routinely so.

OK, at this point you're probably thinking that so far this is nothing more than the predictable analysis one would expect from a conservative. Am I right? Just another opportunity to castigate the Left, correct? Well, please indulge me for just one more point, if you would.

4. In our conflict with the Nazis, we chose to make hot war and pursue victory, which we blessedly achieved. With the Commies, by contrast, we opted for cold war and containment. Yet another cost of containment (see my previous posts on this subject here and here), is that as a policy it makes us all somewhat complicit in the evil we are otherwise resisting. We accommodate it, rather than destroy it. In the case of our conflict with the Commies, the nuclear standoff between us and the Soviet Union was quite real and a sound reason for challenging them only carefully, in fact, only very carefully. But it didn't for that reason absolve us of our guilty consciences.

International communism constituted an Evil Empire (to coin a phrase) that needed to be challenged directly and defeated outright, and we knew it. Our decision to pursue another course may have been prudent, but it was a prudence tainted with a measure of selfishness and cowardice, and we knew that too. We had then, and still have today dirty hands.

So, why are we less interested in Commie than Nazi atrocities? One important reason is that to focus on them too directly is to remind ourselves that we once could, and probably should have done more.

Does that make you uncomfortable? Me too. Let's change the subject.

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