As a college professor, I occasionally receive solicitations by non-profits to bring their speakers or films to campus. Such organizations cover a broad range of ideologies and causes. Most recently, I received an interesting email from the College Programs Manager at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC), which bills itself as a “501(c)3 founded by a unanimous act of Congress in 1993.” The email notes that the VOC “exists to educate individuals about the history, ideology, and legacy of communism” and that their efforts have “touched students in all 50 states on 100 different campuses.” Then I was encouraged to consider hosting an event in partnership with the VOC at my college, for which they offer film screenings, lectures, and panels.
I am not familiar with the VOC and so I would want to investigate the organization much more carefully before I would consider inviting them to campus, but on the surface, based on what little I know of them, I find their stated goals admirable. Many young students born after the fall of the Soviet Union have little idea of the impact communist ideology on various societies during the era of the Cold War. As a former Marine, coming from a family in which my father served in the Navy during the height of the Cold War and my brother served in the Marine Corps in the early 1980s, at a time when the propaganda war between the Soviet Union and the U.S. was at one of its high points, I have long been aware, on a somewhat personal level, of the threat communist ideologies once posed to the western world. We have all also became aware of the high level of Soviet communist penetration into many facets of U.S. society during the Cold War once it ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the release of previously secret sources that reflected the extent of that penetration. Moreover, while later completing my Ph.D. at the University of Florida under the direction of the great medieval historian Florin Curta, who himself grew up in the communist state of Romania, and was conscripted into its military where he served as a paratrooper in its army, I was introduced to the various hardships and depredations of such a system on a much more personal level through the eyes of my now friend Florin.
Based on his experiences living under communist rule, Florin does not think very highly of communism or the sociological and economic basis for it, as he revealed during the recent presidential election with his very public comments on the emerging popularity of Bernie Sander’s call for “socialism.” Indeed, as academics in the U.S. are perhaps disproportionately more favorable to communist ideals than other Americans, Florin has found himself perplexed by their enthusiasm, once noting “it is so much easier to be in favor of Communism when dining in a quaint restaurant of the Left Bank in Paris, then when starving in Ceauşescu’s Romania….” More significantly, Florin has also pointed out that there is a discrepancy between the knowledge American students have about the Holocaust, and that they have about the victims of Communism.
While the VOC email prompted me to think about these issues, I also consulted the now classic The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. The book, a hefty volume around 900 pages in length, was originally published in French in 1997 and in English by Harvard University Press in 1999. It is edited by Stéphane Courtois and includes contributions by a number of European scholars documenting various repressions by Communist states, including genocides, artificial famines, and extra judicial executions during the 20th century. Perhaps the key selection of text comes from the introduction, where the authors lay out their estimated body count of those killed worldwide as a result of communist repression. They note:
“The following rough approximation, based on unofficial estimates, gives some sense of the scale and gravity of these crimes:
U.S.S.R.: 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
The total approaches 100 million people killed.”
“Unquestionably, if we approach these figures in terms of relative weight, first place goes to Cambodia, where Pol Pot, in three and a half years, engaged in the most atrocious slaughter, through torture and widespread famine, of about one fourth of the country’s total population. However, China’s experience under Mao is unprecedented in terms of the sheer number of people who lost their lives. As for the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, the blood turns cold at its venture into planned, logical, and “politically correct” mass slaughter.”
While the book has received criticism from those challenging its methodology or the precision of its numbers, ultimately no serious scholar or thinker challenges the larger point that communist regimes in the 20th century were responsible for the mass slaughter of enormous numbers of human beings. I’ve often heard of debates over who was worse, Hitler or Stalin, and while many see Hitler as worse for his race inspired killings when compared to Stalin for his politically and ideologically inspired killings, nobody denies that both men were operating on the same level.
This also made me wonder about the recent call among some on the far left to “punch a Nazi.” Who exactly is a modern Nazi? Who decides? Of course, foolish comparisons of modern politicians or thinkers with the Nazis are often made. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump have all been compared to Hitler, when none of them, obviously, are Hitler. There have even been attempts to compare the modern Jewish state of Israel to Nazi Germany. If modern supporters of Israel and politicians like Hillary Clinton are to be understood as “Nazis,” then such thinking would allow for a lot of people getting punched for “being a Nazi” when they are obviously nothing like the actual Nazis.
Moreover, Stalin or Mao often (but not always) seem to get a pass, comparatively, as Hitler is cited much more often in these kinds of comparisons. A recent poll in Russia even showed that most Russians consider Stalin to be the greatest personality in human history. Germans would rightly never vote about Hitler in such a way, and I suspect the difference is found in the German and Russian educational systems. But in light of communism’s bloody and brutal reign throughout the 20th century, with arguably 100 million deaths, why aren’t more people concerned with “punching a commie” as well? To be clear, I am not advocating the punching of “commies,” but instead highlighting the discrepancy in calls for action against Nazis in comparison to commies. Communism led to the deaths of far more people than Nazism, after all, even if you attribute all of the deaths of World War II to Hitler (about 62 million).
Perhaps it is, as Florin suggested above, because modern students hear relatively little about the ruthlessness and brutality of 20th century communism? Perhaps it is because in academia there has traditionally been greater sympathy for communist ideals and this influences to what degree the crimes of communist regimes have been emphasized? I am only a historian of medieval Europe, so this is not my area of specialty, but I intend to talk with some colleagues who are specialists and think and read about this topic a bit more as time will allow. I’ll report back.