The Storm over the Black Book

Article excerpt

Communism had horrific consequences in the 20th century, but many intellectuals are still reluctant to face up to them.

On November 7, 1997, in Paris, a book was published that was substantial in every sense. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression contained almost 900 pages, weighed about two pounds, and was very expensive.

By the end of 1997, it had sold more than 100,000 copies in France, and by the spring of 1998, about 150,000. That May, the first translations of the book appeared--in Italy and Germany--and they were also successful. To date, the book has had editions in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Sweden, Bosnia, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Holland, Russia, Lithuania, Turkey, England, and America, and it is expected to appear in Ukraine, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. The total number of copies sold now exceeds 800,000.

Why has The Black Book of Communism--a sober work of history and not the sort of sensational volume that might win easy popularity--found a universal audience, far beyond the community of professional historians?

The book owed its initial popularity to a political incident. Soon after its publication in France, a member of a center-right party asked the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the National Assembly to justify the presence in his cabinet of Communist ministers. Arguing that communism is a criminal ideology," the objecting member cited The Black Book. Jospin responded that there had been a Liberation coalition between Gaullists and Communists and that he was "proud" to govern with Communists too. He then praised the Russian Revolution, the 80th anniversary of which had recently been observed. That prompted certain members of the non-Gaullist Right to walk out of the National Assembly. Television cameras recorded the whole incident, and it was shown to the public. The next day, people could not wait to flock to the bookstores.

The Black Book of Communism was not only bought, it was read (and is read still), and it won widespread media attention around the world. Among the American publications that wrote about it were the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Republic, the National Interest, and the New Criterion. What's more, it provoked a great and heated debate among historians, political scientists, and intellectuals. On the first anniversary of its publication, a book titled Le pave dans l'histoire (The cobblestone thrown into history) described that debate in France, and a book with the provocative title Der rote Holocaust (The red holocaust) appeared shortly thereafter in Germany.

The Black Book had become a social, political, and intellectual event across Europe and in the United States, and the phenomenon merits attention.

Let me begin by describing The Black Book. As Martin Malia, an eminent historian of Russia and the Soviet Union, writes in his foreword to the American edition, which was published in 1999, "The Black Book offers us the first attempt to determine, overall, the actual magnitude of what occurred, by systematically detailing Leninism's 'crimes, terror, and repression' from Russia in 1917 to Afghanistan in 1989. This factual approach puts communism in what is, after all, its basic human perspective. For it was in truth a 'tragedy of planetary dimensions' (in the French publisher's characterization), with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million." In one sense, then, the book is a tally of the dead.

Eleven scholars, a number of them former Communists and fellow travelers, contributed to the volume. The various international editions of The Black Book also include forewords (or afterwords) by local specialists, as the American edition, for example, has the foreword by Malia. To some editions, appendixes were added. The German Black Book, for example, has almost 100 pages analyzing the East German system of terror and the Stasi -- the Ministerium fur Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security). …