The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression

Article excerpt

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stephane Courtois et al.; translation by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer Harvard University Press * 1999 * 858 pages * $37.50

Reviewed by Theodore Balaker 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. …