Judging Nazism and Communism

By Malia, Martin | The National Interest, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Judging Nazism and Communism


Malia, Martin, The National Interest


NOW THAT the 20th century is at last "history", what does this enhanced perspective tell us about the relationship between that century's two great threats to liberal democracy, Nazism and Communism? During the high Cold War decade following 1945, the matter appeared simple to the majority of Western opinion: the two systems should be equated in their infamy. Yet, as and-Communism came under fire in the 1960s, and as the Cold War itself dwindled into detente in the 1970s, the Hitler-Stalin comparison largely fell into disrepute. At the end of the 1980s, however, European Communism's ignominious end re-opened the question, thus inaugurating a decade of debate over the issue of which "totalitarianism" was the greater scourge. Nor will this issue ever really go away again. For while Nazism and Communism are most unlikely to recur in the historical forms in which we knew them, the political impulses underlying them are still at work in modern political culture, indeed in the human condition itself.

Thus far, however, the renewed debate has suffered from an exceptional imbalance between heat and light. And this is because when we ask whether it is Communism or Nazism that must be judged the greater evil, we are too often unclear about what exactly should be compared in order to frame an answer. The usual procedure is to contrast inventories of horror: numbers of victims, means and circumstances of their deaths, types of concentration camps. Yet how do we make the transition from the raw facts of atrocity to a judgment of their moral meaning? Why, for example, is the industrialized extermination mounted by Hitler more evil than the "pharaonic technology" employed by Stalin and Mao Zedong? (1) It would be an error to suppose a simple or direct answer to such a question. Rather, this greatest of vexed issues handed down from the 20th century must be approached on three interrelated levels: moral, political and historical.

On the moral level we are concerned with the philosophical matter of ascertaining degrees of evil; it is this exercise that arouses the greatest passion and that has produced the most extensive literature. On the political level, we are inquiring whether the two systems may be legitimately equated as totalitarian polities; and since totalitarianism is clearly a bad thing, this subject also has moral ramifications that make it almost as contentious as the first. Yet to give convincing answers to either of these questions, the indispensable preliminary is to confront some basic historical problems: Nazism and Communism's two-decade relationship with each other, their organizational structures, their ideological purposes, and their actual res gestae.

It is to delineating a perspective on this third, historical level that the present essay is devoted. The first level will be touched on only by implication; the second level, which is more easily grounded in history, is given greater direct attention and evaluation, and something like a concept of generic totalitarianism will emerge by the end. As for the third level, the task here is not to make a substantive, still less a systematic, historical comparison, but rather to trace the historiographic parameters of such an investigation. The reason for this, as we shall see, is that scholarly writing on Nazism and Communism has developed so unevenly that most combined analyses of the pair to date can hardly qualify as serious. To compare and contrast them from a moral or a political perspective presupposes an equal level of understanding of both as historical phenomena. Since this is alas lacking, dissecting their two somber historiographies is the necessary preliminary to any other judgment.

Sorting Out the Basics

EVEN WITHIN this narrowed-down task we encounter a complex mixture of overlapping and asymmetry. As to the former, there is, first and obviously, a temporal overlapping: Hitler and Stalin were contemporaries; Nazism developed in part in opposition to Communism while Communism's primary defining adversary was always claimed to be "fascism"; and in this interlocking relationship the two went to Armageddon together in the most traumatic moment of the century.

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