COMMENT: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
That other Holocaust
, June 29, 2002
The book Hitler's Holocaust has just been released. It was written to accompany the outstanding documentary series of the same name shown on SBS earlier this year. Book and series are the latest in a seemingly endless stream of material - theses, articles, films, plays, exhibitions - on the Fuehrer and his Final Solution. As far as it goes, this is a good thing.
The disappearance of history as a school subject is both a symptom and a cause of our increasing historical illiteracy, and the Holocaust is one event we must retain in our collective memory at all costs.
But why is there no parallel interest in Soviet Russia and Red China? Go through the non-fiction section of any mainstream bookshop at any shopping mall and you are sure to find a number of works describing and analysing Nazism.Murderous
It is very rare to find any corresponding material on the equally evil, and statistically more murderous, Stalin and Mao regimes. Every sale of big, cheap picture books contains at least something on the Third Reich. Coffee table tomes on the Gulag or the KGB are scarce to the point of non-existence.
Nazism is sexy in a way that communism is not - sometimes literally. We are unsurprised to hear about individuals with a predilection for dressing up in SS uniforms and carrying riding crops. On the other hand, we would be somewhat bemused to learn of anyone with a fetish for putting on a baggy suit and a pair of state-issue glasses, brandishing a dossier, and pretending to be Yezhov or Beria.
Yezhov? Beria? Heads of the Soviet secret police under Stalin. The average Australian might have heard of Stalin himself and perhaps Lenin, also Mao and just possibly Chou En-lai, but that's about it. In contrast, there is widespread general knowledge of prominent Nazis. Hitler, Braun, Bormann, Speer, Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels, Hess, Streicher, Goering, Eichmann, Mengele, Rommel and Donitz - the list goes on and on - are practically household names.
Even some of their victims, such as Anne Frank and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, are still well-known, while memorials such as Yad Vashem in Jerusalem preserve the names of millions of them.
How many people could name just one
of the tens of millions liquidated by Stalin or Mao?
The issue is not one of genocide rivalry, or "My holocaust is bigger than yours". Unfortunately, something like this occurred a few years ago. After the publication of the The Black Book Of Communism
, a historical survey by various French scholars of the number of killings carried out under Marxist-Leninist governments (since available in an English translation by Harvard University Press) there were odious comparisons with the wickedness of the Nazi exterminations.
Robert Conquest is a Western intellectual who emerged from the Cold War with his integrity and credibility not only intact but enhanced. Having made his reputation by chronicling Stalin's atrocities, he is nevertheless able to write in his recent Reflections On A Ravaged Century
: "Late in 1997 ... Le Monde
asked did I find the Holocaust 'worse' than the Stalinist crimes. I answered yes, I did".
The point, then, as modelled by Conquest, is not to win an unedifying depravity competition. Instead, the challenge is to bring to bear on Stalinism and Maoism the same responses - outrage; a passion to publicise and comprehend; a determination that it will never be repeated - that are currently focussed on Nazism.
Whether or not communism is worse than Nazism is a futile question. Morally, both are so qualitatively similar as to render the drawing of fine ethical distinctions between them captious and casuistical.Seriousness demanded
What is imperative is that both
systems are treated with the gravity that they deserve, and in the situation in which we presently find ourselves, that entails taking communism with the same seriousness that we take the Hitler epoch.
This will mean not only trying to understand its origins and dynamic, but also why so many Westerners in liberal democracies refused to recognise the corruption of the Russian and Chinese oligarchies, or worse, tried to disguise, rationalise, perhaps even justify it. Why, for example, did figures such as George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge confront such opposition to publishing their exposures of Stalinism?
It is questionable whether any such attempt to establish the moral equivalence of the two ideologies has any chance of success in the near future. The baby-boomers who now dominate academe and the media grew up with pictures of Mao and Che on their walls, and have never since felt quite so alive as when they sat on Bourke Street in the 1970 Moratorium. They have been conditioned to believe, or rather feel - the phenomenon is visceral rather than cerebral - that anti-communism is, well, daggy. They are happy to hear Nazism described as evil, but deride the same adjective as intolerably gauche when it is applied to communism.
Few if any boomers are pro-communist, but to explicitly articulate an anti-communist stance could call into question their socially indispensable anti-Americanism. In fact, the word communism rarely seems to be used these days except by would-be comedians impersonating old-fashioned conspiracy theorists.
This mentality is partly an understandable reaction to the more surreal excesses of McCarthyism. At the same time, actual ex-communists are treated as rather lovable old codgers; former youthful idealists who might have made a few mistakes, but meant well.
They appear to spend most of their dotage being interviewed on the ABC. A ruthless, clear-eyed and intellectually honest dissection of twentieth century communism might well require a whole new generation of historians.
Our widespread knowledge, and hence loathing, of Nazism is partly attributable to Australia's having been involved a war against it. After his battalion was left behind on Crete, my father spent three years as a POW in Germany. He used to hear singing coming across the snow from the Russian soldiers starving to death in nearby barbed-wire enclosures (any who survived and returned to Russia went straight into Stalin's labour camps).
As a result of my father's resultant preoccupation with Nazism, I grew up with books such as Lord Russell of Liverpool's The Scourge Of The Swastika
and William Shirer's The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich
There was nothing remotely as definitive as WWII in the intermittent conflicts which punctuated the sprawling and untidy era of the Cold War. Neither has there been an event of "closure" anything like the Nuremberg trials.Desultory curiosity
There have been short-lived outbursts of disgust against figures such as Ceausescu and Pol Pot, and desultory flickers of curiosity about the revelations of Soviet duplicity which surface periodically from the Moscow archives, but that is about all.
There is little apparent interest by any organisation in tracking down criminals from the Stalinist or (when Chinese communism collapses) Maoist eras and bringing them to book.
The responsibility therefore falls on bodies such as SBS to maintain their coverage of Nazism's race Holocaust and, at the same time, match it with a consciousness-raising analysis of communism's equally irrational and malevolent class Holocaust.
Every effort must be made to accumulate a collection of interviews and original film just as rivetting as that depicted in Hitler's Holocaust
. If it too late for justice, it is not too late to amass evidence and broadcast the truth. A failure to do so at this point in history must verge on the wilfully obfuscatory.
- Bill James is a Melbourne writer