Why the Neglect of Communist Crimes Matters

In my last post, I discussed the neglect of communist atrocities. Although communist governments murdered and repressed even more people than the Nazis, their crimes have gotten only a tiny fraction of the public awareness and recognition extend to the latter. But does that neglect matter? After all, the major communist regimes have either collapsed (the USSR and its Eastern European satellites) or evolved into much less oppressive forms (China and Vietnam). But there are several reasons why increasing recognition of communist crimes should be an important priority: providing justice for victims and perpetrators; alleviating the oppression of the unreformed communist governments that still exist today; and ensuring that comparable atrocities are never repeated. The twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe is as good a time as any to reflect on these points.

I. Justice for Victims and Perpetrators.

Millions of victims of communism are still alive today. They include former Gulag inmates, forced laborers, dissidents subjected to political repression, ethnic minorities such as the Crimean Tatars who were forcibly deported, and many others. With a few exceptions (principally in Eastern Europe), little has been done to recognize the suffering of these victims or to compensate them for the wrongs they suffered. Obviously, the scale of communist crimes was so vast that complete compensation is impossible. However, the impossibility of perfect compensation is no excuse for doing nothing. After all, the same can be said for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. Yet extensive efforts have been made to compensate Holocaust survivors and return property confiscated from Jewish and other Nazi victims. The German government has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and former forced laborers, among others. These efforts at reparations for Nazi crimes surely have many shortcomings. But they far outstrip anything that has been done for the even more numerous victims of communism.

The same can be said for the issue of justice for the perpetrators. The Nuremberg trials punished some of the most important perpetrators of Nazi atrocities. Even after sixty years, US and European officials continue to hunt down Nazi criminals. Yet very little has been done to bring to justice the perpetrators of communist atrocities. This, despite the fact that many of the communist atrocities are much more recent than the Nazi ones, and more relatively high-ranking perpetrators are still alive. As in the Nazi case, it is impossible to capture and punish all of the guilty. And there is the additional problem that some of the worst communist criminals are protected by governments in nations where the communist party is still in power (China and North Korea, among others). Still, the best should not be the enemy of the good. The international community should at least try to punish those communist perpetrators who can be found, while putting pressure on recalcitrant governments to try or extradite the others.

We must do more to give justice to the victims and perpetrators of communist crimes. It isn’t yet too late. But it might well be in a few years, as more members of both groups die of old age.

II. Focusing Attention on Oppression in the Remaining Unreformed Communist Governments.

Most of the world’s communist regimes have either collapsed or reformed. However, at least two unreformed communist governments still remain: Cuba and North Korea. North Korea, in particular, is probably the world’s most oppressive regime, having starved to death at least 1 million of its own people as recently as the 1990s. It also maintains a system of Gulags and secret police that is, if anything, even more draconian than that of the USSR under Stalin. Despite the good press it enjoys among some Western leftists, Castro’s Cuba is only modestly better. Since coming to power in 1959, Castro’s government has executed some 1.5% of Cuba’s population for “political” dissent, while incarcerating another 5.6% in concentration camps. These figures would be even higher if not for the proximity of the United States, which enabled a large part of Cuba’s population to flee. Nonlethal political repression in Cuba is less severe than in North Korea, but still worse than in all but a tiny handful of other governments.

Despite these atrocities, Cuba and North Korea receive only a tiny fraction of the attention that human rights groups and the international community pay to much lesser offenses committed by democratic governments or non-leftist dictatorships. Imagine if, after the fall of Hitler, an unreconstructed Nazi-like regime had remained in place in some small European country, and continued to run concentration camps, a Gestapo-like secret police, and so on. Would not that regime be an international pariah constantly targeted by human rights groups and subjected to severe sanctions by all self-respecting democratic states?

It’s difficult to say whether pressure by human rights groups and Western governments could force Cuba and North Korea to reduce their oppression. However, both regimes have weak economies and both seek to create a positive image in the West. A comprehensive system of sanctions imposed by all democratic states and a massive campaign of shaming might have at least a chance of success.

III. Never Again.

The extensive attention paid to the Nazi crimes has helped sensitize people to the dangers of racism, anti-Semitism, and extreme nationalism. These evils have not disappeared. But at least the need to oppose them is widely accepted throughout the democratic world. A similar focus on communist crimes might increase recognition of the dangers created by ideologies based on class warfare and socialism (by which I mean full-blown state domination of the economy, not merely government regulation of private industry or a welfare state).

It is unlikely that communism will reappear in the exact form practiced by Lenin, Stalin, or Mao. However, the core ideas of socialism and class warfare are still advocated by various political movements and governments, especially in the Third World; for example, by rulers such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, both of whom have cited the communists as models for their own policies. Sometimes, socialism and class conflict are coupled with extreme nationalism and oppression of minority groups, a combination pioneered by the Nazis. The debate over socialism is far from over. Moreover, future political and technological developments could make a resurgence of socialist totalitarianism more likely.

Of course, the combination of class warfare and socialism doesn’t inevitably lead to mass murder on the scale committed in the USSR, China, and Cambodia. However, they do greatly increase its likelihood. Almost every fully socialist government (by which, again, I mean a government that manage to take control over the vast bulk of the economy) that held on to power for more than a few years ended up murdering a substantial fraction of its population (usually at least 1-2%). Even the relatively moderate government of Yugoslavia -generally considered the least oppressive communist regime – killed some 1 million of its people, according to calculations by political scientist Rudolph Rummel. Indeed, the risk of mass murder associated with full-blown socialism may actually be even greater than that caused by racism or anti-Semitism. Many racist or anti-Semitic regimes have existed for long periods of time without committing mass murder – including the majority of such governments. Nazi Germany was an unusual extreme case – one where mass murder was itself partly facilitated by state control of the economy almost as extensive as that in communist states.

Of course, racism, anti-Semitism, and extreme nationalism are great evils that should be combatted even when they don’t lead to mass murder. Yet the same can be said for socialism and extreme class warfare. Even when socialist governments stop short of mass murder, they still suppress political and economic freedom in a variety of other ways – to say nothing of reducing the standard of living of the people.

In sum, there are many good reasons to increase awareness of communist crimes. Achieving that objective in the face of widespread indifference and occasional hostility will be a difficult task. But those who take the idea of “never again” seriously must not flinch from the challenge.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I suppose I should mention that many of my own relatives are among the victims of communist crimes and potentially could receive compensation for them, if serious compensation programs were established. At least one of my relatives (my late grandmother) also received compensation for Nazi war crimes from the German government.

UPDATE: I suppose I shoulld briefly rebut the silly but inevitable charge that my emphasis on the importance of recognizing communist atrocities is somehow a cover for attempts to discredit domestic liberals. This ploy is akin to saying that criticism of racists, anti-Semites, or Nazis is really just a ploy for discrediting US conservatives. In further response, I will say only that I have always carefully avoided labeling domestic liberals as socialists (to say nothing of communists), have criticized such labeling by others, and have not used that charge myself in my various VC posts and other writings criticizing liberal domestic policies. As people like Harry Truman, JFK, and Henry Jackson recognized, there is no necessary contradiction between being a liberal on domestic policy and a strong opponent of communism.

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