Sunday, November 08, 2009

Nazism or Communism: Which is More Evil?

People have been commenting on a curiously neglected anniversary. No, I don't mean H. L. Mencken's celebrated bathtub hoax of 1917. I mean the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Its twentieth anniversary is now upon us, and, considering that, it is surprising that it is so seldom mentioned.

Tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They are celebrating it in Germany, but Obama declined Una Merkel's invitation to participate.

Why, when there are still so many books and movies about the Nazis is this other and much more recent murderous regime relatively little noticed?

One reason that is often given: a lot of the people who control what is mentioned and noticed in our world think the Nazis were much more evil than the Communists, who were really just leftist do-gooders gone wrong. So its implosion was not all that wonderful an event.

Is this true?

In one way, I think the Nazis were more horrifyingly evil than the Soviets. The Holocaust had from the beginning a markedly different character from the Soviet Gulag. (See Wikipedia picture below, from the notebooks of inmate Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya. The caption reads: "The hungry child cried but did not ask for food. He understood.") In the Gulag you were put to work in conditions that, if your sentence was long enough, meant being worked to death. A twenty year sentence was a death sentence. The Nazi camps had the same function, but they also had another, which was lacking in the Gulag: they were there to execute people outright, in large numbers. As I understand it, the more sophisticated sort of Holocaust deniers admit the existence of the German camps -- that is well established -- but deny that they had this function. In other words, the claim that (in this respect) the German camps were no worse than the Soviet ones is a form of Holocaust denial. This speaks rather strongly in favor of the superior evil of the Nazis.

On the other hand, there is the well known fact that the Communists murdered far, far more people than the Nazis did. For the Germans, the familiar figure is six million. For the Communists, the estimates vary widely, but the publishers of The Black Book of Communism summarize its conclusions in part as "as many as 25 million in the former Soviet Union, 65 million in China, 1.7 million in Cambodia."

So far, comparing Nazism and Communism is like comparing evil apples and depraved oranges. In terms of the amount of (non-military) damage done, the Communists were much worse. But you could argue that in terms of sheer contempt for human life and rights, the Nazis were worse. Which matters more: numbers of dead or attitude? Utilitarians say numbers, virtue ethicists say attitude.

On a deeper level, though, they represent the same thing. Both had visions of how the whole of society ought to be, a detailed plan for humanity, and they were determined to bring about this holistic plan via the crushing power of the state.

Whatever your holistic plan is, there are some people who will never fit in. This includes those who do not share your vision of a better world and never will. They will have to be neutralized somehow. If you are a true believer in your vision and you see no moral constraints on your behavior (you, after all, have the one true vision) then you will kill them. Anything less is just wimping out.

This, I think, is the root of the evil of Nazism and Communism. It is the same in both.

... After I wrote most of the above, I found this interesting essay by the neo-Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. After a thoughtful and probing comparison of Communism and Fascism (including Nazism) in which Fascism appears in important ways the less evil of the two, he suddenly lurches into the following bizarre non-sequitur:
It is here that one has to make a choice. The ‘pure’ liberal attitude towards Leftist and Rightist ‘totalitarianism’ – that they are both bad, based on the intolerance of political and other differences, the rejection of democratic and humanist values etc – is a priori false. It is necessary to take sides and proclaim Fascism fundamentally ‘worse’ than Communism. The alternative, the notion that it is even possible to compare rationally the two totalitarianisms, tends to produce the conclusion – explicit or implicit – that Fascism was the lesser evil, an understandable reaction to the Communist threat. When, in September 2003, Silvio Berlusconi provoked a violent outcry with his observation that Mussolini, unlike Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, never killed anyone ... his statement was part of an ongoing project to change the terms of a postwar European identity hitherto based on anti-Fascist unity. That is the proper context in which to understand the European conservatives’ call for the prohibition of Communist symbols.
In other words, if we compared them rationally, Fascism would actually be less evil than Communism. Therefore, don't compare them rationally: just declare it to be the greater evil, for political reasons.

I think this tells us something about the motivation behind the current relative silence about the collapse of Communism. It's political.
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