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.


Anonymous said...

Is orange more evil than green?

Lester Hunt said...

Afraid I don't understand the question.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean when you say the “relative silence about the collapse of communism”? Relative to what? It was certainly all over the news at the time. Are you saying that the media isn’t doing enough stories about the collapse of the Berlin Wall? If so, relative to what?

Chris said...

I think the answer about why Nazism is more frequently in our consciousness is simpler. The Holocaust was a tangible, iconic event of which there is still plenty of evidence and remains. The Soviets may have killed more, but there wasn't a comparable event to the Holocaust. Yes, the Gulag is close, but as you said they had at least a modicum of sense to them (work) rather than the Nazis which wanted only to kill.

On top of that, Americans never invaded Russia and never stumbled on the Gulag camps. If Hollywood could make Oscar-baiting historical movies about Americans bravely venturing in to Russia to rescue prisoners I'm sure they would.

Lastly, there are just more Jews in America than Russians. I don't mean to imply that the Jewish culture is running around covering up Russian suffering so everyone feels bad for them, but I think it's safe to assume that the Holocaust is closer to the forefront of their collective consciousness than the Gulag is.

I think all of these are reasonable explanations, especially when combined. Left-wing political conspiracy? I think maybe being surrounded by liberal (in the modern American sense) students and teachers in Madison has raised your paranoia level a bit.

I mean that in good fun, of course. I took your class a few years back and only recently discovered this blog, but it has been keeping me good company the last few days. Thanks for the thoughts.

Chris said...

Oh and I can't help but feel that a "neo-Marxist" philosopher isn't the best person to ask when looking for an objective answer on whether the far right or far left is more evil.

Lester Hunt said...


By "relative silence" I meant "silence compared to all the noise about the Nazis." I have to plead guilty to this myself. The most recent book I read about either subject -- Milton Meyer's classic "They Thought They Were Free" (which I highly recommend) -- was about the Nazis. I can't remember the last book I read about the Communist empire.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the clarification Professor. Given that, I think that Chris's point is a good one. While I have read books about both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany, I have read way more about Nazis. I think the reason for this is that, like virtually everyone, all my male relatives who eligible for the armed forces fought in WWII. This makes WWII compelling in a way that history of communism can't be because I don't know anyone who had role fighting to overthrow communist regimes. I suspect most Americans have a similar preference. The media markets then react to that preference by giving us books, movies, tv shows, etc. about Nazis.

Lester Hunt said...


You make some good points. I was ignoring the non-intellectual dimension of the different perceptions of Nazism and Communism. Communism did not lose a war to us, and Nazism did. (The Cold War doesn't count.) To some extent, history, which is written by winners, has discriminated against Nazism because it always discriminates against losers. Indeed, Nazism may actually be unique in this respect: I don't think any other country (other than Japan) has gone through anything closely analogous to the process of "de-Nazification" that Germany was put through after the war.

But there is also a good deal of ideological or moral thinking behind the very different treatment that Nazism and Communism have gotten. Sometimes I think that the Cold War was the only war whose history was written by the losers. Just about every book about Communist activities in the US is written by someone who sympathizes with them, and not with the "McCarthyites" who were their adversaries. (A notable exception is "Red Star Over Hollywood" by the Radoshes.)

Anonymous said...

"Afraid I don't understand the question."

You are applying objective (a definitive this>that) standards where they cannot possibly find any footing. If the question concerned the number of deaths caused by each or some such, one could possibly reach a sound conclusion as to which resulted in more (though by way of an arbitrary decision as to what constituted that "causation"). But to apply subjective moral criteria to objective factors and to then multiply those with each's connotative existence releases the one doing the judging from any actual grounding in sound thought, allowing him only to cite, by way of irrelevant numbers, and various anecdotes, "evidence" as a means of just confirming what he already believes. It's delusive casuistry and irresponsible.

Lester Hunt said...

I don't think subjectivity is an issue here. Even if moral concepts are completely subjective, it still can make sense to distinguish between degrees of evil, just as it can still make sense to use the concepts of good and evil in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Good and Evil do not in fact make sense to use. They are human constructs that front human desires. They only exist within an arbitrary framework, they are not eternal, but internal to the human collective conscience (though, importantly, only in form, not in content). So, as human desires are the criteria, what advances the fulfillment thereof becomes, in some degree, "good." Unfortunately, however, there are no thresholds to be crossed or weights to be compared. One death, two deaths, that death, this - such cannot be compared in any non-arbitrary way. If one is to be genuine and not simply assert ones own preconceptions as immanent criteria.

Mupetblast said...

Yes, the politics of anti-anti-communism continue today. I mean who is it that complains of the neglect of communist atrocities? Overwhelmingly those on the political right, at least relative to the left.

To speak ill of communism will, in fact, bolster those on the right with a litany of ideas that offend modern leftists. A study of the rhetoric of communist regimes could also be damaging, and give ammunition to the Tea Party crowds. After all, the USSR placed the word "socialist" in its very namesake, spoke of punishment in terms "rehabilitation," and spoke of "humanism" contra theism. If undecideds out there get the impression that socialism means the Soviet Union, death, and totalitarianism, and not, say, Scandinavia, the project to implement socialist ideas in the US will be compromised.

Anonymous said...

without hesitation, communism was, and is, more malicious than Nazism. Yes, the Nazi's were the brainchild of the Holocaust, but everyone seems to forget that the Armenian genocide during world war 1 had the same intentions and was completely forgotten. No war trials, criminals, nothing, but why is the holocaust so well known? Back to the topic at hand, Communism killed by the millions, caused several more destructive wars post world war 2, and it continues to be a problem to this very day ( it will probably bring about the downfall of capitalism). If Nazism was preserved over communism that meant no Korean, Vietnam, Cold, Gulf, and Iraq wars. Fascism would have at least been a powerful, and useful, ally. I'm sorry, the holocaust does not outweigh multiple wars, millions of deaths, and a present threat to the U.S.. Since communism was chosen over Nazism, it will more than likely bring about WW3 and the destruction of the united states, its allies, and democracy itself. Stalin's famous quote, " one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic," we sure picked the ally alright.

Anonymous said...
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maria said...

I think it`s a worthy question. I have thought about it many times... turn on the History channel and all you hear about are the Nazis.. which is fine, I mean... we must not forget the past and remember those who suffered..but.. a much bigger part of the victims have been forgotten.
I come from Estonia and EVERYBODY, I mean, EVERYBODY I know here has lost someone, mostly several, several people to communism. Whole families were torn apart and destroied. I have relatives both from my father`s and mother`s side who were killed or sent to die in Siberia. Only one of my 4 grandparents was not deported. My great-grandfather spent 15 years prisoned, i.e. working in mines. He was pronounced dead TWICE (one time he was near frozen and they thought he was dead and the other time he got sick).His family was told that he died, and he was told that his wife and 2 children were dead. Miraculously he lived.
My great-grandmother managed to escape ON FOOT from the outskirts of St. Petersburg to Estonia.. through war...with 2 small children (one was 2 the other just a baby).. and her elderly mother.
My great-grandfather was relaesed after Stalin`s death... and he accidently heard that someone of his wife`s name was living in Estonia. He went looking for them and well here I am.
Sorry, I started rambling... my point was that it is such a shame that lives such as my grandparents` and great-grandparents` have been forgotten. Whole generations suffered to no end. People who had NOTHING to do with this war. People who just wanted to live their lives peacefully.
My Estonian side grandfather was first forced to join the German army as the Germans invaded Estonia. He was foced to fight against the Russians while his brother was foced to join the Russian army and they fought against eachother.. when the Germans lost and left, the Russians came and sent my grandfather to prison in siberia because he had fought in the german foces... HOW UNFAIR IS ALL THAT, HUH? He never wanted to fight, not for germans, not for russians... he had a piece of land and just wanted to raise his family. He only spoke ONCE about his time in Siberia.. he did not even want to remember it.
Okay, past should be past.. it`s twisted and awful but it is the past and we, the living, are not responsible for the deeds of our forefathers. That`s the common logic and I totally agree... except that with Russia, we cannot have that attitude. Russia has NEVER recognized the soviet crimes and has never apologized. Sometimes it seems as if they are SORRY that it ended and want it back.. it makes smaller nations like us estonians wary and nervous.
Maybe I should write a script or two to Hollywood.

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks for your testimony, Maria. It was very moving. People should hear these stories.

Principlex said...

Because the Nazi experience has been explored and made real for the horror it was, many people have been able to get complete with it, completely reject it and move on. This entire experience is missing for Communism. Recently I read one book which got me present to communism in China: "Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China" by Tang Zhengguo. His story is nothing compared to many, but you do get the reality of communism where the individual means nothing unless he can be used by those in power. It is this kind of reality that must be brought forth. If this does not happen, we are sure to repeat the horrors of communism until its nature is so real that no one would accidentally wander into it thinking it represented some ideal.

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I've order a copy of Confessions from the library.

Anonymous said...

Radical communists are now renowned teachers in our universities. Some of them were bombers during the 60s. They teach our young people that communism is noble and that capitalism is corrupt. They do this because they have freedom in America to speak their minds...a freedom they would not allow to those of a different viewpoint. Tomorrow they may be deciding who will live and die in America.

EllenL said...

Red attracts more attention than dingy gray. The Nazis were more dramatic and did not last as long since they were fought earlier.

One cannot use figures alone - and the number in the camps was more like 13 millions (the 6 were only the Jews. There were also Gypsies, and many other groups, beginning with the hadicapped.).

Stalin surely killed as many during the war and more after. And that does not even count what the war did to everyone involved, including the Germans and Russians.

Communism lasted longer and so killed more and harmed many more. The error in both cases is the same and what we must fight.

We must learn to respect the life, liberty and property of the individual or to whatever extent we do not, we participate in the error and move closer to the kind of force used by the evil rulers you are speaking of. By the way, they are still at work in Syria, Iran and elsewhere with actual violence.

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Unknown said...

I think we cannot compare the degree of evil by just the number of people killed. I would say, communist party all over the world is much more evil than Nazis, in the way that they forced people to spy and betray on each others, no freedom of speech, tight control of media, and long term destruction of culture. You can see that the harm done by the communists are still prevalent throughout Eastern Europe and Asia. Nazi is like an air crash, that kills quickly but the damage is also limited. Communism is a virus, that has long term effect on humanity.

My parents both suffered deeply in communist China. They were medical doctors, being regarded as "corrupted bourgeoise", sent to camp to work as peasant and almost starved to death during the "Great Leap". During the Cultural Revolution, people betrayed each other, sons killed their fathers, students beat and humiliate their teachers, thousands of re-education camps to brainwash people, thousands of temples and monasteries were burnt or destructed. History were re-written to an extent that what the new generation of Chinese know about their modern history are mostly fake. These are far more evil and results in long term disasters than just killing. Some people think, oh well, China is now a capitalist country, and the second strongest economy in the world. But let me tell you, if the authoritarian government is not removed, the evil root is still there. Tibetans and Uyghurs are still being suppressed and genocided. Communism is a virus far more difficult to cure than Nazis.