Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Don't Soviet Crimes Resonate as Much in America?

Ed Driscoll at Instapundit points out an ongoing debate between Claire Berlinski and Ronald Radosh over Berlinski's recent City Journal article on the seeming lack of academic interest in Soviet history. I won't get into the details of their debate, which is way outside my field, but one part did interest me. Radosh quotes Berlinski:
In the world’s collective consciousness, the word “Nazi” is synonymous with evil. It is widely understood that the Nazis’ ideology—nationalism, anti-Semitism, the autarkic ethnic state, the F├╝hrer principle—led directly to the furnaces of Auschwitz. It is not nearly as well understood that Communism led just as inexorably, everywhere on the globe where it was applied, to starvation, torture, and slave-labor camps. Nor is it widely acknowledged that Communism was responsible for the deaths of some 150 million human beings during the twentieth century. The world remains inexplicably indifferent and uncurious about the deadliest ideology in history.
Then Radosh adds, by way of explanation:
Communism saw no Nuremberg trials, and the world Left continued to argue that there was an essential difference between Communism and Nazism: the former supposedly emerged from Enlightenment philosophy and a well-meaning search for a more humanitarian and equal social order for the people of the world; the latter emerged from volkish ideology, espousal of war as a philosophy, and the espousal of evil and extermination of the Jewish people as a necessary basis for a new Aryan order. One could argue that in fact, Communism and its leaders killed more people numerically than Hitler’s fascist order. But no matter, the Left believes that anti-fascism was essential for progress, while anti-Communism was morally and politically wrong.
This is one answer to the question of relative lack of interest or relative lack of condemnation, but I have another one. You won't be surprised that I think the World War II experience accounts for a large part of the reason why Americans fixate on the Holocaust and not the Armenian genocide or Soviet Gulags. From the book:
Although most American troops never made it to the full-scale extermination camps, what they did see was more than enough. Prison and concentration camps dotted the territories controlled by Nazi Germany, and the inmates of each suffered terrible horrors at the hands of the Germans. The Americans could not believe what they saw. Horace Evers wrote home about the camp at Dachau, “I previously had read about dachau and was glad of the chance to see for myself just to prove once and for all that what I had heard was propaganda. —But no it wasn’t propaganda at all—if anything some of the truth had been held back. In two years of combat you can imagine I have seen a lot of death, furious death mostly. But nothing has ever stirred me as much as this.” What Evers saw at Dachau gave him new reasons to fight. “I can’t shrug off the feeling of utter hate I now hold for these people,” he wrote. “I’ve shot at Germans with intent to kill before but only because I had to or else it was me—now I hold no hesitance whatsoever.”

The atrocities also gave the war new meaning for the American soldiers. The men already assumed that they were on the good side of the war, but the camps and refugees made that view all the more clear. The stark reality of the camps, the terrible stench, the emaciated bodies stacked in piles, the utter disregard for mercy and compassion, forced the Americans to wonder how anyone could perpetrate such horrors. More important, they also began to wonder if it all could happen at home in America. Some denied it outright. Roscoe Blunt remembered talking to a German Jew who had been tortured in a camp. Blunt told the man that “in America, a Jew was treated as freely as any other citizen.” Others took a more mixed view. In a position along the Rhine, Kenneth Connelly met a German Jew who had been able to hide out for most of the war: “At last I had met one of the people in whose name we are waging this war—if we are waging this war in the name of justice.... Here was a living symbol of a philosophical stand, the stand that all men are brothers.” Connelly expressed doubt that the German people he had encountered could participate in such cruelty, to which the man replied that such a thing could even happen in the United States. Connelly wrote, “I remembered a thousand and one remarks I had heard passed at cultured dinner parties, in class rooms, and among business men—and I didn’t want to look that boy straight back in the eye.” The shock expressed by the Americans—even some who had anti-Semitic tendencies—at encountering the Holocaust, suggests that they could not even imagine such depravity happening in America. But more important, the Holocaust made them think about the possibility. It made them think about how it could happen, how all of the small prejudices could become horrible actions, and those small prejudices no longer seemed so small.*
The main reason the Holocaust resonates in America, the reason why Americans see Nazis as the ultimate evil while offering a relative shrug to the Armenian genocide or Soviet and Chinese communist atrocities, is because so many average American citizens saw the crimes first hand. Those men made the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes an American memory.

Just another reminder that even in America we are living with the legacy of the Second World War every day.


*The quotations are from Thomas Bruscino, A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans to Get Along (2010), pp. 123-124.

(See also Robert H. Abzug, Inside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps (1985).)


Mark said...

I think that's a great point, Tom, and one that cuts the the differing perspectives of Nazism and Communism not only in the U.S., but around the world. I'd also add that, at its core, communism was a progressive ideology that sought a utopia for workers, etc., whereas Nazi ideology was about looking back to the past to create an exclusive society. Thus, it's easier to write off communism's consequences as unintended or a detour on the road to that utopia, whereas Nazism's consequences were part of the ideology's goals. A little less practical than yours, but still key.

As for the debate itself, it seems hard to side with Berlinski at this point. The article first came to my attention through H-Diplo, when Tom Nichols from the Naval War College asked about it. The response was overwhelming and entirely in keeping with Radosh's post: the documents are available in both the U.S. and Russia, and there's no liberal conspiracy keeping them from publication (a response that Nichols, hardly a communist fellow-traveler, accepts). And as for the other implication from Berlinski's article - that the public just doesn't care about the crimes of communism - the publication of the Mitrokhin books, the Haynes/Klehr books, many books on Venona, etc. seem to seriously undermine that idea. While they may not care as much as they do about Nazis, there's enough interest about communists too, just not enough to justify publishing more books based on existing material. And Berlinski's counter to the Radosh column comes off very weak. For instance, she claims to have consulted Soviet experts, but doesn't name who they were, and it doesn't seem to be Mark Kramer or Anne Applebaum, two names that would likely be at the top of the list. Basically, she comes off sounding like a poor advocate for Bukovsky and Stroilov, and one who didn't do her homework.

Stephen said...

I wouldn't describe Nazism as looking to the past to create an exclusive society. They were looking to a German future in which all pure blood Germans were equal.

dcat said...

Also: For better or worse, the Soviets were our ally. More of theirs died against the Nazis than ours did. Is Stalinism as evil as Nazism? Of course. But we sided with Stalinism to defeat Nazism because the one posed the greater existential threat than the other at the time.


Mark said...

True Stephen. Unfortunately, my brain failed me when I was writing, and I couldn't find the word, atavistic, that I wanted to use. So yes, they were looking towards a future society of equality for true Germans, but it was based on an atavistic ideology where that future society would rebuild the past perfection.