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National ReviewNew York, July 1, 1996


by Radek Sikorski

IN ORDER to conduct a moral debate, it is always necessary to presume the existence of certain axioms or truths which are self-evident. Otherwise we would have to argue about first principles every time we uttered an opinion. In politics, I have always thought it self-evident that the crimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent.

Then I read Tina Rosenberg's The Haunted Land and learned that mine was a dangerously simplistic attitude. The Haunted Land, an account of the struggle of post-Communist countries to deal with the consequences of Communism, has now won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a National Book Award. Its conclusions are clear: Communist rulers were not the moral equivalents even of Latin American dictators, let alone of the Nazis. If a Latin American general carries out an illegal coup during which a few dozen people die, Miss Rosenberg would have him brought to trial and punished with the full force of the law. However, if a Communist carries out an illegal coup during which a few dozen people die, he may only be judged by history.

In general, when dealing with Communist rulers, her attitude becomes all nuance and empathy: "Most Communist repression should not be judged in a court of law." She would punish those who broke existing laws; those who promulgated criminal laws with a slap on the wrist. Anything more would be not only immoral, amounting to revenge, but also counterproductive, harming the prospects for democracy and rule of law.

Reviewing The Haunted Land in these pages (August 14, 1995), I thought her political prescription demonstrably wrong. Almost six years after Communism's collapse it is clear that there is a direct link between whether or not a country has condemned its totalitarian legacy and what its democratic prospects are. In countries like the Czech Republic, East Germany, and Poland, where a reckoning with the past has at least been attempted, democracy is stable and peace assured. At the other extreme, countries such as Serbia and Russia, where the Communist myth has hardly been punctured, threaten their own citizens as well as their neighbors.

Writing in The New York Times Book Review, Tina Rosenberg has now addressed directly the history of the Holocaust. In the controversy surrounding the abortive publication of David Irving's Goebbels she goes after the old Nazi sympathizer with characteristic high mindedness and verve. The book should be forced off respectable publishers' lists, she argues, on the grounds that Irving "appears to be engaging in deliberate distortion. Worse, he is a sneak; the uncautioned reader will absorb a version of history exonerating Hitler and minimizing the evil of the Holocaust without knowing it."

However Miss Rosenberg's argument does not end there. She goes on to contrast Irving's musings with Robert W. Thurston's Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941. This work she summarizes as follows: "Stalin did not intend much of the Terror, many people supported it, and it wasn't so bad in any case." She quotes Thurston as saying, "Ironically, Stalinism helped prepare the way for the much more active society and reforms of fifty years later." But she writes that, unlike Irving, Thurston "deserves publication."

Why? Thurston's distortions hardly differ from Irving's. Irving might well agree with the statement that "Hitler did not intend much of the Terror." He might also agree that "many people supported it and it wasn't so bad in any case." Indeed, many people did supported the Holocaust; moreover, the figures for the numbers of people gassed at Auschwitz, for example, have had to be revised downward in recent years. But this does not blunt the force of our moral outrage: anyone who argued that the Nazi crimes were "less bad" because five million Jews died instead of six million, or that the Nazi crimes were "legitimate" because they were supported by the German people, would justly be thought to be wicked or sick.

Worse, to claim, with Thurston, that Stalin paved the way for the reforms of today's Russia seems about as accurate as to say that Hitler was the forerunner of Adenauer. Miss Rosenberg is forced to admit that Thurston's theses have "parallels to Holocaust denial." And yet despite this she says that his book is among "the most valuable... serious commercial works that challenge conventional wisdom."

In this article, Miss Rosenberg does more than merely deny the moral equivalence of Nazism and Communism; she is saying openly that it is acceptable to question whether the crimes of Stalin were crimes at all. It boils down to a practical prescription: Those who put an uncle of mine into Dachau for five years should be pursued to the ends of the earth. Those who would deny my uncle's suffering should at least be shunned in polite company or, as in Germany, jailed. But those who sent family friends of mine to die in Soviet concentration camps, so long as they followed the letter of totalitarian law, should be forgiven. And I shouldn't go on about it lest I fall into the ultimate heresy of "anti-Communism."

What can one possibly reply to this? It is as if she had missed out on a part of her moral education, or was unable to think in one part of her brain.

I wonder why she does it. We may get a clue from the passage in The Haunted Land, where she writes that "fascism espouses repugnant ideas, but Communism's ideas of equality, solidarity, social justice, an end to misery, and power to the oppressed are indeed beautiful. The New Socialist Man - tireless, cheerful, clean, brave, thrifty, and kind to animals [sic!] - is an ideal all humanity should aspire to reach." Miss Rosenberg comes close to suggesting that Stalin's victims were murdered in a good cause. She certainly does not object to holocaust denial when it denies the Soviet holocaust. Then it becomes "valuable" and a "challenge [to] conventional wisdom."

Many on the Left have had the courage to admit to past mistakes. Eugene Genovese formulated in Dissent what sounds to me like an honest left-wing attitude to the crimes of Communism: "What did you know and when did you know it?" How many more millions must die before Tina Rosenberg also catches on?

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