UPDATED: The historical reality of communist oppression is being ignored. But the truth must not be buried
The killing fields of Cambodia
Why isn’t the Black Book of Communism on the curriculum of every school in Europe? Because it isn’t exhaustive enough? Because its authors lack credibility? Because there is still more to be understood and researched on the matter?
At more than 850 pages of carefully sifted evidence by a group of top-level scholars from a variety of countries and disciplines, the Black Book is as solid a piece of scholarship as any other you’ll find being taught in our schools.
Is it definitive? How could it be? Communist regimes went to great lengths to conceal their crimes, and one of the most oppressive of all, North Korea, still exists to this day. What the book does is use the best available evidence to give a sense of the scale of what we are dealing with.
In introducing the Black Book, lead author Stephane Courtois, Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, offers the following rough breakdown of the numbers of people that communism killed:
USSR — 20 million
Vietnam — 1 million
North Korea — 2 million
Cambodia — 2 million
Eastern Europe — 1 million
Latin America — 150,000
Africa — 1.7 million
Afghanistan — 1.5 million
Communist movements, parties not in power — 10,000
In total, this is not far short of 100 million deaths at the hands of a single ideology. Nothing like this has ever happened before. (As an aside, my personal view is that the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews was the greatest single crime of the modern era, while communism was the greatest criminal system.)
To be sure, these numbers are approximations. Courtois gives a figure of 20 million for the Soviet Union. Alexander Yakovlev, formerly the chairman of Russia’s Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, estimates the numbers executed or done to death in prisons and camps for purely political reasons at 20-25 million.
But, in his book A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, he reminds us not to forget the 5.5 million victims of famine in the Civil War and the 5 million in the artificial famine of the 1930s. Other respected authorities offer even higher numbers.
What should be clear from the Soviet Union and beyond is the staggering scale of what we are being asked to internalise.
Apologists have adopted a number of strategies — beyond outright denial which lasted for decades. One of the most popular and enduring is that we should not spend much time on the crimes of communism because Western countries have also committed crimes, most particularly when they had their empires.
To say that this is disingenuous is an understatement. Even if it were true that Western countries had committed similar crimes — which it most certainly isn’t — why would that be an obstacle to discussing the crimes of communism? Jack the Ripper isn’t any the less of a killer because Ted Bundy was too.
But more importantly, Western imperialism was no more oppressive, and in many ways it was a good deal less oppressive, than any of the other imperialisms throughout history. The British Empire was the first ever to abolish slavery, for example. In any case, imperialism isn’t a blueprint for societal governance. It isn’t in the same category as ideologies such as communism, fascism, Nazism or even liberal-democratic capitalism anyway.
This is all easy to pin down, which brings us back to the question posed at the beginning of this piece: Why isn’t the Black Book of Communism on the curriculum of every school in Europe?
The answer is not all that difficult to get to. The reason why the crimes of communism are given so little societal prominence is that very large sections of Western political society were supporters of or apologists for the Leftist ideology that gave rise to those crimes.
To talk openly about the history of communism is to talk openly about the history of the Left. And even among those who were not communists themselves, vast swathes inside the Leftist tradition stayed far too close to the communists for comfort.
It’s their very dirty big secret, and although they can’t do much these days about tracts such as the Black Book of Communism lying on the dusty top shelves of our public libraries, they’ll be damned if they’re going to start handing them out to children in the classrooms.
Of course, I am using the school curriculum issue as a proxy for a wider reluctance fully to come to terms with one of history’s darkest chapters. The angry reaction of the British Left this week to the Daily Mail’s discussion of Labour leader Ed Miliband’s Marxist father suggests that that reluctance is as deeply embedded as ever.
[UPDATE: On Facebook and via emails, it is quite amazing how much hostility there has been to this piece, mainly from British readers. You would be astounded at what I’m accused of: supporter of Apartheid; closet fascist; you name it! Well, I guess it shows why there’s still a major issue to confront here…]