TCS Daily


Denying the Soviet Holocaust

By Stephen Schwartz - December 9, 2005 12:00 AM

On Monday, December 5, The Wall Street Journal published a major commentary by Robert Conquest, the dean of historians on Soviet tyranny and, for some of us, one of the greatest living moral exemplars in the world. Few authors have written so much and so well on the horrors of Communism.

In a column titled "Stalinophilia," Conquest described the case of a minor Italian academic, Luciano Canfora, who has managed to publish a pro-Soviet account of 20th century politics, called in its original tongue "Democracy: History of an Ideology." Canfora's volume has come out in Italy, France, Spain and England. It is due to appear in the U.S. next month under the more neutral title "Democracy in Europe: A History."

A German publisher declined to issue the book, and has been accused of "censorship," as if the exercise by a private business of its right not to print and distribute a particular text is somehow a denial of press freedom. Obviously, if Canfora's contribution had any merit, it could be published in Germany by another enterprise. But a Swiss journalist, Joachim Guntner, noted the objectionable character of the work, which never mentions the word "gulag" but attacks the U.S. for alleged support of fascism around the world. A German leftist denounced Canfora's "dogmatic stupidity."

Canfora's professorial credentials reside in the field of Greek and Roman studies, not that of modern politics. Misadventures by tenured fools are hardly news. Nor is campus nostalgia for the intellectual mischief of the Stalin era. In that dark time, democracy, along with modernist art, psychoanalysis, 20th century developments in physics, popular culture, and the established labor and socialist movements were routinely vilified by the robotically-conditioned ranks of the world's Communist parties.

Hitler would never have gained power without the implicit approval of Moscow, which restrained its German adherents from uniting with the social-democratic masses to oppose the Nazis. Stalin and Hitler openly allied against the democracies from August 1939 to June 1941, permitting the Russians to occupy such territories as the Baltic states and Moldova. Only this week, the neo-Stalinist Vladimir Putin prevailed on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) -- which has a history of political corruption and mismanagement in postwar Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, as well as rampant anti-Americanism, even though the U.S. is an OSCE member -- to let Russian troops remain on the impoverished territory of Moldova, the last trophy of Stalin's romance with Hitler.

A renewed contempt for democracy has been visible in global politics since the middle 1970s, when the end of authoritarianism in Spain and Portugal revived the fantasies of small coteries of radical intellectuals. Faced with the obvious triumph of capitalism, public accountability, and popular sovereignty in these former dictatorships, leftist revolutionaries, who could not escape their own "oppositional" mental prison, began questioning the value of democracy itself. In France, some of them turned into Nazi Holocaust deniers. An antidemocratic idiom was then fostered by the Soviet Communist party, which reintroduced the traditional Muscovite idiom of violent Jew-baiting.

After Communism crashed in turn, the remnants of the Soviet nomenklatura merged with existing and "new" neo-Nazi trends to form a "red-brown alliance" of Communists and Hitlerians -- against capitalism, the Jews, and the West in general. Communism and fascism, as in 1939-41, once again appeared indistinguishable from one another. So-called "conservative" isolationists in the U.S. defended such bloody dictators as Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, where "humanist Marxists" one day suddenly opted for rabid ultranationalism. This situation may change as racists in countries like Britain and France seize the initiative in attacking local Muslims, as a substitute for their historic Jewish target; by contrast, the decrepit left has rallied to the defense of Saddam Hussein, and even offered support for Zarqawi's terrorists, as well as Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.

I was interested, however, to note that Conquest's polemic against Canfora coincided with a brief item in the Daily Telegraph of London, dated December 1, reporting that the parliament of the Czech Republic is considering whether it should be a criminal offense, punishable by a three-year prison term, to deny the atrocities of Communism. This piquant item seems to answer a question implied by Conquest: what distinction may be made between a denier of the Nazi Holocaust and a denier of the Soviet Holocaust? (The immediate difference is that the latter will get a university teaching job without hiding his or her views.)

I have never been a supporter of any legal restriction, aside from libel laws, on speech or writing, no matter how repellent it may be. I am opposed to the censorship of al-Qaida and similar internet sites, because as an activist opponent of Islamist extremism I need to track and study the enemy; I have also been opposed to laws against Holocaust denial because I believe it is more important to expose the moral treachery of such a posture than to pretend, according to canons of political correctness, that such hallucinated discourse does not exist. And while living in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, I have opposed restrictions on hate speech because I believe it is better for rage to be vented than suppressed. A great thinker once argued that liberty is defined by its preservation for what we oppose, not what we approve. The point is undeniable.

Nevertheless... also because I lived in ex-Yugoslavia, and have personally seen the baleful effects of Stalinism in Romania, Albania, and Poland, the Czech adoption of a law against denial of the Soviet Holocaust is more than provocative. It is tempting. Suppression of the truth about Stalinism was the main characteristic of global intellectual life throughout the four and a half decades from 1945 to 1990. The left falsely claimed that Russia wanted peace, when Slavic imperialism planned and executed continuous aggressive adventures, from the attempted coup in Greece in 1944 to the experiments in totalitarianism that have continued in Cuba and a handful of other countries. Today Castro urges on Hugo Chavez, a profound embarrassment to Venezuela, just as the Russians manipulated the leftist military dictatorship in Guatemala in the 1940s.

For its part, most of the right was so wedded to "realism" that an accommodation with Soviet expansionism -- containment rather than liberation, to paraphrase the immortal formulation of James Burnham -- was made to seem inevitable and salutary. The horror of the Soviet legacy -- in which mass purges, the betrayal of the Spanish Republic in that country's 1936-39 civil war, the assassination of exiles including, but not limited to Trotsky, and similar atrocities, had competed with the brutalities of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Japanese imperialists -- was largely forgotten. Only a few individuals in the West, among them Robert Conquest, broke the consensus about Sovietism.

To see the respectable caste of mediocrities in Western media and academia exposed as liars and charlatans -- those who still insist, to cite a few examples, that the so-called International Brigades in the Spanish civil war were heroes rather than secret police murderers; that the banal Russian spy Alger Hiss was innocent; that the evil Rosenbergs who helped hand Stalin the atom bomb were victims of prejudice; that the so-called Hollywood blacklist, in which a few people lost opportunities for employment, was comparable with the Soviet purges in which millions were slain -- that would be something, to say the least. To see this reptile breed (as Trotsky once described the writers of The Nation magazine) called to account for a generation's worth of history betrayed, hope prostituted, and ideals treated as a pretext for belly-crawling propaganda... is, to repeat, tempting. Perhaps too tempting.

The Hiss case is especially germane to this discussion. That is because much conclusive evidence about Alger Hiss was disclosed long after the original Hiss affair of the 1940s. It showed Hiss and his circle to be wretched traitors and accomplices of terror. And this evidence originated in the files of the Czech Communist Party and the statements of a fellow-spy of Hiss named Noel Field, who was once notorious but is now forgotten.

I intend, at least, to find out if the Czech law passes the country's upper legislative house, whether foreigners will have standing to enter complaints against other foreigners under Prague's "Soviet Holocaust denial" law. As much as I am, to repeat, opposed to any restriction on spoken and printed argument, to see the issues debated in a Czech courtroom, with someone like Noam Chomsky or Victor Navasky as a defendant, would be memorable, to say the least. Even as we protect the rights of those we despise, some people undeniably need to learn that arguments have consequences. At least in today's Czech courts, unlike those of Stalin, the defendants can be expected to get a fair hearing.
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