07 July 2009

The Kingdom of Forgetting

Imagine a situation where one of the senior editorial staff on a major broadsheet writes an op-ed piece praising the Nazi regime for its economic programme in Germany during the 1930s:


Or where a Labour politician is quoted describing the fall of the Third Reich – or Fascist Italy – as ‘the biggest catastrophe of my life’:


Imagine a German or Austrian woman describing the fun she had as member of the Bund Deutscher Madel, and proclaiming that this youth movement provides a positive role model for British society today:

Or imagine seeing people on the street wearing T’shirts featuring swastikas and Nazi iconography, or pictures of individuals such as Michael Wittman:

http://www.synergytees.com/node/230 http://www.tshirtsville.com/acatalog/Che_Guevara_T_shirts.html

You’d find yourself wondering how you ended up in a world that had lost compass, or whether you’d woken up to find yourself in a nightmarish alternative reality where Hitler had won WWII.

Naturally, public praise of the extreme right of the type outlined in this imaginary scenario is in reality confined to the lunatic fringes of Western society; to the cretins of the BNP and Combat 18 and their counterparts elsewhere, or to the increasingly deranged coterie of Holocaust deniers:


Speaking personally I would not have it any other way. ‘No platform for Fascists’ is more than just a slogan, but a recognition that the far right is beyond the pale. Yet for some reason ideologies of the far left can be excused by a clique Western politicians, journalists and columnists, without anyone in polite society batting an eyelid. A Che T’shirt or a Mao cap can be seen as a sign of radical chic, not the disgusting trivialisation of a murderous ideology.

Even in cases where the crimes of Communist regimes are acknowledged, one can always see them excused by a sleight of hand; hence John Pilger’s ability to maintain that somehow the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (from 1975 to 1979) is somehow America and Britain’s fault:


rather than that of the Chinese and North Vietnamese governments who were the mid-wives of Pol Pot’s regime.

The double-standard can also be seen in the following terms. Any democratic leftist worth his or her salt would be proud to be described as an anti-Fascist. Yet the phrase ‘anti-Communist’ is not short-hand for someone disgusted by the enormity of the Gulag, or the ‘Great Leap Forward’, or Mengistu’s ‘Red Terror’ in Ethiopia; it is used almost as an insult to describe someone who combines derangement with rancid politics, as if somehow anyone who condemns the excesses of Communist regimes is somehow in league with the Monday Club:

This peculiar attitude towards the ideologies of the extreme left have been underlined by the BBC2 series ‘The Lost World of Communism’ (broadcast last spring)¸ which puts a human face on a system which killed millions – and blighted the lives of millions more – from East Berlin to Vladivostok, and from Szczecin to Kabul and Phnom Penh.

The series focuses on Eastern Europe; we’ve had two good programmes on the GDR and Communist Czechoslovakia, and this Saturday is the series finale, focusing on the ‘socialist paradise’ which was Ceausescu’s Romania. I only hope that one day a new generation will see programmes which highlight what life was really like for Cubans under Castro, and for North Koreans under the monstrous regime of Kim Il-Sung and his equally depraved son.

Two stories stand out so far. The first is the testimony of Erika Rieman, an East German schoolgirl who got ten years for defacing a picture of Stalin, including a spell in Sachsenhausen:


The GDR’s rulers inherited some of the Nazi regime’s concentration camps and its practices – the fact that Ms Rieman was subjected to the following mock execution suggests that Pankow may even have inherited some of the old regime’s personnel as well:

‘We had to go into a shower room,” she recalls. “They told us they would do what they (the Nazis) had done to the Jews - that there wouldn’t be water coming out of the showers, only gas.’


The second story concerned the daughter of a Czechoslovak Social Democrat, Milada Horakova, who was sentenced to death in June 1950 after a show trial in Prague:


Her daughter read out the last letter Milada had written to her, which the regime of Klement Gottwald lacked the humanity to pass on. I cannot find any better example which epitomises the combination of brutality and sheer spite which Communists show once they get their hands on the levers of power.

Let me take this opportunity to knock down two straw men. Firstly, I am not arguing that either Nazism or Communism were somehow ‘better’ in comparison with each other. Stalin may have killed more people than Hitler, but had the nightmare of a ‘Thousand Year Reich’ been realised then uncounted millions more would have undoubtedly been slaughtered in Hitler’s Europe. If the racial hatred behind Mein Kampf was taken to its extremes, then the death camps would have been fed with Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians and other ‘sub-humans’ once the Jewish and Roma communities had been wiped out.

In any case, I refuse to play moral mathematics. I loathe both the embodiments of the totalitarian left and right equally, and regard them as being as morally corrupt and as barbaric as each other. Their record in power is equally abominable, and the prospects of their return equally frightening. And arguing that somehow (for example) the Soviet system was ‘better’ because it mellowed under Khrushchev in the 1950s is absurd – what do people think Stalin’s successors were doing during the Terror famine and the Great Purges of the 1930s?

I will also add that Western governments were obliged – with their policy of containment – of accepting the reality of Communist despotism over Eastern Europe and the former USSR. It would have been impossible for the US and British governments to turn the war to liberate Europe from Nazism into a struggle to free the rest of the continent from Stalin – how could the American and British publics be persuaded to take up arms against the country which had gutted the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front? The reality of the nuclear arms race from the late 1940s also meant that liberation – or ‘rollback’, as the Eisenhower administration promised in 1953 – would simply provoke WWIII. The tragedy of the Hungarian revolt in 1956 also showed that it was futile – and callous – to expect East Europeans to take up arms against their regimes and Soviet domination without any external support whatsoever.

Yet acceptance and pragmatism of successive US, British, French, West German and other NATO governments should not be confused with endorsement. I have travelled extensively in the former Eastern bloc, and I have seen and heard too much to accept that the likes of Seamus Milne and George Galloway – people who have never been obliged to live under the systems they extol – should add insult to injury by claiming ‘Oh come, come! It wasn’t all that bad!’.

The simple fact is that we cannot escape the enormity of Communism, and the vast human death toll it left behind. Look at the consequences with open eyes – not just the millions killed, but the socio-economic stagnation, the incitement of ethnic violence that erupted in Yugoslavia and the Caucasus in the 1990s, the manner in which the USSR became the armourer of despots such as Saddam Hussein, the devastation wrought in Afghanistan after the Soviet intervention in 1979 (for which Afghans – and the wider international community) are still paying the price, and also the ecological catastrophes suffered – be it in Bitterfeld, Chomutov, Chernobyl, or the Aral Sea. Are you still prepared to wear a red star on your T’shirt after knowing about all this?

Let’s be blunter. Why does anyone have the right to consider Communism to be somehow better than Fascism?

(1) Because it is an anti-imperialist ideology? Tell that to the Poles, the Czechs, the Slovaks or the Hungarians. Tell that to the Georgians whose efforts to set up a social-democratic free state were crushed by the Red Army in 1921, or the Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians witnessing their country’s annexation in 1940.

(2) Because Communism is anti-racist? Oh sure, because the Soviets never targeted an entire community for ethnic cleansing. The Chechens (who lost a third of their population in the 1940s) were never deported, nor were the Kalmyks, the Ingush, the Crimean Tartars or the Volga Germans. Ethnic Ukrainians were not cleared out of South-Eastern Poland by force in 1947. And both the Doctors Plot of 1953 and the treatment of Moslems showed that the USSR was respectful of religious and ethnic minorities. I could also point to the examples of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in Poland after 1968 (the Gomulka regime’s response to the Prague Spring, and demonstrations by students in Warsaw and Krakow), Zhivkov’s persecution of Bulgaria’s Turkish community in the 1970s and 1980s, and the treatment accorded to ethnic Chinese in Vietnam after the ‘victory’ of 1975.

(3) What about its anti-militarism? This is undermined by the ‘guns before butter’ policy of the Soviet state (which ultimately sank the USSR’s economy in the 1980s).

(4) It is also striking that critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are also amongst the first to praise Castro’s interventions in Africa. Fidel should get some of the credit for helping the PAIGC kick the Portuguese out of Guinea-Bissau, and for standing up to apartheid South Africa in Angola. But what about Castro’s alliance with Mengistu’s Ethiopia:


or Cuban aid to Macias Nguema security forces in Equatorial Guinea? And can anyone who actually knows anything about Angola claim with a straight face that Castro’s greatest achievement was to keep in power a kleptocratic dictatorship that has moved so far from the egalitarian idealism espoused by Agustino Neto?

You cannot simultaneously berate the West for supporting Mobutu, while giving the Cubans a free pass for giving Angola an MPLA government which is currently looting this country of its oil wealth.

(5) Apologists might boast that Communists (unlike Hitler’s Germany) never fought wars of aggression. What about Poland in 1920, or Finland in 1939? What about the invasion of Tibet in 1950? And what about Afghanistan in 1979? Many of those who marched against Iraq in 2003 and who condemn the current NATO mission in Afghanistan were not old enough to remember the Soviet invasion of the latter country in Christmas 1979. But some of the stoppers are, and the fact that they were prepared to endorse the latter while attacking the former makes them hypocrites, to put it politely.

(6) The final excuse is that Communists were idealists who were trying to build a better society. This assertion becomes untenable once you recognise that from the start – whether it was the Bolsheviks in 1917, the Chinese Communists in 1949, or Pol Pot in 1975 – the intention was that this great egalitarian society would be built on the bones of its supposed ‘class enemies’.

When it came to the collectivisation of agriculture – whether in Ukraine in the 1930s, or North Vietnam in the 1950s – the victims of new society were overwhelmingly the poor. The difference between ‘rich’ peasants who stood in the way of progress and ‘poor’ peasants was paper thin, and the end results were catastrophic.

It is also ironic that Communist apologists – from Milne to our very own ‘Zin’ – are so quick to jeer at the neo-conservatives for bringing chaos to Iraq with their dreams of Middle Eastern democratisation, when their heroes turned their own countries into charnel houses with their own twisted version of ‘idealism’. Yet the Bush administration types who misgoverned Iraq from 2003 do have one excuse – the vast majority of Iraqi civilians killed since Saddam’s overthrow have been slaughtered by the Islamist and ex-Baathist ‘resistance’. You can condemn the invasion and the occupation, but only the most deluded fantasist can argue that American and British troops are running their own Vorkutas, carrying out their own Katyns, or operating their own Tuol Sengs.

So I end with a statement of fact which should be beyond any contention – no member of the democratic left in any Western country can or should make excuses for their totalitarian counterparts. Left cannot, and should not, speak kindly of a pseudo-left which has more in common with the far right than it does with social democracy. The SWP, the CPB and other similar pieces of flotsam from Marxism-Leninism should be regarded with the same contempt and distaste as Nick Griffin and his band of semi-educated thugs. The red star and the hammer and sickle should be seen in the same terms as the swastika or the fasces. For when you consider the weight of historical evidence, who can possibly argue otherwise?

sackcloth and ashes

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