There is something deeply ugly about comparative statistics when the statistics in question relate to human lives. The deaths of people should not be accounted for like steel or coal production. In his diaries the English born expatriate novelist Christopher Isherwood once relayed a conversation at a dinner party in Hollywood where a fellow guest busily compared deaths caused by the Viet Cong with those caused by the US. “What are you, a f-ing statistician?”, Isherwood finally exploded.
As we consider the various catastrophes of the twentieth century, it is not only statisticians who can cause such eruptions, but partisan statisticians in particular. Thanks to the recent film Denial, the case of fascist historians like David Irving have been made familiar to a wide public. Although it does not come out especially clearly in the film, in the book which provoked the libel trial depicted in the film (Denying the Holocaust: the growing assault on truth and memory by Deborah Lipstadt) the motivation is clear. ‘Historians’ like Irving engaged in two games at once.
The first was to diminish the number of people killed in the Nazi Holocaust of European Jews, to chip away at the six million figure and come up with as a low a number of victims as they thought they could get away with (a figure that often culminated in the figure zero). At the same time they focused their energies on events such as the Allied bombing of Dresden and worked away to inflate the numbers killed in those raids. By this manoeuvre they hoped to be able to show that the Allies were at least as bad or even worse than the Nazis. Such are the exposed sins of fascist historians. The whole world is now familiar with them.
Yet since the dawn of the communist experiment, exactly one hundred years ago, precisely the same tricks have been used by communist historians and admirers, but with infinitely more success. From the New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty1 in the 1920s and ’30s right up to Seamus Milne (previously a Guardian columnist and now senior adviser to Jeremy Corbyn) in the present, the crimes of communism have been covered up (as in the case of Duranty) or downplayed (as in the case of Milne). Noticeable among the traits of those who perform this task is that they are the self-same people as those most eager to presume – and parrot – the highest deaths-tolls attributed to the side of any capitalist, democratic society engaged in any conflict anywhere.
Yet while the Irvings get the obloquy that they deserve, the careers of the Milnes of this world are not damaged in the same way. Why is this? The main cause – as even anti-communist historians like Robert Conquest have been willing to admit – is that fascism somehow ‘seems’ worse than communism. There remain many people who think that communism was not as bad as fascism, not because it didn’t claim more victims but because those victims were claimed in a somehow ‘noble’ endeavour. Perhaps now that we are a century on from the dawn of both experiments all can be seen in a clearer, and less competitive, light.
In recent months I have been speaking to people who study communism and its effects as well as some of those who suffered those effects. The resulting documentary for UnHerd was introduced by Tim Montgomerie yesterday, and can be downloaded and listened to via his introduction or, for example, on iTunes.
One thing that has struck me throughout the making of the documentary is the extent to which the victims of communism are still being fought over as if they were some kind of political football. Perhaps it is understandable that many people on the political Left remain unwilling to dwell on these crimes because they would like to disassociate themselves as much as possible from them.
But it is striking that when people on the political right dwell on these crimes they themselves are often accused of doing so for partisan political reasons. Of course there are some people who may have a tendency to try to seize the communist dead to make a short-term political point. But for many people of any political tendency and none the worries about the lack of consideration of the crimes of communism is not about politics but about fear.
When the death-toll from communism comes up it is more often in the hope that people will remember the wretchedness of the experiment not in order for some other system to triumph but in order to prevent the communist experiment from being repeated. As I point out in the documentary there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the memory of communism outside the countries which it ravaged is disturbingly weak.
Startlingly few young people even know of the central figures – Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot – let alone know any of the specifics of their crimes. Every day there are anecdotal examples of the attitudes that this inculcates. Just yesterday somebody told me of the reaction of bookshop worker in New York when they arrived at the till to purchase a copy of the latest biography of Lenin. The employee at the till apparently said, “Ah Lenin. I love Lenin.”
It remains inconceivable, even now, to imagine arriving at the till of a bookshop in America or Britain with a biography of General Franco or Adolf Hitler and for the worker to say, “Franco. I love Franco”. Let alone Hitler. If such a thing were said it would cause a sacking within minutes, be news within the hour and within the day would become the subject of endless opinion pieces talking about the incipient return of fascism.
This then is the oddity of the crimes of communism. Not only that the crimes remain badly remembered, or misremembered, but that the potential lessons (such as ‘don’t try this again’) are dwindling. You don’t need to be seeking to diminish the crimes of fascism to get involved in the debate about the crimes of communism. You just need to have a desire to be honest about history and to learn its lessons. One way to do so is – as in this documentary – is to listen to the voices of those who are dying out but who saw the horrors of which the communist systems were capable.
We recognise that we owe such a duty to the victims of fascism. That is one reasons why the British government has committed itself to the erection of another Holocaust memorial in the centre of London alongside the Houses of Parliament. That monument is not only intended to pay tribute to the dead but also to inoculate the living. Though (as we argue in the documentary) there are people who would like to similarly memorialise the victims of communism in London2. there is at present no similar political support for such a project. This is a great and growing shame. Of course Britain never suffered from the direct local effects of communism – but then the same can be said of fascism.
What we do recognise is that there is a virtue and purpose in remembering fascism. We need not become statisticians to recall the crimes of communism. Nor people trying to wage some ongoing political or cultural war. We need simply to be human beings, who wish to pay honest tribute to the sufferings of the past and express an appropriate caution over some of those solutions being suggested for our collective future.