Over the last fortnight UnHerd has ran a series of features on ‘communism’s forgotten victims’: why is the West’s collective memory so short when it comes to the horrors perpetrated by Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin? How has it happened that the swastika is rightly anathema to the modern world, but the hammer-and-sickle is the stuff of Vetements catwalks?
It would be a wild stretch to say we were the first to wonder this aloud. Our deep dive into the fascist implementation of liberal ideologies is indebted to the organisations around the world who take this question as their animating purpose.
One of them is the Washington-based Victims of Communism, founded more than twenty years ago.
Last month it published the results of a second annual survey it has conducted with YouGov on attitudes of US citizens to communism and socialism. You can see the full results for yourself here. VoC seem more interested in definitions of capitalism vs socialism vs communism than we are. From the perspective of UnHerd’s project, the poll most usefully underlined our concern that knowledge of communism’s crimes is being lost with time, as the generations that lived under communism and through the Cold War age and pass away…
While most ‘Matures’ (the cohort older than baby-boomers) correctly recognised that more than 100 million people had died under communism1, only 16% of GenZ-ers and 19% of Millennials had an accurate knowledge of the scale of communism’s barbarity.
And would you have guessed that nearly a third of young Americans had a favourable view of Marx? Well, they do. 32% of Millennials had a favourable view of the author of Das Kapital2; 23% were favourable towards Lenin; 19% to Mao; and 6% of Stalin.
36% of Millennials held a “very unfavourable” view of communism – compared to 68% of baby boomers and 79% of what the survey identified as “matures”.
A big effort is clearly required to stop knowledge of communism dying with its eye-witness populations.
Someone attempting to launch such an effort in the UK is the author and commentator James Bartholomew. If you’ve heard Douglas Murray’s documentary you may remember James was one of the interviewees3. He outlined his ambition to establish a permanent Museum of Communist Terror in London in a Sunday Telegraph article. That, however, is for the longer-term. In the early, testing-the-waters stages of his initiative he wants to simply build social media campaigns that raise awareness – especially in universities. You can follow what he’s doing on Twitter.
One city that lived under communism already has a museum. Budapest’s House of Terror Museum opened in 2002 as part of the EU’s Platform of European Memory and Conscience. Probably the most famous museum documenting the atrocities of fascism and communism, it focuses as much on Nazism and the Soviet Union as it does Hungary’s domestic story. And it’s where Douglas Murray set off to first in reporting this week’s audio documentary.
The Institute for the investigation of Communist Crimes and the Memory of the Romanian Exile is a government project whose central objective is to “meticulously analyze” totalitarianism and its human costs. Like other foundations, it publishes papers and provides school curricula, but it’s also uniquely active in the justice-seeking process, filing legal complaints against former officers of Romania’s communist regime with the Court of Cassation and Justice. This year, in a case originating with the IICCMER, a commander at the Periprava labour colony was sentenced to 20 years in prison for his crimes against humanity.
Plans for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, DC began in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it wasn’t until 1993 that a bipartisan bill finally established a foundation to educate the public about communism and honour it’s more than 100,000,000 victims. The memorial – inspired by the papier mache and foam Goddess of Democracy that student protesters constructed in Tiananmen Square – was finally completed in 2006. The foundation also runs a comprehensive online museum and a witness project that collects video testimony from communism’s modern survivors.
There are a raft of orgs dedicated exclusively to documenting the horrors of the Gulag camps, including Gulag Online – a one year-old online museum established by the Czech NGO Gulag.cz and the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, a Czech government agency. They map abandoned camps in the former USSR. Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor and the Struggle for Freedom is another online project with a curious set of partners at the helm: the US National Park Service and the Gulag Museum in Perm, Russia.
A recent UK study found that most young people were unable to identify Lenin. Seventy percent had never heard of Mao. In the face of those results, UnHerd worked to answer the question Why don’t we remember the victims of communism? but perhaps the question should have been Why do so few remember?. Because the reality is there’s a small but robust network of museums and memorials and foundations and agencies doing the hard work of remembering for the rest of us.
- Some credible estimates put the loss of life at 94 million for the 20th Century, with Reason noting that “During the century measured, more people died as a result of communism than from homicide (58 million) and genocide (30 million) put together. The combined death tolls of WWI (37 million) and WWII (66 million) exceed communism’s total by only 9 million.”
- They need to read Allan Mallinson’s essay marking this year’s 150th anniversary of its publication. The article’s headline – Marx: a revolutionary terrorist – couldn’t be much clearer!
- Listen to the full audio of his contribution