As the dramatic and painful 20th century was drawing to a close, one of the most important books of our times appeared in France: The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Published in 1997, the same year marking the 80th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, it still is one of the most potent and well-documented exposés of that political ideology criminal nature. Among the eleven authors of the work, several of them were former Trotskyites and Maoists. Within the year of its publication it had sold more than 100,000 copies. It was soon translated into German and Italian, and was published in Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Bosnia, England, Sweden, Poland, Bulgaria, Turkey and the United States among other countries. Not even five years had gone by that the edition reached 800,000 copies. Tony Judt (not exactly a conservative) stated about it that “those who had begun to forget will be forced to remember anew”. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jacob Heilbrunn opined that “it is a masterful work. It is, in fact, a reckoning”. In the pages of The New York Times Book Review, Alan Ryan said: “It is a criminal indictment, and it rightly reads like one”.
The work shocked French society to its foundations. So heated was the debate that ensued, that a year later a book documenting the controversy was published (in French), beautifully titled A Cobblestone thrown into History. At about the same time, the most radical of its detractors published a “response” –The Black Book of Capitalism– that counted Jean Ziegler, co-founder of the (Orwellian) Muhammad Qaddafi Human Rights Award, among its many collaborators.
As one of the authors of The Black Book of Communism, Andrzej Paczkowski (Director of the Department of Contemporary History of the Polish Academy of Sciences), summarized in a 2001 essay in The Wilson Quarterly, the book basically threw three main cobblestones into History. The first was to question the notion of Leninist purity marred by Stalin’s savagery. According to these historians, if Lenin and his comrades planned the “politicide” of the population, then one could wonder if terror is inherent in Marxist doctrine. The second cobblestone was to present incontestable evidence of the atrocities of Communist regimes. In North Korea, Kim Il Sung ordered to liquidate the dwarves. In Romania, prisoners were forced to torture each other. In Cuba, homosexuals were sent to re-education camps. Wherever Communists seized power -Czechoslovakia, Cambodia, Germany, Cuba, Hungary, China, Vietnam, Russia- obscurantism covered everything. Irrespective of geographical area or religious and cultural tradition, oppression and mass terror were the norm under Communist rule.
The third cobblestone, according to Paczkowski, was the most polemical. Main editor Stéphane Courtois (Research Director at the National Center for Scientific Research, linked to the University of Paris X), showed that while the Nazis massacred around twenty-five million people, the Communists killed about one hundred million in the 20th century . Noting that he did not seek to make a “macabre comparative arithmetic” he observed with bewilderment, however, that while the Nazi regime was considered the most criminal of the century, Communism retained all of its world legitimacy until 1991 and still has supporters.
There are several reasons for this exercise in selective memory. Unlike Nazism, whose violently supremacist rhetoric preannounced its intentions, the promises of Communism were kind: equality between men, a more just society, a better world for all. Thus, Nazi actions are seen as a result of Nazi words, but the actions of the Communists are seen as perversions of Communist rhetoric. Unlike post-World War II Germany, which admitted its crimes against humanity, Russia, China and other Communist countries never did. Mao still adorns currency notes in circulation in Beijing. In Berlin today, a stamp in honor of Hitler would be inconceivable. The atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis are well-known, rightly so. Communist barbarism is less so. This ignorance has roots in a sorry fact: part of the left has yet to repudiate Communism. American educator Dennis Prager, who has offered the above cited explanations, concludes: “Even worse than being murdered or enslaved is a world that does not even know that you were”.
The Black Book of Communism was published timely –it had to belong in the 20th century. In addition, with the advent of the new millennium and the resurgence of radical Islam, public opinion began to focus on a new threat to liberal democracy and Western civilization. The global conversation was caught up in the 9/11 attacks, US policy toward the Middle East, the transatlantic divisions, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, Iran’s nuclear program and other more pressing geopolitical issues than the past sins of Communism.
This year marks two decades since this essential work was published. Along with other definitive texts -Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and Simon Leys’ Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, to name just two- it threw the definitive cobblestone into the stained glass of lies with which the Communists tried to color their criminal enterprise.