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Pure, Purifying, and Evil

Martin Roemers
An aging mural of Lenin at a former Soviet Air Force base in East Germany; photograph by Martin Roemers from his 2009 book Relics of the Cold War, published by Hatje Cantz

The twentieth century undoubtedly will mainly be remembered for producing totalitarian politics. Italian Fascism was the first to give this name to the phenomenon, even though Mussolini’s movement was the least “total” of the regimes upon which the name has since been bestowed. While Mussolini wanted concentration of all power in his dictatorship, his movement was mainly concerned with Italian national causes and imperial ambitions, and Italy’s international prestige. It did not put forward a doctrine of millenarian international expectations or promise the transformation of Italians—or of human society itself. That was what Nazism and Leninism did, which set them off from their contemporaries and from the political phenomena of the past.

The essential identity of the two is the subject of The Devil in History, the fine and undoubtedly enduring study by Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian, born in 1951 to a father who had lost his arm at the Battle of the Ebro in the Spanish civil war while serving in the International Brigades, and a mother who, as a medical school student, was serving in Spain as a nurse. Returning to Romania, the senior Tismaneanu resumed a role in the underground Romanian Communist Party, was arrested, and in prison met the Party leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who became his mentor. When Romania acquired a Communist government, following the arrival of Soviet troops in 1944, Tismaneanu became an influential figure in the ruling party.

As the child of a privileged family in the nomenklatura, his son, Vladimir, attended elite Bucharest schools, where he was a classmate of Nicu Ceauşescu, the son of the successor to Gheorghiu-Dej (who died in 1965). In this book Tismaneanu tells of being drawn at the University of Bucharest to the dissident and Western neo-Marxist literature to which he had access because of the family’s political position—the writings, for example, of Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukács, Leszek Kołakowski, and the Frankfurt School. He became aware of the increasing absorption into the discourse of the ruling party of themes and motifs from the pre-war Romanian far right.

The “legionnaires” of Romanian Fascism (the League of the Archangel Michael, founded in 1927, eventually known as the Iron Guard) “embraced death” in the cause of national renewal and renounced all that was “mundane.” The movement’s founder, Corneliu Zelea Codreanu, was a religious mystic, and the Legionnaires, who maintained to the end an intense commitment to Romanian Orthodox Christianity as a vital expression of the nation, and were ferociously anti-Semitic, found a wide popular following among the peasantry. In its religious commitment the League did not in the least resemble Nazism—which was pagan and anti-Christian as well as anti-Semitic—nor even Italian Fascism, whose relations with the Catholic Church were politicized, temporizing, and expedient (it concluded a concordat with the Vatican that survives to the present day). The League perished in the ideological and military struggles of the war and the Soviet invasion that put communism in power in Romania.

The Communist Party of Romania under Ceauşescu developed into a mélange of residual Leninism with ideas unmistakably drawn from the thought of Codreanu and the League. It was peculiar to Romania and increasingly nationalistic, to such an extent that Ceauşescu, “the Genius of the Carpathians,” was thought in NATO circles to be a possible new Tito, while becoming increasingly distrusted within the Warsaw Pact alliance.

Vladimir Tismaneanu received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Bucharest in 1980, having acquired a reputation as an unorthodox student thinker. Following his father’s death in 1981, he accompanied his mother to Spain to visit the sites she had known in the civil war. He did not return to Romania, going instead to Venezuela and eventually to the United States, where he found posts at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and at the University of Pennsylvania, and later at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he remains as professor of comparative politics.

When, as a result of the Enlightenment, religion ceased to play its former central part in society, at least among the intellectual and political classes of Europe, one or another version of belief in scientific progress usually took religion’s place, plausibly supported by the evidence of technological and material accomplishment. This period, lasting until the start of the twentieth century, is now widely looked back upon in Europe as the golden age of the European bourgeoisie and the creation of modern political institutions. In 1914 it was brought to an end by an essentially trivial act of Balkan nationalism, the accidental second encounter in Sarajevo of the nineteen-year-old Gavrilo Princip with the car of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whom Princip had set out to assassinate but had lost in the street crowds. He seized his moment, and nothing has been the same since. Princip was a childhood schoolmate of the wife of a Yugoslav expatriate with whom I worked during the 1950s; all this is not that long ago.

With World War I, the period began that Hannah Arendt has characterized as that of “ideological storms,” second to none in political passions, radicalism, utopian ideals, and their catastrophic consequences in the twentieth century’s experiments in massive social engineering…second to none in violence, hubris, ruthlessness, and human sacrifices. What is not often commented upon, however, is that the secular political ideologies that came to dominate post–World War I European politics, and to attract large followings, were intrinsically incredible, even ridiculous or absurd by the standards of common sense, as well as sinister and unachievable. They included notions of utopian worker paradises, transformed human beings, or Nordic racial domination of the world with eugenic extermination of the racially unfit. At the same time they were unprecedented in the scale of their ambition and method, and their eventual destruction of vast numbers of human beings for racial or utopian objectives that could not and cannot be achieved.

This was a peculiarly modern phenomenon, intended to produce an epochal liberation of man from oppression, ignorance, and obscurantism, and in the Nazi case a reordering of the human race. These two secular ideologies—Marxism/Leninism and its derivatives, and Fascism culminating in Nazism—both, like religions, demanded unqualified adherence from their followers by promising a radical transformation in people’s lives.

Politically speaking, their most significant aspect was that their millenarianism was wholly temporal in dimension. The Jewish and Christian religions had always envisioned their fulfillment as dependent upon the will of God and the supernatural intervention of a messiah. Human endeavor and religious striving imposed personal ethical obligations, but promised their reward in paradise, outside of time. By contrast, the utopian rewards promised by the Communist and Nazi secular religions of the post-Enlightenment period had by definition to arrive within earthly time, and if possible within the lifetimes of their prophets and their followers. A virtuous Christian can die believing that he or she is entering paradise. A believing Communist Party member or Nazi officer must have results during his or her lifetime if his or her life’s struggle is to be perceived as justified. In that case, as recent history has demonstrated, there logically is no limit to what one may do to bring the promised secular utopia. If God is dead, or never existed, nothing is prohibited, as Dostoevsky had already imagined.

This affinity of Leninism with Nazism is the argument of Tismaneanu’s book. It is a claim that since 1945, and particularly the cold war, has generated much controversy. The two phenomena were both responses to the great crisis of World War I, during which confidence in orderly progress and the continuity of history had been wiped out. The masses of Europeans who had undergone the war and its terrible damage to an entire generation were ready for these two explosive forms of radical political modernism, which themselves continued to express the nihilism of the world war but in an illiberal manner, since the liberalism of the nineteenth-century West was implicated in the catastrophe that it had failed to prevent.

Tismaneanu describes the two ideologies as incarnations “of diabolically nihilistic principles of human subjugation and conditioning in the name of presumably pure and purifying goals.” His choice of adjectives is not lightly dismissed. He paraphrases François Furet’s statement—with which few are likely to disagree—that “there was something absolutely evil in Nazi practice, both at the level of original intention and the implementation of utopian goals.” But Furet, like many others, describes this as unique—in Tismaneanu’s words, “there is something truly singular about the Holocaust and the manic perfection and single-mindedness of the Nazi Final Solution.” Was it unique?

The Holocaust (quoting the historian Enzo Traverso) in intention was “an ecological measure” addressed to the purification of the human race, but was also what Traverso called “a ritual act of sacrifice performed to redeem history from chaos and decadence.” The latter fantasy seems to have been part of the reasoning of Hitler himself, convinced of Judeo-Bolshevist world conspiracies and of a global Darwinian struggle among “races,” or of the reasoning of Alfred Rosenberg, the Baltic German and former White Russian militant and Aryan theorist. It strikes one, however, as an intellectually highfalutin attribution of motivation to the likes of Heinrich Himmler, the sadistic Reinhard Heydrich, and the wretched Adolf Eichmann. What they sponsored or did was immense in scale, horror, and sophistication of organization, but is hard to distinguish from preceding and subsequent sordid human massacres, motivated by hatred, sadism, ambition, or the greed of despots.

The argument usually offered to set Leninism apart from Nazism is that the former arose from an Enlightenment ambition to liberate humanity from obscurantism and superstition. Marxism offered a narrative of “inevitable” (because “scientifically determined”) human progress in which the impoverished and exploited part of mankind would through revolutionary action not only liberate themselves but find their true and destined place at the summit of humanity, rulers of a society devoted to the interests of the masses. There is in Marxism an unadmitted Cinderella story, which has always been part of its appeal, possibly more so to intellectuals than to the working masses; the latter are less susceptible to fairy tales.

Tismaneanu identifies the beginning of what he calls “the catastrophe” with the Bolsheviks’ “apocalyptic vision of an unprecedented break with all liberal values and traditions, including the pluralist ethos of international social democracy,” a vision for which Lenin was chiefly responsible, convinced that “his vanguard party…was entrusted by an almost mystically defined history to achieve its goals and make humanity content forever, no matter the human costs.” Lenin eliminated the worthless humans who were class enemies in order to “defend socialism” but was mainly concerned with creating utopia, which required new men.

Both movements wished to transform humanity, the Leninists by getting rid of the class enemies of the proletarian movement, liberating it to build utopia, its historical destiny. The Party itself was the vehicle of utopian change, possessor of the charisma of inevitable victory, and able to exist even after the deaths of Lenin and Stalin. Nazism could not exist without Hitler. The Nazis released the beast in mass man through the mechanisms of racial ideology and the contagious megalomania of Hitler himself, even though led by an unconvincing elite who were contradictions of the tall blond Aryan superman: Himmler, Goebbels, even the neurotic Hitler. The party collapsed when Hitler committed suicide. The Allies feared underground Nazi resistance by “werewolves” striking out from a Bavarian redoubt. Nothing happened; the Nazi Party vanished. Once the Soviet army had battered Berlin to near death the war was over.

Keystone/Getty Images
Mao Zedong during the 1950s

In Russia’s case, the Leninist Party in theory embodied historical reality and therefore absolute authority; it existed by virtue of its inherent truth. When Lenin, the founder, died in 1924, Stalin, whom Lenin had made (to his subsequent regret) general secretary of the Party, outmaneuvered rivals and succeeded to power. When Stalin died in 1953, the relieved elite eventually rallied under Nikita Khrushchev. The Party—the movement—outlived its leaders. Even under Stalin, Tismaneanu writes, the fact that the Party continued to exist as a hierarchy embedded in the system

allowed for successive Leninist reinventions and stagnations in both the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One possible explanation for the immensely explosive impact of Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” (February 1956 [describing Stalin’s crimes]) was, besides the classical remark about the acceptance of fallibility in the implementation of the party line at the higher level of power, that the revealed crimes were against the party. The Stalin myth irreversibly subverted the party’s “charismatic impersonalism.”

What had counted for believers was the promise of salvation incarnated in the Party.

The Hungarian novelist Arthur Koestler, who was a member of the German Communist Party and a Comintern agent in Spain and Paris, described the commitment of leading Party members in his novel Darkness at Noon, published in 1940. He offered an explanation for what to the non-Soviet world was the perplexing and even uncanny insistence of the victims of the Stalin trials of 1937–1938 on accusing themselves of the crimes they had supposedly committed, never protesting their innocence, and even adding new affirmations of treachery to those of which they stood accused.

His fictional hero (usually believed to be modeled on Nikolai Bukharin, tried in 1938 and executed for supposed conspiracy with the exiled Trotsky; fifty years later rehabilitated under Mikhail Gorbachev) had devoted his life to the Communist Party, which “can never be mistaken…. [It] is the embodiment of the revolutionary idea in history.” If it needed to sacrifice him to its larger purposes, to testify to a nonexistent plot and falsely incriminate others, Koestler’s protagonist accepts this as his final service to Historical Necessity and the Revolution. It has subsequently become known from the Soviet records that these shattering confessions were extorted by torture, false promises, blackmail, and threats to wives and children.

This power of the Communist Party over its adherents was not ended by the war (or the fall of the Soviet Union). Tismaneanu limits himself to events in Europe, but in China, a decade after the war, the policies of Mao Zedong, executed largely through the Party apparatus, were responsible for what is generally accepted as the greatest famine known in modern history (beginning in 1958 and lasting four years, during which some 36 to 55 million people died of starvation—the total is still disputed, and the famine’s very existence remains a taboo subject in China). The suffering and disruption caused by what Mao intended to be a “Great Leap Forward” in industry and industrial production (memorable, among other reasons, for the Party’s preposterous endorsement of “backyard steel forges” to increase steel production), followed by the “Cultural Revolution” in 1966, when “intellectuals” and urban cadres and officials were sent to do hard labor in the countryside, to share the life of peasants, all this lasting to the death of Mao in 1976, were followed by the chaos of rule by Mao’s widow and the “Gang of Four,” soon routed in a Party coup.

China today remains only four decades away from the ideological hysteria of that period, which followed on the defeat of the Kuomintang (and implicitly the United States) and the impasse of the Korean War, leaving threateningly large American military forces still deployed near China’s borders and territorial waters. Yet the Chinese Communist Party has been incapable of coming to terms with its own history. Any Chinese man or woman aged fifty or more today who grew up with Maoism and its horrors must have been uneasy indeed during the covert political infighting that accompanied the Eighteenth Party Congress last November. The history of communism in China is not yet finished.

A decade and a half after the claim was heard in Western academic circles that the ideological era was disappearing, the genocide of some 1.7 million humans—a quarter of the Cambodian population at the time—took place in that country. Its authors, the leaders of the Khmer Rouge movement, were from a group of 250 Cambodian scholarship students, selected from élite families, sent to France at the beginning of the cold war (when Cambodia was still a French colony) for graduate education. A group of them, under the influence of the Maoist victory in China, organized themselves (under the leadership of the first Cambodian graduate of France’s École Polytechnique) to carry out a similar liberation of Cambodia. They were greatly influenced by the French Revolution, above all by Robespierre. A number joined the French Communist Party and formed what would become the future Cambodian Communist Party—the Khmer Rouge, provided with funds, structure, and ideology by the French Communists.

They were also impressed by the doctrine (held at that time by the Chinese Communists) of self-criticism and purge as a method for strengthening the Party. The Khmer Rouge were convinced that the nobility of their cause justified killing those they believed to be standing in the way of the revolution in Cambodia, which embraced all those considered “intellectuals” and wore glasses (including clerical workers and petty bureaucrats), as well as great landholders and the wealthy. The Khmer Rouge believed it was emulating the Maoists in China and the Vietminh, although “the formation they had received in Europe seemed to them too humanist,” according to French historian Henri Locard, a former academic in Cambodia and sometime prisoner of the Khmer Rouge at Angkor. Survivors of the leadership have claimed to be unrepentant.

There was, of course, just a couple of decades later, ethnic and tribal slaughter of a more traditional and predictable kind in Rwanda, the eastern Congo (where it has yet to end), and elsewhere, producing mass murder for ethnic reasons, or to control mineral resources for foreign exploitation. Familiar as this is in primitive or underdeveloped countries, it is to be distinguished from the peculiarly modern phenomenon of human slaughter for ideological reasons. The American university–educated Charles Taylor, the convicted mass murderer, mass mutilator, and patron of child-soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s, was presumably in it for the money. Pol Pot in Cambodia was an idealist, as were Lenin and Mao (at least in the beginning), and one assumes that, in his own way, so was Hitler, who inspired millions of Germans and other Europeans with his vision of how Europe would be reinvigorated, unified, and modernized by National Socialism. He was not in it for the money. Nor will his successors be, whom we (presumably) have yet to meet.

The events of the totalitarian twentieth century, Vladimir Tismaneanu writes in the conclusion of his distinguished book, leave us with memories of the dead and “a sense of unbearable tragedy.” Western Europe has been purged of ideological hubris—whether permanently so or not we do not know. History does not repeat itself, but humans do not change.

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