The Black Book of Communism

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The Black Book of Communism
Le Livre noir du communisme.jpg
Cover of the first edition
Author Stéphane Courtois (ed.)
Nicolas Werth
Jean-Louis Panné
Andrzej Paczkowski
Karel Bartosek
Jean-Louis Margolin
Ehrhart Neubert*
Joachim Gauck*
(*German edition)
Original title Le Livre noir du communisme
Country France
Language French
Subject Communism, Totalitarianism
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date
6 November 1997
Published in English
8 October 1999
Media type Print
Pages 912
ISBN 978-0-674-07608-2

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a 1997 book edited by Stéphane Courtois,[1] who includes contributions by several European academics documenting a history of repressions, both political and civilian, by Communist states, including genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines. The book was originally published in France as Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression by Éditions Robert Laffont. In the United States it is published by Harvard University Press.[2] The German edition, published by Piper Verlag, includes a chapter written by Joachim Gauck.


Estimated number of victims[edit]

In the introduction, editor Stéphane Courtois states that "Communist regimes... turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government."[3] He claims that a death toll totals 94 million.[4] The breakdown of the number of deaths given by Courtois is as follows:

Courtois claims that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The statistics of victims includes direct deaths through executions but as well as indirect deaths from famine, deportations, physical confinement, and forced labor.

Soviet repressions[edit]

Repressions and famines occurring in the Soviet Union under the regimes of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin described in the book include:

Comparison of Communism and Nazism[edit]

Courtois considers Communism and Nazism to be distinct but comparable totalitarian systems. He claims that Communist regimes have killed "approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis".[6] Courtois claims that Nazi Germany's methods of mass extermination were adopted from Soviet methods. As an example, he cites the Nazi SS official Rudolf Höss who organized the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz concentration camp. According to Höss,[6]

The Reich Security Head Office issued to the commandants a full collection of reports concerning the Russian concentration camps. These described in great detail the conditions in, and organization of, the Russian camps, as supplied by former prisoners who had managed to escape. Great emphasis was placed on the fact that the Russians, by their massive employment of forced labor, had destroyed whole peoples.

Courtois argues that the Soviet crimes against peoples living in the Caucasus and of large social groups in the Soviet Union could be called "genocide", and that they were not very much different from similar policies by Nazis. Both Communist and Nazi systems deemed "a part of humanity unworthy of existence. The difference is that the Communist model is based on the class system, the Nazi model on race and territory."[6] Courtois stated that[7]

The "genocide of a "class" may well be tantamount to the genocide of a "race"—the deliberate starvation of a child of a Ukrainian kulak as a result of the famine caused by Stalin's regime "is equal to" the starvation of a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto as a result of the famine caused by the Nazi regime.

He added:

[A]fter 1945 the Jewish genocide became a byword for modern barbarism, the epitome of twentieth-century mass terror... more recently, a single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide in an attempt to characterize the Holocaust as a unique atrocity has also prevented the assessment of other episodes of comparable magnitude in the Communist world. After all, it seems scarcely plausible that the victors who had helped bring about the destruction of a genocidal apparatus might themselves have put the very same methods into practice. When faced with this paradox, people generally preferred to bury their heads in sand... Communist regimes have victimized approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million of the Nazis.

German edition[edit]

The German edition contains an additional chapter on the Soviet-backed communist regime in East Germany, titled "Die Aufarbeitung des Sozialismus in der DDR". It consists of two sub chapters, "Politische Verbrechen in der DDR" by Ehrhart Neubert, and "Vom schwierigen Umgang mit der Wahrnehmung" by Joachim Gauck.[8]


The book has evoked a wide variety of responses, ranging from enthusiastic support to severe criticism.


The Black Book of Communism received praise in a number of publications in the United States and Britain, including The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The New Republic, National Review, and The Weekly Standard.[9] Some reviewers compared the book to the Black Book, a documentary record of the Nazi atrocities by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.[10]

Historian Tony Judt wrote in The New York Times, "The myth of the well-intentioned founders—the good czar Lenin betrayed by his evil heirs—has been laid to rest for good. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism".[9]

Anne Applebaum, journalist and author of Gulag: A History,[9] described the book as "a serious, scholarly history of Communist crimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America [...]. The Black Book does indeed surpass many of its predecessors in conveying the grand scale of the Communist tragedy, thanks to its authors' extensive use of the newly opened archives of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."

Martin Malia, writing for the Times Literary Supplement,[9] described the book as "the publishing sensation in France [...] detailing Communism's crimes from Russia in 1917 to Afghanistan in 1989... [The Black Book of Communism] gives a balance sheet of our present knowledge of Communism's human costs, archivally based where possible, and otherwise drawing on the best secondary works, and with due allowance for the difficulties of quantification."

Courtois's controversial propositions were influential in Eastern Europe, where they have been enthusiastically embraced by prominent politicians and intellectuals.[11]


The book has been criticized for its scholarship and has been accused of trivializing the Holocaust, for example in its comparison of extermination camps to the Gulag.[11] Two of the Black Book's main contributors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, sparked controversy in France when they publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois' statements in the introduction about the scale of Communist terror. They felt Courtois was "obsessed" with arriving at a total of 100 million killed, and faulted him for exaggerating death tolls in specific countries.[12][13] They also argued that, based on the results of their studies one can estimate the total number of the victims of the Communist abuse in between 65 and 93 million.[14]

Although political scientist Vladimir Tismăneanu argued that the Black Book's comparison between Communism and Nazism was both morally and historically justifiable,[15] some others have rejected the comparison.[16] According to Werth, there was still a qualitative difference between Nazism and Communism. He told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union",[17] and "The more you compare Communism and Nazism, the more the differences are obvious."[18]

Historian Peter Kenez of has criticized the book for historical inaccuracies: "Werth can also be an extremely careless historian. He gives the number of Bolsheviks in October 1917 as 2,000, which is a ridiculous underestimate. He quotes from a letter of Lenin to Aleksandr Shliapnikov and gives the date as 17 October 1917; the letter could hardly have originated at that time, since in it Lenin talks about the need to defeat the Tsarist government, and turn the war into a civil conflict. He gives credit to the Austro-Hungarian rather than the German army for the conquest of Poland in 1915. He describes the Provisional Government as "elected."[19] Historian Mark Tauger disagrees with the authors' thesis that the famine of 1933 was artificial and genocidal. Tauger argues that the authors' interpretation of the famine contains errors, misconceptions, and omissions that invalidate their arguments.[20] However Tauger's own view of the famine is not widely shared by scholars in the field,[21] with historian Stephen Wheatcroft, author of The Years of Hunger, stating that Tauger's view represents the opposite extreme in arguing the famine was totally accidental.[22]

Other historians have criticized Courtois for drawing no distinctions between the various causes of death. In his review of the book, the ex-communist historian Jean-Jacques Becker also criticized Courtois' numbers as rather arbitrary and as having "zero historical value" (Fr. "La valeur historique est nulle") for adding up deaths due to disparate phenomena (Fr. "additionner des carottes et des navets", i.e. adding apples and oranges). Revisionist historian J. Arch Getty noted that famine accounted for a significant part of Courtois's 100 million death toll. He believes that these famines were caused by the "stupidity or incompetence of the regime," and that the deaths resulting from the famines, as well as other deaths that "resulted directly or indirectly from government policy," should not be counted as if they were equivalent to intentional murders and executions.[17]

French journalist Gilles Perrault, writing in an op-ed in Le Monde diplomatique, has accused the authors of having used incorrect data and of having manipulated figures.[23] On the other hand, some of the estimates given in the Black Book have been deemed "too conservative". For example, regarding the Soviet famine of 1946–48, Michael Ellman wrote "In their 'black book', Courtois et al. (1997, pp. 258–64) do discuss the famine. The number of victims they give, however, while correct ('at least 500,000') is formulated in an extremely conservative way, since the actual number of victims was much larger."[24]

Some have argued that the book's account of violence is one-sided and simplistic. Amir Weiner of Stanford University, while acknowledging book's list of Communist crimes as "long, informative, and, for most part, indisputable," nonetheless characterizes it as "seriously flawed, incoherent, and often prone to mere provocation."[25] Alexander Dallin writes that moral, legal, or political judgement hardly depends on the number of victims.[26]

Linguist and social critic Noam Chomsky has strongly criticised the book's methodology and reception. Chomsky cites the work of Amartya Sen, who estimated the excess of mortality in India over China due to the latter's "relatively equitable distribution of medical resources" at close to 4 million a year, for non-famine years. Chomsky goes on to argue that, "supposing we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers" to India, "the democratic capitalist 'experiment' has caused more deaths than in the entire history of [...] Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, and tens of millions more since, in India alone."[27] Similarly, Daniel Bensaïd, a French philosopher and Trotskyist activist, argued that a similar chronicle of violence and death tolls can be constructed from an examination of colonialism and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ *Stéphane Courtois is a director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS).
    • Nicolas Werth is a researcher at the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent (IHTP) in Paris.
    • Jean-Louis Panné is a specialist on the international Communist movement.
    • Andrzej Paczkowski is the deputy director of the Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a member of the archival commission for the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs.
    • Karel Bartošek (1930–2004) was a historian from the Czech Republic, and a researcher at IHTP.
    • Jean-Louis Margolin is a lecturer at the Université de Provence and a researcher as the Research Institute on Southeast Asia.
    • Sylvain Boulougue is a research associate at GEODE, Université Paris X.
    • Pascal Fontaine is a journalist with a special knowledge of Latin America.
    • Rémi Kauffer is a specialist in the history of intelligence, terrorism, and clandestine operations.
    • Pierre Rigoulet is a researcher at the Institut d'Histoire Sociale.
    • Yves Santamaria is a historian.
    • Martin Malia wrote the foreword to the English edition.
  2. ^ Ronit Lenṭin; Mike Dennis; Eva Kolinsky (2003). Representing the Shoah for the Twenty-first Century. Berghahn Books. p. 217. ISBN 1-57181-802-2. 
  3. ^ Werth et al. Margolin, p. 2.
  4. ^ a b Werth et al. Margolin, p. 4.
  5. ^ Werth et al. Margolin, pp. 9–10.
  6. ^ a b c Werth et al. Margolin, p. 15.
  7. ^ Werth et al. Margolin, p. 9.
  8. ^ Stéphane Courtois, Joachim Gauck, Ehrhart Neubert et al., Das Schwarzbuch des Kommunismus. Unterdrückung, Verbrechen und Terror. (1998) Piper Verlag, München 2004, ISBN 3-492-04053-5
  9. ^ a b c d "The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stéphane Courtois". Harvard University Press. Retrieved 2008-02-24. 
  10. ^ Rousso, Henry, ed. (2004), Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared, p. xiii, ISBN 0-8032-3945-9 .
  11. ^ a b [1]
  12. ^ "Les divisions d'une équipe d'historiens du communisme". Le (in French). 1997-10-30. ISSN 1950-6244. Retrieved 2016-08-03. 
  13. ^ Gvosdev, Nikolas K. The Strange Death of Soviet Communism: A Postscript. Transaction Publishers. p. 194. ISBN 9781412835176. 
  14. ^ Margolin, Jean-Louis; Werth, Nicolas (1997-11-14). "Communisme : retour à l'histoire" [Communism: Return to the history]. Le Monde (in French). Retrieved 2015-06-14. 
  15. ^ Tismaneanu, Vladimir (January 2001), "Communism and the human condition: Reflections on the Black Book of Communism", Human Rights Review, Netherlands: Springer, 2 (2) ,
  16. ^ Bartov, Omer (Spring 2002), Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 3 (2), pp. 281–302 .
  17. ^ a b Getty, J Arch (Mar 2000), "The Future Did Not Work" (text), The Atlantic Monthly, Boston: Hackvan, 285 (3): 113 .
  18. ^ Le Monde, 21 September 2000
  19. ^ Peter Kenez, "Little Black Book", Feed Magazine, 30 November 1999.
  20. ^ Tauger, Chapter 20 for Roter Holocaust book (PDF), WVU .
  21. ^ Mace, James (October 21, 2003), "Intellectual Europe on Ukrainian Genocide", The Day, UA: Kiev .
  22. ^ Wheatcroft, SG (2004), "Towards explaining Sovief famine of 1931–3: political & natural factors in perspective", Food and Foodways, 12 (2): 107–36, doi:10.1080/07409710490491447 .
  23. ^ Perrault, Gilles (December 1997), "Communisme, les falsifications d'un " livre noir "", Le Monde Diplomatique (in French), France .
  24. ^ The numbers were 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 excess deaths according to Ellman (Ellman, Michael (2000), "The 1947 Soviet Famine and the Entitlement Approach to Famines" (PDF), Cambridge Journal of Economics, 24 (5): 603–30, doi:10.1093/cje/24.5.603 ).
  25. ^ Weiner, Amir (Winter 2002), Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 32 (3), pp. 450–52 .
  26. ^ Dallin, Alexander, Slavic Review, 59 (4) .
  27. ^ Counting the Bodies - Noam Chomsky (text) 
  28. ^ Bensaïd, Daniel. "Comunismo y estalinismo Una respuesta al libro negro del comunismo" [Communism & Stalinism A response to the black book of communism] (in Spanish). Translated to Spanish by Alberto Nadal. Retrieved 2015-03-11. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]