The Black Book of Communism
Cover of the first edition
|Original title||Le Livre noir du communisme|
|Publisher||Harvard University Press|
|6 November 1997|
Published in English
|8 October 1999|
The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a 1997 book by Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Andrzej Paczkowski and several other European academics[note 1] documenting a history of political repressions by Communist states, including genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, killing populations in labor camps and artificially created 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 was published by Harvard University Press,:217 with a foreword by Martin Malia. The German edition, published by Piper Verlag, includes a chapter written by Joachim Gauck. The introduction was written by Courtois. Historian François Furet was originally slated to write the introduction, but was prevented from doing so by his death.:51
The book has been translated into numerous languages, sold millions of copies and is considered one of the most influential, although one of the most controversial, books written about communism. While it received strong praise from several publications, it was also criticised and accused of manipulations and inflating numbers, including challenges from the main contributors to the book.
"Introduction: The Crimes of Communism"
In the first chapter of the book entitled "Introduction: The Crimes of Communism", Stéphane Courtois states that "Communist regimes turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government" and they are responsible for a greater number of deaths than Nazism or any other political system.:2
Estimated number of victims
According to the chapter, the number of people killed by the Communist governments amounts to more than 94 million.:4 The statistics of victims include deaths through executions, man-made hunger, famine, war, deportations and forced labor. The breakdown of the number of deaths is given as follows:
- 65 million in the People's Republic of China
- 20 million in the Soviet Union
- 2 million in Cambodia
- 2 million in North Korea
- 1.7 million in Ethiopia
- 1.5 million in Afghanistan
- 1 million in the Eastern Bloc
- 1 million in Vietnam
- 150,000 in Latin America
- 10,000 deaths "resulting from actions of the international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power":4
According to Courtois, the crimes by the Soviet Union included the following:
- The execution of tens of thousands of hostages and prisoners
- The murder of hundreds of thousands of rebellious workers and peasants from 1918 to 1922
- The Russian famine of 1921, which caused the death of 5 million people
- The Decossackization, a policy of systematic repression against the Don Cossacks between 1917 and 1933
- The murder of tens of thousands in concentration camps in the period between 1918 and 1930
- The Great Purge which killed almost 690,000 people
- The deportation of 2 million so-called "kulaks" from 1930 to 1932
- The death of 4 million Ukrainians (Holodomor) and 2 million others during the famine of 1932 and 1933
- The deportations of Poles, Ukrainians, Moldovans and people from the Baltic states from 1939 to 1941 and from 1944 to 1945
- The deportation of the Volga Germans in 1941
- The deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1943
- Operation Lentil and deportation of the Ingush in 1944:9-10
Comparison of Communism and Nazism
Courtois considers Communism and Nazism to be distinct, but comparable totalitarian systems. He says that Communist regimes have killed "approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis".:15 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::15
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".:15 Courtois further stated:
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.
After 1945 the Jewish genocide became a byword for modern barbarism, the epitome of twentieth-century mass terror. [...] [M]ore 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.
The German edition contains an additional chapter on the Soviet-backed Communist regime in East Germany titled "Die Aufarbeitung des Sozialismus in der DDR" (The processing of socialism in the DDR). It consists of two subchapters, "Politische Verbrechen in der DDR" (Political crime in the DDR) by Ehrhart Neubert; and "Vom schwierigen Umgang mit der Wahrnehmung" (From the difficult handling of perception) by Joachim Gauck.
The book has evoked a wide variety of responses, ranging from enthusiastic support to severe criticism.
The Black Book of Communism received praise in many publications in the United States and the United Kingdom, including The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The New Republic, National Review and The Weekly Standard. The book has also been influential in Eastern Europe, where it was uncritically embraced by prominent politicians and intellectuals—many of these intellectuals popularized it using terminology and concepts popular with the radical right.:47,59
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". Similarly, historian Jolanta Pekacz remarked that the "archival revelations of The Black Book collapse the myth of a benign, initial phase of communism before it was diverted from the right path by circumstances".:311 Anne Applebaum, journalist and author of Gulag: A History, 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".
Historian Martin Malia, who prefaced the English-language edition of the book,:ix-xx described it 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".
Political scientist Vladimir Tismăneanu, whose work focuses on Eastern Europe, wrote that "the Black Book of Communism succeeds in demonstrating is that Communism in its Leninist version (and, one must recognize, this has been the only successful application of the original dogma) was from the very outset inimical to the values of individual rights and human freedom". Tismaneanu argued that Courtois' comparison of Communism to Nazism was broadly justifiable, writing that while "[a]nalytical distinctions between them are certainly important, and sometimes Courtois does not emphasize them sufficiently", their "commonality in terms of complete contempt for the bourgeois state of law, human rights, and the universality of humankind regardless of spurious race and class distinctions is in my view beyond doubt".:126 Tismaneanu further noted that in making his comparison, Courtois was drawing on Grossman's earlier explorations of the same theme in Life and Fate and Forever Flowing.
Several reviewers have singled out Nicolas Werth's "State against its People":33-268 as being the most notable and best researched contribution in the book. Intellectual historian Ronald Aronson wrote: "[Werth] is concerned, fortunately, neither to minimize nor to maximize numbers, but to accurately determine what happened".:233
Whereas chapters of the book, where it describes the events in separate Communist states, were highly praised, some generalizations made by Courtois in the introduction to the book became a subject of criticism both on scholarly and political:139 grounds.:236:13:68-72 Moreover, two of the book's main contributors—Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin—as well as Karel Bartosek publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois' statements in the introduction and criticized his editorial conduct. Werth and Margolin felt Courtois was "obsessed" with arriving at a total of 100 million killed which resulted in "sloppy and biased scholarship" and faulted him for exaggerating death tolls in specific countries.:194:123 They also argued that based on the results of their studies, one can tentatively estimate the total number of the victims at between 65 and 93 million. In particular, Margolin, who authored the Black Book's chapter on Vietnam, clarified "that he has never mentioned a million deaths in Vietnam". Historians Jean-Jacques Becker and J. Arch Getty have criticized Courtois:178 for failing to draw a distinction between victims of neglect and famine and victims of "intentional murder". Economic historian Michael Ellman has argued that the book's estimate of "at least 500,000" deaths during the Soviet famine of 1946–1947 "is formulated in an extremely conservative way, since the actual number of victims was much larger", with 1,000,000–1,500,000 excess deaths. Regarding these questions, historian Alexander Dallin has argued that moral, legal, or political judgments hardly depend on the number of victims.
Many observers have rejected Courtois's numerical and moral comparison of Communism to Nazism in the introduction.:148 According to Werth, there was still a qualitative difference between Nazism and Communism, saying: "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union". He further told Le Monde: "The more you compare Communism and Nazism, the more the differences are obvious". In a critical review, historian Amir Weiner wrote: "When Stalin's successors opened the gates of the Gulag, they allowed 3 million inmates to return home. When the Allies liberated the Nazi death camps, they found thousands of human skeletons barely alive awaiting what they knew to be inevitable execution".:450-52 Historian Ronald Suny remarked that Courtois' comparison of 100 million victims of Communism to 25 million victims of Nazism "[leaves out] out most of the 40-60,000,000 lives lost in the Second World War, for which arguably Hitler and not Stalin was principally responsible".:8 A report by the Wiesel Commission criticized the comparison of Gulag victims with Jewish Holocaust victims as an attempt to trivialize the Holocaust.
Historian Peter Kenez criticized the chapter written by Nicolas Werth: "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 Alexander 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'. He incorrectly writes that the peasant rebels during the civil war did more harm to the Reds than to the Whites, and so on". Historian Mark Tauger challenged the authors' thesis that the famine of 1933 was largely artificial and genocidal. According to journalist Gilles Perrault, the books ignores the effect of international factors, including military interventions, on the communist experience.
Social critic Noam Chomsky has criticized the book and its reception as one-sided by outlining economist Amartya Sen's research on hunger. While India's democratic institutions prevented famines, its excess of mortality over China—potentially attributable to the latter's more equal distribution of medical and other resources—was nonetheless close to 4 million per year for non-famine years. Chomsky argued that "supposing we now apply the methodology of the Black Book" 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".
Le Siècle des Communismes, a collective work of twenty academics, was a response to both François Furet's Le passé d'une Illusion and Courtois's The Black Book of Communism. It broke Communism down into series of discrete movements, with mixed positive and negative results.
The Black Book of Communism prompted the publication of several other "black books" which argued that similar chronicles of violence and death tolls can be constructed from an examination of colonialism and capitalism.
The reception of The Black Book of Communism led to the publication of a series entitled Du passé faisons table rase! Histoire et mémoire du communisme en Europe in 2002, with the same imprint. The first edition included a subtitle: "The Black Book of Communism has not said everything". Like the first effort, this second work was edited by Stéphane Courtois. The book focused on the history of Communism in Eastern Europe.
Several translations of the book were marketed as the second volume of The Black Book of Communism: Das Schwarzbuch of Kommunismus 2. Das Erbe der schwere Ideology (Germany, Piper, 2004), Черната книга на комунизма 2. част (Bulgaria, Prosoretz, 2004) and Il libro del nero comunismo europeo (Italy, Mondadori, 2006).
- Comparison of Nazism and Stalinism
- Criticisms of communism
- Le Passé d'une illusion
- Mao: The Unknown Story
- Prague Declaration
- The Great Terror
- The Gulag Archipelago
- The Soviet Story
- The Black Book of Capitalism
- The Black Book of Capitalism: A farewell to the market economy
- The Black Book of Colonialism
- 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.
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