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
EditorStéphane Courtois
AuthorsKarel Bartošek [fr]
Joachim Gauck*
Jean-Louis Margolin [fr]
Ehrhart Neubert*
Andrzej Paczkowski
Jean-Louis Panné [fr]
Nicolas Werth
(*German edition)
Original titleLe Livre noir du communisme
Communist states
PublisherHarvard University Press
Publication date
6 November 1997
Published in English
8 October 1999
Media typePrint

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a 1997 book by Stéphane Courtois, Andrzej Paczkowski, Nicolas Werth and several other European academics[note 1] documenting a history of political repression 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,[1]: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 he died before being able to do so.[2]:51

The Black Book of Communism has been translated into numerous languages, sold millions of copies and is at the same time considered one of the most influential and controversial books written about the history of communism in the 20th century,[3]:217 in particular the history of the Soviet Union and other Communist states and state socialist regimes.[4] While it received strong praise from several publications,[5] it was also criticized for comparing Communism to Nazism and accused of historical inaccuracies, manipulations and inflating numbers, including challenges from the main contributors to the book.[6] The book's title was chosen to echo the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee's Black Book, a documentary record of Nazi atrocities written by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.[7]:xiii

The authors use the term Communism to mean Leninist and Marxist–Leninist communism,[8]:ix–x i.e. the actually existing Communist regimes and "real socialism" of the 20th century, stating that it began with the Bolshevik Revolution which they describe as a coup.[8]:2 While distinguishing between small-c communism which they claim has existed for millennia and capital-c Communism which started in 1917, Courtois argues against the claim that actually existing communism had nothing to do with theoretical communism.[8]:2



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 are responsible for a greater number of deaths than Nazism or any other political system.[8]:2 Courtois also states that "Communism, the defining characteristic of the 'short twentieth century' that began in Sarajevo in 1914 and ended in Moscow in 1991, finds itself at center states in the story. Communism predated fascism and Nazism, outlived both, and left its mark on four continents."[8]:2 Courtois then goes on to explain what is meant by the term Communism in the book. Courtois states that "[w]e must make a distinction between the doctrine of communism and its practice. As a political philosophy, communism has existed for centuries, even millennia."[8]:2 Courtois cites Plato's Republic and Thomas More as communist examples of what he terms utopian philosophy. However, Courtois states that "the Communism that concerns us does not exist in the transcendent sphere of ideas. This Communism is altogether real; it has existed at key moments of history and in particular countries, brought to life by its famous leaders", citing Fidel Castro, Jacques Duclos, Vladimir Lenin, Georges Marchais, Ho Chi Minh, Joseph Stalin and Maurice Thorez as examples.[8]:2

Courtois argues that "[r]egardless of the role that theoretical communist doctrines may have played in the practice of real Communism before 1917", it was what he terms "flesh-and-blood Communism" which "imposed wholesale repression, culminating in a state-sponsored reign of terror". Courtois then asks whether the ideology itself is "blameless", noting that "[t]here will always be some nitpickers who maintain that actual Communism has nothing in common with theoretical communism" and that "it would be absurd to claim that doctrines expounded prior to Jesus Christ, during the Renaissance, or even in the nineteenth century were responsible for the events that took place in the twentieth century."[8]:2 However, Courtois quotes Ignazio Silone ("Revolutions, like trees, are recognized by the fruit they bear") and argues that "[i]t was not without reason" that the Bolsheviks, whose party was called the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, renamed it as the Russian Communist Party, called themselves "Communists" and erected monuments to honour Tommaso Campanella and Thomas More.[8]:2 Courtois claims that "the crimes of Communism have yet to receive a fair and just assessment from both historical and moral viewpoints."[8]:2


In his foreword, Martin Malia states that "Communism has been the great story of the twentieth century" and "it had come to rule a third of mankind and seemed poised to advance indefinitely. For seven decades it haunted world politics, polarizing opinion between those who saw it as the socialist end of history and those who considered it history's most vital tyranny."[8]:ix According to Malia, "more than eighty years after 1917, probing examination of the Big Questions raised by the Marxist-Leninist phenomenon has hardly begun" and that "a serious historiography was precluded in Soviet Russia by the regime's mandatory ideology", further stating that "scholarly investigation of Communism has until recently fallen disproportionately to Westerns."[8]:ix Malia states that "The Black Book offers us the first attempt to determine, overall, the actual magnitude of what occurred, by systematically detailing Leninism's 'crimes, terror, and repression' from Russia in 1917 to Afghanistan in 1989."[8]:x Malia also argues against what he terms "the fable of 'good Lenin/bad Stalin'", stating that there never was a "benign, initial phase of Communism before some mytical 'wrong turn' threw it off track", claiming that Lenin expected and wanted from the start a civil war "to crush all 'class enemies'; and this war, principally against the peasants, continued with only short pauses until 1953."[8]:xviii Malia further states that the Red Terror "cannot be explained as the prolongation of prerevolutionary political cultures", but rather as "a deliberate policy of the new revolutionary order; and its scope and inhumanity far exceeded anything in the national past."[8]:xviii Malia laments that "'Positivist' social scientists [...] have averred that moral questions are irrelevant to understanding the past" and criticizes this perspective by arguing that it "reduces politics and ideology everywhere to anthropology."[8]:xvi

According to Malia, there is a "basic problem" in Western historiography of Communism which he describes as "the conceptual poverty of the Western empirical effort." Malia states that "[t]his poverty flows from the premise that Communism can be understood, in an aseptic and value-free mode, as the pure product of social process", faulting that "researches have endlessly insisted that the October Revolution was a workers' revolt and not a Party coup d'état, when it was obviously the latter riding piggyback on the former." According to Malia, "the central issue in Communist history is not the Party's ephemeral worker 'base'; it is what the intelligentsia victors of October later did with their permanent coup d'etat, and so far this has scarcely been explored."[8]:x Malia then goes on to describe "two fantasies holding out the promise of a better Soviet socialism than the one the Bolsheviks actually built." The first one is "the 'Bukharin alternative' to Stalin" which Malia describes as "a thesis that purports to offer a nonviolent, market road to socialism—that is, Marx's integral socialism, which necessitates the full suppression of private property, profit, and the market." The second one "purports to find the impetus behind Stalin's 'revolution from above' of 1929–1933 in a 'cultural revolution' from below by Party activists and workers against the 'bourgeois' specialists dear to Bukharin, a revolution ultimately leading to massive upward mobility from the factory bench."[8]:x Malia argues that "perhaps a moral, rather than a social, approach to the Communist phenomenon can yield a truer understanding for the much-investigated Soviet social process claimed victims on a scale that has never aroused a scholarly curiosity at all proportionate to the magnitude of the disaster."[8]:x

Estimated number of victims[edit]

According to the introduction, the number of people killed by the Communist governments amounts to more than 94 million.[8]: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:

According to Courtois, the crimes by the Soviet Union included the following:

This and other Communist death tolls have been criticized by some historians and scholars, especially those based on the higher estimates of Rudolph Rummel and Benjamin Valentino, on which the book relies. Any attempt to estimate a total number of killings under Communist regimes depends greatly on definitions,[9] ranging from a low of 10–20 millions to as high as 110 millions.[10]:75, 91, 275 The criticism of some of the estimates are mostly focused on three aspects, namely that the estimates were based on sparse and incomplete data when significant errors are inevitable; that the figures were skewed to higher possible values; and that those dying at war and victims of civil wars, Holodomor and other famines under Communist regimes should not be counted.[11][12][13][14][15][16]

Andrzej Paczkowski writes that "[s]ome critics complained that Courtois was 'hunting' for the highest possible number of victims, which led him, as J. Arch Getty wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, to include 'every possible death just to run up the score.' To an extent, the charge is valid. Courtois and other contributors to the volume equate the people shot, hanged, or killed in prisons or the camps with those who were victims of calculated political famines (in the Chinese and Soviet cases), or who otherwise starved for lack of food or died for lack of drugs."[13]

Comparison of Communism and Nazism[edit]

Stéphane Courtois considers Communism and Nazism to be distinct yet comparable totalitarian systems, stating that Communist regimes have killed "approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of the Nazis."[8]:15 Courtois claims that Nazi Germany's methods of mass extermination were adopted from Soviet methods. As an example, Courtois cites the Nazi SS official Rudolf Höss who organized the infamous extermination camp, Auschwitz concentration camp, writing:

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.[8]:15

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 the Nazi Party. 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."[8]:15 Courtois further states:

Here, 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.[8]:9

But the intransigent facts demonstrate that Communist regimes have victimized approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million of the Nazis.[8]:15

After 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.[8]:23

In the foreword[edit]

Martin Malia strongly agrees with Courtois, describing it as "a 'tragedy of planetary dimensions' [...], with a grand total of victims variously estimated by contributors to the volume at between 85 million and 100 million"[8]:x and stating that what he terms the "full power of the shock" was "delivered by the unavoidable comparison of this sum with that for Nazism, which at an estimated 25 million turns out to be distinctly less murderous than Communism."[8]:xi According to Malia, "[t]he shocking dimensions of the Communist tragedy" are "hardly news to any serious student of twentieth-century history, at least when the different Leninist regimes are taken individually."[8]:x

Malia then notes Courtois' argument that since Nuremberg jurisprudence is incorporated into French law, the "class genocide" of Communism can be equated with the "race genocide" of Nazism and categorized as a crime against humanity.[8]:xi He states that Courtois raised the point of how Western intellectuals, Communist sympathizers and apologists for Communist leaders were complicit in Communist crimes, and that they only rejected them "discreetly and in silence." According to Malia, the French right has been tainted by its association with the Nazi Vichy regime, whereas "'knowing the truth about the U.S.S.R.' has never been an academic matter" until recently.[when?] Malia then cites the example of the Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin, who was in need of Communist votes to gain a parliamentary majority. While the non-Gaullist right cited The Black Book of Communism to attack the Jospin government "for harboring allies with an unrepented 'criminal past'", the Gaullists "remained awkwardly in place."[8]:xi

Malia states that the "ultimate distinguishing characteristic" of Nazism is the Holocaust which, according to Malia, is considered as historically unique. He laments that "Hitler and Nazism are now a constant presence in Western print and on Western television", while "Stalin and Communism materialize only sporadically", with the status of former Communists carrying no stigma. Malia also laments a double standard in de-Nazification and de-Stalinization, citing the example of former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, who "was ostracized worldwide once his Nazi past was uncovered" while the same treatment was not applied to Communists, with Communist monuments still standing in the former Communist states.[8]:xiv

Malia cites the liberal Le Monde as arguing that "it is illegitimate to speak of a single Communist movement from Phnom Penh to Paris. Rather, the rampage of the Khmer Rouge is like the ethnic massacres of third-world Rwanda, or the 'rural' Communism of Asia is radically different from the 'urban' Communism of Europe; or Asian Communism is really only anticolonial nationalism", further stating that "conflating sociologically diverse movements" is "merely a stratagem to obtain a higher body count against Communism, and thus against all the left." He criticizes this as "Eurocentric condescension."[8]:xiv Malia also cites the conservative Le Figaro, summarizing its argument as "spurning reductionist sociology as a device to exculpate Communism" by replying that "Marxist-Leninist regimes are cast in the same ideological and organizational mold throughout the world" and that "this pertinent point also had its admonitory subtext: that socialists of whatever stripe cannot be trusted to resist their ever-present demons on the far left."[8]:xiv

Malia argues that by reducing politics and ideology to anthropology, it "assure[s] us that contrary to Hannah Arendt, the 'Nazi/Soviet similarities' are insufficient to make denunciation a specifically 'totalitarian' phenomenon." He criticizes this argument by stating that "the difference between Nazi/Communist systems and Western ones is 'not qualitative but quantitative.' By implication, therefore, singling out Communist and Nazi terror in order to equate them becomes Cold War slander—the ideological subtext, as it happens, of twenty-five years of 'revisionist,' social-reductionist Sovietology."[8]:xvi He further criticizes this argument by making the point that "this fact-for-fact's sake approach suggests that there is nothing specifically Communist about Communist terror—and, it would seem, nothing particularly Nazi about Nazi terror either." He states that "the bloody Soviet experiment is banalized in one great gray anthropological blur; and the Soviet Union is transmogrified into just another country in just another age, neither more nor less evil than any other regime going", and dismisses this as "obviously nonsense." For Malia, "the problem of moral judgment" is "inseparable from any real understanding of the past" and "from being human."[8]:xvi

Moral equivalence[edit]

Jacques Sémelin writes that Stéphane Courtois and Jean-Louis Margolin [fr] "view class genocide as the equivalent to racial genocide." Alongside Michael Mann, they contributed to "the debates on comparisons between Nazism and communism", with Sémelin describing this as a theory also developed in The Black Book of Communism.[17]:37

Martin Malia asks "What of the moral equivalence of Communism and Nazism?" Malia argues that "[a]fter fifty years of debate, it is clear that no matter what the hard facts are, degrees of totalitarian evil will be measured as much in terms of present politics as in terms of past realities" and that "we will always encounter a double standard as long as there exist a left and a right",[8]:xx which he "roughly define[s] as the priority of compassionate egalitarianism for the one, and as the primacy of prudential order for the other."[8]:xvi–xvii However, Malia argues that "[s]ince neither principle can be applied absolutely without destroying society, the modern world lives in perpetual tension between the irresistible pressure for equality and the functional necessity of hierarchy".[8]:xvii For Malia, it is "this syndrome" which "gives the permanent qualitative advantage to Communism over Nazism in any evaluation of their quantitative atrocities. For the Communist projects, in origin, claimed commitment to universalistic and egalitarian goals, whereas the Nazi projects offered only unabashed national egoisim", causing their practices to be "comparable" and their "moral auras" to be "antithetical."[8]:xvii

According to this argument, "[a] moral man can have 'no enemies to the left,' a perspective in which undue insistence on Communist crime only 'plays into the hands of the right'—if, indeed, any anticommunism is not simply a mask for antiliberalism."[8]:xvii Malia cites Le Monde as deeming The Black Book of Communism "inopportune because equating Communism with Nazism removed the 'last barriers to legitimating the extreme right,' that is, Le Pen." While stating it is true that "Le Pen's party and similar hate-mongering, xenophobic movements elsewhere in Europe represents an alarming new phenomenon that properly concerns all liberal democrats", Malia argues that in no way does it follow that "Communism's criminal past should be ignored or minimized".[8]:xvii Malia argues that "the persistence of such sophistry is precisely why The Black Book is so opportune",[8]:xvii much like Courtois' reasoning for writing the book that "the crimes of Communism have yet to receive a fair and just assessment from both historical and moral viewpoints."[8]:3

About The Black Book of Communism, Courtois further states:

This book is one of the first attempts to study Communism with a focus on its criminal dimensions, in both the central regions of Communist rule and the farthest reaches of the globe. Some will say that most of these crimes were actions conducted in accordance with a system of law that was enforced by the regimes' official institutions, which were recognized internationally and whose heads of state continued to be welcomed with open arms. But was this not the case with Nazism as well? The crimes we shall expose are to be judged not by the standards of Communist regimes, but by the unwritten code of natural laws of humanity.[8]:3

Courtois states that "[t]he legal ramification of crimes committed by a specific country were first confronted in 1945 at the Nuremberg Tribunal, which was organized by the Allies to consider the atrocities committed by the Nazis". Courtois argues that "[a]n examination of all the crimes committed by the Leninist/Stalinist regime, and in the Communist world as a whole, reveals crimes that fit into each of these three categories", namely crimes against humanity, crimes against peace and war crimes.[8]:5

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" ("The Processing of Socialism in the GDR"). It consists of two subchapters, namely "Politische Verbrechen in der DDR" ("Political Crimes in the GDR") by Ehrhart Neubert and "Vom schwierigen Umgang mit der Wahrnehmung" ("On the Difficulty of Handling Perceptions") by Joachim Gauck.[18]



The Black Book of Communism received praise in many publications in the United Kingdom and the United States, including The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The New Republic, National Review and The Weekly Standard.[5] Several reviewers have singled out Nicolas Werth's "State against its People"[8]:33-268 as being the most notable and best researched contribution in the book.[19][20] Historian Ronald Aronson wrote that "[Werth] is concerned, fortunately, neither to minimize nor to maximize numbers, but to accurately determine what happened."[3]:233

Historian Tony Judt wrote in The New York Times that "[t]he 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."[5] 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."[21]:311 Anne Applebaum, historian 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."[5]

Historian Martin Malia, who prefaced the English-language edition of the book,[8]: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."[5]

Philosopher Alan Ryan, writing in The New York Times Book Review, stated that "[t]o the extent that the book has a literary style, it is that of the recording angel; this is the body count of a colossal, wholly failed social, economic, political and psychological experiment. It is a criminal indictment, and it rightly reads like one." Ryan stated that the authors do not astonish their readers, "dramatize the sufferings of the victims of Communism", or focus on quarrels over exact numbers of victims, affirming that there is no serious moral difference between the lower and higher estimated numbers. Speaking of the relative immorality of Communism and Nazism, Ryan argued that the "body count tips the scales against Communism", but that if the "intrinsic evil of the entire project" is considered, Nazism is still worse because it was exterminationist.[22]

Political scientist Vladimir Tismăneanu, whose work focuses on Eastern Europe, wrote that "the Black Book of Communism succeeds in demonstrating [...] 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."[23]:126 Tismaneanu further noted that in making this comparison, Courtois was drawing on Vasily Grossman's earlier explorations of the same theme in Life and Fate and Forever Flowing.[23]:126

Philosopher Jean-François Revel devoted several chapters of Last Exit to Utopia: The Survival of Socialism in a Post-Soviet Era to responding to criticism against The Black Book of Communism. In the book, Revel criticizes the imputation to capitalism as an economic system of crimes that would not belong to it such as those of colonialism, slavery and the Nazi regime while socialism as an economic system is not held responsible for the crimes of Communist regimes. Revel states that there has never been a democratic or pluralist government that falls under the Marxist–Leninist field of "real socialism", nor such a system without totalitarianism, a single-party regime and political persecution. Revel considers collectivism and statism inextricably linked to forced labor and slavery.[24]

Professor David J. Galloway, political scientist Robert Legvold and historian Andrzej Paczkowski gave generally positive reviews of the book.[13][25][26][further explanation needed]

According to historian Jon Wiener, The Black Book of Communism "received both praise and criticism. [...] The book was especially controversial in France because it was published during the 1997 trial of Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon for crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of Jews from Bourdeaux to Hitler's death camps. Papon's lawyers introduced the book as evidence for the defense."[27]:37–38 The Black Book of Communism has been especially 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.[28]:47, 59 According to political scientist Stanley Hoffmann, "[t]his gigantic volume, the sum of works of 11 historians, social scientists, and journalists, is less important for the content, but for the social storm it has provoked in France. [...] What Werth and some of his colleagues object to is 'the manipulation of the figures of the numbers of people killed' (Courtois talks of almost 100 million, including 65 million in China); 'the use of shock formulas, the juxtaposition of histories aimed at asserting the comparability and, next, the identities of fascism, and Nazism, and communism.' Indeed, Courtois would have been far more effective if he had shown more restraint."[29]


Whereas chapters of the book that describe 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[30]:139 grounds.[3]:236[31]:13[32]:68–72 Moreover, two of the book's main contributors (Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth) as well as Karel Bartosek[6] publicly disassociated themselves from Stéphane Courtois' statements in the introduction and criticized his editorial conduct.[29] Margolin and Werth felt that Courtois was "obsessed" with arriving at a total of 100 million killed which resulted in "sloppy and biased scholarship",[33] faulted him for exaggerating death tolls in specific countries[6][34]:194[35]:123 and rejected the comparison between Communism and Nazism.[3]

Based on the results of their studies, Courtois estimated the total number of the victims at between 65 and 93 million, an unjustified and unclear sum according to Margolin and Werth.[36] In particular, Margolin, who authored the book's chapter on Vietnam, clarified "that he has never mentioned a million deaths in Vietnam".[6] Margolin likened Courtois's effort to "militant political activity, indeed, that of a prosecutor amassing charges in the service of a cause, that of a global condemnation of the Communist phenomenon as an essentially criminal phenomenon."[3] Historians Jean-Jacques Becker and J. Arch Getty criticized Courtois[37]:178 for failing to draw a distinction between victims of neglect and famine and victims of "intentional murder."[38] Regarding these questions, historian Alexander Dallin argued that moral, legal or political judgments hardly depend on the number of victims.[9]

Many observers have rejected Courtois' numerical and moral comparison of Communism to Nazism in the introduction.[31]:148[39][40] According to Werth, there was still a qualitative difference between Nazism and Communism, stating that "[d]eath camps did not exist in the Soviet Union."[38] On 21 September 2000, Werth further told Le Monde that "[t]he more you compare Communism and Nazism, the more the differences are obvious."[38] In a critical review, historian Amir Weiner wrote that "[w]hen 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."[14]:450–452 Historian Ronald Grigor 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."[41]:8 Anthropologist Kristen Ghodsee and philosopher Scott Sehon remarked that Courtois' death toll estimate for Nazism "conveniently" excludes those killed in World War II.[42] A report by the Wiesel Commission criticized the comparison of Gulag victims with Jewish Holocaust victims as an attempt to trivialize the Holocaust.[28] Some reviewers rejected the claim made in the book that "a lot of what they describe 'crimes, terror, and repression' has somehow been kept from the general public"[14] and questioned "[w]hether all these cases, from Hungary to Afghanistan, have a single essence and thus deserve to be lumped together—just because they are labeled Marxist or communist—is a question the authors scarcely discuss."[9]

Historian Peter Kenez criticized the chapter written by Nicholas Werth, arguing that "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."[20] Historian Michael Ellman 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.[43] Historians such as Hiroaki Kuromiya and Mark Tauger challenged the authors' thesis that the famine of 1933 was largely artificial and genocidal.[44][12] According to journalist Gilles Perrault, the book ignores the effect of international factors, including military interventions, on the Communist experience.[45]

Noam Chomsky 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."[46][47]

Historian Michael David-Fox criticized the figures as well as the idea to combine loosely connected events under a single category of Communist death toll, blaming Courtois for their manipulation and deliberate inflation which are presented to advocate the idea that Communism was a greater evil than Nazism. In particular, David-Fox criticized the idea to connect the deaths with some "generic Communism" concept, defined down to the common denominator of party movements founded by intellectuals.[48] Historians Jens Mecklenburg and Wolfgang Wippermann argued that a connection between the events in Pol Pot's Cambodia and Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union are far from evident and that Pol Pot's study of Marxism in Paris is insufficient for connecting radical Soviet industrialism and the Khmer Rouge's murderous anti-urbanism under the same category.[49]

Journalist William Blum, a critic of American foreign policy, stated that it is "a book that is to the study of communism what the [fabricated] Protocols of the Elders of Zion is to Judaism."[50] Journalist Seumas Milne, writing two articles for The Guardian in 2002 and 2006, argued that the impact of the post-Cold War narrative that Stalin and Hitler were twin evils and therefore communism is as monstrous as Nazism "has been to relativize the unique crimes of Nazism, bury those of colonialism and feed the idea that any attempt at radical social change will always lead to suffering, killing and failure". About the book, Milne stated that it "underplays the number of deaths attributable to Hitler."[51][52]

Le Siècle des communismes, a collective work of twenty academics, was a response to both François Furet's Le passé d'une Illusion and Stéphane Courtois' The Black Book of Communism. It broke communism down into series of discrete movements, with mixed positive and negative results.[53] 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 capitalism and colonialism.[54][55][56]


Laure Neumayer argues that the book has played a major role in what she terms the criminalisation of Communism in the European political space in the post Cold War-era. According to Neumayer, "by making criminality the very essence of communism, by explicitly equating the 'race genocide' of Nazism with the 'class genocide' of Communism in connection with the Ukrainian Great Famine of 1932–1933, the Black Book of Communism contributed to legitimising the equivalence of Nazi and Communist crimes. The book figures prominently in the 'spaces of the anti-communist cause' comparably structured in the former satellite countries, which are a major source of the discourse criminalising the Socialist period."[57]


The reception of The Black Book of Communism led to the publication in 2002 of a series entitled Du passé faisons table rase! Histoire et mémoire du communisme en Europe with the same imprint. The first edition included the 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.[58]

Several translations of the book were marketed as the second volume of The Black Book of Communism, titled Das Schwarzbuch of Kommunismus 2. Das schwere Erbe der Ideologie,[59] Chernata kniga na komunizma 2. chast[60] and Il libro del nero comunismo europeo.[61]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The full list of contributors include:
    • Karel Bartošek (1930–2004), a historian from the Czech Republic and researcher at the Institut d'Histoire du Temps Présent (IHTP) in Paris.
    • Sylvain Boulougue, a research associate at GEODE, Université Paris X.
    • Stéphane Courtois, the director of research at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique and the main author and editor of the book.
    • Pascal Fontaine, a journalist with a special knowledge of Latin America.
    • Rémi Kauffer, a specialist in the history of intelligence, terrorism and clandestine operations.
    • Martin Malia, a historian and the author of the foreword to the English edition.
    • Jean-Louis Margolin, a lecturer at the Université de Provence and a researcher at the Research Institute on Southeast Asia.
    • Andrzej Paczkowski, 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.
    • Jean-Louis Panné, a specialist on the international Communist movement.
    • Pierre Rigoulet, a researcher at the Institut d'Histoire Sociale.
    • Yves Santamaria, a historian.
    • Nicolas Werth, a researcher at the IHTP.


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Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]