One answer, a sensible one at that, is that both systems were so degraded, disgusting and unpalatable that it is impossible to establish a hierarchy of value in which one could possibly stand higher, or lower, than the other. When you’ve reached the deepest pit in Hell there’s nowhere lower to go.
Unfortunately, though, that conclusion is often lost in a quagmire of ignorance and historical distortion. Not because anyone this side of decency really doubts the horrors of Nazism. But, sadly, because there are still large numbers of people (and judge for yourself which side of decency they stand) who still refuse to face up to the horrors of communism.
Take veteran Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele, writing in that paper just last week. In an irony that would certainly escape him, he makes it clear that one purpose of his polemic is to combat the “denial” in the West about the role of the Soviet Union in defeating Hitler. In attempting to foreclose on the argument that “Nazism and communism were somehow two sides of the same evil coin” he reaches a crescendo with the following, extraordinary statement: “Mass terror and purges,” he says, “were not intrinsic to Soviet rule, as was clear after Stalin’s death.”
This, remember, is taken from a column in the Guardian last week. Not from the ranting of some half-crazed Marxist in the 1930s, screaming: “I’ve seen the future and it works.” It is the opinion of a respected British commentator writing in 2005 in a newspaper which claims the values of intellectual honesty and moral decency as its own.
As a matter of fact, mass terror and purges were even more central to the Soviet system of rule than to Nazism, the full extent of whose tyranny did not evolve until several years after Hitler had taken power, and then in the midst of World War II.
Soviet mass terror, by contrast, was a feature of the regime right from the beginning. Lenin’s core principle of Red Terror was applied in the slaughter of up to half a million class enemies in the very first years of Soviet rule. And that is before we add in the millions of victims of a civil war which was the direct result of communist despotism.
In Lenin’s own words, the new Soviet system was “a special system of organized violence against a certain class.” The use of terror against class and ideological enemies was thus a central, defining part of the communist system.
Lenin’s Commissar for Justice Issac Steinberg well remembers in his memoirs a telling conversation with Lenin in which he (bravely) expressed reservations about the scale of that terror. “Then why do we bother with a commissariat of Justice?” he asked Lenin. “Let’s call it frankly the commissariat for Social Extermination and be done with it!” Lenin jumped at the idea. “Well put,” he said. “That’s exactly what it should be…but we can’t say that.”
The full death toll, most of it accumulated in peace time, at the hands of Lenin and his political and ideological successor, Stalin, is estimated by the best authorities at somewhere between 25 million and 30 million people. Not bad in a system for which mass terror and purges were not “intrinsic” parts. In what passes for Steele’s argument, he suggests the scaling down of the terror after Stalin’s death is evidence the system was not inherently terroristic. Does it not occur to him that there was no one left to kill?
Nazism and Communism shared many things in common. Both were varieties of socialism — one a nationalist socialism, the other a Marxist-Leninist socialism. Both were intrinsically anti-capitalist, anti-individualist and anti-democratic. Both categorized entire groups as enemies destined for annihilation, and did all they could to annihilate them. Both hated each other, and both hated the West.
But to say the two systems were similar is not, of course, to say that they were identical. There is no exact parallel in the Soviet past to the Nazis’ industrialized slaughter of 6 million Jews in World War II. Neither is there an exact parallel in the Nazi experience to the peacetime slaughter of entire social groups such as the 10 million Ukrainian peasants whom Stalin had designated as class enemies in the 1930s and dispensed with in mass deportations, mass executions and history’s largest artificial, state-orchestrated famine.
It is in considering such examples that honest men and women get a sense of the futility of trying to compare the horrors of the two systems. What would the words “better” or “worse” really mean in such a context? What sort of moral apparatus could we use to form a judgment?
People are drawn into the debate for a variety of reasons. Some are just incapable of living in a world without superlatives. There must be a “biggest.” There must be a “best.” There must, therefore, be a “worst.” The world is simpler that way.
As Sheppard writes, trying to objectively conclude one form of Hell was worse than the other can actually say more about the person doing the choosing than his decision:
But by far the most significant category is made up by people who have a deep ideological need to save the reputation of the one by showing up its “better” qualities in comparison with the other. Neo-Nazis have thus long sought to stress the crimes of Stalin while diminishing or denying entirely the crimes of Hitler. It serves their perverted aims to do so. The old, Western Left has participated in exactly the same kind of enterprise in reverse. The difference is, of course, that they continue to get away with it, avoiding the contempt that both groups, not just one, so richly deserve.
How we handle the question of Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism reflects back on our own integrity. It is impossible to be either honest or decent if we use the victims of one form of totalitarianism as ideological trump cards to be used against the victims of another.
Those who continue to do so should reflect hard on the enterprise they are engaged in.