Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Red Stars or Brown Shirts?

Whereas amongst men, there are very many, that thinke themselves wiser, and abler to govern the Publique, better than the rest; and these strive to reform and innovate, one this way, another that way; and thereby bring it into Destraction and Civill warre.
                                                                             Thomas Hobbes
Communism and Nazism – how can these two ideologies be compared?  The question for some may seem pointless, unanswerable, perverse, even. Nevertheless, historians, philosophers, political theorists and others persist with the comparisons.  At stake is more than academic one-up-man ship or a morbid curiosity for the cruelties and rampages of fanatics and speculation on the career trajectories of fringe politicians.  Nazism and Communism have murderous legacies and ghastly imageries (Brown Shirts and the Gulag) that continue to fuel the polemics embedded in our current political rivalries.  “Nazi” is today not just a word reserved for historians and political philosophers to designate an extinct and odious political movement and party that flourished in one of the world’s most cultured and scientifically advanced countries in the middle decades of the last century.  Its denotation has been overwhelmed by its connotation.  “Nazi” is now a frequently resorted-to term of abuse, an entry in a specialized lexicon assembled from historically related terms like “Fascist,” “Brown Shirt,” “Gestapo” selected primarily for political vilification and nullification.  For the historically ignorant, “Nazi” comes into play as a vague image of murderous bigotry, a label of pure insult and abuse, devoid of historical or empirical content.  This lexicon is favored particularly by those on the Left to vent their frustrations and as a source from which to retrieve and frame their insults and make grotesque caricatures of their political opponents in the center and on the right.  
 From the real, live, flesh-and-blood Nazis that were completely vanquished in the smoldering ruins of Berlin in1945 an ever present specter of Fascism has been conjured out of the ashes by the Left that seems to need a threatening Nazi lurking forever in the shadows as a malevolent, atavistic counterpoise to its own romantic mythology of humanism, progressivism and heroic resistance to evil.  Today’s world lacks real Nazis; yet they remain for the Left as necessary, menacing abstractions of pure evil, their permanence assured.     
 “Communist”, unlike “Nazi,” has yet to become a term of pure disapprobation – far from it. Its connotations are quite mixed.  Communist governments, parties, movements, theorists, world figures, and admirers still abound and flourish. Ernesto Che Guevara, post mortem, occupies one of the coveted chairs of high-celebrity in the exalted regions of pop-culture. Here he has reigned for decades, a modern day Christ, martyred in service to the poor and oppressed.  The scruffy image from Alberto Korda’s famous photo is a big money maker for businesses that sell coffee mugs, hoodies, baseball caps, toques, bandannas, tank tops, club shirts, couture bags, jeans, herbal tea, and other items.  [Alvaro Vargas Llosa,The Killing Machine: Che Guevara, from Communist Firebrand to Capitalist Brand,” July11 2005, The New Republic]  Che, the man who Sartre described as “the most complete human being of our era,” decorates tee-shirts and posters that are highly popular with university students all over the world – admiration without foundation; idealism with no connection to historical reality and little attention paid to what he actually said and did.  [“It is customary for followers of a cult not to know the real life story of their hero, the historical truth. (Many Rastafarians would renounce Haile Selassie if they had any notion of who he really was.) It is not surprising that Guevara’s contemporary followers, his new post-communist admirers, also delude themselves by clinging to a myth—except the young Argentines who have come up with an expression that rhymes perfectly in Spanish: “Tengo una remera del Che y no sé por qué,” or “I have a Che T-shirt and I don’t know why.”Vargos Llosa,The Killing Machine”]
By April of 1945 Soviet troops were raping their way through Germany and had moved into the suburbs of Berlin.  The Third Reich had been bombed by the Allies into a smoking ruin.  Holed up in the Fuhrer bunker, Hitler cursed the German people who had failed him then pressed his Luger against his temple. The victorious Allies tried and hanged Hitler’s henchmen, de-Nazified Germany, and severed a portion of it to serve as Stalin’s most precious war trophy and the Soviet Union as a vassal-state for the next forty-five years.  Photos show the battered corpse of Mussolini hanging upside down from a meat hook at an Esso gas station in Milan beside his mistress Clara Petacci also in 1945.  Vidkun Quisling had collaborated with the occupying Nazis in his native Norway.  He was tried and shot in the same year. His name is now eponym for the most perfidious of creatures, a collaborator with the occupier and a traitor.  Today the German and Austrian governments promise a prison residence to those who deny the holocaust. The Swastika arouses nothing but revulsion.  Memory of the Fuhrer now excites the admiration only of a few truculent psychotics and other alienated flotsam of the lunatic fringe. 
The few self-identified, stiff-armed saluting Nazis among us are mere curiosities, aberrations, while the most populous country in the world still proudly proclaims itself to be Communist and reveres its mass-murdering founder whose visage is everywhere and decorates their currency. His pink mummy lies in repose in a majestic mausoleum for inspection and veneration by thousands of daily visitors. 
The only Communist tyrant with the collapse in 1989-1991 to meet a comparable fate to that of the Nazi chiefs was Nicolae Ceauşescu who along with his wife Elena was put before a firing squad of eager volunteers from their own country, one they had thoroughly plundered and whose people they had tyrannized for decades.  Elena’s parting riposte to one of the soldiers leading her off to the firing squad was – “Go fuck your mother,” [Victor Sebestyen, Revolution, 1989: the Fall of the Soviet Empire, New York, 2009, 5] a graceful flourish in the final strains of the Ceauşescu-Danube waltz of Romanian Socialism and a fitting trope for the conscientious stewardship of the decades of Communist vision and leadership.
Most of the residue in the ruling apparatus in the collapsed Soviet empire retired or quickly shed their Communist skins and slithered their way into positions of power in the post-Communist regimes.  No process of “de-Communization” comparable to the allies’  “de-Nazification.”   Those few who were held to account got off lightly.  Charges of human rights abuses against Erich Honecker, who succeeded Walter Ulbricht in 1976 and headed the German Democratic Republic until 1989 were dropped upon his diagnosis of liver cancer.  He was allowed to move to Chile where he died.   His successor, Egon Krenz, was tried for complicity in the murders of East German citizen who were killed for offending Communist sensibilities by trying to flee past the Berlin wall. He ended up serving three years in prison. [Service, Camaradas: Breve Historia del Comunismo, 641]  Former Russian Federation President and current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin was a KGB officer.  One can easily imagine the howling outrage from all corners of the world if a former Gestapo officer became the head of the current German government.  In fact when the Nazi career of the Austrian United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim came to light he immediately fell into ignominy. His diplomatic career came quickly to an end.  Former Leninist and General Secretary of the Communist Party, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared in a Pizza Hut commercial during the Super Bowl.  There is no respectable place in today’s world for ex-Nazis.  For ex-Communists opportunities abound.
Stalin and Mao unlike Hitler and Mussolini died natural deaths. Neither man ever had to face an international tribunal, nor were they ever held to account for their many crimes.  Castro presided for fifty years over a single party dictatorship that turned Cuba into third world slum. He will probably die peacefully.  No doubt he will be eulogized by our own Left as a hero and benefactor.  After all, those Cubans who had not decamped from the island enjoyed “universal health care,” a considerable easement, no doubt, to their state-enforced squalor and abject servitude.   In China, thirty-five years after his death, no Chinese leader has yet stepped forward to be to Mao what Khrushchev was to Stalin.    
            “Communist” and “Nazi” are among other things ideological “achievement” words, i. e., each designates from the twentieth-century past a well-organized, fanatically inspired coterie of ideologues who found societies sufficiently receptive to the implementation of their unique “ism”.  Regimes like these had never before existed and in their heights were extraordinarily powerful, highly popular and astonishingly lethal.  Their promises were bold and unprecedented.  Their rhetoric overflowed with rancor and violence. Their appeal was widespread. They were very explicit and specific about what they planned to do to the opposition when they had power, and these were among the few promises that they actually kept. The self-infatuated personalities of their leaders were deeply corroded by the acid of resentment.  They seemed to be motivated largely by implacable hatred, an abstract, ideological hatred that was readily turned into the practice of extermination. The methods they used for implementation were particularly notable for their ruthlessness and unprincipled opportunism.  Germany was seduced and ultimately raped by Hitler who with a fair amount of German assistance (the German universities for one) turned the country of Bach, Beethoven, Goethe, and Kant into a brutal dictatorship premised on a pseudo-biologically inspired ideal of racial purity and superiority.  The land of the Tsars under the Red Star became the host of the Gulag, the crucible for a seventy-four year-long experiment of Lenin’s Marx-inspired ideology, and, an assiduous exporter of the Leninist “command-coercion” political methodology far and wide.  Commands were conceived and issued by the Party chiefs and were enforced by elaborate coercive organs in the complete absence of any independent system of legality.  Communist regimes, one and all, were ruthless, lawless and corrupt. When Gorbachev finally relaxed the coercion in the late 1980s, the Soviet empire to his surprise collapsed overnight.
“Communist” and “Nazi” in light of their historical “achievements” are also now highly emotive warning-words. They continue to inflame political discourse and function not only as constant reminders of the lethal consequences of these two twentieth-century ideologies but also as ultimate epithets of moral disapprobation.
One should recognize, however, even with our increasing knowledge of the barbarity of twentieth-century Communism, the appalling lack of symmetry – “Nazi” provokes pure unabated loathing. “Communist” still for many signals failed idealism, good intentions gone awry. For the former, only execration; for the latter there is understanding and exemption from full condemnation.  No one today will ever be judged excessive or unbalanced in their antipathy for Fascism, but anti-Communism still draws a sneer from the sophisticates. The anti-Communist calls forth the image of an intolerant, intellectually primitive creature, a small minded, rural-Indiana poltroon.   The horrors of the Third Reich are etched permanently and deeply in our memories; the atrocities of Stalin, however, are statistics for academic specialists.   “Everybody knows of Himmler and Eichmann. Nobody knows of Yezhov and Dzerzhinksy,” writes Marin Amis.  “Everybody knows of the 6 million of the Holocaust.  Nobody knows of the 6 million of the Terror-Famine [in Ukraine]”.  [Marin Amis, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, London, 202, 257]   
            In comparing Communists with Nazis one helpful observation to make perhaps is how  completely absorbed they were with each other,  defining themselves in the starkest opposition to each other in a morally superior role.  Hitler sold himself to the German people as the consummate anti-Bolshevik.  Bolshevism he presented as being largely a cabal of rootless Jews trying to take over the world and mongrelize the races. 
Stalin worked assiduously to present the Soviet Union to the outside world as the epitome of moral heroism, the world bulwark of anti-Fascism.  All of Stalin’s opposition turned into Fascists, even his closest Bolshevik colleagues from pre-Revolution days.   Stalin defamed his hated rival, Leon Trotsky with the fiction that he had joined league with the Fascists to bring down the Worker’s State that he, Trotsky, had with such fervor, energy and talent done so much to forge.  What his motivation might have been for such a spectacular tergiversation was never made clear. In fact, the entire scenario was highly implausible if not preposterous. But plausibility never really seemed to matter – certainly not to Stalin, not to most of the Soviet-enthralled Left, and very little to many of the international observers, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb who were smitten with the “New Civilization” that Stalin was building and who were happy to follow the absurd story line wherever it happened to go. Trotsky was Stalin’s most formidable and envied rival. So it was fitting and appropriate in the Stalin protean world of good and evil that he came to represent the ultimate betrayal of the Bolshevism that Stalin had taken the greatest efforts to self-personalize.   Trotsky’s fate was that of almost every Stalin enemy from the 1930s on – to be labeled a Fascist and to rotate through Stalin’s inferno where ex-human beings, each of whom, like Trotsky, deserved execution.
Even so, when the opportunity to grind a large portion of central Europe under their boots arose, particularly the detested Poles, the principal architects of this remarkable and ferocious mutual loathing, Hitler and Stalin, suddenly saw fit to relax their hostility and embrace in a historic partnership, one might say, for the purpose of gang rape. The Poles, Ukrainians, the Baltic peoples and Belarussians came quickly to know and feel what Soviet and Nazi friendship would mean for their neighbors.  As we all now know, this “friendship” did not work out in the long term so well for Hitler after he turned on his partner two years hence.  The Third Reich that he proclaimed was going to last a thousand years was an ash heap after twelve.  The entire Nazi enterprise went down to a complete and ignominious defeat with Hitler’s attendants in April 1945 dousing his corpse with gasoline and setting him aflame. They had apparently aimed to turn the Fuhrer’s remains into a pile of ashes sufficiently elemental and unrecognizable so as not to leave any portion of him that might be claimed as a war trophy for his former partner and mentor from the Kremlin.
With Fascism the loser, Stalin and anti-Fascism were the winners.  No one could anywhere be found sporting swastika lapel pins, swaggering about, throwing up the stiff-arm salute and ejaculating “Heil Hitlers.” But the Communists were now swollen with a vast pride in their victory over Hitler.  They were popular. They exuded confidence and now planned a bright future for the millions of souls in Eastern Europe who were now or soon to be ruled over by the Commisars.  In Western Europe Communist ministers participated in coalition governments in France, Italy, Belgium, Finland and Denmark.  The French Communists in 1945 received the most votes of any single party. [Service, Camaradas, 367-69] Still, the two year collaboration with the Nazi’s remained as an embarrassing reminder (for the still enthralled) of what world Communism was really all about.  But, who really cared, anyway?   The Red Army, even after Stalin had gutted the officer corps with his purges in the late 1930s, had been most impressive in rolling over the German Panzers. Stalin was in a good position to pretend it never happened.  Besides, apologists for the USSR within and without had become quite accomplished at rationalizing the stupefying twists and turns of Soviet foreign policy over the years. From Hitler Foe to Hitler Friend to Hitler Vanquisher – only one with a complete mastery of Marxian “dialetics” could weave consistency and commendation out of this.  Not that the legions of the literati inside and outside the worker’s state did not make the valiant attempt.
Richard Pipes observed that the radical right or “fascist” political movement that emerged in Europe after WWI has been viewed by many as antithetical to Communism. [Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime, New York: Random House, 1994, 240]  This perception was encouraged by Stalin and the Comintern though out most of the 1930s, particularly during the period of the Popular Front strategy which sought to align all the non-Communist parties of the Left with the Soviet Communists against the surging power of National Socialism. The Popular Front was a dramatic reversal of the “Social Fascism” strategy of the late 1920s that portrayed the parties of the non-Communist Left as collaborators with the capitalists, now in their last stages of which Fascism was the final expression.  The Soviet Union garnered considerable sympathy worldwide as a bulwark against Fascism.  The International Brigades, who battled Franco’s troops in Spain and achieved a mythic-heroic luster as an “anti-Fascist” force, were back-stage managed and manipulated by Stalin’s agents who behind the scenes tortured and murdered members of the non-Stalinist Left like POUM leader Andrés Nin.

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