The Black Book of Communism

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. By Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. Trans. by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer. Ed. by Mark Kramer. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999. xxii, 858)

Since its publication in France in 1997, The Black Book of Communism has played a dual role, both chronicling the crimes of various Communist regimes and also serving as a text that reveals the shifting status of Marxism in the aftermath of the Cold War. Much of the controversy that has surrounded the book has focused on Stéphane Courtois’s introduction, in which he argues that communism represents a greater evil than Nazism, largely based on Marxism-Leninism’s heftier death tally. The introduction’s polemical nature, however, does not carry over into all the chapters that follow. Nicolas Werth’s and Jean-Louis Margolin’s contributions on the Soviet Union and Asia, respectively, largely shy away from ideological pronouncements and instead relay archival and eyewitness accounts about the depths of terror, repression, and mass murder in these regions. Werth’s and Margolin’s rejection of Courtois’s tone and argument has also led them to denounce publicly the introduction and Courtois’s grand total of a hundred million deaths. Other authors, however, seem to embrace Courtois’s agenda and tailor their essays to paint as dark a picture as possible of Marxist-Leninist regimes and organizations in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Only Werth’s contribution relies on archival sources, and some of the chapters, such as those on North Korea and Communist sponsorship of international terrorism, stand out as tentative and thinly documented.

Beyond the polemics and lack of reliable sources, one is struck by Andrzej Paczkowski’s observation in his chapter on Poland that “looking at the past only from the point of view of repression risks a somewhat deformed assessment of the Communist system.” Even the best chapters in The Black Book tend to focus so intently on the internal workings of terror and repression that they fail to answer the question of why Communist regimes so often resorted to violence against their own peoples. Courtois probes the roots of Marxist-Leninist violence in his conclusion, but his explanations focus almost exclusively on Europe and the Soviet Union, ignoring the regions of the world where Communist regimes still exist and where they supposedly caused the greatest number of deaths. The Black Book also fails to provide the reader with a sense of how communism captured the popular support of millions of people around the world. If violence and repression were all Marxism had to offer, why did it ever command popular support, and why do some still defend and espouse it? The Black Book offers valuable information on the horrible excesses of Communist regimes around the globe, but it sheds more heat than light on why they were so bloody. It may be most useful as a historical artifact of the immediate post–Cold War era when blanket condemnations of communism that equated the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, à la Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), came back into vogue. But, with the fading ardor of Cold War triumphalism, a more balanced assessment of the rise and fall of international communism that neither whitewashes its crimes nor suppresses its periods of mass popularity remains to be written.

BY: Shane J. Maddock