the battle for history
Source Jim Devine
Date 02/09/13/12:19

The battle for history

The now routine equation of Stalin and Hitler both distorts the past and
limits the future

Seumas Milne
Thursday September 12, 2002
The Guardian [U.K.]

It would be easy to dismiss the controversy over the latest Martin Amis
offering as little more than a salon tiff among self-referential literati.
His book, Koba the Dread, follows a well-trodden political path. An
excoriation of Lenin, Stalin and communism in general (interlaced with
long-simmering spats with his once communist father Kingsley and radical
friend Christopher Hitchens), it is intended to be a savage indictment of
the left for its supposed inability to acknowledge the crimes committed in
its name. Strong on phrasemaking, the book is painfully short on sources or
social and historical context. The temptation might be to see it as simply a
sign that the one-time enfant terrible of the London literary scene was
reliving his father's descent into middle-aged blimpishness.

That would be a mistake. Amis's book is in reality only the latest
contribution to the rewriting of history that began in the dying days of the
Soviet Union and has intensified since its collapse. It has become almost
received wisdom to bracket Stalin and Hitler as twin monsters of the past
century - Mao and Pol Pot are sometimes thrown in as an afterthought - and
commonplace to equate communism and fascism as the two greatest evils of an
unprecedentedly sanguinary era. In some versions, communism is even held to
be the more vile and bloodier wickedness. The impact of this cold war
victors' version of the past has been to relativise 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.

This profoundly ideological account has long since turned into a sort of
gruesome numbers game. The bizarre distortions it produces were on show last
week during a television interview with Amis, when the BBC presenter Gavin
Esler remarked in passing that Stalin was "responsible for at least three
times as many deaths" as Hitler - a truly breathtaking throwaway line. Esler
was presumably comparing Amis's own figure of 20 million Stalin victims
(borrowed from the cold war historian Robert Conquest) with the 6 million
Jews murdered by Hitler in the Holocaust. But of course Hitler took a great
many more lives than 6 million: over 11 million are estimated to have died
in the Nazi camps alone and he might reasonably be held responsible for the
vast majority of the 50 million killed in the second world war, including
more than 20 million Soviet dead.

But in the distorted prism of the new history, they are somehow lost from
the equation. At the same time, the number of victims of Stalin's terror has
been progressively inflated over recent years to the point where, in the
wildest guesstimates, a third of the entire Soviet population is assumed to
have been killed in the years leading up to the country's victory over Nazi

The numbers remain a focus of huge academic controversy, partly because most
of them are famine deaths which can only be extrapolated from unreliable
demographic data. But the fact is that the opening of formerly secret Soviet
archives has led many historians - such as the Americans J Arch Getty and
Robert Thurston - to scale down sharply earlier cold war estimates of
executions and gulag populations under Stalin. The figures are still
horrific. For example, 799,455 people were recorded as having been executed
between 1921 and 1953, and the labour camp population reached 2.5 million
(most convicted for non-political offences) at its peak after the war. But
these are a very long way from the kind of numbers relied on by Amis and his

For all their insistence on moral equivalence, Amis and even Conquest say
they nevertheless "feel" the Holocaust was worse than Soviet repression. But
the differences aren't just a matter of feelings. Despite the cruelties of
the Stalin terror, there was no Soviet Treblinka, no extermination camps
built to murder people in their millions. Nor did the Soviet Union launch
the most bloody and destructive war in human history - in fact, it played
the decisive role in the defeat of the German war machine (something that
eluded its tsarist predecessors). Part of the Soviet tragedy was that that
victory was probably only possible because the country had undergone a
forced industrial revolution in little more than a decade, in the very
process of which the greatest crimes were committed. The achievements and
failures of Soviet history cannot in any case be reduced to the Stalin
period, any more than the role of communists - from the anti-fascist
resistance to the campaigns for colonial freedom - can be defined simply by
their relationship to the USSR.

Perhaps most grotesque in this postmodern calculus of political repression
is the moral blindness displayed towards the record of colonialism. For most
of the last century, vast swathes of the planet remained under direct
imperial European rule, enforced with the most brutal violence by states
that liked to see themselves as democracies. But somehow that is not
included as the third leg of 20th-century tyranny, along with Nazism and
communism. There is a much-lauded Black Book of Communism, but no such
comprehensive indictment of the colonial record.

Consider a few examples. Up to 10 million Congolese are estimated to have
died as a result of Belgian forced labour and mass murder in the early
1900s. Up to a million Algerians are estimated to have died in the war for
independence from France in the 1950s and 1960s.

Throughout the 20th-century British empire, the authorities gassed, bombed
and massacred indigenous populations from Sudan to Iraq, Sierra Leone to
Palestine, India to Malaya. And while Martin Amis worries that few remember
the names of Soviet labour camps, who now commemorates the name of the
Andaman islands penal colony, where 80,000 Indian political prisoners were
routinely tortured and experimented on by British army doctors, or the huge
Hola internment camp in Kenya where prisoners were beaten to death in the

If Lenin and Stalin are regarded as having killed those who died of hunger
in the famines of the 1920s and 1930s, then Churchill is certainly
responsible for the 4 million deaths in the avoidable Bengal famine of 1943
- and earlier British governments are even more guilty of the still larger
famines in late 19th and early 20th-century India, which claimed as many as
30 million victims under a punitive free market regime. And of course, in
the post-colonial era, millions have been killed by US and other western
forces or their surro gates in wars, interventions and coups from Vietnam to
central America, Indonesia to southern Africa.

There is no major 20th-century political tradition without blood on its
hands. But the battle over history is never really about the past - it's
about the future. When Amis accuses the Bolsheviks of waging "war against
human nature", he is making the classic conservative objection to radical
social change. Those who write colonial barbarity out of 20th-century
history want to legitimise the new liberal imperialism, just as those who
demonise past attempts to build an alternative to capitalist society are
determined to prove that there is none. The problem for the left now is not
so much that it has failed to face up to its own history, but that it has
become paralysed by the burden of it.

Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001

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