Communism and its effect on world society was and continues to be enormous but is how it is being remembered by some today entirely suitable?

Last week, I visited Berlin. Berlin is a city which has clearly been moulded by Communism – between 1961 and 1989 the Berlin Wall (or the Antifaschisticher Schutzwall as it was named in the GDR) split the grand city into two, both being effected by the divide. The West forged a distinct identity for itself, a haven of consumerism in the midst of a sea of grey, clinical socialism. The East crafted itself, rather brutally, out of concrete and state control, ever threatened by the presence of the decadent, imperialist Western half. In the end however it was the West which won out and since 1990, the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist. Capitalism had triumphed and seemingly Communism and all of its authoritarian baggage would be cast off forever. However, go to Berlin today and a plethora of souvenirs, symbols and signs exist which evoke the memory of the GDR, the spirit of Ostalgie, of nostalgia for the days of Willy Brandt, Trabants and Auferstanden aus Ruinen. From the DDR Museum to the magnets adorned with the hammer and compass, the GDR lives on, but is this at all correct? Why is what has been portrayed as such an evil system being remembered in such a way?

Cell 207 at the Stasi remand prison at Hohenschönhausen. Prisoners would be kept here for months on end, without trial, in total isolation. (Source: Own Image)

The reasoning for asking this question can be traced to the comparisons which are often made, particularly by those on the libertarian-right, that Communism was in fact a worse ideology than Nazism, in terms of the number of people killed. If this assertion is indeed correct, why is it then that Communism, at least in Berlin, appears to have been trivialised to such an extend which would be unacceptable had it been Nazism? Perhaps the answer to this is a misunderstanding, or deliberate avoidance, of the intentions and methods of each regime when it comes to the use of terror or widespread acts of violence.

The Final Solution as managed by the National Socialist regime was directly responsible for the deaths of six million Jews and the wider persecution by the Nazis of groups such as ethnic Slavs, homosexuals and political opponents may also account for as many as nine million additional victims. The persecution of various political groups by the Soviet Union alone under Joseph Stalin has been attributed to the deaths of twenty million – mainly during the Holodomor, or Ukrainian Famine and the Great Purge.  By this calculation alone, we should rank Communism as a significantly worse ideology than that of Nazism – but to do that would be to deny the underlying intentions of the National Socialist regime compared with Soviet Communism. The pervading intention behind the actions of the Nazis was unashamedly to create a pure Aryan, German race, devoid of genetic defects which they believed were intrinsic to such groups as Poles, Czechs, Slavs and Jews. Racial purity was the aim and mass-murder was the method. The extermination of entire racial groups which was central to Nazi ideology can be said to constitute a far greater evil than the killings under Soviet Communism under Stalin. For instance, Stalin, although undoubtedly a blood-thirsty, tyrannical dictator, did not orchestrate killings on the grounds of ethnicity, rather on the basis of the threat to his political regime. It should too also be said that whilst the murderous persecution of dissidents under Stalin ceased after 1953 when Nikita Khrushchev ascended to the Soviet Premiership, the Final Solution was not just the brainchild of Hitler, but also a number of other high-level Nazis including but not limited too, Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Had Hitler been killed during the 20th July Plot of 1944, the Final Solution would not have ceased. It was baked into the Nazi ideology in a way that the killings under Stalin was not into Communism.

Prisoners work in clay pits at the Solovki Island Gulag circa. 1924

A significant difference also lies within the fashion in which the two regimes committed their crimes. The Final Solution was perhaps most barbaric to humanity due to the way in which mass-murder was not just organised but committed on an industrial scale using modern efficiency at centres such as Auschwitz, Treblinka and Chelmno, designed for the express purpose of ending human existence in as effective manner as possible. The sum of human achievement in industry, logistics, technology and bureaucracy was utilised for murder. No such system existed in the Soviet Union and by extension the Eastern Bloc. The GULAG system which existed under Stalin was appalling, holding upwards of five million people in imprisonment on weak grounds from 1936 onwards –  but they were not built for murder, unlike the system as devised by the Nazis.

Even if we can say that Communism was not as bad, in terms of mass killings, than the Nazis, then that is still a very low moral standard to beat. Should the ideology which survived only through the observation of its population, swift destruction of dissident and the construction of barriers around their borders to trap their people really be remembered so well? I think the most important factor here may be time. Nazism lasted as a dominant ideology for twelve years (1933-1945) with the main factor influencing the period being that of the Second World War. In itself the fact that Nazism was responsible for a such a conflict and Communism was not may already give reason to why Communism can be remembered without as much moral questioning, but looking into it deeper, of the two, Communism was the only one in which people actually lived. If you were born on 30th January 1933, when Hitler became Reichskanzler you would only be 12 years and 4 months when the unconditional surrender of Germany was submitted on 7th May 1945 at Reims – barely a teenager. Yet under Communism, which in Germany existed between 1945 – 1990 and even longer in the Soviet Union, people’s lives were shaped and lived entirely under the ideology. People had children, went to work, listened to radio and more importantly lived in peace. For the millions of people who lived in such a system, without the Final Solution and the loss of the War hanging over the ideology, how could you help but not have some warm, perhaps even happy memories of the time? The system indeed was horrifying and oppressive but when the switch came to capitalism and the net of safety afforded by the State, the cheap food, heating and transport and somewhat comforting absurdity of the socialist way of life, how could you not yearn, in some respects at least for the world in which you grew up, even if, in reality, it was not the best?

So why can Communism be remembered in such a way? The summary may simply be that the memories of those who lived under it are strong and in some cases longing for the past, but also that no matter what crimes were committed under Communism, it would always be preferable to remember that side of German ideology than that of National Socialism.