The Devil in History

Scholar Vladimir Tismaneanu sheds light on communism, fascism, and some lessons of the Twentieth Century.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and author of several books, including Stalinism for All Seasons: A History of Romanian Communism (UC Press), Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe, and Reinventing Politics: Eastern Europe from Stalin to Havel. His new book is The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism, and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century.

FP: Dr. Vladimir Tismaneanu, welcome to Frontpage Interview. It is an honor and a privilege to have you with us.

Congratulations on this fascinating, brilliant and captivating book. It is a stupendous achievement.

I simply couldn’t put it down till I finished it.

Tismaneanu:  It is a pleasure for me to engage in this dialogue. I know some of the contributors to Frontpage; I have known David Horowitz and Peter Collier since the 1980s. Your kind words honor me, especially coming from someone with your family background.

The book tries to offer a comparative perspective about those regimes that have taken a horrible toll on families like yours and mine. I am sure you noticed how important it is in the logic of my demonstration to highlight the extraordinary insights of the great novelist and moral thinker Vassili Grossman. You and I know that the Devil is not simply a theological construct, a whimsical metaphor or a speculative fantasy. Living within totalitarianism, surviving within an infernal universe, has been a real experience for millions of human being.

FP: True words indeed, Dr. Tismaneanu.

Let’s begin with what inspired you to write The Devil in History.

Tismaneanu: I owe the title to the great Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski. In a famous interview with Hungarian-born, British journalist George Urban, Kolakowski spoke about the presence of the Devil in twentieth-century ideologically-driven dictatorships. We speak about the Devil anticipated by Dostoyevsky in his masterpiece “The Demons” (or “The Possessed”). It is a Devil that exploits human gullibility, who organizes hatred, rancor, envy, resentment. It is a terribly modern devil that mobilizes, inebriates, intoxicates both elites and masses with the aroma of ideology. The Devil I write about in this short treatise of historical demonology is a metaphysician, a logician, and a statistician. He pretends to offer ultimate solutions to vital (or mortal) human questions by annulling the distance between the City of God and the City of Man. His expertise is to seduce, to enhance the human propensity for grandiose utopias. Political religions promise immediate redemption via the violent purification of the community. The non-belonger, the outcast, defined racially or socially, needs to be excluded, weeded out, eliminated, killed.

FP: So share with us what the book is about exactly. What is the main thesis?

Tismaneanu:  I regard both Communism and Fascism as revolutionary projects, inherently and irredeemably hostile to liberal values. Both have used manipulative methods to arouse, to galvanize mass movements committed to an apocalyptic break with an execrated status quo. Both are secular religions obsessed with transcending the existing human condition in favor an anthropological revolution. Both are millenarianisms announcing the advent of the New Man. I suggest that a comparison between Communism and Fascism helps us understand better the nature, goals, and consequences of such movements, including their Islamist heirs. I regard them as parts of an unfinished century of revolutionary hubris.

My main question, underlying all the other ones, is: How was it possible for ideologies so different in their origin and rhetoric to result in mass murder? I see nihilism at the core of both revolutionary programs. Communism, as the great French historian Francois Furet said, is a pathology of the Enlightenment. Fascism is pathology of the Counter-Enlightenment. They are both exacerbated, inflamed, pathological expressions of the attempt to impose through violence elitist fantasies of historical grandeur.

Another main point is my polemic with the disingenuous double standards so often used in dealing with the two totalitarian visions (Communism, in any of its incarnations, and Fascism). It is amazing how prompt the criticism operates whenever dealing with Martin Heidegger’s romance with National Socialism and how meek the reactions are when focusing on Georg Lukacs, a zealot of Bolshevism until the end of his life.

FP: How is The Devil in History different from other books in this field?

Tismaneanu: It is an effort to bring together political philosophy, political history, and the history of ideas. I started working on this project many years ago, when I first tried to fathom the common roots of the totalitarian twins. For me, ideology is the crucial element in the effort to understand something that otherwise defies representation: the absolute horrors of the Gulag and the Holocaust. I see my book as a theoretical and ethical synthesis, an antidote to moral relativism. In writing it I was very much inspired by Solzhenitsyn’s approach in “The Gulag Archipelago”:

“Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied or passed over or suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.”

So, to put it briefly, my book is about Evil and evildoers. I refuse to accept the idea that Marx (or even Lenin) were innocent thinkers whose ideas were viciously bastardized by the scoundrel Stalin. In dealing with Bolshevism, I paraphrase Kolakowski's first line in his trilogy on Marxism ("Karl Marx was a German philosopher”) and I insist that Vladimir Ilich Ulianov (Lenin) was a Russian Marxist.

FP: Tell us about your background and how you think it might give you an extra passion and insight into the phenomena that you study.

It all began when, if I am correct, you were a teenager in Communist Romania, and you got your hands on a forbidden text of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. …

Tismaneanu: I was born on July 4th, 1951, into a revolutionary family. Both my parents fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War; my father lost his right arm in the battle on the River Ebro when he was 24. My mother, a medical school student, was a nurse in the International Hospital. They were Stalinist internationalists, intensely and honestly believed in Soviet anti-fascism. After the defeat of the Spanish Republic, they went as political refugees to the USSR.  My two sisters were born there -- Victoria in Kuibshev (now Samara), in November 1941, Rodica in Moscow, in April 1944. The family returned to Romania in February 1948. My mother, who had graduated from Moscow Medical School no. 2, taught pediatrics at the Institute of Medicine in Bucharest. My father became a communist ideologue. Because of his critical comments about the Romanian Stalinist leader Gheorghiu-Dej, he was expelled from the party in 1960. Until the end of his life, in February 1981, he remained a Marxist. My mother ended her infatuation with Communism in 1952-1953, during the anti-Semitic campaigns in the USSR and in the Soviet Bloc. She had studied under guidance of some of the accused doctors and could not accept the lunatic charges (“attempts to poison the Soviet leaders.”)

I learned a lot from my parents and their friends about the history of communism. Discussions at home were quite frank, although I disagreed with my father on the overall interpretation of Leninism. The books that influenced me the most, during my Romanian adolescence and student years, were Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and Raymond Aron’s Opium of the Intellectuals. Please keep in mind that, because of his “maverick” foreign policy, the Ceausescu regime ceased to jam Western radio stations. I learned about these books from the enormously influential essays written by émigré intellectuals Monica Lovinescu and Virgil Ierunca, broadcast via Radio Free Europe. Their ideas played a decisive role in my formation. Initially, I was attracted, like so many in my generation, to neo-Marxist, or humanist Marxist theories, including the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory.

Later, I realized that revisionist Marxism was just another theoretical dead end, an illusion with no real chance to change the existing despotic systems. Books such as those mentioned and many others were circulating clandestinely in Romania. I read The Gulag Archipelago in French translation. I read Nikolai Berdiaev's book on the origins of Russian communism in French, I read Orwell's 1984 in English.

FP: What do you see as the main similarities between Nazism and Communism? You profoundly document how the drive to purify and disinfect man was one of the main driving forces of both ideologies, and so mass killing becomes the inevitable mandated result…..

Tismaneanu: Both systems destroyed civil society, rule of law, pluralism, and did their utmost to humiliate the individual. As Hannah Arendt wrote, totalitarianism is a tyranny that makes human beings superfluous. Both worshiped the ideological State (the Nazis called it Weltanschauungsstaat) and imposed collectivist values meant to destroy the autonomy of the mind. Both used secret polices to generate a sense of universal fear. Both organized state terror to eradicate any form of opposition. Both (and here I insist to include Maoism as a version of Leninism) practiced genocide.

FP: The main distinctions?

On one realm…in their application …one of the differences you point to is that a “re-education” was possible in the communist Gulag, whereas in the Nazi Auschwitz there was only death. …

Tismaneanu: Let me start with a quotation from C. S. Lewis:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

The distinctions are related to their avowed intentions. Communism never admitted that it aimed to physically get rid of millions of people “unworthy of life.” It was not the fulfillment of a biologically-defined vision of the perfect society. But if you think of the real conditions of communism during what we call high Stalinism (or high Maoism), the differences with the Nazi atrocities seem to vanish. The Gulag’s function was not to re-educate the individual, but to exhaust, freeze and starve him or her to the point of annihilation.

Another important distinction is that Nazism (or Italian Fascism) did not reach the point of de-radicalization the way Soviet-style regimes did. It is hard for me to imagine a 20th NSDAP Congress in which Parteigenosse Bormann (or Himmler) would condemn “Adolf Hitler’s Cult of Personality and Its Consequences” the way Nikita Khrushchev dealt with Stalin. National Socialism did not have a presumably humanist pre-history to which the militants could harken back in order to justify their prolonged commitment to the Cause even after the denunciation of the “God that failed.” Nazism and Italian Fascism were liderocentric worldviews. Bolshevism was rather partocentric. Historian Martin Malia wrote about ideocratic partocracy. Stalin was lionized as the leader of the mystical entity called Party. This is what political scientist Ken Jowitt accurately identifies as charismatic impersonalism. So, even if the leader dies and is posthumously denounced as a sociopath, the Party’s image remains sacred, unblemished, unperishable, like a Platonic idea.

FP: This is all connected to the fact that there were no Nuremberg-style trials for communist mass murderers after the collapse of communism in the 1989-1991 period. Western leftist intellectuals were not, to say the least, too supportive of such trials. As you point out, many of them, till this day, are reluctant to confront the truth about Lenin. Give us your wisdom as to the reason why.

Tismaneanu: Not only Western leftist intellectuals, but also some East European famous dissidents voiced reservations about such trials. In their case, the argument is that lustration (screening of former communist bureaucrats and secret police officers and collaborators and elimination from public office for a period of five years) could generate social turbulence and result in witch-hunts. I happen to disagree with this view: the much-desired reconciliation cannot be achieved in the absence of repentance (I am sure you remember Tengis Abuladze’s great film with this very title, Repentance). Regarding the idea of witch-hunts, I cannot but smile: first, witch-hunts were about innocent individuals accused of phantasmagoric crimes. The crimes in the former communist countries were not imagined, but absolutely, palpably, and painfully real. Second, I don’t see a reason to wax compassionate for the former communist magnates and their underlings. Most have thrived after the collapse of the inhuman regimes they had imposed on their subject. You’re right: the absence of Nuremberg tribunals has created a widespread and justified sense of malaise among many people. As for the Leninostalgia, I see it is as an expression of historical ignorance combined with a sense of desperation linked the current conditions.

FP: The nature of Stalin’s anti-Semitism?

Tismaneanu: Stalin abhorred difference, and Jews appeared to him as alien, different, cosmopolitan, i.e. threatening. He may have inherited anti-Semitic prejudices from his early years in Georgia, including the time he spent in the Orthodox Seminary in Tbilisi. Later, he clearly felt daunted, even humiliated by fellow Bolsheviks of Jewish origin (although he was quite close to Yakov Sverdlov and Lev Kamenev). He used anti-Semitic innuendo during the struggle with his rivals, especially with Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev. Much of his anti-Semitic fixations developed during and after World War II, when he became convinced that Jews were inherently unable to nourish genuine Soviet (i.e., Russian) patriotism. It is interesting that some of his acolytes were Jewish communists who shared Stalin’s phobias. One of the most notorious was Lev Mekhlis, for many years the editor of Pravda and one of Stalin’s most trustworthy lackeys. I would say, however, that anti-Semitism did not reach the point of becoming a pillar of the Soviet ideology the way it functioned in Nazi Germany.

FP: What are the main failures of Marxism in your view? Why did it (does it) create such massive evil?

Tismaneanu: The refusal to understand the foundations of liberty led to the totalistic view of man, history, and society. Marxism promised fraternity, solidarity, community, yet the result was, as Kolakowski pointed out, universal bondage. The source of evil is, in my view, the sanctification of historical violence, the apocalyptical Messianism that endowed a social class, via its self-appointed  representatives, or delegates, to exert absolute, unrestrained power. Marx failed to comprehend human psychology, or, better said, the human soul. A great Polish poet, Aleksander Wat, once said that Communism kills the inner man.

FP: Nazism and Communism viewed the sanctity of human life and the notion of the individual a certain way. That view is quite different from how the Judeo-Christian tradition, which is at the foundation of Western civilization, views the sanctity of human life and the individual. Can you talk a bit about that?

Tismaneanu: For Marxists, man is the ensemble of his social relations. In other words, the human condition is socially determined. You change social circumstances, you can expect (and provoke) mutations in human mentalities, emotions, reasoning etc. The Nazis saw man as the heir to the mythological traditions of Blut und Boden (blood and soil). Both ideologies held tradition, especially religious tradition, in deep scorn. Both abolished natural law and the time honored distinctions between Good and Evil. These distinctions were subverted by the new absolutism: the definition of Good as whatever serves historical progress or racial purity. Needless to say, these two criteria meant complete dedication to the totalitarian Party and its Leader.

FP: A very profound part of your book is your discussion of Stéphane Courtois’ introduction to The Black Book of Communism. Can you share with us the nature of the controversy it sparked and the meaning and significance of that controversy? And of course please comment on the importance of The Black Book itself.

Tismaneanu: The Black Book (translated and edited in its American edition published by Harvard University Press by historian Mark Kramer) was a catalyst for a long-postponed reckoning with left-wing totalitarianism in France, Italy, Germany, and many other countries. In France, the communist and the socialists were shocked by the analogy between the presumably noble Marxist creed and the Nazi ideology. Furthermore, Stéphane Courtois compared in his introduction the tragic fate of Jewish kids in the Warsaw ghetto and that of the children of the kulaks in Stalin’s USSR.  I would notice that the comparison that created such an uproar when The Black Book came out in 1997 is nowadays much less conducive to scholarly controversies. Politically, the refusal to accept the striking similarities between Communism and Fascism remains a highly sensitive issue.

FP: You discuss a letter that Nikolai Bukharin wrote to Stalin during the last days of his trial. Illuminate for us the contents and nature of it and how it shines a light on your own thesis.

Tismaneanu: Nikolai Bukharin (1889-1938) was the least intolerant and the best educated member of the top Bolshevik elite. Lenin treated him like the son he never had. Stalin himself maintained a warm friendship with Bukharin who, in spite of their ideological conflicts, continued to live close to the Leader in a Kremlin apartment and was one of the writers of the Stalinist Constitution. Bukharin was arrested in 1937 and figured as the star of the third and last of the Moscow show trials in March 1938. From his jail (where he was allowed to write essays and even a novel), Bukharin wrote several letters to his idol and nemesis. He was one of the very few leaders to address Stalin with the familiar ty and using his underground nickname, Koba. Stalin kept the long letter I quote in a drawer of his personal desk until his death in March 1953. No doubt he considered it a precious document and he was right.

It is precious, however, not for the reasons Stalin might have had in mind, but because it provides a paradigmatic illustration of fanatical zealotry, self-debasement, and moral suicide. Bukharin’s almost hysterical, definitely masochistic memorandum to his murderer is imbued with unmitigated feelings of adoration. He knew that he had no chance to survive and yet he was thanking Koba for his immense kindness. We should not dismiss, however, the possibility that Bukharin tried to obtain leniency for his much younger wife, Anna Larina, and their recently born son, Yuri. But he could have done it with less fervor, less abjectly, more soberly.

FP: Let me draw some wisdom from you by coming at this phenomenon from a different angle: Why did the criminal enterprises of Nazism and Communism take on an earthly incarnation?

Tismaneanu:  They are secular religions claiming to offer answers to crucial axiological dilemmas. You will pardon my philosophical terminology, but I do not know a better explanation that the one offered by the great political thinker Eric Voegelin: these are revolutionary movements aiming to make this-worldly something that belongs to the transcendent realm, to immanentize the eschaton. Communism carries to an extreme, as noticed by Dostoyevsky, the utopia of the Tower of Babel. National Socialism romanticizes the world, re-enchants it. Both are combinations of political mysticism and historical shamanism.

FP: What are your dreams for this book? What do you hope it might help achieve?

Tismaneanu: To bring back the wise insights about totalitarianism, due to major scholars and democratic thinkers, abandoned and derided during the détente years. I do not simply propose a return to positions defended by Hannah Arendt, Norman Cohn, Raymond Aron, Leonard Shapiro, Nathan Leites, Leo Labedz, Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Pipes, Martin Malia, Robert Conquest, Leszek Kolakowski, but rather a synthesis that would take into account these major writings, as well as decades of new research and countless documentary proofs that the propaganda state was not a figment of Cold War ideological frenzy and that mass terror was the foundation for this type of state.

FP: Final thoughts on your main themes, which you illuminate brilliantly: the consequences of the impulse to build the City of God and the contempt for the individual?

Tismaneanu: Nothing can be more harmful to human liberty than state efforts to impose an official vision of truth upon defenseless individuals. No state interest can justify explicit or implicit attempts to make the individual an instrument of the government. No state-sanctioned definition of Good should prevail over our own conviction that, through our actions, we are fulfilling our humanity, not degrading and negating it.

FP: Dr. Tismaneanu, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview. It was truly an honor for me to speak with you.

Tismaneanu: Your questions were an intellectual tour de force. I hope that my responses have met the challenge.

FP: Thank you so much Dr. Tismaneanu. It is quite the opposite in my mind: I hope my questions have met the challenge of your most profound, vital and original contribution to the scholarship on this phenomenon.

I hope to see you again soon at Frontpage Magazine. You are always welcome here.

And we encourage all of our readers to get their hands on The Devil in History. Order it now, here!

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