General topics

Are "victims of communism" and "communist crimes" correct terms?

Toomas Hiio, historian, 25. November 2019

The answer to the headline question is: of course not. They are simply parallel terms to the terms ‘victims of fascism or Nazism’ and ‘fascist or Nazi crimes’.  

Toomas Hiio
Toomas Hiio. Picture: Sander Ilvest / Postimees / Scanpix.

Politics and its slogans are frequently not correct in their concepts and terms. Their aim is to reach as large an audience as possible and this is achieved at an intellectual level that is comprehensible to everyone.

An idea itself and a word alone have killed few. Yet ‘in the beginning was the word’ was already written in the gospel of St. John nearly 2,000 years ago. The power of the word is great. Words and doctrine explain the world and show the way to an imaginary future paradise, yet they also provide their loyal disciples with justification. In this sense, communist doctrine is not at all different from fascism, National Socialism and a number of newer –isms. The fact that communism, fascism, National Socialism and their more modern clones accept the deprivation of a large number of people of their civil and human rights or even their imprisonment and murder in the name of a bright future gives them an advantage over other political doctrines.

We do not even raise an eyebrow when we hear the terms ‘crimes of Nazism’ or ‘victims of fascism’. Yet many people are perturbed by the connection of victims and crimes to communism. This contradiction arises from the defeat of the National Socialist Reich in World War II, the sentencing to death of its leaders and ideologists, and the condemnation of its ideology itself by the Nuremberg International Tribunal established by the United Nations of France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the United States and ratified by 20 other Allied countries. The tribunal’s source document, the Nuremberg Charter that was signed in London in August of 1945, is one of the cornerstones of contemporary international and humanitarian law. The crimes of Nazism became the textbook examples of international crimes.

The communist Soviet Union was part of the United Nations, one of the victors of World War II. Under the ruthless leadership of its Communist Party, it had borne the greater portion of the enormous blood sacrifice for vanquishing Nazi Germany. In the first half of the last century, the world often shut its eyes to crimes committed by countries against their own citizens – and also to actions committed in regions that had been liberated-captured – not only in the case of the Soviet Union.

The dispassionate nuclear peace and the propaganda war of the Cold War followed, and when the Eastern Bloc collapsed 30 years ago, the communist system ceased to exist as if of its own accord. Communism is dead, but nobody has seen its corpse, it was said then. The communist regimes of the European part of the Eastern Bloc simply disappeared and de-communisation was not carried out. At the start of the 1990s, a procedure similar to the de-nazification of the end of the 1940s was no longer possible in Europe, although it was attempted in some countries.

Attempts made in several countries to initiate an international tribunal regarding communism, the regimes that had followed its doctrine, and their leaders have failed for various reasons – thus far. The fact that a quarter of the world’s population lives to this day under the rule of communist regimes and their somewhat more lenient successors also must not be forgotten. This is another one of the reasons why the relentless condemnation of communism is dreaded. Money talks.

In Soviet propaganda of the 1930s, communism and fascism had as if become yin and yang – the mutual antipodes of one another. Fascism was the sworn enemy of communism until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. But it collapsed not due to the victory of fascism, but rather of liberal democracy instead. Some thought that this was how things would stay, but the human factor has had its effect over the course of a quarter of a century. Once again, to many people there seems to be too much freedom.

Nazis and the victims of Nazism were rarely spoken of in the Soviet Union – the talk was always of the atrocities of fascists and their underlings against peaceable Soviet people. In Western European and North American treatments, victims of Nazism were Jews that fell victim to the Holocaust, and peoples and minority groups stigmatised by the National Socialists. Jews and others had no place in the confrontation between Soviet people and fascism. Ideologies were at loggerheads, fascism and communism, even though Italian Fascists never occupied Soviet territory. Hence the concepts of crimes and victims of Nazism are actually quite a new thing on the eastern side of the former Iron Curtain.

Italy’s Fascists and Germany’s National Socialists built their new states from within. Having usurped the hitherto ruling authorities, they gradually reshaped the preceding form of government. Crimes induced by National Socialist ideology, violence first directed against Jews, began as seemingly spontaneous campaigns led by members of shock troops organisations, accompanied by the vociferous or silent approval of crowds drowning ever more in mass euphoria, or also by fearful silence.

The mass murders of tens of thousands of people by shooting, and the annihilation of many hundreds of thousands in extermination camps were carried out under a veil of secrecy – in occupied territories outside of Germany. People simply disappeared. Even more so, the lion’s share of victims of the mass murders, and of concentration camp prisoners, were not citizens or residents of pre-war Germany or pre-Anschluß Austria.

People started disappearing much earlier in the Soviet Union, and the absolute majority of them were subjects of the Soviet government itself. The mass executions of the 1930s were often carried out near large cities because due to ‘the Soviet Union’s peace-loving foreign policy’, there were no occupied territories where the people who were to be executed could be sent. Later, when there were such territories, the deportation trains still rolled from west to east, although then they were transporting the inhabitants of occupied lands. Whoever was not executed in their homeland was taken to death camps in Siberia and the Far East.

The mass destruction of its subjects did not create legal problems for the Soviet state. It had been born in revolution, which destroyed what had existed and established something new in its place. The structure of the Soviet state, and also its legal system, were worded by communist ideology. The Criminal Code of the Russian SFSR of 1926, which was also extended to countries that were occupied in 1939–1940 and 1944–1945, prescribed harsh punishments for resistance to communist ideology. § 1 of this code prescribed: ‘The task of RSFSR criminal legislation is the protection of the socialist state of workers and peasants, and of the legal system established in that state, from actions (crimes) that are dangerous to society [---].’ (here and henceforth citations are from the publication: Eesti NSV territooriumil kehtiv kriminaalkoodeks [The Criminal Code in Force in the Territory of the Estonian SSR]. Tallinn: Eesti Riiklik Kirjastus [Estonian State Publishing House], 1952.) § 6: ‘Every action or inaction that is directed against the Soviet system, or which violates the legal order established by the regime of the workers and peasants by the time of the transition to the communist system, is considered to be dangerous to society.’ The most notorious articles of this code, 581 – 5814, prescribed harsh punishments up to execution by shooting for a large number of acts against the workers’ state or the international labour movement, whereas in many offences family members of the accused were also punished. Everything was seemingly lawful, if we do not take note of the fact that this jurisprudence itself was criminal.

The Communist Party Manifesto of 1848 stipulated the exploitative classes as the enemies of the proletariat. More than a century later, Soviet justice still protected only those who were members of the privileged classes – the workers and paupers. The regime was founded on communist justice and protected itself with laws, before which not all subjects of the state were equal, but only those that communist theory included among equals.

Millions of people who were sentenced on the basis of articles of Soviet criminal law to ruination, or to a life without human dignity in miserable conditions for long years, were victims of crimes proceeding from the only permissible ideology, victims of communist crimes. Communist crimes are an equivalent partner to Nazi crimes. We have to honour the memory of victims of communism just like the memory of victims of Nazism, just as has been stipulated by now in many proclamations not only in countries that shook off the rule of communist regimes 30 years ago, but also in the European Parliament, with its several resolutions.

Toomas Hiio works at the Estonian Institute of Historical Memory and at the Estonian War Museum as the head of research.