The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Richard Overy discusses the roads to hell that were paved with utopian intentions

September 13, 2012

Most historians and political scientists in the West who write about totalitarian dictatorships have been fortunate enough never to have had practical experience of them. Vladimir Tismaneanu is not part of that lucky cohort. He was raised in Nicolae Ceaucescu's Romania, where he bravely defended a thesis on critical Marxism in 1980. He is now professor of comparative politics at the University of Maryland and Ceaucescu is long dead, summarily executed in 1989 by his angry people. Here, Tismaneanu reflects as a political philosopher, rather than a historian, on what gave totalitarian regimes their terrible power in the 20th century to do so much evil in the name of revolutionary or racial justice.

His real concern is to examine what he calls the "maximalist utopian aspirations" expressed by communist and fascist regimes in Europe to try to understand how it is that systems that set out with a utopian agenda - world revolution or national rebirth - end up constructing murderous dystopias. There is a consensus in the Western world that these were "delusional visions", as Tismaneanu calls them, but both European communism and fascism have died as mainstream political forces, making it easier to see them as deluded. The core of this perceptive and intelligent analysis is addressed to the more troubling question of how they were possible at all.

This question in itself begs a great deal. It is possible to analyse how the dictatorships functioned as particular systems by looking at their mechanisms of control, the nature of the claims made by their leaders and the factors that encouraged an important measure of popular endorsement or compliance. But in the end, the emergence and survival of these toxic systems are rooted in history and cannot simply be explained by their internal nature. The major dictatorships - Soviet, then Italian, then German - were conditioned and made possible by the peculiar circumstances of the political and industrial revolutions in the half-century before 1914, and then crucially by the catastrophe of war.

The emergence of mass politics challenged the normative values of the bourgeois world that dominated pre-1914 European society. The war was a savage, unthinkable catastrophe for that sombre, rational, progressive, liberal age, and it released violent energies in Russian, Italian and German society, each hit more severely by the war and post-war crisis. Tismaneanu writes that the totalitarian regimes enjoyed the "sanctification of violence", and so they did. Russia experienced almost 10 years of warfare after 1914; Germany suffered a defeat and post-war violence that scarred a generation. Sense can be made of the vengeful politics practised in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as the continuation of a state of war - the one against social outcasts defined by their class and origin, the other against Jews and Communists. Without the dissolving acid of the Great War, it is hard to imagine mass politics taking the terrible path that it did in the 1920s and 1930s.

The war did not produce the same outcome in Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union, but the similarities are so marked that Tismaneanu rightly concludes that there is no violence done to history by putting them together. The camp is for him the crucial link between them and this is certainly a good starting point: the place where all those socially or racially excluded were separated from society so that the rest could safely feel that their identity and security was bound up with affirmation of the irrational ideologies that animated the systems in which they lived. More significant, perhaps, is Tismaneanu's analysis of why so much evil could be produced in the name of some agreed truth. Centuries of Christian persecutions should go some way towards explaining this, and it is significant that he chooses Emilio Gentile's "political religion" as an important element in his own understanding.

Evil is a problem for us, but it was not for Stalin and Hitler. Both referred to the laws of history (the former the socio-economic laws of Marxist development, the latter the iron laws of biology) and used them to define a new moral universe in which normative morality - which was dismissed as a means for the bourgeoisie to legitimise their dominance - was replaced by a relative morality.

Lenin famously said that what was moral was anything that helped the revolution, what was immoral was anything that obstructed it; Hitler's view of morality was conditioned entirely by what would support the German people in their struggle for biological purity and cultural ascendancy. This was not, as Tismaneanu suggests here, just moral blindness or amorality, but the historical construction of a temporary moral universe that powerfully reinforced the prevailing ideological imperatives.

What is more surprising is why so many people subscribed to it. These were evil systems - the "Devil in History" - but many, perhaps most, of the ordinary people who took part in the totalitarian charade were not evil, although many may have lacked judgement or been wilfully idealistic. The puzzle in the case of National Socialism is just how completely it disappeared, not just years after 1945, but in the very month of defeat. Despite Allied propaganda, all Germans were not tarred with the same brush. Decent, humane, tolerant Germans existed in the millions as well, and were determined in the 1950s and 1960s that nothing like the raw nationalism of the 1920s would ever return. This makes it all the more difficult to understand just how a generation of Germans could have been sufficiently seduced by Hitlerism to stand by while genocide was perpetrated in their name.

The Soviet example is different, which perhaps explains why Tismaneanu spends much more time discussing this case than the fascist ones. Varieties of Leninist-Stalinist dictatorship flourished in Europe for 40 years after the end of the war - one of the most totalitarian of all was in the fraction of Germany that had the misfortune to be the Soviet zone of occupation. Here, those who had once applauded Hitler had the chance to applaud Stalin. Victory in 1945 became a second opportunity to use violence as a founding myth of the Soviet system, following the earlier success of the Civil War as a reference point for endorsing a perpetual state of savage vigilance.

The end of Communist dictatorship was much messier and, it is possible still to argue, incomplete. Tismaneanu grew up under one of them and is part of that revolutionary wave that swept the Leninist solution aside, making history instead of having it imposed on them. He understandably deplores those Western analysts who have spent the past 20 years trying to find vestiges of the old order to show that Communism is not quite dead. He is right to argue that not everything could be done overnight, but he is surely right to suggest that the search for "civility and decency" on the part of the citizens of the former Soviet bloc is the central element in the anti-communist revolution. It is the triumph of the subjective over the objective, of people over ideas.

Western liberalism has many drawbacks, but tolerance, as John Stuart Mill recognised a century and a half ago, is its most redeeming and necessary feature. Intolerance was the life-blood of totalitarianism.

The Author

Vladimir Tismaneanu lives in Washington, DC, with his wife Mary Sladek, "who works in museum and planetarium education at the Nasa headquarters close to the Capitol Building, and our 17-year-old son Adam, a student at Edmund Burke School". Washington is "the perfect place if you are interested in the world of ideas, in history, politics and international affairs".

Born in Brasov, Romania, he defected in 1981 and recalls the Ceausescu era's repression "vividly: even as a child I was told to be very careful not to mention publicly conversations I overheard at home. I found this split within one's identity, this gap between what you think and what you say, most frustrating. Later, I learned about the ubiquitous presence of the secret police, about the informers, the prisons and the camps."

What he misses most about Romania is "a sense of history, an intensity of intellectual conversations that start at dusk and end at dawn, a passion for ultimate values. I'm a full-time intellectual; I like to interact with people who feel the same way about the life of the mind."

Of the US, he says, "For me, there are three values that matter the most: truth, liberty and dignity. I see American society, with all its faults (including materialism, scientism, positivism), as being able to permit, and even to encourage, the cultivation of these values." The Devil in History, he adds, is dedicated to the "great scholars" Tony Judt, Leszek Kolakowski and Robert C. Tucker, who "conceived of their scholarship as a weapon against tyranny".

Tismaneanu offers two jokes. "'What is communism? The longest and most painful road between capitalism and capitalism.' 'The rules of survival under totalitarianism are: 1. Do not think; 2. If you think, do not speak; 3. If you think, and speak, do not write; and 4. If you think, and speak, and write, do not be surprised.'"

The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century

By Vladimir Tismaneanu

University of California Press

336pp, £24.95

ISBN 9780520239722

Published 12 September 2012

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