Kate Davenport looks at the fall-out from a book that equates Communist atrocities with Nazi genocide and charges western Communists with complicity in the crimes of their eastern comrades
It's a bit like the atomic scientists and the bomb ... When they realised what it was capable of, they got cold feet. Politics is also a science with explosive effects." Stephane Courtois, one of the six authors of the controversial best-seller Le Livre Noir du Communisme is explaining the row between himself and his team of historians that erupted just weeks before their book was due to hit France's bookshops.
The book (the title translates as The Black Book of Communism) is a world-view of Communism written by 11 political historians with six principal authors. All are experts in their field, ranging from the USSR to Cambodia. But the book's inflammatory passages - which draw a comparison between the scale of Communist and Nazi atrocities - were written by Courtois himself.
"Communist regimes committed crimes involving about 100 million people, as against about 25 million people under the Nazis," wrote Courtois, a director of research at France's National Centre for Scientific Research. "This simple point must at least call for a comparative study between the Nazi regime, which ... was considered the most criminal of the century, and a Communist system which maintained its international legitimacy until 1991, and even today is still in power in some countries.
"Communist regimes consolidated their power by elevating mass crime to an actual system of government," he went on. "Not one of the Communist regimes is an exception to this rule - not the China of The Great Helmsman, or Kim Il Sung's Korea, or Vietnam under 'nice Uncle Ho' or Cuba under flamboyant Fidel Castro." Although Courtois admits that the terror of Communist regimes diminished following the demise of Stalin and Mao, he argues that the "memory of terror" was the only reason repression was accepted thereafter on a daily basis in Communist countries.
The Black Book could not have been published at a more sensitive time, coming only months after national elections in France brought a socialist prime minister to power with a coalition including three Communist party members. It coincided too with the beginning of the long trial of Maurice Papon, eventually convicted last month for crimes against humanity under the Vichy regime. A National Front leader hailed the book as "the Nuremberg of Communism" and asked when France was going to try the Communists.
In this climate Courtois's analogy between Communism and Nazism provoked attacks from all sides. Even his co-authors, Nicholas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, challenged his "glib comparison", accusing Courtois of trying to turn serious historical study into a militantly political tract. In an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Margolin said: "You can't reduce it to a question of numbers. How does one compare two million deaths in four years in Cambodia with 3,000 over 40 years in Czechoslovakia?" He went on: "Courtois seems to think mass crime is the key to the vault of communism, while we think it is only one dimension.
"Obviously," said Margolin, "people didn't follow Communism for the same reasons they followed fascism. Communist intellectuals (Kruschev, Deng Xiaoping) have questioned mass crimes, but I've yet to hear an Italian fascist or a German Nazi question the Shoah."
Courtois now says he finds it very hard to understand his co-authors' reactions. "We discussed it in this very apartment. One of them was sitting where you are now," he says, pointing to a well-worn leather armchair. "My co-authors had four drafts of my introduction and conclusion and we had 15 meetings over six months. It was fine in the private context of scientists and historians. It was only when they realised the implications of it going into print that they got cold feet."
But it is not only his co-authors who have cold-shouldered Courtois's argument: many of France's old-time Communists are up in arms. Most provocatively, Courtois argues that Communists in Western Europe were morally complicit in the criminality of communist Eastern Europe. For some, he says, the "truth" is too much to bear. "I've seen people who were members of the party for 60 years giving up their cards, saying how come we sanctioned all of this? These are personal tragedies."
The role the French Communist Party played in the second world war when it played a big part in the Resistance, against the Nazi oppressors, put it beyond reproach, Courtois explains. "What was important was that the Communists beat the Nazis, so to think they were capable of the same horrors was simply unthinkable." The party was rejuvenated with thousands of young members after the war.
Those who dared to criticise it in the years that followed, such as writer Albert Camus, had a hard time. Camus was shunned by cafe society for his anti-communism - even by Jean-Paul Sartre. "Sartre chose ignorance," says Courtois. "Intellectuals consider themselves more intelligent than anyone else and ideology can be a real drug, as Marx said. Even Solzhenitsyn was condemned as a 'fascist'. There's one domain where the communists were always masters and that's propaganda."
He gives the example of a French politician who went to visit Ukraine in 1933, saw magnificent villages and came back saying the reports of famine were lies. The archives reveal what happened: his trip was organised by the political police, the NKVD, and entire villages were cleaned or repainted. "Sometimes the paint wasn't even dry!" says Courtois.
Had such revealing records not been uncovered at the end of the cold war in 1989, the book would not have been written. "If we hadn't had access to all the archives after the opening of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe I wouldn't have agreed to it," says Courtois, who as a student at Nanterre 30 years ago was part of the Vive La Revolution group and an avowed Maoist. Asked how he explains his former adherence to Chairman Mao, the man he classifies in The Black Book as the worst spectre of communism, responsible for 65 million deaths, his response is philosophical. "When one has been swept up by the current and washed up on the bank it's time to turn round and try to understand what happened.
"I think we've underestimated the impact of the crumbling of the Iron Curtain. Now that the communist system has collapsed, students who are 20 or so look at us like curious animals, asking how we could have been caught up in all this.
"People will look back on this incredible phenomenon of communism in the 20th century and historians will see The Black Book as the blast that blew the lid off the Pandora's box."
Le Livre Noir du Communisme is published by Editions Robert Laffont, price Ffr189. It will be published in English this autumn by Harvard University Press.