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The Conservative Curmudgeon
July 2, 2008

The Great Terror at 40:
Remembering the Elites' Enchantment with Communism

by Allan C. Brownfeld

[Breaker: Turning a Blind Eye to Tyranny]

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Great Terror by Robert Conquest. In a preface to the anniversary edition, Robert Conquest wrote that, "The history of the period covered by 'The Great Terror' sees the enforcement of Stalin's totally intolerant belief system — with terror as the decisive argument. Terror meant terrorizing. Mass terror means terrorizing the whole population and must be accompanied by the most complete public exposure of the worst enemies of the people, of the party line, and so of the truth. We know the results."

In l968, when the book first came out, Conquest noted, "[I]t was still true that, as the great historian Francois Furet noted, after the war and the demise of fascism, 'all the major debates on postwar ideas revolved round a single question: the nature of the Soviet regime.' He added the paradox that communism had two main embodiments — as a backward despotism and as a constituency in the West that had to be kept unaware of the other's reality. And, up to the last, this was often accompanied by a view of the Cold War as an even exchange - with the imputation that any denigration of the Soviet regime was due to peace-hating prejudice."

Since the end of the Cold War, the reality of communism's terror and brutality has been widely discussed. In l999, for example, The Black Book of Cummunism, an 846-page academic study that blames communism for the deaths of 85 million to l00 million people worldwide, became a bestseller. It estimated that the ideology claimed 45 million to 72 million in China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, from l.3 million to 2.3 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, l.7 million in Africa, l.5 million in Afghanistan, l million in Vietnam, l million in Eastern Europe, and l50,000 in Latin America.

Through all those years, many intellectuals in the West insisted on disassociating communism from the crimes committed in its name. Incredibly, in retrospect, we see many academics, clergymen, journalists, and literary figures not resisting communist tyranny, but rather embracing it, defending it, and apologizing for it.

Jean Paul Sartre
In a July l954 interview with Liberation, French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who had just returned from a visit to Russia, said that Soviet citizens did not travel because they are prevented from doing so, but because they had no desire to leave their wonderful country. "The Soviet citizens," he declared, "criticize their government much more and more effectively than we do." He maintained that, "There is total freedom of criticism in the Soviet Union."


Lillian Hellman
Another intellectual defender of tyranny was American playright Lillian Hellman. She visited Russia in October l937, when Stalin's purge trials were at their height. Upon her return, she said she knew nothing about the trials. In l938 she was among the signatories of an ad in the communist publication New Masses, which approved the trials. She supported the l939 Soviet invasion of Finland, stating, "I don't believe in that fine, lovable little Republic of Finland that everyone gets so weepy about. I've been there and it looks like a pro-Nazi little republic to me." There is absolutely no evidence that Hellman ever visited Finland — and her biographer states that such a visit was highly improbable.

Walter Duranty
Another case in point is that of The New York Times' correspondent Walter Duranty, who covered the Soviet Union in the l930s. In the midst of the enforced famine in the Ukraine, Duranty visited the region and denied that starvation and death were rampant. In November l932, Duranty reported, "There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be." In the Times of August 23, l933, Duranty wrote: "Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda." He eventually admitted that there was a serious loss of life due to "food shortages" in the Ukraine but denied that it was enforced famine instituted by Stalin's deliberate policy.

What Americans got was not the truth but false reporting. The influence of this reporting was widespread. Walter Duranty received the highest honor in journalism — the Pulitzer Prize for l932, complimenting him for "dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia." The citation declared that Duranty's dispatches — which the world now knows to have been false — were "marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment, and exceptional clarity."

Walter Duranty was only one of many correspondents and writers in the l920s and l930s who fed their readers in the West a steady diet of disinformation about the Soviet Union. Louis Fischer, who wrote for the Nation magazine, was also reluctant to tell his readers about the flaws in Soviet society. He referred to the gulags as "a vast industrial organization and a big educational institution." In l936, he informed his readers that the dictatorship was "voluntarily abdicating" in favor of democracy.

Time for Truth
Since the Russian Revolution of l9l7, the world was engaged in a struggle between freedom and tyranny. Now that the reality of communism's horrors are widely known, it is only proper to remember those who defended liberty and those who did not. In that battle, sadly, many in the U.S. and other Western countries used their considerable abilities to advance not freedom but tyranny.

In the forward to the 40th anniversary edition of The Great Terror, Robert Conquest wrote that, "One of the strongest notions put forward about Stalinism is that in the interests of 'objectivity' we must be — wait for it — 'nonjudgmental.' But to ignore, or downplay, the realities of Soviet history is itself a judgment, and a very misleading one."

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The Conservative Curmudgeon is copyright © 2008 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is THE REVOLUTION LOBBY (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Subcommittee.

He is associate editor of THE LINCOLN REVIEW and a contributing editor to such publications as HUMAN EVENTS, THE ST. CROIX REVIEW, and THE WASHINGTON REPORT ON MIDDLE EAST AFFAIRS.

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