The Two Totalitarianisms

The Two Totalitarianisms
The Two Totalitarianisms

A small note – not the stuff of headlines, obviously – appeared in the newspapers on 3 February. In response to a call for the prohibition of the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, a group of conservative members of the European Parliament, mostly from ex-Communist countries, demanded that the same apply to Communist symbols: not only the hammer and sickle, but even the red star. This proposal should not be dismissed lightly: it suggests a deep change in Europe’s ideological identity.

Till now, to put it straightforwardly, Stalinism hasn’t been rejected in the same way as Nazism. We are fully aware of its monstrous aspects, but still find Ostalgie acceptable: you can make Goodbye Lenin!, but Goodbye Hitler! is unthinkable. Why? To take another example: in Germany, many CDs featuring old East German Revolutionary and Party songs, from ‘Stalin, Freund, Genosse’ to ‘Die Partei hat immer Recht’, are easy to find. You would have to look rather harder for a collection of Nazi songs. Even at this anecdotal level, the difference between the Nazi and Stalinist universes is clear, just as it is when we recall that in the Stalinist show trials, the accused had publicly to confess his crimes and give an account of how he came to commit them, whereas the Nazis would never have required a Jew to confess that he was involved in a Jewish plot against the German nation. The reason is clear. Stalinism conceived itself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, according to which, truth being accessible to any rational man, no matter how depraved, everyone must be regarded as responsible for his crimes. But for the Nazis the guilt of the Jews was a fact of their biological constitution: there was no need to prove they were guilty, since they were guilty by virtue of being Jews.

In the Stalinist ideological imaginary, universal reason is objectivised in the guise of the inexorable laws of historical progress, and we are all its servants, the leader included. A Nazi leader, having delivered a speech, stood and silently accepted the applause, but under Stalinism, when the obligatory applause exploded at the end of the leader’s speech, he stood up and joined in. In Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, Hitler responds to the Nazi salute by raising his hand and saying: ‘Heil myself!’ This is pure humour because it could never have happened in reality, while Stalin effectively did ‘hail himself’ when he joined others in the applause. Consider the fact that, on Stalin’s birthday, prisoners would send him congratulatory telegrams from the darkest gulags: it isn’t possible to imagine a Jew in Auschwitz sending Hitler such a telegram. It is a tasteless distinction, but it supports the contention that under Stalin, the ruling ideology presupposed a space in which the leader and his subjects could meet as servants of Historical Reason. Under Stalin, all people were, theoretically, equal.

[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on March 17th 2005.]

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