One of the most powerful museums in Washington, D.C., is the Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s the one site I always recommend to people visiting the city, even though it takes a couple of days to shake off the malaise that settles in after you’ve seen it.
It’s a fitting memorial that accurately documents and catalogues the horrors of the Holocaust, without much propagandizing. It allows history to stand on its own. The events as they happened are quite enough.
It’s time we had a similar museum to memorialize the devastation wrought by communism (search).
Adolf Hitler (search) has become the embodiment of human evil, yet he wasn’t the biggest killer of the last century. He didn’t even come in second. He was third, behind two communists, Joseph Stalin (search) and Mao Tse-Tung (search).
According to the historian R.J. Rummel, Hitler’s Nazis killed about 21million people between 1933 and 1945, (a figure that includes Roma gypsies, homosexuals, the handicapped, Poles, Russians, Jehova Witnesses and Germans, as well as six million Jews.) Stalin killed twice that many, and Mao killed just under 38 million. When you add in the murders attributable to Lenin (search), Pol Pot (search), Tito (search) and the remaining communist dictators of Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, communism claimed more than 100 million lives. These estimates vary, but it’s generally accepted now among historians that communism took far more lives than Nazism (search).
My aim here isn’t to minimize the atrocities of the Holocaust. My point is that communism also killed millions -- perhaps hundreds of millions -- this last century; it enslaved, and continues to enslave, billions more.
And those are merely the costs we can estimate.
Far more speculative and difficult to measure are the ways in which communism killed human potential. The last century was the most productive in human history: We cured diseases, went to the moon, improved the human condition in almost every way imaginable. Think of what the human race might have accomplished had billions of us not been imprisoned by communism but been free to explore, stretch and reach our potential through competition, innovation and creativity.
There’s really no telling what we might have done.
Unfortunately, nearly 14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall (search), the embers of communism haven’t yet flickered out. Anti-communists cannot invoke the Holocaust survivors’ cry of “Never Again.” They can’t even cry, “Not Right Now, At This Moment.”
Right now, North Korea’s communist regime (search) is imposing a famine on its own people, with resulting deaths estimated in the millions. Communist regimes continue to hold captive the people of China, Laos, Vietnam and Cuba. Human rights abuses abound in all five countries.
Yet communism is rarely regarded with the same enmity we hold for Nazism. In fact, communism today is downright trendy.
Most of us are justifiably revolted at the sight of a teenage kid wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a swastika (search). But glimpse the same kid in a shirt featuring a sickle and hammer, or a portrait of Che Guevara (search), and many of us will find him quaint, perhaps idealistic -- at the very worst, naïve and misguided. In New York City, you can get tipsy at the KGB Bar, a chic spot featuring Soviet-era symbolism and paraphernalia. Imagine what might become of the entrepreneur who tried to open a nightspot themed with Nazi regalia.
It’s become fashionable of late for celebrities to make high-profile pilgrimages to Cuba (search), to be wined and dined by Fidel Castro. In the time it takes to extol the virtues of universal health care and education, you can bet at least a dozen Cubans have risked their lives to get out. Iconic director Stephen Spielberg was the latest to make the trip. You’d think the man who so eloquently documented the brutality of totalitarianism in "Schindler’s List" (search) would know better than to cozy up to tyrants.
Even on communism’s old stomping grounds, there seems to be a twisted nostalgia for the old days. Plans are underway for a communist theme park in what was once East Berlin. In Russia, home of the gulags, in a recent poll a majority of Russians think “Uncle Joe” Stalin did more good for Russia than bad.
Bryan Caplan, an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, maintains the “Museum of Communism” Web site. Caplan says the difference in the way many of us perceive communism and Nazism lies in the way we view each philosophy’s motives.
“People see communists as misguided realists,” Caplan says, “whereas most of us know Nazis were brutal thugs.”
In other words, we’re willing to cut communism slack because we’ve been led to believe that the philosophy was driven by such noble goals as equality and egalitarianism. That’s not the truth, of course. As Caplan documents on his site, from Karl Marx (search) and Vladimir Lenin (search) onward, communism has always been driven by power. Slave labor and the “liquidation” of dissidents were always part of the plan.
This is why a museum dedicated to preserving communism’s brutal legacy is necessary. The philosophy’s history isn’t the result of good intentions gone wrong; it’s a perverse theory of rights that’s abhorrent and immoral on its face. The former implies that if done right, communism might work someday. The latter correctly concludes that it ought not ever be tried again.
One such project is already underway. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has been raising money toward a museum for several years now. The organization plans to build an online “virtual” museum first, then a standing memorial in Washington, D.C., with a final eye toward a bricks-and-mortar memorial similar to the Holocaust Museum.
But there’s a problem with the project’s funding. Project Director Jay Katzen says that although initial plans called for the museum to be funded entirely with private donations, the challenges of private fund raising has led the group to seek public dollars. Katzen says he’s secured a pledge from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., (search) to match a taxpayer dollar for each dollar raised privately. I find it almost obscene to build a monument to the evils of state coercion with money coerced by the state from its citizens. A memorial to communism that’s in any way funded with taxpayer dollars would stand devoid of any real moral value at all.
Perhaps another group will come forward. Perhaps some established capitalist who has made his millions will decide that a philosophy that has left a trail of 100 million dead does not deserve favor, or hipster status, or even indifference -- but scorn, derision and condemnation.
When you leave Washington, D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, you leave sick, heartbroken and burdened with the atrocities of Nazism.
It’s time we had a building that evoked similar feelings from communism.
Radley Balko is a writer living in Arlington, Va. He also maintains a Weblog at www.theagitator.com.