From the world's press

  Tuesday, June 4, 1996

By Cathy Young / The Detroit News

Old moral equivalency remains alive

ABOUT two months ago, a firestorm erupted in the publishing world over a biography of Goebbels scheduled for publication by St. Martin's Press. The author, British historian David Irving, is a "revisionist" who has claimed that the Auschwitz gas chambers were a postwar hoax for tourists, and that while many Jews were killed by the Nazis, there was no systematic extermination planned by Hitler's regime.

Goebbels was vehemently denounced by critics and the Anti-Defamation League. While the publisher initially stood by the book, it was yanked after St. Martin's Chairman Thomas McCormack read it personally.

Around the same time, another respected publisher brought out a revisionist book on another great 20th century tragedy. The Yale University Press published Life and Terror in Stalin's Russia, 1934-1941 by Miami University (Ohio) professor Robert Thurston. Thurston argues that widely accepted estimates by Western and Russian historians of the human toll of Stalin's purges (about 18 million arrests in 1935-45, with seven million executions and an untold number of deaths in the camps) are vastly exaggerated. At the height of the terror, he says, "only" 2.5 million people were arrested for political reasons and fewer than 700,000 shot.

June 4, 1996

Indeed, Thurston challenges the notion that the Soviet people under Stalin were ruled by fear and coercion. There was, he says, plenty of popular support for the regime and the purges. And plenty of democracy, too; you could criticize your boss or even a low-level party official.

When the secret police tortured suspects, it was "to extract confessions, not simply to debase individuals"; besides, some people who were arrested weren't even tortured! And Stalin never planned to rule by terror - he just reacted to events around him and let things spin out of control. (That's much the same argument Irving makes about the Nazis.)

While the critical response to Life and Terror has been generally negative, there has been no outcry and no pressure on Yale University Press to pull the book. Publisher's Weekly, which branded the Irving book "repellent," called the Thurston book "controversial."

Scholar Tina Rosenberg notes this paradox in the New York Times Book Review; the difference, she says, is that Irving engages in "deliberate distortion," while Thurston "may be a bad historian," but he's honest. Actually, his use of materials is so selective and the rationalizations with which he dismisses inconvenient data are so shaky that it's hard to make conclusions about his intent. His claim that ordinary people had no reason to fear persecution is contradicted by numerous first-hand accounts.

His map of labor camps omits sites researchers have actually seen.

More likely, the different reaction is another example of the enduring double standard: to defend Nazism is a offense against humanity; to defend communism is - well, controversial. Minimizing Stalin's terror has never been considered beyond the pale.

Why? Maybe many well-meaning liberals still believe that communism, unlike Nazism, had some redeeming value - after all, it was motivated by the noble ideal of equality - and regard anti-communism as tainted with the legacy of McCarthyism. To them, it is somehow unseemly to say that the Cold War was a battle the West waged against evil.

I know nothing of Robert Thurston's politics. But in his conclusion, he states with obvious disapproval that images of Stalin as "an icon of evil ... serve to vindicate history and politics in the West, itself a construct of virtue in contrast to Soviet malice." Earlier, he suggests that the purges were not that different from other collective panics in which the rights of the accused were trampled - McCarthyism or the lynching of Southern blacks.

The Cold War may be over, but the intellectuals' insistence on moral equivalence between imperfect Western democracy and communist totalitarianism is not.

Cathy Young's column is published on Tuesday.

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