When the state owns the truth

Article Highlights

  • Tismaneanu's "The Devil in History" is a short but brilliant analytical crystallization of communism and fascism.

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  • “The Devil in History” by Vladimir Tismaneanu bears every sign of a lifetime of intellectual passion.

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  • There is more in “The Devil in History” about communism and Stalinism than fascism and Nazism.

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In the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century, Vasily Grossman's "Life and Fate," there is a conversation, sometime in late 1942, between the commandant of a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, Liss, and one of his prisoners, an old Bolshevik named Mostovskoy. The war is a tragic mistake, Liss tells Mostovsky: "We are different manifestations of the same essence—a one-party state. . . . There are only two great revolutionaries in the world: Stalin and our leader. Their will has created a national socialist state. . . . Stalin has taught us a great deal. . . . We are mortal enemies now, yes. But our victory is your victory. And if you prevail, we would live in your victory."

By the time Grossman wrote these lethally heretical lines in the Soviet Union of the 1950s, the kinship between the two totalitarianisms had already been noted by, among others, Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the exploration of the affinity has continued since. Vladimir Tismaneanu's "The Devil in History" is a milestone in this tradition, a relatively short but brilliant analytical crystallization of the enormous body of scholarly literature. Mr. Tismaneanu has produced a definitive account of the origins, the appeal, the doctrinal foundations and the political technology of history's two bloodiest political faiths, which, unlike other tyrannies, sought not only to control politics and the economy but to establish permanent state ownership of truth and morality.

"The Devil in History" bears every sign of a lifetime of intellectual passion. This commitment is hardly surprising given the author's ideological and geographic provenance. A professor at the University of Maryland, Mr. Tismaneanu was born and educated in Romania, one of only a handful of countries that experienced both fascism and communism. He was also born, literally, into the non-totalitarian Left, whence have come both the most notable critics of Stalinism and the first victims of every Soviet-style regime since the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries were marched to the wall by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Revolution. The author's father lost an arm fighting for the republicans in Spain; his mother was a nurse in the same war. An authority on the political history and political sociology of East-Central Europe, Mr. Tismaneanu returned to Romania in the mid-2000s to serve as chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of Communist Dictatorship in Romania.

Mr. Tismaneanu has so much to say that occasionally the spout gets clogged: sentences grow long and shaggy and paragraphs filled to the brim with quotes read at times read like mini-anthologies. There are sporadic lapses into professorese, so prepare to give your brain a nice workout, brush off your Greek notebooks or else have your favorite search engine at the ready to find your way among the likes of "chiliastic," "praxis," "eschaton," "palingenetic" and "metanoia." Yet the rewards are more than commensurate, as we are guided through the twin "bestiaries" by a compassionate and truly encyclopedic host.

Quite properly, there is more in this book about communism and Stalinism than fascism and Nazism. Although the former survived the latter, in Europe, by almost half a century (and still rules Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam), documentation of communism, its crimes and, especially, its victims has been minuscule compared with the myriad studies of fascism, even as, by one estimate in the book, fascism cost 25 million lives and communism between 80 and 100 million. The "Black Book of Communism," a catalog of killings, tortures, famines, mass deportations and deaths in camps, was not published until 1997—and even then, as Mr. Tismaneanu reminds us, it met with fierce critique by defenders of the communist "experiment."

The greater attention to communism is justified not only as the correction of a glaring historical and analytical imbalance. Despite occasional pathetic attempts at revival, fascism died with Hitler and Mussolini, but the dragon teeth that Lenin and Stalin and Mao sowed in the soil of Marxism have not been extracted or lost their potency, even with the fall, or erosion, of state communism. Whether in the streets of major European cities, "occupied" Wall Street or al Qaeda hide-outs, the key elements of the "totalitarian temptation," of which we have been warned by Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Albert Camus, Czeslaw Miłosz, Karl Popper, Jean-François Revel and Boris Souvarine, are instantly recognizable, embodying the themes explored by Mr. Tismaneanu: the zero-sum Manichaeism of Lenin's "kto kogo" ("Who [defeats] whom") political philosophy; the stigmatization, demonization and, eventually, dehumanization of the "enemy"; radical egalitarianism; the fanatical hatred of "bourgeois philistinism" and democratic capitalism; and the ecstatic hope of deliverance from the uncertainties of economic and political competition into a conflictless Eden under an omnipotent state.

Yes, we can and should take heart in communism's having been ended not from the "outside" by a military defeat, like fascism, but from the "inside" by its incompatibility, as Mikhail Gorbachev discovered, with an unmuzzled mind and the human longing for truth and dignity. As such, its demise will be forever among the most inspiring victories of the human spirit. Mr. Tismaneanu pays stirring tribute to those who kept the flame burning when all seemed hopeless: John Paul II, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, and Adam Michnik, who told their compatriots: Do not live a lie! Do not surrender your free will! Take responsibility for yourself, your town, your country!

At long last, the antidotes of human dignity, decency and truth have worked. But are we permanently cured? A powerful indictment of the twin "utopias in power," as well as a paean to those who resisted them, this profound and rich book is also a cautionary tale.

—Mr. Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991."


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About the Author


  • Leon Aron is Resident Scholar and Director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of three books and over 300 articles and essays. Since 1999, he has written Russian Outlook, a quarterly essay on economic, political, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet transition, published by the Institute. He is the author of the first full-scale scholarly biography of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Russia’s Revolution: Essays 1989-2006 (AEI Press, 2007); and, most recently, Roads to the Temple: Memory, Truth, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991 (Yale University Press, 2012).

    Dr. Aron earned his Ph.D. from Columbia University, has taught a graduate seminar at Georgetown University, and was awarded the Peace Fellowship at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He has co-edited and contributed the opening chapter to The Emergence of Russian Foreign Policy, published by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 1994 and contributed an opening chapter to The New Russian Foreign Policy (Council on Foreign Relations, 1998).

    Dr. Aron has contributed numerous essays and articles to newspapers andmagazines, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, theWall Street Journal Foreign Policy, The NewRepublic, Weekly Standard, Commentary, New York Times Book Review, the TimesLiterary Supplement. A frequent guest of television and radio talkshows, he has commented on Russian affairs for, among others, 60 Minutes,The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Charlie Rose, CNN International,C-Span, and National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Talk of theNation.”

    From 1990 to 2004, he was a permanent discussant at the Voice of America’s radio and television show Gliadya iz Ameriki (“Looking from America”), which was broadcast to Russia every week.

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