Comparative Horrors

Timothy Garton Ash

  • Accusatory Practices: Denunciation in Modern European History, 1789-1989 edited by Sheila Fitzpatrick and Robert Gellately
    Chicago, 231 pp, US $27.95, September 1997, ISBN 0 226 25273 6

I recently received a letter from a German theatre director, objecting to a passage of my book The File in which I wrote that, back in the Stalinist Fifties, an East German friend of mine had been ‘denounced’ by one Dr Warmbier, then a lecturer in Marxism-Leninism at Leipzig University. ‘It’s the word “denounced” that is wholly inappropriate,’ the director wrote, in defence of his old friend Dr Warmbier. He gave three reasons for thinking it inappropriate. Dr Warmbier had not, he argued, decisively contributed to my friend’s dismissal from the university; the letter in which Dr Warmbier criticised my friend had not been addressed to an official body; and Dr Warmbier had no selfish motives in lodging those criticisms. He was a Communist and was merely acting on his beliefs.

The director’s letter takes us straight to the questions at the heart of this book. What makes a denunciation a denunciation? Is it the motive of the person who does it, the person or agency to which the message is addressed, or the consequences for the person denounced? How has denunciation been viewed in different places and times, and what functions has it performed in different political systems? The editors prefer the circumlocution ‘accusatory practices’ in their main title, because they think the word ‘denunciation’ suggests something that happens in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia, but not in an English village. They imply that we should not be so complacent. Maybe it happens in Chipping Norton too.

They nonetheless offer a working definition of denunciations: ‘spontaneous communications from individual citizens to the state (or to another authority such as the church) containing accusations of wrong-doing by other citizens or officials and implicitly or explicitly calling for punishment’. The term ‘informer’, by contrast, generally implies a regular, paid relationship with the police.

A richly detailed essay by Colin Lucas on denunciation during the French Revolution makes the first important point that, contrary to my theatre director’s assumption, selfish motives are not a defining feature of denunciation. In fact, the French revolutionaries coined the word dénonciation precisely to define the selfless, virtuous, public-spirited unmasking of enemies of the Revolution, as opposed to self-interested sneaking to a tyranny, for which they used the older term, délation. Denunciation, in other words, is a good thing if the motives of the person doing it are selfless and the regime to which it is made is – in the eye of the beholder – good. It is a bad thing if one or both of these conditions do not apply. Lucas quotes Pierre-Jean Agier writing in 1789: ‘as far as informing is concerned, silence is a virtue under Despotism; it is a crime, yes indeed, a crime under the rule of Liberty.’ And Félix Lepeletier’s funeral oration for Marat: ‘Denunciation is the mother of virtues.’ Yet in practice, of course, many denunciations in Revolutionary France were self-interested and, Lucas concludes in a very English way, ‘the notion of virtuous denunciation simply did not hold up.’

In this, as in so many other respects, the mother of revolutions anticipated much that was to come. Although chapters follow on denunciations to the Church in late 19th-century rural Russia and under modern Catholicism, the bulk of this multi-author volume is devoted to comparing the experience of the Soviet Union under Communism and Germany under both Nazism and Communism. It is thus a small contribution to one of the livelier intellectual and moral debates in Europe today.

One might describe this, a little flippantly, as the Comparative Horrors Debate. The fact of the end of Communism in Europe has sunk in, and people across the continent are asking themselves whether the horrors of Communism were comparable to those of Nazism. If so, were they comparable merely in scale or also in kind? And why do we still hear so much about the horrors of Nazism and so little about those of Communism? Was the early Cold War theory of ‘totalitarianism’ as wrong as a generation of scholars in the Seventies and Eighties argued it was? What, if any, were the causal connections between the two great horrors? In France, and now in Italy, the debate has been sparked by the recent publication of the Black Book of Communism, a massive documentation of worldwide horrors. In Germany it started a little earlier, with Ernst Nolte’s assertion, during the so-called ‘historians’ debate’, that Nazism was in some sense an imitative reaction to Bolshevism. Even in Britain, last year saw the publication of another multi-author conference volume on the subject.[*]

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[*] Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorships in Comparison, edited by Ian Kershaw and Moshe Lewin (Cambridge, 381 pp., £45 and £15.95, 15 May 1997, 0 521 56345 3).