In the winter of 1944-45 the Soviet Red Army surrounded the Hungarian capital of Budapest and began the bloody work of taking over the city. Even then, as they fought desperately for their own survival, the Germans and their Hungarian allies did not waver in their determination to annihilate Budapest’s Jewish population. Unable to deport Jews to Auschwitz or march them to camps in the west, they rounded them up by the thousands and shot them on the banks of the Danube, in the heart of the city.
My mother was 15 years old at the time and a member of the Zionist underground, dividing her time between hiding and distributing forged documents to Jews around the capital. As Communists and Nazis battled street by street and house by house, she and her fellows, of all political stripes, did not spend much time arguing the relative merits and deficiencies of those two modern creeds. Their physical survival depended on the Communists defeating the Nazis. The choice was not difficult.
The story of my mother’s survival in war-ravaged Budapest is unique in its details, but in most ways is entirely typical. Practically all the Jews who survived World War II in Eastern Europe owe their lives to the Soviet Red Army. And if we consider that the landing in Normandy was only possible because most German divisions were deployed in the east, then it is fair to say that the same applies for Western Europe as well.
Simply put, that any European Jews at all survived the Holocaust is due above all to the victory of the Soviet Red Army over Nazi Wehrmacht. The Nazis murdered Jews by the millions, and the Communists saved Jews by the millions. Should this excuse the crimes perpetrated by the Soviet Union and its satellite states? Of course not. But it should be enough to put an end to any suggestion of moral equivalency between Nazism and Communism.
I was reminded of this while reading Cathy Young’s essay, where she laments the tendency of liberals to downplay the evils of Soviet Communism. She has a point: the terror, the Gulags, the institutional anti-Semitism were all real, and deserving of moral outrage. But while Cold War liberals were wrong to downplay the misdeeds of Communism, they were right to insist that Nazism was immeasurably worse. Furthermore, they drew the right conclusions from this.
They were right, for example, to insist that cordial (or at least correct) relations between the Capitalist West and the Communist East were possible and essential for preserving global peace. And they were right to stand up to McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch-hunt — not because all those accused were innocent, but because they knew that nationalist hysteria posed a far greater danger to American democracy than any foreign plot.
Today’s liberals are far more likely to agree with Young and forcefully denounce the crimes of Communism. But it sometimes seems that in their haste to make amends for a past misjudgment, they had also forgotten some of the lessons their predecessors knew so well.
In the near-absence of actual Communist regimes, the anti-Communist stance of modern day liberals has devolved into little more than an anti-Russian stance. The doves of the Cold War era have become the fiercest of hawks, and avid promoters of a U.S. policy of confrontation between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.
Meanwhile, as they condemn Russia for past misdeeds, some seem far more tolerant of resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe, even when it comes complete with the symbols and paraphernalia — not to mention the ideology — of the Nazi era. At home, perhaps to compensate for soft-pedalling communism in the past, many liberals seem happy to take part in a wave of anti-Russian paranoia that shows troubling parallels to the Red Scare of the 1950’s.
Whether Nazism was worse than Communism is a question of historical memory, but the answer we give can have far-reaching implications for the present. Cold War liberals downplayed the evils of communism, but their overall stance helped sustain peace abroad and civil rights at home. Their modern-day heirs have rightly condemned communism, but in their haste to redeem themselves they have endorsed an aggressively hawkish foreign policy and joined with neocons in stoking fears of all-pervading Russian plots.
None of this, of course, mattered in the least to my mother and her friends in wartime Budapest. For them the issue was simple: Victory for the Communists meant life; victory for the Nazis meant certain death. It was not a hard choice. And it shouldn’t be for us either.
Amir Alexander teaches the history of science at UCLA.