By Oscar Clarke
This year is the hundredth since the victory of the totalitarian idea in Russia. And there is little to be thankful for about the world that was called into being by Lenin a century ago. The Revolution promised salvation, and a large part of the European intelligentsia embraced it with a religious fervour. It produced leader-worship, famine and slavery, all the while hunting heretics with an assiduity which renders the Papal inquisition inappropriately tame as an historical comparison.
But there is, nevertheless, something to be celebrated in the sanguinary centenary of Bolshevism, which becomes apparent when I glance at my bookshelf. There I see Koestler, Serge, Borkenau and Silone, the four writers to whom Orwell referred when he coined the term “the concentration camp novel” to summarise the literature of nineteen thirties Europe. I also see Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, Sebastian Haffner and Victor Klemperer, Kanan Makiya and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. To wit, I see a whole genre of literature – anti-totalitarianism – that also got started in 1917, which produced some of the most indispensible works of the last century.
Had the Russian Civil War gone the other way, something doctrinally akin to Nazism might have emerged instead. For the White Russians, like Hitler, saw murdering Jews as a war aim. They were among the first true believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, by which theory Bolshevism – like capitalism before it – was simply a tool in the Jewish plan for world domination. It was White Russian emigres who brought the conspiracy theory, in the early nineteen-twenties, to Germany, where they also introduced political murder: Vladimir Nabokov – father of the novelist of the same name – was shot three months before Walther Rathenau.
Following a fascist triumph in Russia, Lenin, Trotsky and the other old Bolsheviks would have emigrated instead, perhaps to Vienna, where they once fraternised in the same cafes as a destitute Hitler. But more likely to Germany, homeland of Marx, Hegel and capital H History, especially if the Revolution of 1919 had brought the Communists to power there.
Such a counterfactual history would make for an intriguing novel. The author might proceed through the ‘twenties and ‘thirties, trying to divine how the twentieth century would have been altered by a fascist Russia and a communist Germany. But when, to get a feel for his subject matter, he came to study the literature of the period, he would likely be met by a revelation: history might not have diverged much at all from its actual course. For fascism and communism were two sides of the same coin.
One source for this lesson, composed around the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, would have been Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. At the beginning of the novel, Rubashov, a victim of the Moscow trials, is having a nightmare about his arrest, years earlier, by the Gestapo. In the dream, he is awoken and forced to dress, but he can’t quite manage to do so, because his body is overcome by the paralysis which nightmares often afflict us with in their most fearful moments.
Meanwhile, two men are banging on his door. Only this time they are not there on Hitler’s behalf, but on Stalin’s. In the final moments of Rubashov’s dream, someone pulls a plug and he hears water running down the pipes behind the wall. He wakes and has time to recover his sense of irony as he observes the portrait of Stalin hanging above his bed, then Stalin’s men break through his door to play the same roles as the Gestapo men in the dream. This time, Rubashov is able to dress, but somebody pulls a plug and water comes cascading down the pipes behind his wall.
The two totalitarian regimes had become mirrors of one another. In the final semi-lucid moments of his life, at the end of the novel, this truth dawns upon Rubashov. After receiving a shot in the back of the neck, his dream recurs:
Outside, someone was knocking on the front door, he dreamed that they were coming to arrest him; but in what country was he?
Whose colour portrait was hanging over his bed and looking at him?
Was it No.1 or was it the other – he with ironic smile or he with the glassy gaze?
A shapeless figure bent over him, he smelt the fresh leather of the revolver belt; but what insignia did the figure wear on the sleeves and shoulder-straps of its uniform – and in whose name did it raise the dark pistol barrel?
The two totalitarianisms were not only united by their penchant for political liquidations, but by their attempts to submit truth to their dogmas. It was Franz Borkenau’s book, Spanish Cockpit, which was at the centre of the famous rift between Orwell and the editor of the New Statesman, Kingsley Martin. Borkenau had been an agent of the German Communist Party, but had left after learning the lesson that Orwell would learn in Spain: that Stalin was actually keen to prevent revolutions abroad (he preferred Hitlers and Francos). Orwell had been asked to review the book for the magazine, and he praised its honesty. But this honesty offended the Stalinist orthodoxy of the time. Martin rejected the review, explaining that “it implies that our Spanish correspondents are all wrong”.
In Orwell’s postscript to Homage to Catalonia, he wrote:
I remember saying once to Arthur Koestler, ‘History stopped in 1936’, at which he nodded in immediate understanding. We were both thinking of totalitarianism in general, but more particularly of the Spanish civil war. Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie… and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
Spain had taught Orwell about the most frightening aspect of totalitarianism, its disavowal of the concept of truth. Just as, in Germany, truth was what Hitler thought and Goebbels announced, truth in British newspapers, in the name of solidarity with the Russian Revolution, was what Stalin decreed. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, co-founder and proprietor of the Left Book Club, and a conspicuous “fellow traveller”, rejected Homage to Catalonia.
In The Totalitarian Enemy, Borkenau compared Hitlerism and Stalinism explicitly. He picked up on a more obscure feature of totalitarianism, which will be familiar today to anyone who has spent any time perusing the English language magazine of the Islamic State, Dabiq, named in honour of the town where IS prophesy their victory in a final, apocalyptic battle with the unbelievers. This feature is messianism. With the revolutionary sects of the middle-ages, the anabaptists and the French revolutionaries, the totalitarianisms shared “the idea that some complete salvation could be worked on this earth through an accumulation of atrocities.”
Hitler actually talked of the Third Reich lasting for one thousand years, just as Revelations promises the millennial reign of Christ. Trotsky, meanwhile, posited that a “man of the future” would be born when the Revolution had completed its work. In his memoir, Victor Serge recorded the following exchange between a Stalinist and a left oppositionist, which demonstrated the callousness by which the believers in this future sought to attain it:
“you can’t make an omelette,” says the Stalinist, “without breaking eggs.”
“I see your broken eggs”, comes the reply, “now where is this omelette.”
In antiquity, Borkenau observed, “there is no evidence that there ever arose… the idea that spiritual or material salvation could be won through the destruction of all higher civilization by inspired fanatics.” In the history of the Judeo-Christian world, by contrast, this idea has recurred again and again. Another of the great foes of totalitarianism, Albert Camus, left his readers to consider that thought, by concluding his allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, The Plague, thus:
And, indeed, as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.