The Trump administration, U.S.-funded fact-checking websites, prominent non-governmental organizations, and leading media outlets including the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are spreading discredited death counts that diminish the crimes of Nazi Germany in order to demonize communism.
These mythical figures rely on outlandish claims from The Black Book of Communism, a propagandistic tract that has been widely criticized for trivializing the Holocaust, sympathizing with Nazi collaborators, and enabling neo-fascist political forces to rewrite history.
November 7 marked the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which ushered in a century of communist revolutions and movements. On this centennial, the Trump administration declared the creation of the National Day for the Victims of Communism, and in a statement, rehashed an utterly false claim: “Over the past century, communist totalitarian regimes around the world have killed more than 100 million people.”
Though the 100 million death estimate has been discredited again and again, it continues to be repeated by right-wing ideologues seeking to brand communism as history’s worst crime. While large numbers of people died under the watch of governments that identified as communist, this fake statistic includes the tens of millions of Soviets who died during Nazi Germany’s genocidal onslaught in World War II as supposed “victims of communism.”
A U.S. government-funded website supposedly dedicated to fact-checking, Polygraph.info, joined the chorus of fake news when it published an article attacking Russian politician Aleksey Pushkov for daring to state on Twitter, “100 million killed by communist regimes—these numbers are pulled out of a hat. Besides, imperialist regimes, including Hitler, killed just as many. Propaganda.”
Polygraph.info is a self-described fact-checker produced by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, U.S. government-funded media outlets that were created as key weapons for information warfare during the Cold War, broadcasting pro-capitalist and pro-Western propaganda in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
In its report, Polygraph.info claimed, “The 100 million number is based on archival documents.” In this grossly exaggerated estimate, the supposedly data-centric fact checkers counted Soviet victims of Nazism.
Polygraph.info attempted to buffet its claims by relying on comments by a former State Department adviser who has worked with U.S. government-funded media outlets.
“Hardly taken out of the clear blue sky,” Paul A. Goble, a former special advisor to the U.S. secretary of state, told Polygraph. “To get to 100 million, however, requires two things: a relatively high estimate of losses in China from starvation and killings during the Great Leap Forward, and the inclusion of losses of Soviet populations during wartime. With those added, the number is far above 100 million; probably closer to 150 million.”
AlterNet’s Grayzone Project contacted Goble, requesting clarification and asking if he was aware that he was blaming the Soviet Union for its citizens being killed by Nazis. Goble avoided directly answering the question.
“To say that there were losses is not to assign blame, and I didn’t,” Goble wrote in response. “Figures on losses in WWII include many who died because of Soviet policies but hardly all who died did so because of the regime. Soviet estimates of war losses now go up to 42 million and not the 26-28 mill. long used.”
The Grayzone followed up by asking Goble if he could provide specific numbers for the number of Soviet citizens killed and specific numbers for the Chinese who died from starvation or were killed in the Great Leap Forward. Goble did not offer any precise data in his response.
“As to losses in China, they were massive during the Great Leap, involving as they did both killings and losses from hunger,” he replied. “If you left out WWII, I think you’d still be above 100 mill dead if the Chinese dead are counted.”
Major media outlets and NGOs have also cooked the books on communism’s victims.
The website StopFake.org republished Polygraph.info’s article. StopFake.org is a Ukrainian, pro-NATO “fact-checking website” that is funded by the British embassy in Ukraine, the Czech Foreign Ministry, and avowedly anti-communist billionaire George Soros’ International Renaissance Foundation.
StopFake.org has become popular with the Western media’s rising fixation on Russia. The site was founded in March 2014, weeks after Ukraine’s elected president was toppled in a coup, in which neo-fascist forces played a significant role. The organization’s founders are affiliated with Kyiv Mohyla Academy, a Ukrainian university that teaches in English and pushes an explicitly pro-U.S. political agenda.
On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, a slew of similar op-eds appeared in corporate media outlets, rehashing the same talking points used by Polygraph.info and StopFake.org.
Britain’s Telegraph (known as “The Torygraph” for its close ties to the UK Conservative Party) published an article by a right-wing politician rehashing the dubious 100 million figure. The Wall Street Journal’s ultra-conservative op-ed page also riffed on “100 Years of Communism—and 100 Million Dead,” calling “the Bolshevik plague” the “greatest catastrophe in human history” — worse even than the Nazi Holocaust, apparently.
Marc Thiessen, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, piled on with a diatribe in the Washington Post whitewashing the Nazi regime’s uniquely murderous crimes: “Communist regimes killed some 100 million people — roughly four times the number killed by the Nazis — making communism the most murderous ideology in human history.” Thiessen sourced his downplaying of Nazi crimes and hyping of those of communism from The Black Book of Communism.
The Black Book of Communism debunked
The Black Book of Communism is a collection of right-wing essays published in France in 1997, and subsequently translated into English and published by Harvard University Press in 1999. Some of its contributors have admitted that the book’s figures are fabricated or exaggerated.
Contributors Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth distanced themselves from the text, criticizing the editor Stéphane Courtois and his “obsession to arrive to the 100 million deaths.” When he could not round out the figure to 100 million, Courtois apparently just added numbers.
Perhaps more troubling than The Black Book of Communism’s many egregious errors is the fact that it counts Nazi–collaborating fascists, anti-SemiticWhite Army fighters, and czarist officers who oversaw genocidal pogroms against Jews in its list of “victims of communism.”
The International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania — known popularly as the Wiesel Commission, after Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who led it — condemned Black Book editor Courtois for “comparative trivialization” of the Nazi Holocaust.
In order to portray communism as more evil and murderous than fascism, and demonize scholars who refuse to do the same, Courtois fell back on anti-Semitism, “inserting an incriminating insinuation directed at the Jews,” the Wiesel Commission wrote.
The commission noted that the editor’s tactics inspired “prestigious intellectuals” to rehash anti-Semitic stereotypes and talking points like “Red Holocaust,” “monopoly on suffering” and “Judeocentrism,” which it noted “are widely popular in radical-right circles.”
When The Black Book of Communism was published 20 years ago, its impact was immediately clear: to diminish the crimes of fascism and portray it as a lesser evil compared to communism. In his introduction to the book, Stéphane Courtois explicitly likened the Marxism-Leninism of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China to Nazism.
As early as 2000, historian Peter Kenez warned that the book was already being exploited by far-right ideologues and Holocaust revisionists like Jean-Marie Le Pen to rewrite history:
The reason for its popularity was surprisingly simple: For some time, a burning issue in French politics has been what role the extreme nationalist and racist forces of Jean-Marie LePen ought to play in the political life of the nation. And this book has given ammunition to those who want to show that the National Front’s brand of reactionary extremism is not nearly as bad as leftist extremism.
How does The Black Book lend itself to such a suspect agenda? By suggesting a dubious comparison: The book’s implicit and explicit message is that Communism was at least as evil, if not more evil, than Nazism. If you tally up the death toll on both sides, the argument goes, you’ll see that the legacy of Lenin was ultimately far more treacherous than the legacy of Hitler — and thus, by extension, those with vaguely socialist sympathies are worse than Nazis.
Kenez was one of a litany of academics who also pointed out that The Black Book of Communism is riddled with basic errors. Numerous historians have joined the chorus of criticism.
Scholar Noam Chomsky offered one of the most well-known rebukes, pointing out that, if one were to adopt the book’s deceptive tactics, one could logically conclude that capitalism was responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million people in India alone in just three decades. Chomsky wrote:
[Nobel Prize-winning Indian economist Amartya Sen] observes that India and China had ‘similarities that were quite striking’ when development planning began 50 years ago, including death rates. ‘But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India’ (in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: ‘India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame,’ 1958-1961.
Overcoming amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist ‘experiment’ since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the ‘colossal, wholly failed…experiment’ of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone.
The number of people killed by governments identified as communist is still hotly debated in scholarly literature. There is frequently a double standard applied to Marxist-Leninist states that is not applied to capitalist ones: deaths from hunger, famine and other non-violent causes, even “lost births” that did not actually happen, are often attributed to communism, whereas the 3 million children who die every year from hunger and malnutrition in the 21st century are not counted as victims of capitalism.
As for violent deaths, according to the Soviet Union’s meticulously kept archives, which were opened after the collapse of the USSR, 799,455 people were executed under the rule of Joseph Stalin between 1921 and 1953. There is no question that this is a horrific number. It is also an order of magnitude smaller than the claims of The Black Book of Communism and its adherents, who add zeros when they see fit.
Similarly, the vast majority of the tens of millions of deaths attributed to the People’s Republic of China were caused by hunger or malnutrition, exposing another double standard: the 35 million Indians who starved to death in famines caused by the British empire, for instance, are not considered capitalism’s victims.
Chinese scholars estimated in 1928 that China had a dumbfounding 1,828 famines in the previous 2,000 years, leaving countless millions dead. During the Taiping Rebellion from 1850 to 1864 alone, a staggering 20 million to 70 million Chinese died from war and famine.
Estimates vary greatly for the number of deaths from the famine of 1959 to 1961, during the period of rapid industrialization of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, yet 16.5 million is often cited as an official figure. Since then, the People’s Republic of China has prevented subsequent famines, ending the two millennia-long cycle.
This makes the methodology for who is considered a victim of what system questionable, considering that the countless millions who died in China’s previous at least 1,828 famines are not dubbed victims of capitalism and feudalism.
There is no doubt that hideous acts of violence were committed in the name of communism and large numbers of people died. The hideous acts of violence committed by capitalist, colonialist, and imperialist states are however never calculated or evaluated in the same way. And this history is abused for political reasons — and with terrifying consequences.
The ‘victims of communism’ cottage industry and the neo-fascist threat
In its supposed fact check, the U.S. government-funded website Polygraph.info cited The Black Book of Communism as supposed evidence for the 100 million figure. The group also quoted the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a staunchly right-wing non-governmental organization based in Washington, D.C. that has also whitewashed far-right political forces.
What none of these organizations or texts acknowledge is the enormous sacrifice made by the Soviet Union to defeat Nazism. In fact, they instead consider that sacrifice to be a crime of communism.
More Soviets died in World War II than any other population. The commonly accepted figure is at least 26 million Soviets lost their lives in the war. Some recent estimates put the number of Soviets who died at the hands of the Nazis at a staggering 42 million — a testimony to the overwhelming suffering the USSR endured in the fight against fascism.
The Red Army was responsible for more than three-quarters of Nazi casualties in World War II, and the Eastern Front was the site of nearly all of the major battles. More Soviets were killed by the Nazis in just the 1942 to 1943 siege of Stalingrad than the approximately 400,000 Americans or Britons who died in the entirety of the war.
Even former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a vehement foe of communism, acknowledged in 1944 that “it is the Red Army that has torn the guts out of the filthy Nazis.”
Decades after the USSR defeated Nazi Germany and liberated Auschwitz and Berlin, anti-communists have tried to re-categorize the casualties of a Nazi war of aggression as supposed victims of communism.
This is all part of a much larger political trend. The Grayzone reported in July on a film released by NATO that lionized Baltic nationalists for fighting the Soviet Union, even though they collaborated with the Nazi SS divisions that helped carry out the genocide of Europe’s Jewish population.
Journalist Seumas Milne warned in 2002 that anti-communist propaganda was fueling a historical whitewash of Hitler’s legacy. Fifteen years later, the abuse of history has continued and intensified.
Some governments have even moved toward officially codifying the myth of a “Double Genocide,” which scholar Dovid Katz has described as “a major intellectual and political push to contextualize the actual Nazi genocide, the Holocaust, within the Hitlerist ‘freedom fight’ against Soviet Communist domination in Eastern Europe.”
Double genocide, now a state-mandated ideology in parts of Eastern Europe, “is the primary new mainstream form of Holocaust denial,” Katz has argued, “and should be treated with at least as much outrage as President Trump’s invocation of supposed moral equivalence between people who came to Charlottesville, Virginia in Nazi-style torch-lit processions … and those who came to protest them.”
The cynical manipulation of history has helped propel neo-fascist nationalists around the globe. In the West, anti-communist zealots have rewritten the past for political gain, and unleashed demons of their own in the process.