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From the Gulag to the Killing Fields

In a personal account of his internment in the Albanian gulag, Nika Stajka catalogued the fourteen types of torture that communist authorities used against prisoners. These ranged from shooting by firing squad to sleep deprivation to the cutting of flesh with scissors and knives.

In his memoir, published in 1980, Stajka recalls:

We were all labeled as “enemies of the people,” reactionaries, traitors, saboteurs, criminals, villains ... that is why the “popular government” had no mercy for anyone of us, although we had been told at first that work was a great privilege for us, with the “socialist emulation” on our empty stomachs and enduring club blows on our backs, worse off than animals, since we were all between the ages of sixteen and forty-five years, while the aged and handicapped, unable to work, “ate the government bread as parasites.” They said that “it was better to eliminate” the latter.

In an excellent new book, Paul Hollander has assembled an impressive collection of concentration camp memoirs by people who were among the millions of “state enemies” of communism—from the Soviet gulag, through Eastern Europe, China, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Hollander argues that these intensely personal accounts “provide a superior way to grasp the human costs and consequences” of the twentieth century's great communist terror. What's more, these “experiences, when clearly articulated and eloquently recalled, tend to be more informative and memorable than quantitative data and scholarly analysis—though of course the latter too are vital for a full understanding of the phenomenon.”

For many in the West, the lack of a personal, concrete understanding of the reality of forced labor camps, mass murder and state-sponsored terror in distant communist lands made it extremely difficult to comprehend what was happening. The numbers were too fantastic, the systems of repression too elaborate and all-encompassing, the weight of human suffering beyond measure. The tales of those few who did manage to escape the system and give their account to the West were often received with disinterest or outright scorn. This couldn't be, could it? Surely these political refugees from Stalin's and Mao's and Fidel's and Pol Pot's utopias were exaggerating. Weren't they?

In her forward to Hollander's book, Anne Applebaum notes that, “Only now, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, is it truly possible to understand the cross-cultural, multinational history of communism as a single phenomenon.” She notes that prison camp literature describes “the myriad ways in which the prisoners themselves altered the rules of the often bizarre, surreal world that they had been forced to inhabit.” (Applebaum's “Gulag: A History,” published in 2003 by Doubleday, would make an excellent companion to Hollander's book.)

Hollander has contributed a valuable introduction to the book, which is very helpful in placing these personal accounts into a coherent historical context. He describes the distinctive features of communist repression. Hollander makes important distinctions between the nature of Nazi mass murder and communist political violence. There is a revealing look at the attention gap in Western industrialized societies concerning communist terror—still evident today concerning regimes in such places as Cuba and North Korea—and a lengthy historical and social analysis of the character of repression in communist states.

In the introduction, Hollander directs our attention to the recent “fusion of mass murder (albeit on a smaller scale) with religious-utopian impulses that has been demonstrated by those Islamic suicide bombers and pilots who have eagerly destroyed themselves and others in pursuit of individual salvation and what they consider to be social-political redemptions and justice.” This is an important point because much of the current debate about Islamic terrorism is not about the nature of these “impulses,” which are obvious, but whether they will find their outlet on a horrifically larger scale of destruction and murder.