The New Australian
A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic . . . No. 76, 11-17 May 1998
This year's $200 million blockbuster motion picture Titanic tells a tragic story of the world's largest ship, which struck an iceberg on April 15, 1912 and within two hours split in half and plunged to its watery grave in the Atlantic Ocean. A total of 1,517 passengers died in that disaster, the great majority of them ship crewmembers.
Using dramatic license, however, director James Cameron chose to depict the loss of lives in terms of class conflict -- rich vs. poor -- telling the NewYork Times (Dec. 19) We're holding just short of Marxist dogma. (Cameron even cast, in the film's pivotal role as a 101-year-old Titanic survivor, an 87-year-old actress who had been active in Hollywood politics in the 1930's and refused to appear before a Congressional committee investigating Communist influence in the movies.)
While most of the main characters in Cameron's astonishingly crafted film are either downright hoity-toity or sweetly proletarian, at least when the great ship begins its final death plummet the movie rises above agitprop. Unlike Comrade Joe Stalin's cynical observation about tragedies and statistics, each life lost in the ensuing huge disaster matters, as it should.
Only five years after the Titanic catastrophe, in November 1917, the world would witness the beginning of the greatest willful mass exterminations of life in human history. The tip of the iceberg looming on the horizon at the time was the Bolshevik Revolution in Czarist Russia. And today the damage it inflicted on mankind has finally been properly assessed.
The Black Book on Communism
In France, an 846-page academic study compiled by six distinguished historians has become a runaway best-seller with 70,000 copies purchased in four weeks and a second printing underway. Not available in the U.S at this time, the book is titled Le Livre Noir du Communism (The Black Book on Communism) and it has been the subject of heated exchange in the French Parliament. In addition, articles about it have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the International Herald Tribune and Commentary monthly for January 1998.
Published on Nov. 8, 1997 - the 80th anniversary of the start of the Russian Revolution -- one of its authors, Stephane Courtois of the National Center for Scientific Research, is a self-proclaimed leftist and former Maoist. In his introduction he insists that we can no longer distinguish any conventional difference between Communism and Nazism. As Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, points out, Courtois notes those very features of Nazism that we find most repellent have now been proved endemic to Communism from its inception . . . mass crimes, systematic crimes, crimes against humanity marked both systems in equal measure.
The archives and numerous witnesses confirm, says Courtois, that terror was from the outset a basic feature of modern Communism, where concentration camps, forced labor and terror were elevated to a system of government. Mass murders were not the accidental byproduct of misguided policies but the outcome of willful, sometimes genocidal calculation and intent, adds Tony Judt.
Alain Besancon, the eminent French historian, made a similar point in his inaugural lecture to the French Academy (text appearing in the December 1997 issue of Commentaire). Speaking of The Black Book on Communism, Besancon asked how is it that, today, the two systems are treated so unequally in historical memory, to the point where one of them, Soviet Communism, though a still-recent presence on the world scene, has already been all but forgotten?
Where Nazism's crimes affected 25 million, Communist regimes have committed crimes affecting 100 million. Described as the first global balance sheet on Communism, here is how The Black Book of Communism breaks down that figure: China: 72 million, Soviet Union 20 million, Cambodia 2.3 million, North Korea 2 million, Africa 1.7 million, Afghanistan 1.5 million, Vietnam 1 million, Eastern Europe 1 million, Latin America 150,000.
All these millions of Communism's victims were fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles, grandparents, children or other special loved-ones. Every death was a tragedy, not a statistic. Yet, unlike the world's proper remembrance of the victims of Nazism, little is said today about the fate of Communism's victims. As Tony Judt comments: From the point of view of the exiled, humiliated, tortured, maimed or murdered victims, it's all the same. in the sorry story of our century, Communism and Nazism are, and always were, morally ndistinguishable. That lesson alone took too long to learn, and it justifies a complete recasting and rewriting of the history of our times.
Cardinal Mindszenty's Historic Role
One man whose life bridged the two tyrannies of Nazism and Communism was born in the village of Csehimindszenty on the western bank of the Danube in 1892. Joseph Pehm was the son of Janos Pehm, a peasant but a bold, devout man who rebelled against the county's petty potentates. With his two sisters, Joseph lived in his father's one-story house built of sun-baked brick and farmed the family's 20-acres. When he decided to become a priest, fellow seminarians joked about his country ways and his intense, unsmiling manner. He was however, all admitted, a brilliant student
From this humble beginning, who would have dreamed in February 14, 1949 the face of the peasant's son would appear on the cover of Time magazine, one of the Western world's most respected publication? Or, that the occasion was Joseph Mindszenty's trial for treason against the Communist Hungarian state?
Only three years prior, said Time, he had hurried into the Vatican where Pope Pius XII placed the flat red cardinal's hat on the head of the peasant-born prelate, pronouncing: Receive this red hat, the sign of unequaled dignity of the cardinalate, by which it is declared that thou shouldst show thyself intrepid even to death by the shedding of thy blood, for the exaltation of the blessed faith...
The priest -- then an archbishop -- was to become the most outspoken Catholic official occupying the front battle line against encroaching Communist occupation of Eastern Europe. But, even before that, he was known as a tough fellow to get into trouble with according to Hungarian Finance Minister Janos Bud. Here is what Time reported:
When the Nazis occupied Hungary, tough Father Joseph Pehm dropped his German name and took a Hungarian one, derived from his native village. Mindszenty's opposition to the Nazis made him a national figure as he preached against the Nazis' new paganism. Ten days after the Germans took over, Joseph Mindszenty was named bishop of Veszprem. In his graceful rococo palace, Bishop Mindszenty hid many Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis. Last week, a witness spoke up -- but not in the Communists' Budapest courtroom. She was Mrs. Janos Peter, a Hungarian Jew who had escaped from Auschwitz concentration camp. She now lives in Vienna. I was advised to flee Veszprem, she related. I put myself under the protection of Bishop Mindszenty. He received me warmly and hid me in the cellar of his palace. At least 25 people were there. Mindszenty brought food for us. He came to us several times a day and comforted us with apostolic words.
The Hungarian Nazis finally arrested Mindszenty. Every Hungarian knows the story of how he walked to prison in his full robes, blessing the people as he went. When the Nazis took over his palace, they found stores of clothing he had collected for the poor. On this fact the Reds now base a charge that Mindszenty was arrested for hoarding 1,500 pieces of underwear. For five months, the Nazis kept Mindszenty in Sopron-Kohila prison. When the Russians came they opened the jails to all political prisoners. Mindszenty hitchhiked back to Veszprem.
Iron Curtain Descends
Freed from Nazi domination, the Communist Iron Curtain rapidly descended on Eastern Europe and Mindszenty's Hungary. The church knew, said Time in its cover story of the then jailed Cardinal, it was entering a fateful struggle in Hungary. Mindszenty was inexperienced, with little knowledge of the world or of diplomacy. He had, however, two assets that must have recommended him to the Vatican: 1) an anti-Nazi record so clear that the Communists could not besmirch it, and 2) extraordinary strength of character.
In many ways, the Prince-Primate lived like a parish priest -- said Time -- in his vast, gloomy residence, he used only a dining room and a bed-sitting room (never heated) where he received visitors. Only one hot meat a day was set before the Primate. On Fridays, he ate only bread and water as a sacrifice for Hungary's liberation from Communism.
As in his village days, he kept a cow which his mother had sent him. Since he no longer had a gardener, he worked in the palace gardens, where chickens now scratched among the once meticulously trimmed greenery. One day a delegation came to ask him to contribute to a charity. I have no money here, said Mindszenty. Take the rug. The surprised delegation walked out carrying an oriental rug.
Not to be intimidated, one day as he was riding through Budapest followed by several other priests, the car bearing his entourage was stoned by Communists. Mindszenty immediately stopped his own car and approached the Red mob. I am the Church, he shouted to them. If you want something of the Church, stone me!
Time explained what it saw as Mindszenty's dilemma as follows: The Communist state is the instrument of a church: the secular church of international Communism. It teaches a system of ethics directly opposed to Mindszenty's. It actively seeks to turn as many men as it can away from God. It uses the full force of its police power, its educational system and its socialized economy to make its converts and to destroy its religious rivals. In the struggle in which Mindszenty found himself there was no logical line between church and state.
The Cardinal did not fight the Communists' so-called land reform, even though it cost the Hungarian church almost nine-tenths of its holdings used for various charitable and health programs. He made his great stand when the Communists started their drive to nationalize Hungary's schools and make them tools of Communist propaganda. When Hungary's Parliament formally passed the nationalization bill, the Cardinal ordered church bells throughout the nation to toll as a sign of sorrow and alarm.
The wolf has more security in the forest than a honest Christian in the Communist Hungarian state, Mindszenty declared in refusing to accept safe conduct out of the country in a effort by authorities to silence him. God has ordained my fate, he added, and I give myself into His hands. One day after Christmas 1948 the Communist police came to arrest Mindszenty. In prison he was beaten daily and ordered to confess to crimes against the state. He refused and was truncheoned even more severely.
At one point, his interrogators threatened to bring his beloved mother to the jail and force her to watch as they stripped him and wielded their rubber clubs against his body, lashing him like a horse in training. In his Memoirs Cardinal Mindszenty wrote: An anxiety I had never felt before now began to oppress me. I was frightened for the Church and trembled for all those others who might be dragged down into misery because of my 'affair.' This pathological feeling of anxiety was in all probability the effect of drugs. With medical means the police succeeded in producing an intense dread that more and more dominated my acts and decisions.
In the end, Time wrote: The Communists issued a 'Yellow Book', containing what they called Mindszenty's written confession. It included passages of almost childishly eager self-accusations very reminiscent of the style of the Moscow purge trials, and bearing no relation to the character of Joseph Mindszenty.
Witness For 100 Million
Cardinal Mindszenty's story did not end with his mock trial. He was freed from his prison cell by the Hungarian Freedom Fighters in 1956 and then witnessed the Soviet invasion which crushed the brief revolt and his liberators as well. Granted asylum in the American embassy in Budapest, he remained a thorn in the Communists' side until in 1971 he reluctantly obeyed the Vatican's order to leave Hungary for good. And from that day until his death he traveled the world visiting and comforting his fellow exiles from Communist tyranny. In a thoughtful essay in the January 1998 issue of the American Jewish Committee's Commentary entitled Forgotten Communism, historian Alain Besancon notes that the deeds done in the name of Communism open an abyss no less deep than those done under Nazism. It would be a vast shame if we were to bequeath our own falsified notions to the century now coming upon us, he adds, by ignoring the enormity of the crimes of Communism.
To the 100 million victims now numbered by The Black Book of Communism, Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty exemplifies the most striking religious witness to the evils of atheistic Communism. His strength and valor in opposing Communism should be honored and remembered as we now venerate St. Maximilian Kolbe and Blessed Edith Stein, Catholic saints of the of Nazi Holocaust.