Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hitler or Stalin?

Which was worse, living under Hitler, or living under Stalin? The question is absurd, of course; yet after reading literally scores if not hundreds of books about World War II and the Holocaust, I suddenly found myself asking this question when, this summer, I read two memoirs from the Stalinist era. Most of us know a little something about Stalin’s gulags because of Solzhenitsyn; some of us might have received a glimmer of understanding from the superb movie The Lives of Others; I read Darkness at Noon (uncomprehendingly) a few years ago; but until I read these two memoirs I did not really know anything.

Heda Margolius Kovály, a Jewish Czech native, died a few months ago, and her obituary in The New York Times was so arresting that I immediately ordered and read her memoir, Under a Cruel Star. Then I ordered her son Ivan Margolius’ book, Reflections of Prague, and read that. When I’d finished, I knew that I had known nothing, and that this ignorance was and is shameful.

It is not entirely my fault that I knew nothing, however. Stalin was our ally during World War II, and for various reasons, not least the powerful attraction of Marxist ideas for many idealistic people in Western Europe and America, we were very late in coming to understand that the “Iron Curtain” was more than an ugly wall dividing East and West Berlin. Who in America really grasped what was going on in the 60s and 70s in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, East Germany?

Heda Margolius (later Kovály) was one of the most striking, courageous, and admirable women I have ever heard of--an impression that comes through strongly in her memoir. Her parents were exterminated at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and she herself barely managed to escape, fleeing from one of the death marches from Auschwitz as the war was coming to an end. Only a few pages of her memoir, about a tenth of the total, are dedicated to this portion of her life. Most of the book is about life in Czechoslovakia after the war, during the Stalinist period, and it has been described as the very best personal account available of life under this totalitarian régime.

Heda was married to Rudolf Margolius, an idealistic, rather naïve Czech patriot who was swept up by his passion for Marxist principles and became a loyal servant of the Communist Party. His fate was to become one of the completely innocent Party members who were arrested in their homes, bundled into cars, “interrogated” (tortured) by horrendous methods until they broke and signed confessions, put on display in a procedure called a “show trial,” and then condemned and executed There were fourteen of these people, eleven of them “of Jewish extraction” as the Stalinists took delight in repeating. This farrago was called the Slansky Trial, after Rudolf Slansky, the General Secretary of the Czech Party, the most prominent of the guiltless victims.

Did you know about this? I suppose I must have at some point, but it made no impression on me at the time, and I have been so involved with Hitler and Nazism that Stalin simply did not register. I have now read Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder, recently acknowledged to be the newly definitive account of what Hitler and Stalin wrought together, but even that did not pack the wallop of Heda’s first-person story. I was so gripped by it that I immediately ordered and read her son’s book. He was raised by his mother in poverty , deprivation, and isolation amidst the scorn of the community, yet did not know anything about the circumstances of his father’s death until he was sixteen (Heda waited to tell him until she thought he was old enough.) Eventually he was able to go to live in England where he thrived and became a successful architect. His book fills in a good many details that Heda’s book leaves out, in particular the gruesome types of mental and physical pressures used by State Security to turn political prisoners into human wrecks. I am sure it is my fault that I did not fully appropriate this from Darkness at Noon; only when I read this mother-son product was I reached at the deepest level.

Anyone who wants to understand the 20th century in greater depth can learn a staggering amount in just a few hours by reading these two short books (both available from Amazon). Heda’s should be read first, and then her son’s as a commentary on it. Unlike her husband, who continued to believe in the Communist ideal until he was crushed by it, Heda saw very early that such an ideal was impossible to attain without totalitarian repression. Her vision was unclouded and her courage astonishing. She emerges from the pages with a personality and a fire that the reader will never forget.

Václav Havel, who was imprisoned himself for more than four years, wrote that during the Stalinist era there was no clear line between good and evil, for “the line ran through each person.” Ivan Margolius writes of the “double personality” that everyone had to cultivate—one side given up to collaboration, lies, and deceit, and the other to resistance. Holding on to a semblance of truth and decency required a degree of moral courage that few of us in America today can imagine. It is moving to read of Ivan’s amazement upon moving, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to London where he never ceased to marvel at the way that people were able to speak their minds without fear. His testimony is a powerful tribute to the Anglo-American tradition which, in spite of everything, still remains the strongest and most liberating in the world. May we never relinquish it.

PS. Mao Zedong killed more people than either Hitler or Stalin, but that is another, different story.