Is the fascination with Nazis in Western culture a product of natural interest, or is it an unspoken pact by novelists and filmmakers to obscure the greater atrocities committed by the Soviets -- most notably under Stalin, who ruled in the same era as Hitler?
A recent documentary on the Turner Classic Movie cable channel illustrated the point. Said the commentators, when all else fails in selecting a villain, make Nazis the sinister evil force and success is assured. Yet the idea to create Soviet villains never appears to occur to novelists and filmmakers, except in spy thrillers where each side is usually defined as morally equivalent.
For example, why can't the suspenseful movie "The House on Carroll Street," about Nazi spies in New York City in the 1950s, be about Soviet spies burrowed into a peaceful New York neighborhood in an era when they were indeed a serious threat? Or in the 1989 Gene Hackman suspense film "The Package," why do proto-Nazis plan to assassinate political figures in America 45 years after World War II as the Cold War against the Soviets was still raging? The real danger since the end of World War II has been the KGB, not imaginary Nazis.
There must be hundreds of films and books that rely on or mention the theme that Nazi fascist brotherhoods are everywhere -- even today, more than 65 years after Hitler was defeated. The truth is, as declassified files from the US and the USSR prove, Soviet spies were the villains who infiltrated every department of the FDR administration and continued espionage activity against the US until their collapse in 1991. But no real Nazi threat has appeared anywhere except in books and movies.
It's always the Nazis, never the Communists, although the murderous rampages of Stalin make Hitler seem tame in comparison. The number of non-military deaths under the Nazis is estimated at under 10 million in approximately 10 years. The number killed under Bolshevism surpasses 100 million worldwide, according to the latest estimates. Hitler wreaked havoc for a decade; the Soviets for 75 years.
One apparent reason is the existence of the film archive from the Nazi death camps in Germany, Poland and Rumania. In the USSR, few outsiders witnessed the carnage, and the only film known to exist was staged by Stalin -- the cover-up of the massacre of the Katyn Forest, an effort to pin the blame on the Germans for the execution of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviets.
No one dared say a word or run film as the communists killed their victims routinely, usually in the middle of the night. And the millions of prisoners who died in gulags were located hundreds of miles from scrutiny in the vast frozen tundra. In addition, the saga of the founding of Israel in the post-war period kept Nazi atrocities vividly alive, while those that died at the hands of the communists had no witnesses or advocates.
And we didn't liberate Russia or their death camps as we did Germany's. They were our allies after all. Obscured from view by a tyrannical and brutal system -- exemplified during the Cold War for the West to view by the construction of the Berlin Wall in East Germany -- the post-war Iron Curtain concealed an entire charnel house we couldn't see.
Perhaps a large segment of Western writers refused to expose Soviet atrocities for fear of undermining their belief in the utopian goals of the communist system. If they did not believe, their friends probably did; the fear of being ostracized is a driving force in the literary world. This tradition of ignoring Soviet brutality goes back to George Bernard Shaw and 20 other writers and artists who visited the USSR in the particularly murderous 1930s, causing Shaw to write a letter to a British newspaper:
We the undersigned are recent visitors to the USSR. Some of us traveled throughout the greater part of its civilized territory. We desire to record that we saw nowhere evidence of such economic slavery, privation, unemployment and cynical despair of betterment as are accepted as inevitable and ignored by the press as having "no news value" in our own countries. Everywhere we saw the hopeful and enthusiastic working-class, self-respecting and free up to the limits imposed on them by nature and a terrible inheritance from tyranny and incompetence of their former rulers, developing public works, increasing health services, extending education, achieving the economic independence of woman and the security of the child - and in spite of many grievous difficulties and mistakes, which social experiments involve at first (and which they have never concealed nor denied) setting an example of industry and conduct which would greatly enrich us if our systems supplied our workers with any incentive to follow it.
Even through the purge of 30,000 Red Army officers by Stalin in the late 1930s; the morally corrupt Nazi-Soviet pact at the dawn of World War II; the kidnapping of Eastern Europe after the war; and the instigation of the Korean War, Western Leftists, influenced by Shaw and his ilk, refused to face facts and denounce the USSR. This habit took hold across the literary spectrum and has held on right through the collapse of the communist system in 1991. And, as recent research has verified, Soviet-led American communists recruited literary and film artists to the cause, requiring party members to insinuate socialist themes in their work.
This process led to Congressional hearings to expose communists in the film industry, resulting in the canonization of the Hollywood Ten -- all of whom had been members of the Communist Party -- rather than repudiation of Soviet misadventure. The McCarthy hearings that ensued in the early 1950s to identify communists in the United States government caused the same ironic result: those who fought communism, like McCarthy, became the villains. The result has been a subtle conspiracy to denigrate anti-communists and elevate the guilty. Students today, otherwise ignorant of the history of their own culture, know that McCarthy was bad and the communists were innocent victims.
A cadre of idealists continues to believe communism is the best system to govern mankind, even in the face of the overwhelming truth that the Soviet experiment has no parallel in history for murderous brutality. That millions of people suffered under a doctrine of social advancement should serve as a dramatic warning in today's political environment in the West.
Instead we get Nazis, lots and lots of Nazis.
Bernie Reeves is editor & publisher, Raleigh Metro Magazine