Black book of communism

The Black Book of Communism
Book cover of The Black Book of Communism
Author Stéphane Courtois (ed.)
Nicolas Werth
Jean-Louis Panné
Andrzej Paczkowski
Karel Bartosek
Jean-Louis Margolin
Ehrhart Neubert*
Joachim Gauck*
(*German edition)
Original title Le Livre noir du communisme
Country France
Subject Communism, Totalitarianism
Genre Political history
Publisher Harvard University Press
Publication date 6 November 1997
Published in English 8 October 1999
Pages 912
ISBN 978-0-674-07608-2

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a book written by several European academics and edited by Stéphane Courtois,[1] which documents a history of repressions, both political and civilian, by Communist states, including genocides, extrajudicial executions, deportations, and artificial famines. The book was originally published in 1997 in France under the title Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression by Éditions Robert Laffont. In the United States it is published by Harvard University Press.[2] The German edition, published by Piper Verlag, includes a chapter written by Joachim Gauck, who later went on to be President of Germany.


Estimated number of victims

In the introduction, editor Stéphane Courtois states that "...Communist regimes... turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government"[3]. He claims that a death toll totals 94 million[4]. The breakdown of the number of deaths given by Courtois is as follows:

Courtois claims that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including Nazism. The statistics of victims includes executions, famine, deaths resulting from deportations, physical confinement, or through forced labor.

Soviet repressions

Repressions and famines occurring in the Soviet Union under the regimes of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin described in the book include:

Comparison of Communism and Nazism

Courtois considers Communism and Nazism slightly different totalitarian systems. He claims that Communist regimes have killed "approximately 100 million people in contrast to the approximately 25 million victims of Nazis".[6] Courtois claims that Nazi Germany's methods of mass extermination were adopted from Soviet methods. As an example, he cites Nazi state official Rudolf Höss who organized the infamous death camp in Auschwitz. According to Höss,[6]

The Reich Security Head Office issued to the commandants a full collection of reports concerning the Russian concentration camps. These described in great detail the conditions in, and organization of, the Russian camps, as supplied by former prisoners who had managed to escape. Great emphasis was placed on the fact that the Russians, by their massive employment of forced labor, had destroyed whole peoples.

Courtois argues that the Soviet genocides of peoples living in the Caucasus and exterminations of large social groups in Russia were not very much different from similar policies by Nazis. Both Communist and Nazi systems deemed "a part of humanity unworthy of existence. The difference is that the Communist model is based on the class system, the Nazi model on race and territory."[6] Courtois stated that[7]

The "genocide of a "class" may well be tantamount to the genocide of a "race"—the deliberate starvation of a child of a Ukrainian kulak as a result of the famine caused by Stalin's regime "is equal to" the starvation of a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto as a result of the famine caused by the Nazi regime.

He added that

after 1945 the Jewish genocide became a byword for modern barbarism, the epitome of twentieth-century mass terror... more recently, a single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide in an attempt to characterize the Holocaust as a unique atrocity has also prevented the assessment of other episodes of comparable magnitude in the Communist world. After all, it seems scarcely plausible that the victors who had helped bring about the destruction of a genocidal apparatus might themselves have put the very same methods into practice. When faced with this paradox, people generally preferred to bury their heads in sand.

German edition

The German edition contains an additional chapter on the Soviet-backed communist regime in East Germany, titled "Die Aufarbeitung des Sozialismus in der DDR". It consists of two sub chapters, "Politische Verbrechen in der DDR" by Ehrhart Neubert, and "Vom schwierigen Umgang mit der Wahrnehmung" by Joachim Gauck.[8]


The book has evoked a wide variety of responses, ranging from enthusiastic support to severe criticism.


The Black Book of Communism received praise in a number of publications in the United States and Britain, including the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The New Republic, National Review and The Weekly Standard.[9] Some reviewers compared the book to The Black Book, a documentary record of the Nazi atrocities by Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.[10]

According to review by historian Tony Judt in The New York Times:[9] "The myth of the well-intentioned founders—the good czar Lenin betrayed by his evil heirs—has been laid to rest for good. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism"

Anne Applebaum, journalist and author of Gulag: A History[9] described the book as "a serious, scholarly history of Communist crimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America... The Black Book does indeed surpass many of its predecessors in conveying the grand scale of the Communist tragedy, thanks to its authors' extensive use of the newly opened archives of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."

Martin Malia, writing for the Times Literary Supplement,[9] described the book as "the publishing sensation in France... detailing Communism's crimes from Russia in 1917 to Afghanistan in 1989... [The Black Book of Communism] gives a balance sheet of our present knowledge of Communism's human costs, archivally based where possible, and otherwise drawing on the best secondary works, and with due allowance for the difficulties of quantification."

The Council of Europe based its Resolution 1481, which condemned totalitarian communist regimés, upon the figures from the book.


Historical inaccuracies

The authors of the book have been criticized for historical inaccuracies. Concerning Nicolas Werth's section about Russia, Professor Peter Kenez of the University of California wrote about what he says are historical inaccurate statements[11]

Werth can also be an extremely careless historian. He gives the number of Bolsheviks in October 1917 as 2,000, which is a ridiculous underestimate. He quotes from a letter of Lenin to Aleksandr Shliapnikov and gives the date as 17 October 1917; the letter could hardly have originated at that time, since in it Lenin talks about the need to defeat the Tsarist government, and turn the war into a civil conflict. He gives credit to the Austro-Hungarian rather than the German army for the conquest of Poland in 1915. He describes the Provisional Government as "elected."

Estimated number of victims

Left-wing[12] French journalist Gilles Perrault, writing in an op-ed in Le Monde diplomatique has accused the authors of having used incorrect data and of having manipulated figures.[13] On the other hand, some of the estimates given in the Black Book have been deemed "too conservative". For example, regarding the Soviet famine of 1946–48, Michael Ellman writes:

In their ‘black book’, Courtois et al. (1997, pp. 258–64) do discuss the famine. The number of victims they give, however, while correct (‘at least 500,000’) is formulated in an extremely conservative way, since the actual number of victims was much larger.[14]

Two of the Black Book's contributors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, sparked a debate in France when they publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois's statements in the introduction about the scale of Communist terror. They felt that he was being obsessed with arriving at a total of 100 million killed. They also argued that, based on the results of their studies one can estimate the total number of the victims of the Communist abuse in between 65 and 93 million.[15]

In his review of the book, historian Jean-Jacques Becker also criticized Courtois' numbers as rather arbitrary and as having "zero historical value" (Fr. "La valeur historique est nulle") for adding up deaths due to disparate phenomena (Fr. "additionner des carottes et des navets", i.e. adding apples and oranges). Becker went further and accused Courtois of being an activist (Fr. "combattant").[16]

Argument that the book is one-sided

Some pointed out that the book's account of violence is one-sided. Amir Weiner of Stanford University characterizes the "Black Book" as seriously flawed, inconsistent, and prone to mere provocation. In particular, the authors are said to savage Marxist ideology.[17] The methodology of the authors has been criticized. Alexander Dallin writes that moral, legal, or political judgement hardly depends on the number of victims.[18] It is also argued[19] that a similar chronicle of violence and death tolls can be constructed from an examination of colonialism and capitalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.[20] historian Paul Le Blanc.[21][page needed]

Critics have argued that capitalist countries could be held responsible for a similar number of deaths. Noam Chomsky, for example, writes that Amartya Sen in the early 1980s estimated the excess of mortality in India over China due to the latter's "relatively equitable distribution of medical resources" at close to 4 million a year. Chomsky therefore argues that, "suppos[ing] we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers" to India, "the democratic capitalist 'experiment' has caused more deaths than in the entire history of... Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, and tens of millions more since, in India alone."[22]

Disputing the "terror-famine" thesis

Historian J. Arch Getty noted that famine accounted for a significant part of Courtois's 100 million death toll. He believes that these famines were caused by the "stupidity or incompetence of the regime," and that the deaths resulting from the famines, as well as other deaths that "resulted directly or indirectly from government policy," should not be counted as if they were equivalent to intentional murders and executions.[23]

Mark Tauger disagrees with the authors' thesis that the famine of 1933 was artificial and genocidal. Tauger asserts that the authors' interpretation of the famine contains errors, misconceptions, and omissions that invalidate their arguments.[24] However, the historian James Mace wrote that Mark Tauger's view of the famine "is not taken seriously by either Russians or Ukrainians who have studied the topic."[25] Moreover, Stephen Wheatcroft, author of The Years of Hunger, claims Tauger's view represents the opposite extreme in arguing the famine was totally accidental.[26]

Disputing the comparison of Nazism and Communism

Although Vladimir Tismăneanu argued that the Black Book's comparison between Communism and Nazism was both morally and scholarly justifiable,[27] others have rejected the comparison.[28]

Werth and Margolin rejected the equation of Soviet repression with Nazi genocide. Werth said there was still a qualitative difference between Nazism and Communism. He told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union",[23] and "The more you compare Communism and Nazism, the more the differences are obvious."[29]

See also


  1. Jean-Louis Panné is a specialist on the international Communist movement.
  2. Andrzej Paczkowski is the deputy director of the Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a member of the archival commission for the Polish Ministry of Internal Affairs.
  3. Karel Bartošek (1930–2004) was a historian from the Czech Republic, and a researcher at IHTP.
  4. Jean-Louis Margolin is a lecturer at the Université de Provence and a researcher as the Research Institute on Southeast Asia.
  5. Sylvain Boulougue is a research associate at GEODE, Université Paris X.
  6. Pascal Fontaine is a journalist with a special knowledge of Latin America.
  7. Rémi Kauffer is a specialist in the history of intelligence, terrorism, and clandestine operations.
  8. Pierre Rigoulet is a researcher at the Institut d'Histoire Sociale.
  9. Yves Santamaria is a historian.
  10. Martin Malia wrote the foreword to the English edition.

Further reading

  • , hardcover, 858 pp.
  • Anne Applebaum, foreword, Paul Hollander, introduction and editor, From the Gulag to the Killing Fields: Personal Accounts of Political Violence And Repression in Communist Studies, Intercollegiate Studies Institute (April 17, 2006), hardcover, 760 pp., ISBN 1-932236-78-3.
  • Yang Jisheng, Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (October 30, 2012), hardcover, 656 pages, ISBN 0374277931, ISBN 978-0374277932

External links

  • Extracts by the publisher from many different reviews
  • Reviews on
  • Review – Journal of American History
  • (French) Philippe Bourrinet, "Du bon usage des livres noirs"
  • "Counting the Bodies", Spectre No. 9
  • (French) Laurent Joffrin, Libération, December 17, 1997
  • (French) Le Monde diplomatique
  • "The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression", review on, February 2000
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