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Estonia: Analysis from Washington -- Equivalencies Moral and Legal

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 15 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Estonian President Lennart Meri has called on his country's parliament to declare totalitarianism of the right and totalitarianism of the left "equally criminal," in an appeal that seems certain to renew the debate about the nature of the crimes of Hitler and Stalin.

In a statement released to the press on 14 June, Meri said that taking this step "proceeds from the historical experience of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians." People in all three countries, he pointed out, "lost their lives, freedom, families [and] property during the communist and Nazi occupations," and they are thus in a position to call attention to the nature of the crimes committed by both.

The international community, Meri noted, has already registered its judgment on the Nazi regime at Nuremberg. But "so far," he continued, that community has not passed judgment on the criminal behavior of the Soviet system. To do so, the Estonian leader said, would represent "a valuable addition to the legal system of the European Union" and promote the development "of the democratic world."

Meri's comments come at the completion of his tour through Estonia during which he presented Estonian awards to 10,000 survivors of totalitarian oppression. Meri said that this experience proved to him once again that "the people of Estonia can forgive but are not prepared to forget crimes against humanity." To do so, he said, would open the door to the possibility that "crimes against humanity can recur in Europe."

Meri stressed that labeling a totalitarian regime criminal does not mean that all those who participated in its organizations are criminals. Such individuals, he said, must be judged by an open court on the basis of what they personally may have done. But denouncing totalitarianism as such, he insisted, represents a reaffirmation of the moral foundations of democratic societies.

In the debate that Meri's appeal will inevitably provoke, there are likely to be three major objections to his argument. First, many will argue that the evil represented by Hitler was unique, that the Holocaust was of such horrific dimensions that nothing can compare with it. Second, many will note that the determination of moral and legal equivalency between the two forms of totalitarianism will only stir up more anger and even risk provoking new outrages. And third, many people will certainly point out that labeling Stalinist totalitarianism the equivalent of Nazi fascism has immediate consequences because some of the products of the former are still in positions of power in post-communist governments.

Each of these objections certainly deserves to be taken seriously. The Holocaust was and remains a unique moral horror in the history of humankind. No one can challenge that. But to acknowledge that in no way diminishes the millions of deaths among citizens of the Baltic countries, Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union under Stalinist totalitarianism.

Moreover, some will indeed be upset by this determination of equivalency between the two forms of totalitarianism because it ignores their different ideologies. This is summed up in the phrase sometimes invoked in the West that "Hitler did evil but Stalin did evil so that good might come of it." But actions are at least as important as ideologies -- and for those who are their victims, far more so.

And it is certainly true that many people raised in the Soviet system are still in positions of power in the post-communist countries. But most of them have explicitly broken with the past and denounced it as something to which they do not want to see their countries return.

But these objections notwithstanding, Meri's call for declaring all forms of totalitarianism "equally criminal" is likely to find support. After the publication of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's studies of the Gulag and of "The Black Book of Communism," and after the findings of various international commissions in the Baltic countries and elsewhere, no one is in a position to deny the criminal nature of Stalinist totalitarianism.

Consequently, as Meri suggests, denouncing all forms of totalitarianism as criminal represents a natural next step for Europe, a necessary kind of inoculation against the reappearance of such forms of rule in the future. No one seriously talks about restoring totalitarianism of the right any more in Europe, but some do look back with nostalgia to the totalitarianism of the left.

Many who are committed to the democratic project are thus likely to conclude that such nostalgia is sufficiently dangerous that Meri's appeal deserves support, not only in Estonia but in other countries as well.