Colorado State School Board Member Steve Durham recently stirred up controversy by replacing the word “Nazi” in the state’s academic standards on genocide with the party’s full name–National Socialist German Workers Party.
After lobbying by Jewish community members, the State Board of Education replaced the word, and the new standards contain both names for party members of the Third Reich.
A 2020 state law requires students to learn about the Holocaust and other genocides. The revised academic standards reference the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, Cambodian Genocide, Holodomor (Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians), and genocides perpetuated by the Communist Party of China. Genocides in Rwanda and Darfur are listed later in the document.
Durham’s critics contend that the Nazis were not socialist, their party name notwithstanding, and Durham’s effort to associate socialism with genocide is misleading. He and his critics are both right and wrong.
Although genocide is not unique to communist and Nazi regimes, more people died under their banners in the 20th Century than other ideologies. The Nazis, however, were virulently and murderously anti-Semitic fascists, a distinction that is essential to teach.
Durham focuses on the genocidal aspect of socialism/communism–no other ideology has a comparable body count—because if memories fade the next generation could be seduced by Marx’s fatal conceit.
Associating socialism/communism with genocide is rational — no other ideology has a comparable body count — and if memories fade the next generation could be seduced by Marx’s fatal conceit. A 2020 poll by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found 49% of Gen Z have a favorable view of “socialism.”
Chances are these young people associate the word “socialism” with nations with high taxes and large welfare states as opposed to those fitting the traditional definition — a government system characterized by the confiscation of private property, nationalization of industry, and suppression of human rights.
Gen Z is daydreaming of Sweden not Venezuela or North Korea. Even so, their naiveté is troubling.
True communism, not democratic socialism, is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 100 million people in the 20th Century. The willingness to kill in pursuit of revolution is an integral part of Marxist/Leninist/communist ideology.
Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Che Guevara, Pol Pot, and others believed morality must be subordinated to class struggle. Lenin told his secret police, “We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. . . . Do not look for evidence that the accused acted in word or deed against Soviet power. The first question should be to what class does he belong. . . . It is this that should determine his fate.”
Communists today such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and China’s Xi Jinping are similarly indifferent to the loss of human lives in pursuit of power.
Like communist regimes, the Third Reich was totalitarian and considered the state über alles. Nazi rhetoric criticized capitalism and embraced the nationalization of corporations and trusts.
And yet, they imprisoned rival communists and socialists upon taking power. The regime was overtly anti-Semitic, racist, nationalistic, and populist, and it glorified the pre-Christian Germanic past as the future ideal. Communist ideology, by contrast, eschews nationalism, ethnocentrism, and the past, at least officially, in favor of universal class consciousness and future “progress.”
While Nazi and communist governments committed genocide on an unimaginable scale, they are not the only governments to mass murder minority populations.
Other genocides noted in the academic standards in Rwanda, Sudan, and the Ottoman Empire was not connected with either ideology, neither were other 20th Century genocides such as the German Empire’s extermination of Hereros in Namibia, the massacre of Bosnians by Serbian forces, the annihilation of Kurds in Iraq, and the massacre of the Rohingya in Myanmar.
Let’s not forget the sectarian bloodletting committed during the 1947 partition of India where a million people were slaughtered, whole villages were burned, and tens of thousands of women were raped because of their religious identity. The killings were committed by other citizens, rather than the governments of Pakistan and India, which did not or could not stop it.
Clearly, socialism/communism and Nazism are not the only ideologies that encourage and justify atrocities. Quibbling about where to place Nazism/National Socialism on a reductive left-right political continuum misses the larger point. Under the right conditions, groups of human beings with power and motivation will exterminate other human beings.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the former Marxist turned imprisoned dissident, once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
It’s not a matter of left or right but a problem of human nature.
As currently rewritten, the State Board’s standards for teaching students about genocide will help students gain this critical insight.
Krista L. Kafer is a weekly Denver Post columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @kristakafer
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