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ACRE

Totalitarianism in Europe - Three Case Studies

19 November 2018

Two of the papers which follow practically wrote themselves: I originally had no intention of putting them together, but in my general research I came across, or rather stumbled upon, topics which deserved, I felt, further pursuit. When I was editing a republication of an extract in Icelandic of Elinor Lipper’s book, Eleven Years in Soviet Prison Camps, I found very little information about the author so I went and obtained documents about her from archives abroad, mainly in Switzerland. As often happens, the truth turned out to be much more intriguing than what one could have imagined. Lipper had been a Comintern courier; most likely, but then very briefly, Ignazio Silone’s lover; a mother in the Soviet Gulag; and in the Cold War a powerful and persuasive witness against communism, not only in a French court, but also on the lecture circuit. 

Likewise, when I was browsing in the personal files of communist leader Einar Olgeirsson for my study of the Icelandic communist movement, I found letters between him and a prominent East German scholar, Dr. Bruno Kress, about an incident about which I had had no idea: that in the late 1950s at a communist gathering in Iceland, a Jewish refugee from Germany, Henny Goldstein, had recognised Kress as an ardent pre-war Nazi. I then discovered yet another connection between the two German pre-war residents in Iceland. Whereas Kress had been working on Icelandic grammar with a grant from Ahnenerbe, the notorious SS ‘research institute’, Goldstein’s brother had been sent from Auschwitz by the same Ahnenerbe to participate in grisly experiments, which led to the so-called ‘skeleton collection’ in the Natzweiler camp.

Certainly the cases of Lipper and Goldstein are in some ways different. But what links them together is that they are about victims, and in some cases survivors, of the totalitarian menace threatening Europe in the last century, indeed for a while controlling most of the continent. Lipper was kept in a Soviet camp, Magadan, Goldstein’s brother in a Nazi camp, first Auschwitz, then Natzweiler. It is true that the Soviet camps was not operated in order to exterminate prisoners, but rather in order to wrest as much hard labour out of them as possible. But even if the communists did not aim directly at exterminating people, they certainly wanted to exterminate certain ideas, and if they had to sacrifice human lives for that aim, they did so without qualms. What national socialism and communism had in common was that everything was permissible for the good of the cause—of which neither group felt any doubt. The consequences for ordinary Europeans, caught up in the totalitarian tempest, were of course disastrous, as these two papers amply illustrate. 

The third case study is not as much about the victims of totalitarianism in the 20th century as about one of its apologists, Icelandic writer Halldor K. Laxness, the 1955 Nobel Laureate in Literature. In this study, I draw on an unauthorised biography of Laxness which I wrote in three volumes in 2003–5 and on a paper on Laxness I read to the regional meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Iceland in 2005. Even if the account is of a successful Western intellectual in a peaceful, remote country, a few victims of totalitarian communism briefly pass over the pages: Vera Hertzsch whose arrest Laxness witnessed in 1938 perished in a labour camp in Karaganda in 1943, and presumably her little half-Icelandic daughter died long before that. Two Czech friends of Laxness survived, Zdenék Némecek and Emil Walter, but both of them had to leave their country after the 1948 communist takeover and they died as broken men. If the idea of ‘collective responsibility’ makes any sense, then it is an interesting question, not explored here, whether the apologists of communist rulers such as Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, share some responsibility for their misdeeds.

Indeed, an important difference between national socialism and communism is that there have been no Nuremberg trials of the communists. Their misdeeds, unlike those of the Nazis, have not been etched into the memory of mankind. It is therefore a task left to historians to try and tell the truth about a social experiment which everywhere ended in misery, costing the lives of 100 million people. These three papers form, I hope, a small contribution to that immense task.

Reykjavik, 19 February 2018.
Hannes H. Gissurarson

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