On an early summer day, six years ago next month, an event of historic significance took place in Washington, D.C. A diverse group of people—politicians, clergy, and émigrés—gathered to dedicate the Victims of Communism Memorial in honor of “the tens of millions of men, women and children who were ruthlessly and systematically exterminated to advance the cause of the murderous, malevolent ideology that is Communism.” That many people do not recall this event, and don’t even know that such a memorial exists, is a loss for everyone.
From the terror famine in the Ukraine to the Gulag Archipelago, from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the barbarism of North Korea, from the persecutions in Eastern Europe to the tyranny in Cuba, from the re-education camps in Vietnam to the killing fields of Cambodia, Communism has left a path of global mayhem and destruction.
It has not done so alone, of course. The other overwhelming evil of the twentieth century was Nazism, whose sheer diabolical nature is unique in the annals of human history. Unlike Communism, however, Nazism has been thoroughly defeated. And while the United States has done an admirable job in documenting the unique horrors of Nazism, and honoring its millions of victims, it has never reached that level of understanding toward the epic crimes of Communism, much less shown the same sensitivity toward its victims.
One American seeking to repair that failure is Lee Edwards, chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which seeks to make the history of Communism better known. Now a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Dr. Edwards spoke to me recently about his efforts, and hopes for the future.
Almost twenty-five years ago, a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Edwards was having lunch with his wife when they began a serious political discussion. “I was concerned that many people were already forgetting about Communism, didn’t want to talk about it, why it was falling, examine its profound evils, et cetera, and my wife, after listening patiently, finally said to me: ‘Lee, what we need is a memorial to the victims of Communism.’”
It was a great idea, but also a great challenge: How would such a memorial materialize, who would authorize and finance it, and where would it be established?
Edwards began promoting the idea among colleagues and friends until his persistence paid off. With the aid of the late Ambassador Lev Dobriansky—the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and leader of the National Captive Nations Committee—they were able to form a broad coalition that persuaded Congress to pass a bipartisan bill supporting a memorial, which was to be privately funded. The government’s gift would be land.
Edwards and his colleagues then began the difficult task of raising funds and overcoming the usual red tape and bureaucratic hurdles. They did all this pro-bono, as a labor of love, to honor anti-Communism’s heroes and survivors. A major break came when Thomas Marsh, a talented and highly acclaimed sculptor, volunteered his services to create a monument for the victims.
The result was a striking and beautifully crafted bronze statue—modeled on the one erected in Tiananmen Square and resembling the Statue of Liberty—which now stands at a busy intersection in D.C., seen by countless visitors each day. The inscriptions on the statue’s front and back read, respectively, “To the more than one hundred million victims of Communism and to those who love liberty” and “To the freedom and independence of all captive nations and peoples.”
But the memorial statue is just a part of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s work. In 2009, Edwards and his colleagues created an online Global Museum on Communism, which has received 175,000 visitors from around the world—“including Communist countries like China and Vietnam,” Edwards notes, gratefully.
More recently, the foundation has developed a major curriculum on Communism for high school students, which will be available to public and private schools, as well as homeschool students, this fall. Eventually, they hope to build a full-fledged bricks-and-mortar institution, much like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which will record Communism’s record for posterity, and help personalize its victims. “Our dream is to make it possible by 2017, which would be the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution,” says Edwards. Documenting Communism’s hundred years of evil, while honoring its 100 million victims, would be quite an achievement.
Even with these advances, however, Edwards and the foundation still have to combat the double standards, widespread ignorance, and ideological prejudices surrounding the treatment of Communism.
Examples abound. The Nuremberg Trials—thankfully and justly—punished the worst of the captured Nazi war criminals, and yet Stalin and his henchmen were never prosecuted for their atrocities. That the Third Reich’s virulence and unprecedented danger necessitated America’s wartime alliance with Stalin should not blind us to the fact that we did, on a moral plane, compromise ourselves by joining arms with a ruthless and unrestrained killer—albeit to stop another genocidal monster. One can understand the alliance without excusing it. But too often we’ve permitted selective memories. As Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag, notes:
We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming America’s GI’s with cheers on the streets. We do not remember that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.
Our reluctance to accept this fact has led to some exasperating displays of revisionist history. In the late 1990s, CNN ran a series on the Cold War that not only documented American transgressions—fair enough—but also, quite unfairly, drew reckless moral parallels between the United States and Communist tyrannies.
The National D-Day Memorial cast a bust of Stalin which they were actually going to display alongside FDR and Churchill—until they were forced to withdraw it by outraged veterans and organizations. On a more popular level, certain companies continue to market and profit from t-shirts sporting images of Che Guevara and the hammer and sickle—something that would be unthinkable if it involved a Nazi soldier or swastika.
Edwards is appalled by these shirts, but doesn’t necessarily blame those wearing them. “This is more an educational problem than an ideological one. If you ask the average citizen in the street what he or she knows about the Holodomor—the Ukrainian famine—or what happened to the Kulaks, they won’t know a thing.” That’s because they haven’t been properly taught the details about Communism’s gruesome record, or learned anything comprehensive about its worst leaders. With proper edification, however, Edwards believes, “they will come around.”
The same cannot be expected of certain academics and polemicists who continue to carry on a ceaseless war of anti-anti-Communism, despite the noble and courageous fight honorable anti-Communists have waged. It’s not hard to understand why. Though American intellectuals were never, to any measurable degree, implicated in the evils of Nazism, they have, to a large extent, been implicated in the crimes of Communism—a phenomenon explored by Peter Viereck’s Shame and Glory of the Intellectuals, and later, Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims. Given that history, few want to look Communism squarely in the face and condemn it with the severity it deserves: That would require humility and constitute a stinging judgment against themselves.
“But I still believe things are gradually improving,” Edwards told me. In addition to the groundbreaking books by Applebaum, a new generation is discovering the classic works of Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest, and more survivors and chroniclers of Communism are sure to build upon their work. Yale University Press continues its impressive Annals of Communism series; and most welcome of all, a number of historians have gone against the pack and had the courage to change their minds. John Lewis Gaddis, for example, the pre-eminent historian of the Cold War, used to hold the United States largely responsible for the conflict, but now, acknowledging the incontestable evidence, places the blame squarely where it belongs—on Stalin and the Communists.
On June 12, the sixth anniversary of the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial, there will be a gathering at the site of Marsh’s statue and a wreath-laying ceremony for the victims. Mrs. Annette Lantos, widow of the late Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos—who survived the Holocaust in Hungary and later became one of the Memorial Foundation’s greatest supporters—will speak on his behalf, and Dr. Yang Jianli, who spent five years in Chinese prisons for advocating liberty, will receive the foundation’s Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom. It will be an important moment in our nation’s collective memory and a powerful witness against an unspeakable evil.
Dr. Edwards and all who support the foundation’s mission deserve our lasting gratitude and support.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.