Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Was Worse? , asks Timothy Snyder on the New York Review of Books ’ blog. I’m not sure what is the point of the question, since I’m not sure what you know when you have an answer, but the figures and history are interesting — though readers will want to read the comments, where a number of respondents argue that Snyder seriously underestimates the numbers for Stalin. Snyder blames the Cold War for inflating the Soviet figures, which is an old leftist thesis.

I wonder about his reading not of the figures for Germany and the Soviet Union but of the place of the two in modern American culture. He claims that “In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans were taught to see both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the greatest of evils,” and the article goes on to explore how they could both be treated as the greatest of evils. This seems to me untrue, or true only with qualifications.

At least starting in the seventies, when I first starting paying attention to popular culture, the default symbol of evil was the Nazis. There were television shows and movies about the Soviet Union as a threat, and once in a while a public discussion of the nature of that society, as when Solzhenitsyn came to America, but rarely was the individual Commissar or the Red Army officer used to represent evil the way the Nazi official or officer was. You would have been safe betting a considerable amount of money that when a certain sort of story was described the villains would be Nazis.

If you took popular culture as the measurement, Americans were taught to see Nazi Germany as the greatest of evils. And that would be as true today as it was four decades ago, and as the Soviet Union fades from the common memory, even more true. Indeed that fading is itself suggestive.

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