“People Internalized their Fear” – Stéphane Courtois on Totalitarianism

Stéphane Courtois is a French historian, probably best known for his Black Book of Communism. The following is a quote from  Radio Romania International (RRI) of July 19.

[…] This is an important issue, all the more so as communism is one of the key phenomena of the past century. If we want to understand communism, we must understand the nature of this regime. If it was, as I personally believe, a totalitarian regime, we must draw some obvious conclusions. If it wasn’t totalitarian, then obviously conclusions will be different. However, given that now archives are open, and also considering the large number of papers by historians, who for twenty years now have worked the documents we didn’t have access to before, it is clear that nobody can deny the totalitarian dimension of that regime.

There is one more question pending, though: did communism remain totalitarian after the death of Stalin? I believe it did, because it maintained the same structures. A single party, a political police force, a civil-war army, the same ideology and same people. What is true is that after Stalin had died, repression was less violent, less intensive. There were no longer large-scale massacres, just a general control over society, carried out by the political police and the political party.

Unfortunately, what happened, was that people internalized their fear – and when people start fearing, there is no more room left for democracy. Because the basic principle of democracy is precisely freedom of expression.

Courtois visited the Republic of Moldova, and Romania, this month. He is rector of the Sighet Su­mmer School.

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Related
» Obituary: Yelena Bonner, 1923 – 2011, June 25, 2010
» China: Authoritarian or Totalitarian, March 9, 2010
» Le Rapport Khrouchtchev, FondaPol/Youtube, March 4, 2009

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3 Responses to ““People Internalized their Fear” – Stéphane Courtois on Totalitarianism”

  1. JR. A timely point considering the lightning bolt of public opinion striking the powers that be in the PRC

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  2. Maybe I’m misinformed, but loss of fear is a very gradual process, and it can go back and forth. Also, some of the openness comes from the top. I’m aware of the cover-up directive, but such directives will come with every major (重大) accident or incident. (Let’s face it: this accident is only considered major for affecting a crown jewel of modernization, and is therefore a matter of trust and example). When it comes to Wen and leaders of his kind, I’m not so sure that the current public supervision is really that unwelcome. Gorbachev’s answer to insurmountable bureaucratic problems was glasnost. That’s not on the cards even for Wen, I suppose, but while the references to the role of the Chinese internet are newsworthy, the emphasis is sometimes overblown. Way too early to think of this as a new dawn, or something like that. I’m pretty sure the train crash has been rated a less-than-principal contradiction (非基本矛盾) by the politbureau. Hence the lightning bolts of public opinion. They are tolerated, and to some extent encouraged from the top.

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