Development Policy Analysis No. 11

Reflections on Communism Twenty Years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall

By Paul Hollander
November 2, 2009

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, marking the collapse of Soviet communism. The failure of the communist system was not merely economic and political; it was a moral failure as well. Over time communism created a deep disillusionment and revulsion among those who lived under it. The diminished sense of legitimacy of the ruling elite in the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries contributed to the unraveling of those systems as well.

At the same time, there is a remarkable lack of moral concern in the West with the atrocities committed under communist systems, including the tens of millions of people who perished as a result of communist policies. By contrast there has been a great deal of impassioned condemnation of the outrages of Nazism. The most important reason for treating Nazism and communism differently has been the perception that communist crimes were unintended consequences of the pursuit of lofty goals whereas the goals of Nazism themselves were unmitigated evil.

Western intellectuals who had once idealized the Soviet Union have done little soul searching regarding the roots of their beliefs. The long association of idealism with animosity toward commerce and capitalism among Western intellectuals has contributed to a reluctance to criticize a system ostensibly established in opposition to the values they abhorred.

Public attitudes in former communist countries have been conflicted because of the arguable complicity of many citizens in keeping the old system in power. A predominant attitude in Eastern Europe and Russia toward the former communist systems has been a mixture of oblivion, denial, and repression.

Contemporary Western attitudes toward the fall of the Soviet system suggest that political beliefs endure when they are widely shared and can satisfy important emotional needs.

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Paul Hollander is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies of Harvard University. Born in Hungary, he escaped following the crushing of the 1956 Revolution by Soviet forces.