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

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Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall fell, marking the collapseof Soviet communism. The failure of the communistsystem was not merely economic and political;it was a moral failure as well. Over time communism createda deep disillusionment and revulsion among those who livedunder it. The diminished sense of legitimacy of the ruling elitein the Soviet Union and Soviet bloc countries contributed tothe unraveling of those systems as well.

At the same time, there is a remarkable lack of moralconcern in the West with the atrocities committed undercommunist systems, including the tens of millions of peoplewho perished as a result of communist policies. By contrastthere has been a great deal of impassioned condemnationof the outrages of Nazism. The most important reasonfor treating Nazism and communism differently has beenthe perception that communist crimes were unintendedconsequences of the pursuit of lofty goals whereas the goalsof Nazism themselves were unmitigated evil.

Western intellectuals who had once idealized the SovietUnion have done little soul searching regarding the roots oftheir beliefs. The long association of idealism with animositytoward commerce and capitalism among Western intellectualshas contributed to a reluctance to criticize a system ostensiblyestablished in opposition to the values they abhorred.

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

Contemporary Western attitudes toward the fall of theSoviet system suggest that political beliefs endure when theyare 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.