Oppenheimer and the False Non-Equivalency of Hitler and Stalin

False equivalency was a doctrine very much in fashion and not without some reason. Though mainstream journalism has long been a bastion of liberal ideology and has lately become just another armed camp in the great ideology wars, it nevertheless works within a framework and structure that encourages a show of objectivity. That show may be, and often is, as transparent as a layer of cling-wrap, but it undeniably helped give a thoroughgoing charlatan like Donald Trump an edge he neither deserved nor warranted.

But just as there can be cases of false equivalency – the suggestion that things that are orders of magnitude different are somehow alike – it is just as likely that we sometimes suggest that things essentially the same are very different.

In reading reviews of Oppenheimer (which I am anxious to see), I’ve been reminded of this false non-equivalency in the way that we have all been trained to think of Stalin and Hitler, communism and fascism.

In the NY Times review, the writer describes one section of the film this way:

“…turns on a politically motivated security clearance hearing in 1954, a witch hunt that damaged his reputation”.

In Variety, the reviewer sums it up like this:

“Oppenheimer isn’t a Communist, but he’s a devoted leftist with many Communists in his life, from his brother and sister-and-law to his doleful bohemian mistress, Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh).”

In the AP, Oppenheimer “dabbles in the communist thinking of the day. (His mistress, Jean Tatlock, played arrestingly, tragically by Florence Pugh, is a party member.) But he aligns with no single cause.”

None of this strikes any of the reviewers as at all problematic. Not for national security and certainly not for our understanding of Oppenheimer as an “ardent humanist”.

It’s unclear whether (or to what extent) Oppenheimer was a member of the Party. But suppose that his wife, brother, sister-in-law and many of his friends were Nazis. Suppose that he had joined a number of pro-Nazi organizations before the war. And suppose that when asked if was a Nazi he had replied “that he wasn’t but he agreed with many of it’s ideas”?  Or that he “dabbled” in fascist thinking?

Would his trial still have been a witch-hunt? Would we still describe him unironically as an ardent humanist? Because, of course, Oppenheimer had done all of these things. Things that, if we switch the word communist into Nazi, would presumably have disqualified him from leading any government program at all – much less one with overwhelming national security implications.

Nor is this non-equivalency some special function of Oppenheimer. When I recently visited Mexico City, I journeyed to the Palacio de Bellas Artes where Diego Rivera murals adorn an upper floor. There I saw a steady stream of respectful people filing past his images of a great socialist future. And looking down benevolently on that future? Our good friends Lenin and Stalin. Would we troop by a similar painting with Hitler’s smiling mug? Would we venture to a Rudolph Hess Museum like people do to Trotsky’s?

Though communists are a very small minority in the United States, we do not attach the same opprobrium to being a communist that we do to being a fascist. Nor do we view Stalin (the undisputed leader of the communist world in Oppenheimer’s time) in anything like the same light we do Hitler.

But why?

On even a basic understanding of the history of Hitler and Stalin it is difficult to provide reasons for the difference. Despite the cold-war, Stalin undoubtably benefits in our perspective, from the chance (and it was certainly a chance) that he happened to be our ally in the war. Fighting Hitler (even if forced to do so) is enough to gloss anyone’s reputation.

Yet in a murderer’s row of…well…murderers, Stalin is virtually indistinguishable from Hitler. Stalin certainly murdered far, far more of his own citizens (even counting German Jews) than did Hitler. He even had the jump on him – Stalin was millions of murders ahead of Hitler before the war. As to foreign populations,  Hitler likely has an edge. But who knows which carried a greater burden in corpses to their grave? If Marley’s chain was a grievous burden, there cannot have been enough metal in hell to welcome Stalin and Hitler.

Both men lived utterly and completely outside the ethical universe as most of us understand it. Both men were psychotically cold-blooded in pursuit of power. Both men wrought death, destruction and slavery on the world.

Did Hitler try and take over Europe? Certainly. But then so too did Stalin. And Stalin managed to enslave half of Europe and (even after passing) hold it for far longer than Hitler’s abortive empire. Did Hitler try and destroy the free world? Certainly. So too did Stalin.

Both men practiced a savage genocide – Hitler on Jews and Stalin on Ukrainian Farmers – essentially exterminating an entire race and class of people within their reach. Nor did either man restrict their savagery to one group. Stalin targeted almost every imaginable national and ethnic group at one time or another (even his own Party and Security organizations), while Hitler managed to encompass the slaughter of multiple ethnic minorities in Eastern Europe.

Did Hitler drive the machinery of government into the lands of insanity? Certainly. So too did Stalin.

By what measure could we distinguish between them? By the methods of their slaughter?

Or, more likely, by the ideologies that cloaked their evil? For in another classic false non-equivalency, people like to pretend that communism is more of an unobtainable dream than, like fascism, an historical scourge.

Neither the historical record nor an historical reading of communist ideology support such an interpretation. Communism, like fascism, is anti-human. It is false history, false psychology and false economics in the service of a brutal philosophy and pseudo-science that denies any individual ethical value. Communism and fascism both place some absolute above and beyond human life and ethics. All history suggests that what that absolute is hardly matters. Whenever such absolutes are visited upon us, the result is barbarism. It is no surprise that communism wherever it has had power has underwritten nothing but mass murder, brutalism and slavery.

Was Hitler worse than Stalin? Perhaps, but that an answer is non-obvious suggests that there was no great gap between them. There was no order of magnitude difference that excuses men like Oppenheimer who “dabbled” in their communism anymore than we excuse those who “dabbled” in their fascism. Both Hitler and Stalin deserve the fullest revulsion we can summon as civilized people.

To be a fascist is to live outside the realm of what normal society will tolerate. That is no bad thing. We need no laws to forbid fascism. Our cultural hatred of it is a much better defense. But if we have banished Hitler to the boogeyman’s closet (where he surely belongs), it must make one wonder why we have not done the same for his evil twin. Our culture would be better, not worse, if we viewed Stalin with the same disgust as Hitler, and communism with the same loathing as fascism. They are not materially different. They are the same beast in different colored uniforms.

Enough with the scourge of false non-equivalency.