Understanding Radical Evil: Communism, Fascism and the Lessons of the 20th Century

October 30, 2001 // 11:00pm

Summary of the East European Studies meeting with Vladimir Tismaneanu, Professor of Political Science at the University of Maryland, MD, Editor of East European Politics and Societies, and a Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar

Dr. Tismaneanu compared and contrasted the two evils of the 21st century, communism and fascism. He argued that the 20th century has not ended, in that radicalism is not dead, and that what we are seeing now in the wake of September 11 is simply a new incarnation of radicalism.

The 20th century was marked by tremendous violence and loss of life, and can be defined as an offensive by both radical communists and fascists against bourgeois liberal modernity - meaning democratic societies inspired by liberal values. Communism represented universalism and a future oriented utopia, while fascism represented particularism and past oriented utopia. Yet, it was the perverse offspring of revolutionary utopia that instigated such hate, with communism being a derailed offspring of enlightenment and fascism being a derailed form of romanticism. Rooted in the two, however, is the common contempt for the bourgeoisie, representing order and the rule of law. It is important to note that, while distinct, the two phenomena cannot be separated because each projects myths and fixations onto the other. Likewise, a key element for both was the existence of a charismatic leader. Historical personalities do matter very much. Tismaneanu asserts that without Hitler there would have been no Holocaust and without Stalin there would have been no gulags. Similarly, without Milosevic there would have been no ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Without a charismatic leader, movements tend to fall apart and lose their elements of radicalism.

As for a prescription of how to deal with violence born of radicalism, Tismaneanu acknowledges that we are in unchartered waters in the post-September 11 tragedies, but that buttressing liberal values in the form of "three Ts" - trust, truth and tolerance, is as good a starting point as any.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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