Why a Red Star Is Just as Offensive as a Swastika

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

The reasons can be found in the book Gulag and in the book Tunnel 29. 

Gulag, by Anne Applebaum, Anchor Books, New York, paperback edition, 2004, 677 pages

Tunnel 29, by Helena Merriman, Public Affairs, New York, hardback edition, 2021, 318 pages

Reviews by Craig J. Cantoni

Bernie Sanders is an avowed socialist and is alleged to have communist sympathies. Yet when he speaks on college campuses, he isn’t vilified, shunned, canceled, and called a dangerous extremist. No doubt, that would be true even if he were to wear a communist red star or a hammer and sickle. But if he were to wear a swastika, he’d be booed off the stage or worse.

The author of Gulag, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, mentions in the Introduction about experiencing a similar double standard in the treatment of the evils of communism and the evils of Nazism. Hardly a fascist or supremacist, she is a graduate of Yale and, at the time of the book’s publication, was a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post.

She had walked along a bridge in Prague where vendors were selling Soviet and communist memorabilia. People were eagerly examining and buying the items, like faithful Catholics treasuring artifacts from the early Church. Fascist memorabilia were not on display, evidently because of a prevailing belief that Nazism was evil but communism was not.

The book continues from that point to explain the reasons for the double standard and to detail the atrocities committed in the name of communism in the Soviet Gulag.

I recently reread the book because of the madness occurring on American college campuses and throughout society in the name of social justice—a madness that has led to an affection for socialism among American youth and to leftist apologists once again rewriting history about communism. My review of the book follows in the next section.

A more recent book on the evils of communism is Tunnel 29. If you prefer a history that reads like a suspense novel, it doesn’t get more thrilling than the book’s harrowing non-fiction account of East Germans risking their lives to escape to West Germany by climbing over or tunneling under the Berlin Wall. The author lives in England and has been a producer and reporter for the BBC.

The Berlin Wall could be a metaphor for the growing ideological divide in America. On the east side of the wall was everything that today’s progressive left-wing wants: free medical care, free child care, free education, subsidized housing, economic security, no class distinctions, and no income inequality. On the west side of the wall was a classical liberal democracy and a free-market economy, where there was hard work, economic insecurity, and unequal outcomes.

The wall was built by East Germany to keep its citizens from fleeing their progressive paradise for West Germany. There’s a lesson in this for America, but it’s not a lesson that is taught in K-16 classrooms.

Let’s take a closer look at Gulag and then Tunnel 29.


Surveys say that about 36% of millennials have favorable views of socialism. This is from a generation that can’t do without a Peloton, iPhone, Starbucks, Subaru, Grub Hub, Trader Joe’s, and Nike shoes.

The survey results show how easy it is to convince people, including college-educated ones—or especially college-educated ones—to embrace injustice if the injustice is framed as social justice, equality, and equity. The Introduction of Gulag says that such framing is one of the reasons why the repression, terror, mass murder, and mass starvation of communism are seen as lesser evils than the evils of fascism.

Another reason is the culpability of past and present leftist intellectuals, academics, and reporters in ignoring the evils of communism, due to being in sync with the underlying tenets of Marxism. Their feeble excuse for looking the other way was, and continues to be, that Stalinism was an aberration and not a reflection of the true nature of communism. Actually, from the very start of the Bolshevik Revolution, before Stalin came to power, Lenin was a proponent of concentration camps. Also, of course, Stalin was not the dictator of other communist countries where mass incarceration and murder also took place, such as China under Mao, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and North Korea under the Kim dynasty.

Still, another reason for communism being seen as less evil than the National Socialism of the Third Reich is the belief that communism’s travesties were committed for reasons of class and economics, not for reasons of race or ethnicity—as if being imprisoned, tortured, and killed for the former reasons is somehow better than being imprisoned, tortured and killed for the latter reasons. In any event, it’s a myth that disfavored races/ethnicities weren’t subjected to mass arrests in the Soviet Union. In fact, Poles, Balts, Chechens, Tartars, and eventually Jews were targeted for arrest.

It’s true that Soviet concentration camps were different from Nazi concentration camps because they were not established as death camps per se. But regardless, widespread and gruesome deaths were the outcome in the Soviet camps, as detailed in Gulag. You need a strong stomach to read about the ways in which inmates were tortured and killed.

Fascism deserves to be hated. But in their hatred of fascism, today’s socialists conveniently forget that National Socialism was a mix of nationalism and socialism, not a mix of nationalism and capitalism. The Third Reich didn’t own the means of production, but as Hitler explained, it didn’t need to, because he controlled the industrialists. A debate for another day is whether the United States has free-market capitalism, or crony capitalism, or mercantilism, or fascism, or some combination of these.

A common thread weaves through fascism, communism, slavery, colonialism, and other forms of subjugation throughout history and the world: The victims were dehumanized, categorized, stereotyped, and blamed for socioeconomic problems that weren’t their doing. Such rhetoric in the Soviet Union was a precursor to the evils that followed. To quote from Gulag:

From the late 1930s, as the wave of arrests began to expand, Stalin took this rhetoric to greater extremes, denouncing the “enemies of the people” as vermin, like pollution, as “poisonous weeds.” He also spoke of his opponents as “filth” which had to be “subjected to ongoing purification—just as Nazi propaganda would associate Jews with images of vermin, of parasites, of infectious disease.

The “woke” movement in the United States has shades of such demonization. Those placed in the ill-defined and elastic category of “white” are seen as the product of privilege and the beneficiaries of institutional racism. They’re also seen as stumbling blocks to the woke utopia of social justice, diversity, and inclusion—just as aristocrats, industrialists and the bourgeoisie were seen as stumbling blocks to the attainment of a proletariat paradise of Bolshevism. Likewise, wokes see themselves as morally superior to non-wokes.

Perceived enemies of wokes aren’t sent to concentration camps, as were enemies of the state under communism; but they can be canceled, vilified, ostracized, and have their careers ended for not adhering to the party line. Also, they and their children often have to endure reeducation in the form of critical race theory, which is taught in corporate and government seminars and in K-12 classrooms.

Such humiliation was common but much more severe in the Soviet Union. To quote again from the book:   “Before their actual arrest in Stalin’s Soviet Union, ‘enemies’ were also routinely humiliated in public meetings, fired from their jobs, expelled from the Communist Party, divorced by their disgusted spouses, and denounced by their angry children.”

China’s Cultural Revolution employed the same tactics.

Communists also “ate” their own, which should serve as a warning to today’s wokes. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the winning faction of Marxists proceeded to exile, imprison or shoot their former comrades in the losing faction for having a different interpretation of Marxism. A similar dogmatic mindset can be seen in the way that Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attack their fellow progressives for not being radical enough.

Incidentally, speaking of AOC, she recently said that a woman of color like herself can’t depend on being protected by her peers in Congress. This was in reaction to Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar’s juvenile and unacceptable animation of himself as a cartoon character using a sword to attack a cartoon image of her.

Woman of color? AOC is whiter than this Italian writer and has immensely greater political power and privilege. She and others of her ilk want Americans to see themselves through their actual or imagined epidermis and then are surprised by the backlash.

As another warning to wokes, George Orwell experienced firsthand how communists turn on each other. His book, Homage to Catalonia, describes his disillusionment in fighting with the communists against fascist Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The communists had split into two opposing factions:  those dedicated to the Soviet Union’s worldwide communism movement and those just interested in defeating Franco. The Communist International undermined the locals. 

Gulag concludes with estimates of the number of prisoners and deaths in the Soviet Union. There were an estimated 28 million prisoners between 1930 and 1948, in a country that had a population of 170 million in 1939. Some historians have tried to calculate how many of them died, but archival data are not reliable. It’s also difficult to calculate how many Russians died in total as a result of the Red Terror, the Civil War, the famines stemming from collectivization, the mass deportations, the mass executions, the concentration camps and mass murders of Stalin’s reign, the camps of the 1920s, and the camps of the 1960s through the 1980s. The Black Book of Communism gives a figure of 20 million.

Whatever the number, communism, like fascism, is not something to be celebrated or endorsed, especially by those who espouse social justice.

Tunnel 91

This book is a much easier read than Gulag but is also an indictment of communism. It is largely based on interviews with an 80-year-old German who ended up East Berlin as a kid after his family became refugees at the end of World War II. He would go on to escape to West Berlin, where in 1961, he would watch the construction of the Berlin Wall, which would separate him from his family in East Berlin. Later, he would lead two efforts to dig a tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin so that his family and friends, as well as the family and friends of the other diggers, could escape to the West.

It is a thrilling story of grit, determination, and courage.

Not only was it dangerous work, but if the diggers were discovered by the East German police, they could be imprisoned, tortured, or shot. The same for their families in East Germany. There was a high probability of being discovered, because the East German Stasi had thousands of spies in both East and West Berlin, including in government agencies in West Berlin.

In fact, hundreds of East Germans were caught trying to escape over the wall, under the wall, or, using forged papers, through checkpoints between the East and West. It speaks to their desire for freedom that they were willing to risk being shot or spending years in solitary confinement in a dreadful East German prison.

Stasi files, which were opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, document the surveillance, repression, and brutalities employed to keep East Germans from attempting to escape. There was a thick file on virtually every family. 

A takeaway from the book is the same as the takeaway from Gulag: Communism, like fascism, is not something to be celebrated or endorsed, especially by those who espouse social justice.

A Concluding Personal Note

Many decades ago, when I was in eighth grade, the nuns at my parochial school showed a film of the Nazi death camps being liberated, complete with footage of the stacks of bodies, the piles of hair and eyeglasses, the half-burned corpses in the ovens, and the emaciated prisoners with blank stares who had somehow stayed alive.

Wondering how humans could be so cruel to other humans, I bought the 900-page book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, when it came out in paperwork. That led me to a lifetime of reading history, literature, and moral philosophy in trying to find the answer.

For the first two decades of my intellectual journey, I almost never ran across a book (or movie) that told the story of the evils of communism. That’s because popular books and movies on the Third Reich and the Final Solution far outnumbered those on communism’s mass murders and concentration camps. Among the first books that I read on the subject was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

Books and movies on Joe McCarthy alone seemed to outnumber books like Solzhenitsyn’s. McCarthy has been so vilified by history for his witch hunts for communists in the State Department and Hollywood that “McCarthyism” has become a pejorative to denote right-wing extremism. But it took me a long time to realize that if the bullying drunkard had gone after Nazis instead of communists with the same zeal and unethical methods, he’d probably be lionized by history and Hollywood.

The double standard continues today, not only with the likes of Bernie Sanders being cheered on college campuses but in the difference in usage of the adjectives “right-wing” and “left-wing.” The former, which conjures images of jackboots and stiff-armed salutes, is used by reporters, commentators, academics, and authors as a pejorative about eight times more than the latter.

It’s no wonder that 36% of millennials have favorable views of socialism.

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