This year is the diamond anniversary of much wickedness: the Spanish Civil War, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Berlin Olympic games, the annexation of Ethiopia by Fascist Italy, and the rise of the radically militarist Hirota government in Japan all happened within a few months of 1936. Another greater evil began on August 19, 1936: the Moscow Trials. Until then, totalitarianism had covered itself with a fig leaf of plausibility.
German troops simply re-occupied part of Germany and the Olympics had already been scheduled for Germany before the Nazis came to power. Italy felt that it had been promised Ethiopia as a condition for entering the Great War and the Fascists based their war upon the destruction of the Christian Empire of Haille Selassie which had been oppressing Moslems and engaging in a brisk slave trade. Japan certainly had a right to change parliamentary government – had we not taught them western-style democracy?
The Moscow Trials were qualitatively different. While good and thoughtful people could, and did, take different sides in the Spanish Civil War and approach the Berlin Olympics from different angles and even might applaud the end of the slave trade as a fair price for the conquest of an African empire by an Italian kingdom, the Moscow Trials were a descent into malice and madness which separated malicious, maniacal mendacity from the most rudimentary elements of justice and truth.
Stalin in these show trials and accompanying purges did not just purge his party enemies, which Hitler had done on a much smaller scale in the Night of the Long Knives, but he compelled these Old Bolsheviks to confess to crimes which defied human imagination. Some of these doctrinaire Marxists were actually spies for Germany or Japan or Britain or France. Others, who had risked their lives for the Bolshevik victory, became “wreckers” who sought to sabotage everything of value in the Soviet economy.
The trials were notionally based upon ideological variation, but this too was obviously absurd. In 1936, Lazar Kagaonvich, one of Stalin’s most trusted and monstrous henchmen, proclaimed the purge of Soviet officials and Communist party members who were part of the “Right-Trotskyite Bloc,” which is a nonsensical expression. Bolshevik Sultan-Zadeh was accused at the same time of both being a Right-wing deviationist and of being a Left-wing deviationist. The trials would even end up condemning the “center-bloc,” whatever that was supposed to mean.
The calculated irrationality of the Moscow Trials purged communism in the West of almost all sense of decency, and the non-aggression pact with Hitler, three years later, forced those who remained communists to actively work in propaganda, in factory strikes, and even in intelligence reports to help Hitler defeat Britain. Many American communists, pummeled by the madness of the Moscow Trials and sickened by the slavish support of Nazi Germany became lifelong opponents of communism.
Fred Beal became disillusioned in the 1930s while living in the Soviet Union. He wrote a letter to America reciting an example of the questions presented to him: “Are you in touch with the Trotskyites? Do you communicate with the Lovestonites?” Beal notes that no one really knows what these terms are even supposed to mean.
Max Eastman in 1937 wrote that in the Soviet Union that “the distinctions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ opposition are obliterated” and how utterly meaningless the “left” and “right” had become: “In short, every judgment and choice, every trait and mode of behavior, that once had been given meaning to the word ‘right’ is now supported or condoned by those who all agree in calling ‘left’ or ‘leftist.’”
Louis Budenz, once editor of the Communist Party periodical, Daily Worker, later wrote: “Over the preceding months, the term ‘fascist’ had been applied to President Roosevelt, to President William Green of the American Federal of Labor and to many other heads of democratic organizations. It was taken for granted within Communist circles that the phrase was elastic and could be aimed at anyone not in step with current Stalinist objectives.”
Kenneth Goff in his 1948 book, Confessions of Stalin’s Agent describes how Hitler overnight became a friend to Communism: “I followed orders one night and delivered a street corner speech against Fascism and Nazism. I shouted: ‘Down with Fascism. Kill Hitler, Kill Mussolini.’ While I was speaking, a comrade stepped up, tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘Don’t say that any more, Keats. Russia and Germany have signed a pact. The Party line has changed.’”
Howard Fast in a 1957 book describes the Bolshevik Bible, History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: “We are treated to bizarre and often incomprehensible accounts of how the Bolshevik Party’s organizational and theoretical purity were successfully defended against counterrevolutionary attacks by ‘Trotsky-ites,’ ‘Zinoviev-Kamenevites,’ ‘Bukharin-Rykovites’ and other groups, but we are never actually quite sure of what the difference actually was.”
As military historians know, the Moscow Trials did something else: the Red Army was stripped of nearly all its competent officers, and although some were pulled out of the Gulag after the Winter War, the first year of Operation Barbarossa was a vast retreat in which about 3 million Soviet soldiers were captured and nearly all died of starvation.
So much evil sprang from communism. The Holomodor, the extermination by starvation of about 10 million Ukrainian men, women and children, preceded and in many ways presaged the Holocaust. The Gulag was a model for Nazi camp systems, and Rudolph Hess on his VIP tour of this slice of Soviet Hell took copious notes. The Moscow Trials lack parallel in modern life except in Orwell’s dystopian horror, 1984. Marxism, slave master of leftism today, stalks the innocent, smiles at misery, and snarls at any notion that reason should guide our actions. In some sad ways, the world is the same as 75 years ago.
[1 ]The Soviet Union and the Middle East, Laqueur, p. 89.
 Word from Nowhere, Beal, p. 210.
 “The End of Socialism in Russia,” Max Eastman, Reader’s Digest, April 1937, p. 63.
 Reflections on the Failure of Socialism, Eastman, p. 71.
 This is my story, Budenz, pp. 121-122.
 Confessions of Stalin’s Agent, Goff, p. 33.
 The Naked God, Fast, p. 69.