The Unresolved Legacy of Communist Crimes
Speech at the Tribunal on Forced Labor in Cottbus, Germany, on September 11, 2020
It’s an honor to be with you all in Cottbus this evening. And on behalf of the board of trustees of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and our many patrons in the United States I want to thank you for convening this important conference. It is vitally important that we have not only a moral reckoning for the crimes committed by communist regimes, but also some form of legal accountability.
Our organization was authorized by the Congress of the United States 26 years ago, in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Our mission is to spread understanding of the grave crimes perpetrated by those who sought to enact the ideology and programs of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and many other communist ideologues and despots.
Every day, we strive to remind the world that communism is the most vicious idea in human history, one that has murdered, enslaved, and ruined more lives than any other, by a massive margin. It has already killed more than a hundred million men, women, children, infants, and unborn. It has already dominated more than two billion people, for more than a century. More people live under a single party communist regime today than ever before. More people suffer from its tyranny than during the Cold War.
The hardest part of my job is listening to their stories.
A North Korean mother forced to watch as her children starve to death.
Seeing the scars of a Chinese man tortured in a reeducation camp because of his religious faith.
A brave Cuban woman who’s left arm was chopped off because she tried to reopen a school for the children of her village.
Everywhere I go, I listen to these stories, which is why I am here today. In fact, all of us are here to listen to the stories of the victims of communism.
We will hear from those who witnessed or endured the forced labor that for many defined the German Democratic Republic (GDR). We will hear what it was like for the more than 200,000 political prisoners who were sent into the fields, the mines, and the factories. Many were housed in this very prison, which was the largest facility for political prisoners in the GDR. We will hear about the crimes they saw, the pain they felt, and the scars they carry to this day.
But we are not here only to listen. We came to this place to act. We seek one thing, one simple word, and that is justice.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of East Germany’s reunification with the West. Sadly, over three long decades, the wrongs that the communist rulers perpetrated have not been righted. We face the threat of collective amnesia as the perpetrators are becoming forgotten, and so are the victims. Yet those of us here have no intention of letting that happen. We want the victims of East Germany to know that we will never forget them.
The pursuit of justice must begin by shining a light on injustice. And so today, we ask ourselves: What happened in this prison? What happened across the German Democratic Republic as a whole?
The sad truth is that forced labor was widespread in the GDR, from its founding in 1949 to its fall in 1990. Of course, the GDR was not the only regime that relied on forced labor. So did the Nazi regime that preceded it and the Soviet Union that controlled it.
The Nazis systematically enslaved ethnic groups across Central and Eastern Europe, affecting at least 12 million people. In the Nazi network of concentration camps, forced labor often preceded extermination. As for the Soviets, they built their own network of suffering and servitude, known as the Gulag. At least 18 million people were sent there, at least one-and-a-half million of whom died.
It was never of question of whether forced labor would come to East Germany. It was just a matter of when.
Like the national socialism of the Nazi State, the international socialism of communism fundamentally rejected the idea of human rights and individual dignity. To the Politburo in Berlin and Moscow, the people of East Germany were serfs, not citizens. They were assets to be used to generate income for the state. After all, in the communist mind, the needs of the state are all that matter. Everything, and everyone, can be sacrificed in the state’s name.
East Germany’s forced labor system was built on this immoral foundation. As research has shown, the state relied on forced labor from political prisoners in virtually every industry.
Take the metal industry. German prisoners were routinely put to work in steel and rolling mills. They were given little to no training, put on the oldest and most dangerous machines, and forced to work around the clock. We know from witness accounts that accidents were widespread, showing the GDR’s utter disregard for human life and well-being.
The furniture industry was no better. Both domestic and international companies turned to East Germany’s prisoners to make their tables, chairs, and other goods. Prisoners were exposed to dangerous chemicals, told to work while gravely sick, subjected to x-rays without protective equipment, and worse. They were sprayed with acid, burned, and blinded. If they refused to work, they were chained to their beds for days at a time.
In the mining industry, the communist authorities also relied on slave labor. In the 1950s, political prisoners could be found mining uranium, which exposed them to radioactive materials. For years, the GDR put thousands of prisoners to work in underground mines, violating its treaty commitments. Injuries and fatalities became so common that even the Soviet Union said the situation was out of control.
There are many other industries where forced labor was the norm. Garments. Construction. Farming. The list goes on. Amazingly, East Germany even had a mechanism to sell its de facto slaves for a profit. By 1989, West Germany had bought the freedom of nearly 34,000 East German political prisoners. East Germany was able to milk them for money to the very last minute.
The system that I have described is the definition of despicable and inhumane. The GDR treated people as property to be used until they broke. This Tribunal will uncover more details about the breadth and depth of this evil system.
By the time we leave, we will be able to paint a fuller picture of forced labor in East Germany. Then, we will be in a better place to pursue justice for those who suffered so much for so long.
The importance of our work cannot be overstated. What we are doing here can be a model for the victims of communism in other countries.
Thirty years after Germany’s reunification, and thirty-one years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the free world still needs a moral and legal reckoning with the crimes of communism. From Germany to Georgia, Armenia to Albania, and beyond, the victims of communism still have not received the attention and action that they deserve.
In the United States, we have a saying: Justice delayed is justice denied. For those who labored and suffered under the brutal rule of communism, justice has been delayed for far too long. Accountability can wait no longer. The victims of communism in East Germany deserve their due.
We must do this for them… but not only them. We must do this for all the current victims of communism, as well.
The stories that we will hear in the coming days are from decades gone by. Yet forced labor in communist regimes did not end in 1990. It continues to this day. In fact, the dictators of the 21st Century have learned from the forced labor systems of the 20th Century and even sought to improve on them. Today, we are seeing innovations in forced labor across the globe.
Consider an example from the Western Hemisphere. Ninety miles off the coast of the United States lies Communist Cuba. The regime in Havana uses forced labor not only to make money, but to spread communist propaganda throughout the world.
Cuba’s forced labor program involves medical professionals. Every year, the country selects doctors and nurses and sends them abroad. Currently, as many as 50,000 Cuban medical professionals can be found in at least 60 countries, from the Americas to Asia to Africa and beyond. Cuba claims to be engaging in humanitarian work, but that is a lie. It is nothing more than a novel form of forced labor.
The Cuban doctors do not work for themselves. The government in Havana steals their wages, which amounts to nearly $11 billion every year—more than 10% of Cuba’s GDP. It also compels the doctors to support local socialist and communist politicians and prop up regimes that Cuba supports, like the dictatorship in Venezuela.
Meanwhile, back home, the doctors’ families are held as hostages. Far from doing their jobs willingly, these doctors work to ensure the safety of their loved ones from the brutality of Cuba’s Communist Party.
There is no question that this is forced labor. We need only ask the doctors themselves. Plenty have come forward with stories of Havana’s abuse and theft in recent years. One Cuban doctor who defected while working in Brazil recently said, “there comes a time when you get tired of being a slave.”
Like the victims of the GDR, Cuba’s medical workers deserve justice, too.
Another example of modern-day forced labor comes from North Korea.
In 2018, some 2.6 million North Koreans lived in slavery, or more than 1 out of every 10 people in the country. By some estimates, a “significant majority” of North Koreans have endured forced labor at some point in their lives. Huge numbers of the victims are children, as young as 10 years old, or even younger.
Like the Soviet Gulag, North Korea’s forced labor system has a name – the Kwan-Li-So. It is fair to say that North Korea’s economy is built on a foundation of forced labor.
Political prisoners build the country’s bridges and apartment buildings. They slave away in mines and on farms. Tens of thousands have also been sent to China, where they work in factories, or to Russia, where they work at logging camps. Countless prisoners die from malnutrition and abysmal conditions, which include working in the coldest months of winter without shoes.
Several years ago, a survivor of Auschwitz and renowned human rights lawyer, Thomas Buergenthal, said that North Korea’s forced labor system is “as terrible or worse” than the Nazi concentration camps in which he lived. From what I have heard from North Korean defectors, I believe that North Korea’s labor camps are the most brutal places on the planet.
Like the victims of the GDR, the millions of slaves in North Korea deserve justice, too.
Finally, there is Communist China.
Forced labor is not new to China. It has been a fact of life there since the 1950s. Forced labor has been institutionalized in China as part of the “laogai” system, which translates as “reform through labor.” Between 40 and 50 million people have been sent to China’s labor camps since the regime’s founding.
Currently, more than 1,000 forced labor camps are active in the People’s Republic of China. The number of prisoners is unknown, but estimates put it well into the millions.
The world has come to a greater recognition of China’s forced labor system in the past few years. Where before the communist authorities primarily targeted political dissidents and religious faiths, now they are targeting an entire ethnic group – the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang. As many as three million Uyghurs have been sent to camps where they undergo indoctrination and torture.
As part of their imprisonment, many Uyghurs are forced to work at Chinese factories. These factories are part of the global supply chains for at least 83 well-known companies, including Apple, BMW, Lacoste, Nike, Microsoft, Volkswagen, and Zara, according to a recent report in Australia. This year, during the COVID pandemic, Uyghurs were forced to make face masks that were shipped across the world.
In addition to forced labor, many Uyghurs have their organs harvested for sale to wealthy foreigners. Practitioners of Falun Gong, a religious movement that Beijing fears, are subjected to the same horrific treatment. Much like Cuba, this represents an innovation in forced labor. China has found a way to profit off its victims in both life and death.
Once again, like the victims of the GDR, the millions of forced laborers in Communist China deserve justice, too.
It is against this global backdrop that we gather for this Tribunal. The discussions we have and testimonies we hear will rightly focus on the past. Yet we cannot lose sight of the global reality that surrounds us.
The crimes we will hear about are not so different from the crimes being committed in the communist states of today. The victims we will hear from are not unlike the victims of Cuba, North Korea, China, and other brutal regimes.
The particulars may differ, but the larger point is the same. Communism is the world’s worst perpetrator of forced labor. It was true in the 20th Century. It is true in the 21st Century.
No matter when it occurred, where it occurred, or what form it takes, it is our duty to condemn it and call for its abolition. By taking a stand against the evil actions of the GDR and the Soviet Union, we say to the communist regimes of today that we recognize and reject their oppression.
As a millennial American I can think of no better exercise to ensure that we will enjoy better lives this century than to consciously learn from the horrors of the last century. And so on this front I express my gratitude to the Germans gathered here for your vital work in challenging our civilization to not commit the moral crime of forgetfulness.
In so many ways Germany proved to be the crucible upon which new ideologies of the last century were forged. And the tragic failures of fascism and communism, especially, and Germany’s profound overcoming of war and terror makes your country uniquely able to warn the perhaps naïve populations elsewhere about all we must safeguard and about all we could lose by succumbing to unnatural, inhumane, and extremist ideologies that deny the dignity of each and every human life.
All this goes to say: Our work here matters more than we know. So let us pursue justice for the past and the present. And together, let us pursue a future free of communism and all the evil it entails, so that our children, and theirs, may inherit a world more just than our own.