We are witnessing in Rwanda horrific denunciations and terror whereby relatives denounce relatives, coworkers turn against each other, and friends denounce friends in a frightening frenzy. Outside Rwanda opponents of the regime – real or imagined are hunted down and even assassinated. This is the time to quote the famous phrase – “the only lesson we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.”

This madness we are witnessing in Rwanda is in fact a replay of history many times over in different parts of the world with disastrous consequences for both the perpetrators and victims.

I invite compatriots to read Wendy Goldman’s book “Inventing the Enemy: Denunciation and Terror in Stalin’s Russia.” I promise you that after you read this book you will say “oh my God, this is precisely what is happening in Rwanda.”

In a nutshell, the book “Inventing the Enemy” is about the period known as the “Great Terror” in the Soviet Union. The book demonstrates that at the height of the terror in 1937–38, the Soviet secret police arrested approximately 1.6 million people for “political crimes.” More than 1.3 million were convicted, and about 683,000 executed.

Goldman’s book, however, does not focus only on numbers. The main task of this shocking account is to reconstruct how ordinary people reacted to the terror and how they were affected by it. The book deals exhaustively with the events that created the poisonous climate of fear and denunciation that soon engulfed the country. The heart of the book is really about the breaking of ties among people at work and at home – and the poisoned/collapse of relations among coworkers, family, friends, and lovers. The book also describes how the terror came to an end as the most ardent proponents of terror were arrested and sent to the camps as “bawlers,” or denouncers of the innocent. The book has a chapter titled “A History without Heroes,” which analyzes all kinds of human behavior during the terror, and shows how ordinary citizens collaborated, participated in, and resisted the denunciations.

What is scary about “Inventing the Enemy” is how terror in Soviet Union introduced extra judicial trials. As more suspects were thrown into prison and subjected to brutal interrogation and torture, Soviet leaders became convinced of a vast conspiracy of the so-called “terrorists,” both potential and real. Soviet rulers soon encouraged ordinary citizens to denounce those they suspected of disloyalty or treason. Many ordinary citizens denounced their neighbors, coworkers, and even family members.

Wendy Goldman’s main argument—and indeed the overriding lesson of her book —is therefore that ordinary “citizens helped to create a political culture that supported the abrogation of civil liberties.

Yet as more and more people were arrested, many others realized that they, too, might become victims. What began as anti-terror measures…became a true terror.” In other words, the campaign launched by the state soon became “a full blown terror in which one’s fellow citizens become rabid agents of denunciation and no one is safe.”

Reading this book about events that happened that happened some 70 years ago, one would think that the author is describing what is happening in Rwanda today. We of course know how it all ended in Stalin’s Russia. What we don’t know is how the ongoing madness in Rwanda might end.


David Himbara