Paul Lay

History Today, 17 September 2010

In 1968 Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was published. Drawing on information released during the Khrushchev Thaw that began in 1956, it presented the full horrors of Stalinism to a West preoccupied by the Paris événements and the Vietnam War. It was received with astonishment, even hostility by many, but proved to be a remarkably graphic account of the nightmare that befell the people of the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign when up to 20 million people died. What Conquest did for the reputation of the Soviet Union, Frank Dikotter may just have done for the People’s Republic of China. The Dutch historian’s new book Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958-1962 details the wholly man-made disaster that befell the PRC and led to the deaths of 45 million people. 45 million people! Dikotter, Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong, has travelled throughout China, trawling the archives of the most distant provinces to paint a portrait of an empire’s endurance of almost unimaginable terror. It is one of this year’s essential history books and a timely corrective to the uncritical welcoming by many western journalists of China’s growing power.  Paul Lay