Sunday, April 14, 2013

Bloodlands: Something of a Review

I've finished Timothy Snyder's well-crafted but monumentally depressing book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Stalin and Hitler 1933-1945.  As I said before, it is a must read for anyone interested in 20th century European history, WWII or 20th century authoritarianism and its attendant atrocities.

I was struck by a few things about it.  For one, Snyder has enough literary and moral sensibility to place horrific events in a human and moral context without losing sight of cause and effect.  In particular, his conclusion, which combines history, ethics and politics, would make the book worth reading even if the rest of the book was just tables of fatalities.  This conclusion is by turns moving, intellectually probing and at times it presents a quiet challenge to the cliches we are so often fed about these atrocities.

Another brilliant thing about Snyder is that he effortlessly blends history with historiography, and shows how the memory of these events is inextricably linked with the events themselves and the hatred and fear that produced them.  The chapter 'Stalinist Anti-Semitism' is not properly a tale of deliberate mass killing (like most of the other chapters), but a story of how continued bigotry and a sort of perverse authoritarian/nationalist 'oppression olympics' guaranteed that the true nature of what transpired in 'the Bloodlands' (and in particular the singular nature of the murder of the Jews) would be obscured in the East, guaranteeing that the Holocaust is remembered from a narrow and western perspective.

Apparently some historians of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany have objected to placing Stalinist famine and terror side by side with the Holocaust, arguing that it furthers the tendency to portray the Shoah as just another horror* among many, and in particular to mitigate its atrocities by equating them with those of Stalin.  Of course this equation is a genuine right-wing tactic of Nazi apologia; to portray Hitler and Stalin as equivalent and Hitler as fundamentally defending himself from Stalinist aggression and terror, the Nazis themselves portrayed their actions as such.  I would category deny that this is the case.  On the contrary, the isolation of accounts of the Holocaust from the mainstream of European history -prevent- the understanding of what makes it different from say, the Great Terror or the famines, prevents us from understanding what makes the Nazis' genocidal war of aggression a crime without parallel in 20th century Europe.  By placing the murder of the Jews alongside the murder of Ukrainean/Polish peasants, Polish officers and Soviet POWs, Snyder can show the singularity of the Jewish experience in WWII, rather than merely stating 'the Jewish experience is singular' and dismissing all comparisons as a form of 'soft denialism.'  Only by placing the Shoah back into the context of Eastern European history in the 20th century can we truly understand it.

For myself, my only serious critique is that Snyder puts too much stock in the idea that the Germans started losing the war the moment Operation Barbarossa started, and starting killing Jews en masse only when things went wrong.  He states that the campaign took longer than expected (true) and did not progress as rapidly -geographically- as planned, but he neglects the fact that in terms of effectively destroying Red Army units, the Nazis had no reason to think in August 1941 that they were anything other than decisively victorious.  They captured millions of Red Army soldiers, destroyed the Red Air Force on the ground and had destroyed or captured thousands of tanks, guns and other pieces of equipment.  Their failure lay in the fact that this did not destroy the Red Army, or break the back of the Soviet Union.  But they didn't know this until they were stuck in mud and snow at the gates of Moscow.  By that point, Latvia was already 'Judenfrei' and the Einsatzgruppen had started their massacres in earnest.  Now this does not invalidate his point (that the lack of a decisive victory in the East led to adopting mass murder as the 'Final Solution' to the 'Jewish Question') but it requires a bit more legwork and exploration than he puts in, which is unfortunate given how exaggerated his claims of German failure in 1941 are.

His general point, however, that the Holocaust and the Holdomor and the Great Terror arose from a feeling of self-righteous, bigoted defensiveness, is one that does not get repeated enough.  It is a defensiveness that argues that the victim is attacking the murderer, and that even the death of the victim is a kind of moral attack, assaulting the murderer with an accusation of guilt.  On a more concrete level, the horrific quote from a Viennes policemen, who writes his wife that shooting children like clay pigeons his hard, but 'these' 'Bolshevic' hordes would do worse to his family otherwise, is very revealing.  In the case the Holocaust, his emphasis on it as 'revenge' for various German reversals is a very convincing explanation of Nazi psychology, that dovetails well with Hitler's history of framing persecutions (such as the Kristallnacht)  and power-grabs (the Enabling Acts) as revenge or as a defensive response to some 'attack.'

This returns us to his conclusion, which warns against the power of bigoted fears in our own time.  Bloodlands is not just a great work of history, it is a timely work, given that so much of our contemporary world is struggling to 'own' the right to shape the remembrance of the 20th century's atrocities.

*While I would certainly object to arguing that the Holocaust is simply equivalent to the Middle Passage, Aparthied and United States Indian Policy 1783-1960 (as some on the Left will do), I do not see why Rwanda or Armenia are not equivalent crimes, but that is another story.

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