Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bloodlands and Europe's Awful History

Over the past year or so I've read two small series of books. One, five or six books on Jerusalem, I may write about separately. Parallel to reading about Jerusalem I've been dabbling in books about Europe's bloodier chapters. First I read Peter H Wilson's The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy, about the ghastly 17th century war which significantly impacted the history of Germany (which didn't exist as a country at the time) and thereby Europe, into the 20th century. It was a fiendishly complicated war, and Wilson's book tries valiantly to make sense of it but doesn't fully succeed. I came away with a general understanding of the war's outline, some of its major stages and famous protagonists, and an appreciation of how horrible it must have been, but could I now give a lecture about it? Not remotely.

I also learned that there were other wars going on before, during and after the 30 Years War. Europe in the 17th century was a nasty sort of place.

Then I read about a chapter of major violence Europe exported elsewhere, with King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, in which Adam Hochschild tells of the large-scale mass murders in the Congo from the late 19th century. Where Wilson was too pedantic and factual for someone like myself who isn't well versed in the historical context, Hochschild is not careful enough. He writes as a journalist, with a fine eye for drama and memorable anecdotes, but his (justified) anger at the story he's telling takes too much of center stage and made me wonder if perhaps the story was more complicated than he made it out to be. In his telling, Leopold King of Belgium sort of single-handedly set in motion an operation of exploiting the treasures of the Congo (especially rubber) while causing the deaths of millions of locals; he was able to do this because he was merely an extreme case of European colonial exploitation; on the other hand, his excesses were so terrible they spawned the first successful case of public relations activism against a malign policy.

Just this afternoon I finished reading Timothy Snyder's magesterial Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, about what he convincingly calls the central event of European history in the first half of the 20th century: the murder by two governments of 14 million people in the area between the Baltic and Black Seas between 1933 and 1945.

His is not the first book I've read on the subject. Hannah Arendt famously wrote about the two totatitarian regimes of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in The Origins of Totalitarianism (HBK) in the early 1950s: a powerful and memorable book, but perhaps not all that convincing. There was too much theory in it (this is the way totalitarian systems work) and not enough history (this is what they did). George Orwell wrote the same book in a quarter of the length in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics); yet I noticed as far back as the 1980s that my students couldn't relate to it seriously. It was simply too outlandish. Eventually it occured to me that perhaps they were right, and it really was too exagerated to be helpful, especially as the actual 1984 had passed, and while the world was still flawed, it wasn't flawed in Orwell's way. Alan Bullock's Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives also failed to deliver: it really did tell two parallel tales, without fusing them in any meaningful way. R. J. Rummel's Death by Government made it clear there was a tale that cried out to be addressed, when he compiled endless horrendous statistics, but he didn't tell it.

It's been a number of years since I checked out of the guild of Holocaust historians, and I make no pretensions to stay updated. Still, when Snyder's book came out in 2010 I heard various voices of discontent: that he had submerged the Nazi murder of the Jews in a broader context and thereby muddied a necessary clarity. Then last year I had a conversation with Yehuda Bauer, who assured me it was an important read even if Snyder's grasp of some of the finer details of the Holocaust wasn't always perfect.

Bauer is right. Some of the details are a bit shaky here and there. Actually, I expect one could quibble about an ocasional detail about the other parts of the story, too, and, more significantly, about some editorial decisions: no 500-page book could cover all the horrendous events, but I had the feeling some chapters and events were covered more exhaustively than others. But it doesn't make any difference. Snyder has written an original book of high-quality scholarship on a topic which already has tens of thousands of books, and he says things that need to be heard.

The story of the bloodlands is about a part of Europe in which two regimes set out to kill millions of people who were in the way. First it was millions of Ukrainians who were starved to death because Stalin's attempt to force the Soviet Union to industrialize had failed and they were cast as the culprits. There were large numbers of Poles who were murdered because they were in the wrong place and Stalin perhaps thought Poland might threaten him. The Nazis intended to starve tens of millions of Slavs, but ended up mostly killing the Jews. The Soviets and the Germans alternated in conquering large tracts of the bloodlands, massacring millions as they went: in a few days in 1944 the Germans killed significantly more Poles and also Belarusians than Bashar Assad has slaughtered his citizens in 18 months, and if you're not Polish or Belarusian you've never even heard of it. For all I know, if you're one you haven't heard of the other.

The mass killing tapered off after the end of WW2, but slowly. Americans danced in Times Square the summer of 1945, but in Eastern Europe a massive series of ethnic cleansings were just getting started. The Nazis had been moving large groups of people all over the map since 1940, in an attempt to clear the area for German settlers. In 1944 the Soviets began a similar process on their own citizens in the Caucasus. In early 1945, however, the largest movements began, in which the Poles were evicted from what was to become Soviet Belarus and Ukraine, and the Germans were evicted from what was to become western Poland and German-free Czechoslovakia. the ethnic cleansing went on for three years, until by the end of 1947 they had run their course and achieved their goals. About half a million civilians died in the process. America and Britain, it seems, colluded in the policy by accepting many of the 7.6 million Germans who were forced into shrunken Germany; at one point Snyder seems to be saying the collusion inclded coordination.

In a riveting chapter near the end of the book Snyder shows how Soviet memory had to eradicate the murder of the Jews so as to maintain a myth of Russian suffering in the Great Patriotic War, even though Russia was mostly beyond the bloodlands, and the myth required subsuming millions of Jews, Poles, Belarusians and Ukrainians into the Soviet narrative and from there into a Russian one.

The book, however, is not simply a litany of boundless human suffering. Snyder suggets we take a second look at all sorts of accepted wisdom. The Holocaust was mostly not about concentration camps, and essentially all its major death sites were in the blood lands, which no Western forces liberated nor even saw; thus, its true symbols should have been Babi Yar and Treblinka, not Bergen Belsen or even Auschwitz. Furthermore, in both the Soviet and the Nazi worlds, being sent to a camp actually held out the possibility of survival, and was the better alternative on offer; since people survived the camps we recoil in horror at their tales, but since people didn't survive the death pits we've largely forgotten.

The Nazis did most of their killing in the context of war - though the civilians being slaughtered were not fighting - but the Soviets mostly killed in times of peace; so the conditioning of war isn't an explanation. Snyder doesn't say the Nazis or Soviets were necessarily responding to the others' murderousness, as Ernst Nolte and other German revisionists did in the 1980s. Rather, he shows how the policies intertwined and enhanced each other, and how they effected the decisions of individuals caught in the malestrom. He also then points out that after 1950, the Soviet system moved on so that Stalin, with all his paranoias, wasn't able to launch yet another Great Terror, this time against the Jews, or at least not with ease, and not before his death put an end to the attempt.

Snyder doesn't minimize the Holocaust. Yet he's quite convincing in saying that the murder of the Jews is better understood in the context of pervasive violence and slaughter than on its own. In November 1944 the Nazis murdered some 42,000 Jews in Operation Erntefest near Lublin. In the first days of the Polish uprising in Warsaw in August 1944 they killed a similar number of Polish civilians by systematically shooting everyone they could find in parts of the town. Is any purpose served by pretending either part of the story didn't happen, or that the one is "more important"?

In Tony Judt's otherwise fine book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he writes that after WW1 borders were changed, but after WW2 they weren't, except in Eastern Europe. Well, yes, perhaps, but Snyder's book makes clear that Eastern Europe is where almost the entire war had taken place. Things were bad in France and even in Britain, but both were side-shows. Where most of the war happened, most of the borders were also changed, and to a horrifying degree, the populations too. The idea that borders may not be changed by war was not accepted wisdom in 1945.

Did the ethnic and political clarity reached in 1947 cause the cessation of mega-violence? Snyder never explains how the mass killing could have humanly happened, and he doesn't explain its disappearence, either. He sees his job in uncovering the story. Yet clearly we live in a gentler era, for all its problems. Not a gentle era, but a gentler one. The 18th and 19th centuries were gentler than the 17th, though in faraway Africa things were getting pretty bad by the 1890s. The 20th century was worse than them all, and now we're back in quieter times. It would be nice to be sure that violence doesn't rise and fall on schedules of its own, but Snyder's story isn't reassuring. How was it possible for leaders to order the murder of millions and for large number of their henchmen to commit them, to an extent we can no longer even comprehend; and then desist, to the extent we can no longer even remember? Is not remembering a good thing? A bad thing?

The final pages of any serious book is where the author, having completed his thesis and finished his presentation, will often turn to a reflection or mediation. Snyder's final pages include these searing sentences:
So within the Holocaust, it is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people who died at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber. Ot it might be easier to imagine the one person at the end of the 33,761 Jews shot at Babi Yar: Dina Pronicheva's mother, let us say, though in fact every single Jew killed there could be that one, must be that one, is that one.

Each of the 681,692 people shot in Stalin's Great Terror of 1937-1938 had a different life story: the two at the end might be Maria Juriewicz and Stanislaw Wyganowski, the wife and husband reunited "under the ground". Each of the Polish prisoners of war shot by the NKVD in 1940 was in the midst of life. The two at the end might be Dobieslaw Jakubowicz, the father who deamed about his daughter, and Adam Solski, the husband who wrote of his wedding ring on the day that the bullet entered his brain.


Monika said...

Concerning the Thirty Years War, I found it interesting what people write who lived that time. Some time ago I found two:

Kaspar Preis (Farmer):

Peter Hagendorf (Soldier):

Silke said...

Yaacov - each time you post I realize how much I miss your blog

As to the 30 years war at school I was introduced to what Grimmelshausen wrote about his experiences in the war -

I stopped listening very quickly and never got close to it again, but I am still eager to read Schiller's Wallenstein-plays about it.

PS: these days German radio commemorated the coming into being of the GSG9 i.e. the group of specialists which was started after and due to the catastrophe of the Olympic massacre. The founder proudly told that he got his expertise/training in Israel from Israeli experts.

Ulrich Wegener, damals Verbindungsoffizier im Büro von Bundesinnenminister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, baut die neue Truppe auf. Nicht irgendeine Büroeinheit, eine Kampftruppe will er haben. Deshalb lässt er sich von israelischen Militärs im Antiterrorkampf ausbilden.