The Diplomat of Shoah History
Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?
The dispute between Poles and Jews about the Nazi period can move in unsettling directions, ones that make an unhealed wound hurt even worse. Perceived insults, like President Barack Obama’s recent reference to “Polish concentration camps,” are seen by right-wing Poles as part of a plot to blacken their country’s name in the West. Some on the Polish right are also quick to argue that Poles who assisted the Nazis in anti-Jewish actions, or who slaughtered Jews on their own initiative (such pogroms occurred both during and just after the war), acted from understandable motives: After all, Jewish “treachery” had handed their country to the Bolsheviks. But the treachery is a fiction. Polish Jews were overwhelmingly anti-Communist, and the Soviets deported many of them.
The Polish role in the Holocaust had other roots, darker ones: traditional anti-Semitism and the greedy desire for Jewish property. When the historian Jan Gross in his books Neighbors and Fear (and, most recently, Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross) charged his fellow Poles with aiding the Nazi genocide and profiting from the death of the Jews in their midst, he wanted them to mourn the vanished Jewish lives they had known so well, to come to terms with their guilt, since many of them had been indifferent or complicit or satisfied in the face of the Shoah. Instead, Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity and former president of Poland, called Gross “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money.” (Gross’ father was Jewish.) When Gross, who teaches at Princeton, returns to his native Poland, he has to contend with public prosecutors who, a few years ago, threatened to take him to court for “slandering the Polish nation.” His fellow historian Jan Grabowski says that Gross demolished the myth of Polish innocence by focusing on the reaction of Poles to the murder of 3 million of their fellow citizens, a reaction that was often craven, money-hungry, and cruel. “He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly,” Grabowski remarks.
Enter Timothy Snyder.
The Yale historian’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—hailed by Antony Beevor when it appeared in 2010 as “the most important work of history for years”—is grim and magisterial; it puts together the tragedy of the Holocaust with earlier mass murders in the regions that Snyder christens the “bloodlands” (Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland, and Ukraine). Snyder begins with the terrible famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine (more than 3 million dead); he goes on to the Great Terror, in which 700,000 died, including many Poles; and he writes movingly of the 3 million Soviet prisoners of war whom the Nazis starved to death, many of them in Byelorussian camps that were little more than barbed wire strung around masses of helpless, doomed POWs.
Like Gross, Snyder seeks to explain the actions of the non-Jews of Eastern Europe, the nearest bystanders to the Holocaust. But unlike Gross, he demands no conscience-searching from Eastern Europeans. Snyder points out that the Soviets and the Germans had ravaged the countries of the bloodlands, whose loss of sovereignty led to social chaos, hunger, threats of death, and deportation. Suddenly, Poles, Ukrainians, and others realized there was a starkly unavoidable presence in their midst, the German desire to kill Jews. It should not be a surprise, Snyder argues, that, by and large, they had little empathy for the Jews. Neither did we Americans, and we were thousands of miles away from Hitler and Stalin. The great debate between Snyder and Gross is a key juncture in the politics of memory in Eastern Europe and a test case for our efforts to understand what the Nazi extermination of the Jews meant to the part of the world where it happened.
I recently met Snyder for coffee in New Haven’s Blue State Café. Excited and nervous, he was anticipating the birth of his second child, due within days of our meeting. When he saw me he quickly folded his newspaper, and we launched, without throat-clearing, into our inescapable theme: mass murder. Snyder has the look of a hard-worked scholar on the brink of middle age—not unfriendly, but with a certain wariness about being misread; he seemed tired but in conversation was alert and careful. This fall, he said, he is preparing to teach a course solely about the destruction of the Jews and is writing a book on the causes of the Holocaust.
Although Bloodlands describes an array of Nazi and Soviet mass murders, its secret, as every reader discovers, is that it turns out to be a book about the Holocaust. Why the Shoah is the inevitable end point of the story that Bloodlands tells is a question that Snyder elicits without fully answering: The Holocaust stands out because it is the most developed instance of genocide. Every single Jew was marked down for murder, with the goal of making the Jewish nation vanish forever from the earth, and the German state devoted its best resources to this end. The disappearance of the Jews became an absolute priority; this was not true of the Roma and Sinti, or the Soviet POWs, or the Ukrainians under Stalin, who suffered just as the Jews did, but whose fate did not carry the same symbolic weight.
The utopian, absurd idea that getting rid of Jews means liberating non-Jewish humanity points to the central, though hidden, role that Jews played in the Nazi imagination. Jews, the people of the Ten Commandments, were the incarnations of conscience; their presence on the earth reminded humanity of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. No other genocide took on such a task: the redemption of the world from the disease of conscience. The victims of Stalin and Mao died just like Hitler’s, but their deaths weren’t intended to have the world-altering significance that the annihilation of the Jews had for the Nazis.
Unusually for a historian in his field, Snyder—who is from small-town southwestern Ohio, where his family has lived for two centuries—has no Jewish and no Eastern-European ancestry. “I grew up as an American kid with no connection to any of these places,” he told me. In college in the late 1980s, he said, “I thought I was going to grow up and become a diplomat and negotiate nuclear arms,” but with the fall of the Soviet Union, he veered toward Eastern European studies, where he discovered high-voltage connections between intellectual life, politics, and national identity and learned to speak Polish and Ukrainian.
While Snyder never planned to become a Holocaust historian, it appears that he may now be turning into one. In 2008, he wrote a masterful essay on the Shoah in Volhynia, integrating survivor testimony with a measured account of the roles that Germans and Ukrainians played in the killing of Jews. In Volhynia, Snyder wrote, Jews were in greater danger from Ukrainian nationalists than they were from Germans. “Many gentiles came to see the murder of Jews as corresponding to their personal economic interests,” he explained. He ended his essay with a haunting passage that he later incorporated into Bloodlands, in which he recounted the inscriptions scrawled on the walls of the synagogue in Kovel. Here, where 12,000 Jews awaited certain death, they wrote their parting messages, nearly unbearable for the reader (“My beloved mama! There was no escape. They brought us here from outside the ghetto, and now we must die a terrible death. … We kiss you over and over.”).
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