The Diplomat of Shoah History
Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?
Snyder thinks that his vast knowledge of Eastern Europe, its politics, its history, its languages, is his best qualification to write about the Holocaust. “There’s a basic problem with the history of the Holocaust,” Snyder explained. “The people who do it don’t know the necessary languages.” The pioneering Raul Hilberg relied almost exclusively on German sources; Saul Friedländer, author of a monumental volume, The Years of Extermination, is similarly ignorant of the languages of the regions where the killing took place. “Saul’s books, and in general the big books we know about the Holocaust, are basically books about Germany,” Snyder remarked. The exceptions, the historians who do look beyond Germany, are, ironically, mostly Germans. Many of them, like Snyder, are still in their forties, and the most impressive of them is probably Christoph Dieckmann, who knows Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew; he recently published the first volume of his study of the Holocaust in Lithuania, whose 2,500 pages make it the most comprehensive account yet written (and that’s only volume one).
But the new multinational histories of the Shoah are a very recent phenomenon. For decades, most Holocaust historians focused solely on the Nazi perpetrators. The first wave of Holocaust history, under Hilberg’s influence, insisted on seeing the event through German eyes, and Hilberg disagreed sharply with younger historians’ interest in the life stories of Hitler’s Jewish victims. (“The perpetrator had the overview,” Hilberg wrote. “He alone was the key.”) He advocated, instead, a wide-angle perspective on how the vast work of killing occurred. Yet these days, Holocaust studies now mostly means looking in detail at the small communities where Jews were so often murdered, and it relies on survivor testimony. Snyder, who is clearly a large-scale explainer, has a problem with such “micro-studies.” “The field now is in a very micro-mode,” he said. “And what I think about the micro-mode is that it’s a little bit self-indulgent, because you talk about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews, and it ends up confirming your own view about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews.” The distinguished Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, an Israeli who teaches at Brown, wrote a groundbreaking study of the Wehrmacht, but now he is studying the home of his ancestors, the town of Buczacz in Ukraine. “So, Omer writes a book about the army, then he writes a book about Buczacz,” Snyder noted. “The concern is that when you get that intimate and that small, you can’t really catch the big things. You see that in [Gross’] Neighbors … it can’t really have full explanations.”
In Snyder’s view, Bartov and Gross have dodged the biggest question: why the Holocaust took place in Eastern Europe rather than elsewhere. “Actually figuring out how Soviet power mattered,” how it made possible the murder of Jews as well as all the other murders, is the true theme of Bloodlands, Snyder insisted to me. “That it didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view. That the Soviets were just as bad as the Germans is also a polemical and indefensible view.”
But how does the collapse of state power at the hands of the Soviets lead to herding people into barns and setting them on fire, as Poles did to Jews in Jedwabne, the town studied in Gross’ Neighbors? Unlike Bartov and Christopher Browning, who describe the growing willingness of German soldiers and policemen to commit atrocities on the Eastern front, Snyder doesn’t make the breakdown of authority in Eastern Europe seem very real. Where Bartov and Browning make you feel the dissolving of moral inhibitions and show how warfare becomes murder, Snyder holds back. In a passage from Bloodlands that Bartov, who reviewed the book in Slavic Review, found deeply implausible, Snyder wrote that “there was often an overlap of ideology and interests between Nazis and local nationalists in destroying the Soviet Union and (less often) in killing Jews. Far more collaborators simply said the right things, or said nothing and did what they were told.” Here, Snyder turns the anti-Jewish deeds of Eastern Europeans into individual choices that on the whole seem rather reasonable. But this slights the collective nature of the phenomenon, the excited and dreadful group bonding that was perceived by all involved. One historian, Andrzej Zbikowski, notes the “exceptional, extreme cruelty” of the Polish attacks on Jews, the use of pitchforks and axes to mutilate bodies. In Jewish survivors’ accounts “no reflexes of compassion were recorded, nor even a turning of the head in shame,” Zbikowski asserted.
Snyder demonstrates that what permitted Poles to kill Jews in the wake of the German invasion, and then again after the German defeat, was the lack of a strong authority, a missing set of rules. But he avoids the question of what the pogroms accomplished—namely, a revival of the society that had been torn apart by Soviet occupation. That society came together to oppose not the conquering Germans, but the helpless Jews. The Poles’ resulting sense of guilt, which Gross emphasizes, largely disappears in Snyder’s work, replaced by an evenly distributed wrongdoing. Non-Jews steal from non-Jews, too, and kill them, Snyder reminds us. But these remarks do little to explain the rampant Polish eagerness to despoil the Jews who lived alongside them, a social fact that many observers saw at the time as a sickness. What do the killings of Polish (and Jewish) officers at Katyn, terrible as they were, have to do with Poles persecuting Jews? In his collage of terrible events, Snyder sometimes suggests that there were crucial links among these disasters. But he doesn’t demonstrate what those links actually were.
In our interview, Snyder wrestled with the question of Polish collaboration. “Why are they willing to take part?” he asked me, and groped toward an answer. “Mainly because of the previous destruction of their state by the Soviet Union. They’re trying to redeem themselves, to undo their humiliation.” Are the Poles—and the Ukrainians, and the Lithuanians—to be faulted for this behavior, or should we try to stick to neutral description? Snyder in Bloodlands is still the diplomat he once wanted to become; he stays neutral. He badly wants to avoid the nerve-fraying quarrels, the nationalist squabbles that Gross dived into.
Bloodlands has been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, and when readers from those countries read the book, they are forced to reckon with the enormity of the Holocaust. Similarly, when Jews read Bloodlands, they are challenged to acknowledge the struggles of other groups, the mass death that afflicted them, too. We are reminded that everyone’s fate is interlocked with everyone else’s. This is one reason—a fitting, even necessary one—for writing, as Snyder does, about all the murdered peoples of the bloodlands together. But Snyder also suggests that there is a second, just as pressing reason: the need to understand the role that earlier cases of mass death played in the later ones. Here, Snyder falls short. He falls back on an eloquent empathy for all the lost, rather than reaching the causal explanation that he hints at throughout his book. The famine in Ukraine did not lead to the death of the Soviet POWs, nor did the Great Terror lead to the Holocaust.
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