The Diplomat of Shoah History
Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?
Snyder soundly rejects the argument of the conservative 1980s historian Ernst Nolte, who said that the Germans imitated Soviet mass murders. But if Nolte is wrong (and he is), what, then, do Bolshevik crimes have to do with Nazi ones? When I asked Snyder why he is so intent on putting Holocaust history in an Eastern European context, he said, “It relativizes. When you read Jan’s book about the Jews being burned in the barn [in Jedwabne], it’s a horrible thing, but when you know that there were a couple of thousand instances like that, most of them not involving Jews, it relativizes it. We see it more as a question of what humans can do to humans.” In 1943-44 there was a war between Ukrainian nationalists and their Polish counterparts. Ukrainians tortured Poles and burned them alive, men, women, and children; and Poles responded in kind, with violence just as gruesome. Those who ask how Poles and Ukrainians could have done what they did to Jews overlook the fact that they did the same terrible things to each other. After the war, in Poland, “Jews were not substantially more at risk of losing their lives than Ukrainians and Germans, or Polish oppositionists, for that matter,” Snyder explained. You wouldn’t know that from Gross’ Fear, which describes the epidemic of lynchings that terrorized Jewish survivors who returned to Poland in 1945 (nearly all of them left; many, ironically, for the safety of DP camps in Germany).
Here, Snyder hazards a criticism of Gross, whom he clearly admires. Gross thinks that Jews were and are crucial to Poland’s image of itself, a concealed trauma at the nation’s center. Snyder is not so sure. “I’m not convinced by the post-Holocaust argument that the Jews were always so incredibly central to the Polish imagination,” Snyder told me. Gross, by contrast, writes that “living Jews embodied the massive failure of character and reason on the part of their Polish neighbors”; that is why official newspaper condemnations of the Kielce pogrom of 1946 sparked massive strikes among workers, who protested in favor of the massacres. Here Gross proves more capable than Snyder of interpreting the painful reality of what Poles did to Jews. Gross notes that the Polish intelligentsia, stalwart in its opposition to anti-Semitism, was utterly unable to comprehend the outpouring of anger against Jews, the fact that they were being killed again, so soon after the Germans had left, and with the approval of most Poles. The shocked reactions of Polish intellectuals to the mass killings undermine Snyder’s argument that, when it comes to murder, there may be nothing much to explain.
Snyder never mentions the dismay of many in the Polish underground and the Polish government-in-exile over the moral degradation of their countrymen under German occupation. At the end of 1942 the underground reported that “the popular opinion is nearly united. Everyone is against the cruelty and the injudiciousness with which the Jews are being murdered, but in general they think that ‘the judgment of history against the Jews has arrived.’ In the thoughts of the society there is no sharp protest against what is happening, and no warm sympathy.” When offered a thousand zloty or a bottle of schnapps in exchange for turning in a Jew, many took the bargain; all knew that the Jew was headed for certain death. Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, director of a hospital near Zamosc, wrote in November 1942, “In general some terrible demoralization has taken hold of people with respect to Jews. A psychosis took hold of them and they emulate the Germans in that they don’t see a human being in Jews, only some pernicious animal, which has to be destroyed by all means, like dogs sick with rabies, or rats.” Klukowski bears witness to what the sociologist Thomas Kühne, a specialist on the Holocaust, calls the “creative” aspect of genocide, the thrilled solidarity it spurs in the perpetrators and in onlookers as well. Jan Karski, who urgently alerted the Western allies to the reality of the Nazi death camps, confessed in a despairing mood that the Polish nation largely embraced the Nazi plans for the Jews; this was the “thin bridge,” in his phrase, that united the Poles and their occupiers. (Neither Klukowski nor Karski was Jewish.) Zegota was the branch of the Polish underground dedicated to saving Jews, a band of men and women who put their own lives on the line; they come as close to sainthood as anyone could, or did, in World War II. But even Zegota issued a statement declaring that Jews were the enemies of Poland. In this atmosphere, in which the feeling that Jews were alien intruders was almost universal, genocide did its work.
“Jan has a problem that I don’t have, which is that Jan is Polish,” Snyder told me. “So, Jan is having a discussion with a colleague in Poland who asks, what about the relevance of the Soviet occupation, and Jan says, no matter how relevant it is, does that mean we ‘understand’ that so many people killed Jews? He’s using the word ‘understand’ in a moral way, rather than in a scholarly way. [Gross’ work] is universal in its arguments, but it tends to be national in its ethics.” He paused. “It’s a role that I actually admire,” Snyder added—but one that is only possible for a Pole.
Instead, Snyder proposed, in our interview, a provocative thought-experiment: “If the Soviet Union invaded the United States to the Mississippi, there would be all kinds of explanations about how that was possible, and we would fall prey to something like ‘Judeo-Bolshevism.’ ” He’s probably right, of course: America has never experienced foreign occupation (unless you count the South after the Civil War). If it ever does happen, you could probably expect lynch mobs, conspiracy theories, and the stringing up of internal enemies—and not just on talk radio. But despite Snyder’s effort to ameliorate Polish behavior through counterfactual historical comparison, Gross still makes a convincing case that Poles themselves felt guilty about the deaths of their countrymen and the country’s profit from the wartime genocide. The whole society knew that something was wrong and was terrified to admit it, which is why, after the war, Poles persecuted not only Jews, but also Polish rescuers of Jews, many of whom were afraid to admit what they had done: Instead of heroes, they were seen as traitors.
Often in Bloodlands, Snyder presents deeply moving vignettes of Hitler’s and Stalin’s victims; he quotes their words when, about to die, they tried to sum up their lives. The reader is grateful that Snyder has so lovingly—there is no other word for it—given us the memory of these people. Yet the spectrum of characters in Bloodlands is oddly curtailed; all of the book’s capsule portraits are of victims. For all Snyder’s insistence that he is interested in the role of the perpetrator and the bystander, he finally, like most of us, prefers to commemorate the murdered innocents than to reach “into that darkness” (to quote Gitta Sereny’s title for her book on the Commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl), the place where the murders are planned and carried out and observed with a poisonous mixture of feelings. That Snyder is tactful where he should be daring is proof that diplomacy has its limits.
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