In Defense of Bloodlands
The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust
Bloodlands is a history of the greatest moral and demographic calamity in modern Western history, the deliberate mass murder of 14 million human beings between Berlin and Moscow by the Nazi and Soviet regimes between 1933 and 1945, from the deliberate famine in Soviet Ukraine through the Holocaust of the European Jews. The essential point about its reception is this: Because this is transnational history, considering multiple regimes, states, atrocities, and peoples, it is uncomfortable to the national histories that most of us take for granted. While most readers and reviewers have accepted the emotional and intellectual challenge, others, such as David Mikics recently in Tablet magazine, have defended national history, some in more and some in less interesting ways.
As I say in the introduction to the book, national history has preserved knowledge about the Holocaust and other crimes, often intelligently and courageously. Where it is worrisome is in its methodological exclusivity, the assumption that all approaches to history must either be reduced to the national or ignored. The way national history defends itself against transnational history is to deny that transnational history is possible. Since a transnational history such as Bloodlands is uncomfortable to one national history, goes the national reasoning, it must therefore be comfortable to another national history. The author of a transnational history must be, despite appearances, serving some group or another. In the version proffered by Mikics, since what I argue about the Holocaust does not fit with his sense of how it happened, it must be serving a history of non-Jewish East Europeans. This is false: Everyone is uncomfortable. The perniciousness of such arguments is that they assume that history is always just a competition of national narratives and that the task of reviewers is to deconstruct history books along political lines. This national displacement returns everyone to the comfort zone of traditional thinking, reducing scholarly work to conventional emotions. Mikics’ approach is precisely the same as that of nationalists throughout Europe and a fair number of anti-Semites in the United States. They of course think that my “diplomacy” serves the Jews. But the logical error is just the same. Transnational history is not “diplomatic” cover for someone else’s story. It is a way of researching and reasoning that just might help us, among many other things, to understand the Holocaust.
Bloodlands is different from other books about the Holocaust because it begins from the place where most European Jews lived and where the entirety of the Holocaust took place. Because Bloodlands (among many other works) has shifted the focus of the Holocaust to Eastern Europe, it has forced open the question of East European collaboration in a way that the traditional Auschwitz-centered view logically could not and did not. In the United States, Jan Gross began this process more than a decade ago; he wrote about one case, which we now know was one of about 200, of non-Jewish neighbors killing Jews as German occupation succeeded Soviet occupation in summer 1941. Because I can benefit from the explosion of study that has followed Gross’ crucial work, I wrote about the 200 cases. But even this is only the beginning of the history of local collaboration, which is much more important in the mass shootings of Jews that the Germans then organized, which led to about half of the fatalities of the Holocaust. The eastern focus, incidentally, is why I get hate mail from Holocaust deniers: Once the Holocaust is understood as having taken place at thousands of death pits as well as at the death factories, as it now is in some measure thanks to Bloodlands, it becomes even harder to deny.
Mikics cites Christian Dieckmann and Jan Grabowski, about whom he learned from me, on the importance of local participation in the killing. Neither of their recent major studies had appeared when I wrote Bloodlands, neither has yet appeared in English, and insofar as these books are known in the United States, this is in some small measure because I discuss and review them. I see the question of local collaboration as causally significant to the Holocaust and to other policies of mass killings and of course as morally central to contemporary discussions of national identity; unlike Mikics, however, I distinguish between postwar memory and the wartime causes of the Holocaust. Mikics is right that the Holocaust fundamentally altered (in his important example) Polish-Jewish relations; I devoted much of a chapter of the book and other publications to this subject, as he doesn’t say. What is not true is that one can deduce the causes of the Holocaust from the traumatic discussions of national memory, which by their nature include only national and exclude all other factors, and even among national factors privilege only the most personally familiar. Discussions of collaboration beg the question: collaboration with what? The Final Solution was a German policy, and so an explanation must begin with the German aspiration to eliminate all Jews under German control, even if it also must include the participation of Lithuanians, Latvians, Poles, Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians, and must discuss the Jewish police and Jewish councils. These are parts of the story of the German racial empire, in some cases crucial parts; but the explanation must begin with Germany. Thus chapters four, five, and six of Bloodlands, the existence of which Mikics, oddly, denies.
There is, of course, plenty of room for disagreement about causes; here Mikics is quite right, and he is drawing attention to very important thinkers and scholars. What we must not do, as we consider causes, is to dismiss out of hand the ones that do not match our ethnic presuppositions. Mikics professes not to see the connections between the Soviet Union and the Holocaust. Readers of Bloodlands will remember eight: 1) Germany and the Soviet Union both focused their (quite different) plans for colonial modernization on the East European homelands of the Jews; 2) Germany could not have carried out a Holocaust without a war in Eastern Europe, and the USSR allied with Germany in 1939 to begin the war that brought, for the first time, millions of Jews under German control; 3) the Holocaust began in 1941 after Germany betrayed its Soviet ally and invaded it in a “war of extermination” that spuriously conflated the Soviet state with Jewish power; 4) the mass killing of Jews began on territories such as doubly occupied Lithuania and doubly occupied eastern Poland where statehood and the rule of law had already been destroyed by the prior Soviet invasion; 5) the vast majority of the direct collaborators in the shooting of Jews, and of the early death-camp guards, had been Soviet citizens; 6) many of the collaborators in the Holocaust had previously collaborated in Soviet repressions; 7) the entirety of the Holocaust took place on lands touched during the war by Soviet power; 8) Soviet Jews were the second-largest victim group in the Holocaust, after Polish Jews.
When did the Queen of England, star of the Olympic opening ceremony, become a Jewish grandmother?