In Defense of Bloodlands
The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust
One may debate the meaning and significance of these relationships; what one may not do is write the history of the Holocaust without accounting for Soviet factors. Simply expressing confusion about the USSR and then moving on to ethnicity is one hallmark of a conventional national approach. All three historians that Mikics cites against me have, despite what Mikics suggests, considered Soviet factors in their own studies. Mikics expresses puzzlement at the idea that Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Ukrainians in 1933 had any connection to the Holocaust. The connections are many. The fiasco of the Soviet collectivization of agriculture radicalized relations between German socialists and communists, hindering the cooperation that might have prevented Hitler from coming to power; Hitler himself used the famine to scare the German middle classes away from the Left in his election speeches. The Ukrainian breadbasket was central to Hitler’s idea of Lebensraum, which motivated the invasions that brought Jews under German control. The German wartime Hunger Plan involved taking control of the Soviet collective farms and using them to starve Jews and others in the Soviet cities. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they did in fact use the Stalinist collective farms to control food supplies, starving Jews in the first instance. Just as important, the spectacle of Ukrainians starving other Ukrainians in 1933 also helps us to understand the nonethnic motivations of local participation in killing policies, which it behooves us to consider before we follow the ethnic conventions. The tragic thing about collaboration is that it was much more ecumenical than we like to think. When we cordon it off into the familiar national oppositions, we have vastly minimized its significance.
But that criticism about the relationship between the Ukrainian famine and the Holocaust misses an important point: Bloodlands is not only a book about the Holocaust. The 3 million people deliberately starved in Soviet Ukraine (like the million people killed by Stalinist terror, or the 3 million Soviet POWs starved by the Germans) are themselves a legitimate, and indeed crucially important, historical subject. Mikics doesn’t consider, at all, anything that I argue in the book about other German and Soviet crimes; he mentions the non-Jewish dead to dismiss what they might tell us about the Holocaust. Central as the Holocaust must be to any history of European mass killing, it was not the only episode. The subject of Bloodlands is a series of policies of mass killing, of which the Holocaust was the largest in scope and most horrible and the only to target an entire group for extermination. Sometimes earlier policies of mass murder help us to understand the Holocaust; sometimes they do not. Because they sometimes do, Bloodlands offers perspectives on the Holocaust that other studies have not. Of the many books written about the Holocaust, not one had previously sought to account systematically for the 8 million non-Jews killed in the lands where the Holocaust took place during the years Hitler was in power. Surely there is room in the discussion for one such book. And surely we should attend to the lives of all of the murdered, regardless of how we categorize them, and regardless of whether or not their fate helps us to understand the Holocaust. I would venture to say that this universalist approach is not “diplomatic,” in Mikics’ sense; if it were, everyone would be doing it.
Mikics’ chosen theme of diplomacy, is, I fear, not very applicable to me personally. If Bloodlands works as a general history, this is because I didn’t think about how each group might read the book and then adapt my arguments to them. If I had done this, I would have been tied up in knots and unable to write a book that cuts across national assumptions generally, regardless of whose national assumptions they are. If I had written the way Mikics thinks I did, the book would have had no impact and we would not now be discussing it. Mikics assumes that he understands me personally, which is perhaps premature, and then that his understanding of my personal motivations, which is perhaps erroneous, is the key to the book. What Mikics has to say about me personally is misleading. If readers are interested in my actual relations with actual nationalists, they can read my articles on Ukrainian fascists, the neglect of the Lithuanian Holocaust, the Austrian far right, Anders Breivik and Christianity, or, since criticism begins at home, nationalism in the Midwest, the Great Plains, and talk radio.
Yet the emphasis on diplomacy does suggest a certain more fundamental truth about the discussion of Bloodlands. Although Mikics himself skillfully defends a traditional national construction of the book, the remarkable feature of the publication of Bloodlands has been the intellectual breadth of the discussion. The partisan memory debates turn out to be tractable by history. Readers of Bloodlands, Jewish and non-Jewish, here and around the world, have been impressively willing to accept a transnational perspective and strikingly generous in, so to speak, allowing others into their own national histories. That human capacity for the broadening of understanding does require a kind of moral diplomacy, beginning with the capacity to see the perspective of others as important in and of itself, rather than simply a challenge to one’s own perspective. The credit for that is readers’, not mine; but I do feel very privileged to have observed it and am very glad to have the occasion to say so.
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