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The Diplomat of Shoah History

Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?

David Mikics
July 26, 2012
A German soldier with civilians in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv)
A German soldier with civilians in September 1939 during the German invasion of Poland.(Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

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.

‘That Soviet power didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view.’

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.”).

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.

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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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.

David Mikics is Professor of English at New College of Florida. He recently edited The MAD Files: Writers and Cartoonists on the Magazine that Warped America’s Brain, and is also author of Stanley Kubrick.

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