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In Defense of Bloodlands

The Yale historian explains his masterwork and its transnational narrative of the Holocaust

Timothy Snyder
August 03, 2012
Deutsches Bundesarchiv
German tank in Ukraine on June 21, 1941.Deutsches Bundesarchiv
Deutsches Bundesarchiv
German tank in Ukraine on June 21, 1941.Deutsches Bundesarchiv

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.

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.

Timothy Snyder is the Levin Professor of History at Yale University. His latest book is Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary.