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The Last Salvo

Mikics Replies to Snyder

David Mikics
August 03, 2012

Timothy Snyder, in his response to my article published on July 26, remarks that my approach is “precisely the same as that of the nationalists throughout Europe and a fair number of anti-Semites in the United States.” He discounts my argument, suggesting that I chose to pay more attention to Jewish than to non-Jewish victims. Snyder warns against ethnic categories. And yet, he seems eager to put me in one such category—by reducing my argument to the biased statements of a pro-Jewish partisan.

Snyder remarks, “Surely we should attend to the lives of all of the murdered, regardless of how we categorize them.” It is unfair and inaccurate to imply that I think that non-Jewish suffering is less worthy of our attention than Jewish suffering. Indeed, I made exactly this point in my article, which praises Snyder’s deeply humane description of suffering across national lines. Instead, I focused on the well-known statistics that he himself has cited: 90 percent of Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, 96 percent of Lithuanian Jews, and 98.6 percent of Volhynian Jews. It is not surprising that there is more emphasis on the Holocaust than on the losses of non-Jewish Poland, which had about 5 percent of its civilian population killed during the war. I simply do not believe it is an act of ethnic prejudice to see the Holocaust as distinct from the other episodes of mass violence.

Far from trumpeting an ethnic cause, I set out in my original piece to explore whether Snyder succeeds in explaining the Holocaust and the other mass murders on which he focuses in his work. That explanation cannot be delivered without a full account of the collaboration of Eastern Europeans with the Nazis, an account that I asserted Snyder failed to provide. In Bloodlands, his celebrated 2010 book, Snyder fails to mention the many anti-Jewish statements by Polish newspapers and church authorities, along with the descriptions given by individual Poles (as well as Ukrainians, Lithuanians, et. al.) of their own actions. He omits critical comments by Karski, Klukowski, and others about the anti-Semitic mood of Polish society—omissions I believe produce a skewed view of history.

Snyder writes of me that I “profess not to see the connections between the Soviet Union and the Holocaust.” But some of the connections he cites are not causal in any sense (for example, “Soviet Jews were the second-largest victim group in the Holocaust”). Others furnish only a dubious causality. Hitler did not require the example of a Stalin-imposed starvation in order to develop his “Hunger Plan,” which was completely different in its goals. It is certainly true that Hitler needed the cover of war in order to accomplish the Holocaust. But to say this is quite different from implying, as I believe Snyder does, that there was something about the Soviet mass murders that allowed Hitler to murder the Jews. The implication that Nazi violence was to some degree caused by earlier Soviet violence remains vague but central in Snyder’s work, and it is precisely this point that he fails to demonstrate.

It should be possible to describe a society (for instance, wartime Poland) without being falsely pigeonholed as either a slanderer or a defender of it. Such name-calling stands in the way of serious historical explanation. In this, at least, Snyder and I are in agreement.

Earlier: In Defense of Bloodlands, by Timothy Snyder

David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Stanley Kubrick (Yale Jewish Lives). He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.