A college student working on a seminar paper about the mechanics of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 sees his father reading “Black Earth” (Tim Duggan/Crown), the Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s new book on the Holocaust, and asks the unaskable question: Do we really need one more book on the Holocaust? The facts are in and clear, he says, while so many other human horrors demand our historical understanding and get so much less: how many new books have been published this year on the Belgian genocide in the Congo? Doesn’t endlessly retelling the story of the murder of the Jews of Europe let us give ourselves the appearance of moral seriousness while immunizing us to the urgencies of actual moral seriousness? Piety is the opposite of compassion, which is better directed toward those who need it now than toward those who were denied it then.
The student turns away in exasperation before his father can reply that Snyder has framed this book in order to respond to that question. It’s why he has given it the subtitle “The Holocaust as History and Warning.” Snyder’s point is that if we really understood what happened in Ukraine in 1941 we would begin to understand what happened in Rwanda in 1994—and might prevent something like it from happening elsewhere next year. He even argues, against the grain of the usual historian’s practice, that there are recurrent patterns in history and that the bad ones can be identified and perhaps undone.
Though Snyder’s goal is to clarify history, he is certain (and here he is like most academic historians) that one can clarify history only by complicating it. As one might expect, an extremely complicated story, formed in the field of Holocaust studies, trails his new effort. His previous book, “Bloodlands,” was an effort to historicize the Holocaust—to remove it from the stock black-and-white imagery, accompanied by minor-key cello music, in which it had come to reside, at least within the popular imagination. In particular, he sought to re-center our attention on the “forgotten” Holocaust, on the reality that at least as many Jews were killed in mass actions in Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, and the Baltic states as were dispatched in the death factories of Birkenau and Treblinka. Soldiers machine-gunning people on the edge of a pit that they’d dug themselves and that already held the bodies of their families—that was the true image of the Holocaust, more so than trains running on time to industrialized gassings and burnings. Auschwitz, in this view, is, to put it brutally, almost a tourist trap for historians. What distinguished the horror from other horrors was not lists on graph paper and bureaucratic requisitions for Zyklon B gas. It was a soldier writing home to his wife about killing Jewish babies in Belarus: “During the first try, my hand trembled a bit as I shot, but one gets used to it. By the tenth try I aimed calmly and shot surely at the many women, children, and infants. . . . Infants flew in great arcs through the air, and we shot them to pieces in flight.”
Historicizing anything risks diminishing it—history, after all, is what used to happen—and critics complained that Snyder, by robbing the horror of its industrial modernity, had made it a folkloric and merely regional tragedy. Worse, they complained, by blending the crimes of the war with Soviet crimes that began in the thirties—the Ukrainian famine, for instance—he was explaining away the enthusiastic participation in the mass killing of Jews by the locals, Ukrainians and Poles in particular. Instead of seeing crazed German fanatics who communicated their pathogen to hardened Jew-haters, he asked us to see what happened in the forties as a blind scything through a harsh landscape, ignorant armies clashing by night and killing millions in the darkness, a scene from Bosch more than from Kafka. “Mass violence of a sort never before seen in history was visited upon this region,” he wrote in “Bloodlands.” “The victims were chiefly Jews, Belarusans, Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, and Balts, the peoples native to these lands.” By making the massacres part of a geographic tragedy of invasion and counterinvasion, and of victimized native populations who suffered in various ways along with the Jews, Snyder could be accused of playing down the role of ideological and indigenous anti-Semitism. “The gesture of a finger across the throat, remembered with loathing by a few Jewish survivors,” Snyder wrote with great delicacy, “was meant to communicate to the Jews that they were going to die—though not necessarily that the Poles wished this upon them.” It is certainly not the way that Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” represents the gesture. Elsewhere, Snyder wrote that the “victims of Auschwitz were more likely to be bourgeois and thus suitable targets of comfortable identification,” although “comfortable” is surely the last feeling anyone reading about their suffering would ever have. By treating Slavs, Balts, and Jews all as victims together, his critics claim, he was obscuring a tragic core truth. Slavs and Balts died along with Jews, but Slavs and Balts killed Jews as well, in a way that Jews did not kill Slavs and Balts.
Snyder maintains that too much emphasis has been placed on the ferocity of indigenous anti-Semitism; that it was instead the destruction of Eastern European states by the Nazis, and then the skillful “political” exploitation of their wretched recent history, which made their lands into killing grounds and a small number of their people into executioners. Without the state apparatus that had long accepted, however grudgingly, ethnic coexistence, and with the murder of Jews made into a sign of renunciation of “Judeobolshevism,” intolerable pressure was placed on the native population. He points out that, while the Jews of Estonia died almost to a man, the Jews of Denmark largely survived, and that this was not because Estonians hated Jews and Danes did not but because the Estonian state—though it had had only the briefest of existences before—was destroyed, and the Danish one left mostly intact.
Snyder’s new book is meant, in part, to respond to the criticisms of “Bloodlands,” and a reader familiar with the controversies will note in the text more sublimated anger than might at first appear. Angry authors, even when their books are not explicit replies, end up incorporating unsent responses into the web of the text, where the angry red threads stand out. If the complaint about “Bloodlands” was that Snyder made the Holocaust a local event, this book is meant to universalize it again, with the understanding that what is universal in human experience is what is local and political.
Why do we need any new books on the extermination of the Jews? The Shoah, it seems, has come to be read for portents and interpretation as much as for history itself. Yet one reason that the small scholarly details matter is that they provide an arsenal for whatever argument you want to make about the present. If you believe that the mass extermination of the Jews was already implicit in the orders given for the June, 1941 invasion of Russia, then you are likely to see it as proceeding according to a long-standing fixed plan of Hitler’s; if you believe that the Final Solution, properly so called, was a panicky, confused improvisation arrived at in December, 1941, after the German failure at Moscow and the Russian counterattack, then you will probably see it as a response made by a mostly disordered and dysfunctional evil. If June, you are likely to believe that bad people do what they say they will; if December, you believe that the worst things happen when bad people get cornered by their own bad behavior. How you feel about things as seemingly remote as Iranian deals and Putin’s aggressions is shaped by—or shapes—your judgment of the historical micro-details.
More broadly, if you believe, with Snyder, that the Second World War was really about subject peoples robbed of their states and their identity at a moment of environmental crisis and pitted against one another by a brutal colonialism, you are likely to see in Rwanda a similar kind of tragedy, as Snyder does—and you are likely to be sympathetic, as Snyder is, to protecting small-state identities and encouraging their nationalisms. If, with the Israeli historian Alon Confino, whose recent “A World Without Jews” is written in quiet opposition to Snyder’s views, you see in the Shoah the vengeance of atavistic tribalism on liberal modernity, you are likely to worry about all incantations of authenticity. Far from being sympathetic to revived nationalisms as bulwarks of the oppressed, you are likely to be suspicious of them (possibly even extending to the renascent Jewish kind).
Snyder begins the new book with an unorthodox and provocative account of Hitler’s thinking. He stresses two arresting elements: Hitler’s skepticism about using agricultural science for increased food production and (usefully discomfiting for an American readership) his dependence on an American model of development. Hitler, Snyder tells us, was obsessed with the question of growing enough grain to feed the German population and, for various crackpot reasons, didn’t believe that modern agronomy could make it happen on native soil. He saw himself doing in Eastern Europe, and in Ukraine especially, what Americans had done in the Great Plains: extinguish or exile the natives while taking over the land to feed the metropolis. Lebensraum meant “living space,” but in a different sense from the way we normally understand it: a place to grow grain rather than a place to put Germans.
Snyder’s Hitler was not exactly convinced that the Germans were a superior race. He was convinced that they might become a superior race, given their bloodlines and their numbers, but they would have to prove it in competition with other races on the world stage. Startling as it is, this view explains many aspects of Hitler’s character: his physical distance from the ideal he espoused (they aren’t like me, but I will midwife a superior race that I do not belong to); his unappeasable appetite for war; his rage at his compatriots for losing his war; his readiness, at the end, to see German land destroyed, German cities burned, German women raped—his manifest desire for a bonfire of the Germans. He had given them every chance to show themselves a superior race, and, since they had failed the test of history, they must suffer the consequences.
Snyder’s Hitler is no doubt made more neatly uniform in purpose than he really was. Revolutionary ideas tend to be rigorous: if you are plotting a socialist utopia, a blueprint, however unreal, is called for. Reactionary ideas, forged in rage, tend to be emotive and incoherent. We miss their appeal if we search them for regularities they don’t possess. It takes a purpose to illuminate a plan; it takes only one high passion to set fire to many more.
As Snyder moves toward the specifics of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in 1941, he reveals again that, while no apologist for the indigenous murderers, he is, certainly, a partisan of the peoples of Eastern Europe. He hates the way that the Ukrainians, the Latvians, and the Poles have been made into peasant demons, with Western sages nodding and saying, well, the Nazis “unleashed the old hatreds.” He writes:
It is tempting to imagine that a simple idea in the minds of simple people decades past and thousands of miles away can explain a complex event. The notion that local east European antisemitism killed the Jews of eastern Europe confers upon others a sense of superiority akin to that the Nazis once felt. These people are quite primitive, we can allow ourselves to think. Not only does this account fail as an explanation of the Holocaust; its racism prevents us from considering the possibility that not only Germans and Jews but also local peoples were individual human agents with complex goals that were reflected in politics.
Ukrainians may have massacred their Jewish neighbors. But this was not because the Ukrainians had always hated Jews; it was because the famine of the thirties had led the Ukrainian people to fear Soviet power, and the Nazi invocation of Judeobolshevism as the cause of their miseries provided a pat and plausible enemy. (The Soviet administration did employ Jews “disproportionately to their numbers,” Snyder observes, although most Soviet collaborators weren’t Jewish.) Some did terrible things, but they did them out of political desperation and misrouted nationalism, not enduring hate.
Snyder’s regular invocation of “politics” is meant to illuminate this devil’s dance of impossibilities. The local Slavs or Baltic peoples, having previously collaborated with the Communists, could reclaim their national inheritance by murdering Jews, and cleansing themselves of the stain of collaboration. Neat trick. By supplanting “ancient hatreds” with contemporary politics, Snyder wants to situate the massacres within the specific logic of a time and place. Ukrainians and Polish Catholics don’t just hate Jews and kill them any chance they get. You have to put them in extremis first. The local populations got caught up in the killing because it was the prudent thing to do, given the context of the occupation.
Yet if the concept of “politics” is to be explanatory it should show how power gets dispersed and rebalanced among contending groups. Politics is how people adjust to one another’s needs and potential for violence. In the circumstance where one party has all the power, though, the invocation of politics seems unhelpful. The politics of a slaughterhouse is not really politics, at least not to the pigs; it is just a division of the labor. To coöperate or not is a political choice, made every day in prisons; to obey or die is not.
The real end of Snyder’s relentless invocation of “politics” is, one comes to feel, not without its politics. Snyder does not want the Putinists of 2015 to be able to discredit Ukrainian nationalism by pointing to Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust: he wants to make it clear that the Ukrainian nationalists were, in the hackneyed phrase, “victims, too.” But they were victims of a peculiar kind, and one can cheer their emancipation today without looking past their history. Snyder asks us not to blame the Lithuanians and the Latvians for what they did to the Jews without first blaming the Soviets for what they did to the Lithuanians and the Latvians. Surely one can blame all the evil actors without having to take sides with any. Going state by state and people by people through the Stalinist and Nazi destruction of local authority in all the occupied smaller nations, Snyder certainly shows that those local populations, whether Poles or Latvians or Ukrainians, could not be instantaneously motivated to rise up and murder Jews; they could only be very quickly motivated to do it. He seems to find more consolation in this distinction than it may possess.
What would be the opposite of Snyder’s view? First, that the “bloodlands” was not a geopolitical ground that generated its own events. The worst of the killings happened there, certainly, but there is no discernible difference in Nazi or, for that matter, Soviet behavior elsewhere. An entire village was murdered in central France, Jews were slaughtered en masse on the banks of the Danube. Numbers alone, not actions, made the bloodlands as bloody as they were. Snyder emphasizes that, where the state was destroyed, the Nazis got at their victims more easily. It’s certainly true that, the wider the moat, the harder it is for the tiger to get at its victims. In France, recently arrived eastern Jews, without friends or history, were easier to get at and deport than native French ones. But plenty of those went to the ovens, too. Picasso’s intimate friend, the poet and Catholic convert Max Jacob, an ornament of French culture and as French as any man could be, died on his way to Auschwitz, and his brother and sister were gassed on their arrival. The tiger’s appetite, not the width of the moat, is still the story. Denmark, the seeming counter-example, was the site of a relatively benign occupation, in Nazi terms, but the benignity was influenced by a sense of racial affinity, the vast irrational forces of racial hallucination seeming as powerful as the local political forces.
Snyder is admirably relentless in making the reader feel the horror of the Soviet mass killings, without waving them away or moving them to the margins. We meet, or, rather, shudder to have heard of, Vasily Blokhin, the N.K.V.D. executioner—hard to credit as a real person and not an Ian Fleming invention—who in one night could murder two hundred and fifty Polish military officers. This is not being even-handed. It is being clear-eyed. But if Snyder’s thesis is that, without the previous ten years of Soviet brutality, the peoples of the “bloodlands” would not have been complicit in the Nazi nightmare, then one would want more evidence—a correlation between Soviet brutality and genocidal eagerness, a direct relation between the two, something—to make the correspondence more robust. In Hungary, the Arrow Cross killed with mad vengeance, and the Béla Kun Communist period was far in the past. Vichy passed anti-Jewish laws, and hastened its Jews toward Drancy almost before they were asked for, and in France the Soviets were only a spectre.
Snyder is certainly aware of all this, and thinks that his account explains it: “Where Germans obliterated conventional states, or annihilated Soviet institutions that had just destroyed conventional states, they created the abyss where racism and politics pulled together towards nothingness.” But another view would see the obliteration as the auxiliary act and the abyss as the central moral landscape. Politics and procedures obviously enabled the killings; we owe Snyder a debt for his realism about this. But the desire to maim and murder had its roots in a disease of the mind so powerful and passionate that to call it political or procedural hardly seems to capture its nature, or its prevalence.
The explanation of the human appetite for mass murder obviously does not lie in the peasant simplicity of the Eastern Europeans. (Is there a single historian or journalist who holds this view?) But it does seem to lie in the enduring power of old hatreds, and our capacity for turning group hatred into massacre, given opportune circumstance. Just as we can’t pretend that Stalinist crimes were unrelated to absolutist Enlightenment habits of mind in which class enemies easily become nonpersons, we can’t pretend that the Hitlerian crimes can be released from an anti-Semitism deeply rooted in European Christianity. The great and sympathetic historian of Christianity Diarmaid MacCulloch writes that it is still “necessary to remind Christians of the centuries-old heritage of anti-Semitism festering in the memories of countless ordinary twentieth-century Christians on the eve of the Nazi takeover. In the 1940’s, this poison led not just Christian Germans, but Christian Lithuanians, Poles and many others gleefully to perpetrate bestial cruelties on helpless Jews who had done them no harm.”
And anti-Semitism was surely different in kind from the other ethnic hatreds of the time and place. The Jew was doubly evil, as both an agent of modernity and the possessor of an occult mystery. Jews were cosmopolitans, bankers, merchants, middlemen; the same family passed at will, from day to day, as German, French, or Russian. Jews were also possessors of an ancient text, a secret language, a lore kept hidden and unavailable; they welcomed no converts, teaching their ancient language reluctantly. This compound suspicion helped make anti-Semitism so virulent. It was, as Confino shows, reflected in the sadistic Jewish parades in which, in the thirties, helpless Jews were forced to participate: the Torah was burned, with the enthusiastic participation of German Christians.
Postwar people who fastened onto the story of Anne Frank, as has been observed before, were not in any sense sentimental to do so. That a modern state would send the police out to entrap a fifteen-year-old girl and then send her across Europe to her death because she was a Jew was an evil genuinely new in the world in a way that horrific massacres (and counter-massacres) were not. For that matter, when Martin Amis returned to the question of Auschwitz in last year’s novel “The Zone of Interest,” it was because he knows that it represented something genuinely new in the practice of evil: an institution set up with all the normal domestic appurtenances of middle-class life whose essential purpose is the mass murder of human beings.
Snyder offers his own view of the right lessons to draw in a final chapter of “Black Earth,” ambitiously called “Conclusion: Our World.” The college student’s Rwanda arrives here rapidly: just as Hitler’s world view derived from his bizarre response to an ecological crisis—the threat to a Germany deprived of land for growing grain—what happened in Rwanda happened, in part, because of the exhaustion of arable land. Africa, in Snyder’s view, may become the world’s new bloodlands, where ecological crisis is capped by mass slaughter and where ethnic explanations of killings (those Hutus always hated the Tutsis) conceal the political manipulation of power.
Surely Snyder is right when he implies that the well-meant “Godwin’s law,” which, beginning as an observation about Internet arguments, has come to be shorthand for the rule that the Nazis should never be introduced into ordinary political arguments, is miscast. In fact, we should keep the image of the Germans and the Nazis in front of us—not to show how close the people on the other side of an argument are to unutterable evil but to remind ourselves that we, too, can become that close in a shorter time than we like to think. In a period of fear and panic, it is the easiest thing in the world to talk ourselves into the idea that bad things we do are necessities of human nature. The Germans listened to Mozart and Beethoven and then murdered children, and this was not a cognitive dislocation from which we couldn’t suffer but the eternal rationale offered by the terrified: we can’t protect what really matters if we don’t do things that we wish we didn’t have to.
War makes ordinary people do horrible things. If there is a point that perhaps Snyder does not underline enough—it comes through vividly in Antony Beevor’s books on the Battle of Stalingrad and other campaigns—it is that the Germans who killed were dying, too, in increasingly vast numbers and in cold and fear of their own. Wars make atrocities happen. Americans have still not come to terms with My Lai, a Vietnam atrocity not unlike the acts of the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front, though thankfully more isolated. To engage in political or procedural or even geographic explanations of these histories misses their history. Once panic sets in, for an army or an occupier, then the persecution—indeed, the slaughter—of the population seems a necessity for survival. Frightened soldiers in foreign lands murder the locals without mercy or purpose. One wishes that this happened rarely. In truth, it happens all the time.
Yet another truth also rises here. Hitler ruled for twelve years. The worst of the horrors occurred during four of them. Stalin’s reign was twenty-five-odd years. Hell on earth is possible to make but is hard to go on making. The human appetite for social peace, if not for social justice, eventually asserts itself. This is of no comfort to the victims. But it should be of some comfort to the survivors, their inheritors, and us. Those who think that the horrors of the nineteen-thirties and forties were eclipses of the sun, rather than an eternal darkness of the earth, are invariably mocked as Panglossian. But Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s fatuously optimistic philosopher, is an unfairly reviled man. The Enlightenment philosophers who insisted that the world could be improved were right. Voltaire was one of them. The mistake was to think that, once improved, it couldn’t get worse again. Voltaire’s point was not that optimism about mankind’s fate is false. It was that, in the face of a Heaven known to be decidedly unbenevolent, it takes unrelenting, thankless, and mostly ill-rewarded work to cultivate happiness here on earth, no matter what color the soil. That was the lesson Dr. Pangloss and his students had yet to learn. ♦
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