Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Diplomat of Shoah History

My last post while I’m taking a break…

An article by David Mikics, “The Diplomat of Shoah History,” fits in well with much of my recent reading and I highly recommend it (even with some reservations). In the article Mikics looks at Timoth Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and the question “Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?” It’s obviously a sensitive topic and a leading question.

I have a series of posts on the book and disagree with some of Mikics’ statements while agreeing with parts of his comments on Snyder’s book. In Bloodlands Snyder attempts a balancing act of focusing on the many atrocities committed by Nazi and Soviet regimes, totaling more than fourteen million people killed, while at the same time stressing the uniqueness of each life extinguished. In doing so, Snyder looks at the details of government actions (and how those filtered down to local levels) while also providing many vignettes of victims. What is lacking in the book, or maybe better described as glossed over, is the question of complicity by the locals in these atrocities. Unfortunately Snyder’s attempt for an answer regarding the Holocaust in his interview with Mikics is also less than satisfying.

I disagree with Mikics’ claim that Bloodlands is centrally a book about the Holocaust, nor is it “the inevitable end point” of the book. There’s no doubt it provides a large component in the litany of atrocities committed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes but there is just as much detail on other events before it. Snyder also delves into post-war carnage and terror such as the mass relocations and Stalin’s pogroms. But to boil any discussion of Bloodlands down to solely the Holocaust does the book a disservice (and even Mikics seems to soften this claim as can be seen in one of the quotes below). This doesn't make Mikics' question less important or relevant, though.

In the article there are several references to other books and essays deserving additional reading. As I said, I recommend this article even with my objections, if for no other reason it points to many of the difficult questions addressed in Snyder’s book—some answered, some not. And as Snyder put it in Bloodlands, “In this competition for memory, the Holocaust, the other German mass killing policies, and the Stalinist mass murders became three different histories, even though in historical fact they shared a place and time.” I feel more comfortable saying that Snyder attempts to tie the three histories together, trying to find common ground, while downplaying possible uniqueness. Or as Mikics’ puts it in the article:
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.

Of particular relevance to some of the recent novels I’ve read:

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.

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