Diminishing the Holocaust or Expanding Attention and Empathy to a Wider Array of Victims?

According to the journalist Charles Lewis who wrote in The National Post in January 2011, Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands, a new history of mass murder during the 1930s and 1940s under Nazism and communism, said that, after he finished the book, he wanted to “crawl into a cave and hide.” The only “lesson” he learned was a hopeless one: Anyone can be the victim or the perpetrator of barbarism.

But this it seems is also one of the key problems of Bloodlands, which attributes victimization largely to geographic location, to being caught between competing totalitarian states and to being occupied and reoccupied. It diminishes the Nazi Holocaust even while exploring it specifically in great detail, at one and the same time anchoring the Holocaust and merging it into a sea of killing of other peoples throughout the borderlands. It also omits any serious attention to the ideology and sentiment that drove the mass murders.

Adam Muller thinks he knows why. “All this [killing], according to Snyder, was the byproduct of the convergence of two massively destructive and highly mobile and vindictive totalitarian forces: Soviet Stalinism in the East and German Nazism in the West. More specifically,

“Snyder’s thesis is that it was in the Bloodlands that these forces met and interacted in ways that became mutually self-reinforcing, always at the expense of indigenous populations whose suffering continues to remain under-acknowledged in the historical literature, particularly in the West. Accordingly, Snyder feels that it is important to displace the Holocaust, and especially concentration camps like Auschwitz, as the primary signifiers of twentieth-century genocidal mass murder, since privileging them unhelpfully restricts our awareness of the scale of the damage done to the people and places under Nazi and Soviet occupation. For example, over a million Jews were shot to death in the forests of Eastern Europe, almost forty thousand in two days at Babi Yar in Ukraine alone. Nearly three million more were killed on arrival at extermination centers such as Bełżec, Sobibór, Majdanek, and Treblinka, these death factories not to be confused with concentration camps which actually housed many inmates for varying periods of time, however inadequately. More than this, for Snyder the Holocaust is typically framed by exceptionalist language which serves to disconnect its particulars from larger historical and ideological currents, thus insulating its victims from others experiencing versions of the same horrors, for the same reasons, who remain no less entitled to our moral regard….”

Adan Muller thinks: “Notwithstanding the criticism of historian Richard Evans that he fails to acknowledge the singularity of the Holocaust, and to some extent notwithstanding his stated desire to do precisely this, I find ample evidence in Bloodlands of Snyder acknowledging the exceptional character of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews. [In interviews and in print, Snyder says the same, he accepts the "singularity" of the Holocaust.]The main achievement of Snyder’s history lies in its explicit demand for recognition of the suffering of those [who were] not directly caught up in the Holocaust but who found themselves nevertheless implicated in, and destroyed by, the same matrix of forces which gave rise to it.”

Richard Evans, on the contrary, thinks differently. Evans castigates Snyder sharply for failing to draw a clear enough distinction between the Holocaust and the concurrent genocides, distracting from what was unique. Snyder writes:

“That uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of its ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them. SS men and not infrequently ordinary soldiers as well set light to the beards of Orthodox Jews in Poland and forced them to perform gymnastic exercises in public until they dropped; they made Jewish girls clean public latrines with their blouses; they performed many other acts of ritual humiliation that they did not force on their Slav prisoners, however badly they treated them in other ways. The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”

About Ken Waltzer

Ken Waltzer grew up in New York City and attended Harpur College of the State University of New York and Harvard University as a Graduate Prize Fellow. He has helped build James Madison College, Michigan State University's highly reputed residential college in public affairs and currently serves as director of Jewish Studies at MSU. In 2011-2012, he is the Winegarden Visiting Professor at UM-Flint.
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One Response to Diminishing the Holocaust or Expanding Attention and Empathy to a Wider Array of Victims?

  1. Teddy says:

    I’m reflecting on our seminar session last night, 3/6, and thinking along these lines . . .
    Given the multi-decade pattern of the intentionalist/functionalist (I/F) debates that now have coalesced into a mid-position, I’d guess that Tim Snyder sets in motion a similar period of debate; the ensuing discussion will rectify the “flattening” of the Holocaust.
    My experience is that the insights of the I/F have brought essential understanding for the teaching of the Holocaust: Hitler’s abiding, paranoid antisemitism and the polycratic Nazi state are just two examples. Much is nearly incomprehensible for students without the I/F contributions. Its era now passing, it remains essential to explain the two trajectories to students to help them find their way in their own research and study in a Holocaust course.
    Now comes “Bloodlands” and not as an “answer” in itself, but a reminder of the distinctiveness of the two utopian, totalitarian regimes and the distinctiveness of the region which one sought to colonize and the other sought to reclaim. Perhaps not a completely new optic, but an unrecognized facet of a multi-faceted history. “Bloodlands” reads one way for a reader steeped in Holocaust studies, and perhaps another for a reader new to the field. Snyder does not bring that much new to Holocaust studies (Dan Stone, the Oxford Handbook have much more).

    But here’s what interests me: the Nazi colonists embraced autarchy; the borderlands (“kresy” in Polish) brought food and lebensraum not for the the 1930-45 German population, but for the population that Hitler estimated would become about 260 million (Nazi “Aryan” birth programs). In the meantime, foodstuffs from the East were shipped west to keep the German civilian population content (Aly). In relation to the Soviets, trying to regain imperial territory negotiated away by Trotsky (to fulfil the Bolshevik “peace/land/bread promise), master lands traditionally open to Polish influence, and bind territories educationally, economically, strategically valuable (Baltic states, Ukraine with Odessa)—the big loser was the middle region: Belorussia/Belarus (today the only state tightly bound to Russia—heavily re-populated by Russians and with oil refineries). Czeslaw Milosz wrote that in the kresy when asked who they were, peasants typically simply said “tutajszy” — we are those who live here. Relics of a medieval social/political arrangement where rulers were distant, often irrelevant, later peripheries of imperial centers. Lack of 19th century political definition made this area uniquely vulnerable. Ukraine’s national identity was only traceable to the 17th century. The more thorny “problem” of Poland had been solved since 1772; in 1939 a simpler carving up occurred, and in 1945 Poland was just moved west (along with huge population expulsions).
    Holocaust historians know vast amounts about the Third Reich; Russian historians since the 1990s have more and more available. It’s time for the middle and that’s where Snyder went.
    I do have a bone to pick with him about the claim that the Holocaust was not “modern” because its instruments (railroads, Zykon B, barbed wire) were not “new.” But that’s another post.
    Teddy

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