Friday, July 12, 2013

Splintered histories: the European killing fields of 1932-1945

Historian Timothy Snyder aims to put sundered histories of mid-20th century Europe back together in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. If we think of that time at all, we might dredge up grainy pictures of Soviet leaders reviewing passing troops on May Day or of Nazi concentration camps. Snyder wants us to understand that the dynamics of regimes' favored utopias in both Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany have meshed to leave Western Europeans and people in the United States with a set of incomplete, splintered stories.

From Bloodlands
To this end, Snyder would have us comprehend, take in and take on, the awful horrors that were perpetrated in the lands fought over by the two colossuses.
The region most touched by both the Nazi and Stalinist regimes was the bloodlands: in today's terms, St. Petersburg and the western rim of the Russian Federation, most of Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus, and Ukraine. This is where the power and the malice of the Nazi and Soviet regimes overlapped and interacted.

The bloodlands are important not only because most of the victims were its inhabitants but also because it was the center of the major policies that killed people from elsewhere. For example, the Germans killed about 5.4 million Jews. Of those, more than four million were natives of the bloodlands: Polish, Soviet, lithuanian, and Latvian Jews. Most of the remainder were Jews from other east European countries. The largest group of Jewish victims from beyond the region, the Hungarian Jews, were killed in the bloodlands, at Auschwitz. If Romania and Czechoslovakia are also considered, then east European Jews account for nearly ninety percent of the victims of the Holocaust. The smaller Jewish populations of western and southern Europe were deported to the bloodlands to die.

Like the Jewish victims, the non-Jewish victims either were native to the bloodlands or were brought there to die. In their prisoner-of-war camps and in Leningrad and other cities, the Germans starved more than four million people to death. Most but not all of the victims of these deliberate starvation policies were natives of the bloodlands; perhaps a million were Soviet citizens from beyond the region.

The victims of Stalin's policies of mass murder lived across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, the largest state in the history of the world. Even so, Stalin's blow fell hardest in the western Soviet borderlands, in the bloodlands. The Soviets starved more than five million people to death during collectivization, most of them in Soviet Ukraine. The Soviets recorded the killing of 681,691 people in the Great Terror of 1937-1938, of whom a disproportionate number were Soviet Poles and Soviet Ukrainian peasants, two groups that inhabited the western Soviet Union, and thus the bloodlands. …
Some awareness of Nazi mass murders, almost all carried out during the war years 1939-45, survives in the west, though Snyder maintains our mental images are inaccurate, incomplete. Mostly, we're far less conscious of Stalin's crimes; these seem very far away in a very foreign place. Snyder's account begins with the intentional famine that collectivization of agriculture brought about in Soviet Ukraine. In the Soviet belief system of the era,
… peasant societies had no right to exist in the modern world.
To defend the world's only socialist country, it was rational and moral to extort from farmers everything they grew in order to accomplish rapid industrialization. Soviet party workers, many Ukrainian themselves, were dispatched methodically to seize Ukrainian peasants' harvests and even their seed grain .
Children born in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s found themselves in a world of death, among helpless parents and hostile authorities. A boy born in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years. … In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine "families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating." Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. …

… People in Ukraine never considered cannibalism to be acceptable. Even at the height of the famine, villagers were outraged to find cannibals in their midst, so much so that they were spontaneously beaten or even burned to death. Most people did not succumb to cannibalism. An orphan was a child who had not been eaten by his parents. … The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected: most of these were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not then have. …
Snyder estimates 5.5 million direct deaths by starvation. While some in the West let their hopes for Soviet socialism blind them to what was happening in the "workers' state," they were particularly likely to disbelieve news of the famine because of who was then trumpeting the story: the newly installed German dictator, Adolf Hitler.
The worst political famine in history seemed like a minor news item compared to the establishment of a new dictatorship in the German capital. … Hitler had used the Ukrainian famine in his election campaign, making the event a matter of furious ideological politics before it was established as historical fact. As he raged against the "Marxists;' Hitler used the starvation in Ukraine as an indictment of Marxism in practice. … With a single word (Marxists) Hitler united the mass death in the Soviet Union with the German social democrats, the bulwark of the Weimar Republic. …
Consolidating and industrializing the most geographically and ethnically diverse empire the world had ever seen was a bumpy project. The Soviet leadership was convinced that everything that went wrong -- and naturally much did -- as evidence of sabotage. Somebody had to pay. In the Great Terror of 1937-38, some three quarters of a million Soviet citizens, again peasants and non-Russian minorities, were methodically charged with chimerical offenses, tortured, and executed by shoots to the head.
In these years of the popular Front, the Soviet killings and deportations went unnoticed in Europe. Insofar as the Great Terror was noticed at all, it was seen only as a matter of show trials and party and army purges. But these events, noticed by specialists and journalists at the time, were not the essence of the Great Terror.

The Great Terror was a third Soviet revolution. Whereas the Bolshevik Revolution had brought a change in political regime after 1917, and collectivization a new economic system after 1930, the Great Terror of 1937-1938 involved a revolution of the mind. Stalin had brought to life his theory that the enemy could be unmasked only by interrogation. His tale of foreign agents and domestic conspiracies was told in torture chambers and written in interrogation protocols. Insofar as Soviet citizens can be said to have participated in the high politics of the late 1930s, it was precisely as instruments of narration. For Stalin's larger story to live on, their own stories sometimes had to end. …

… This third revolution was really a counterrevolution, implicitly acknowledging that Marxism and Leninism had failed. In its fifteen or so years of existence, the Soviet Union had achieved much for those of its citizens who were still alive: as the Great Terror reached its height, for example, state pensions were introduced. Yet some essential assumptions of revolutionary doctrine had been abandoned. Existence, as the Marxists had said, no longer preceded essence. People were guilty not because of their place in a socioeconomic [class] order but because of their ostensible personal identities or cultural connections. Politics was no longer comprehensible in terms of class struggle. If the diaspora ethnicities of the Soviet Union were disloyal, as the case against them went, it was not because they were bound to a previous economic order but because they were supposedly linked to a foreign state by their ethnicity.

The link between loyalty and ethnicity was taken for granted in the Europe of 1938. Hitler was using this very argument, at this very time, to claim that the three million Germans of Czechoslovakia, and the regions they inhabited, must be allowed to join Germany. …
The worst of the Soviet state's mass murders took place before World War II; Hitler's murderous crimes began with the dismemberment of Poland in 1939 in which the Soviets cooperated. Snyder explains the impetus for the Nazi-Soviet (Molotov-Ribbentrop) pact of that year which so distressed Western leftists:
Hitler and Stalin both confronted the two chief inheritances of the British nineteenth century: imperialism as an organizing principle of world politics, and the unbroken power of the British Empire at sea. Hitler, unable to rival the British on the oceans, saw eastern Europe as ripe for a new land empire.The East was not quite a tabula rasa: the Soviet state and all of its works had to be cleared away. But then it would be, as Hitler said in July 1941, a "Garden of Eden."

The British Empire had been a central preoccupation of Stalin's predecessor Lenin, who believed that imperialism artificially sustained capitalism. Stalin's challenge, as Lenin's successor, was to defend the homeland of socialism, the Soviet Union, against a world where both imperialism and capitalism persisted. Stalin had made his concession to the imperialist world well before Hitler came to power: since imperialism continued, socialism would have to be represented not by world revolution but by the Soviet state. After this ideological compromise ("socialism in one country"), Stalin's alliance with Hitler was a detail. After all, when one's country is a fortress of good surrounded by a world of evil, any compromise is justified, and none is worse than any other. …
The immediate losers were the Poles and the Baltic states in which both powers massacred intellectuals, political leaders, and, only sometimes as yet, Jews. Western Europe fell to the Nazi onslaught, but Britain held on. The logic of Hitler's vision led to invading his Soviet ally:
… Hitler intended to use the Soviet Union to solve his British problem, not in its present capacity as an ally but in its future capacity as a colony. … Germans would deport, kill, assimilate, or enslave the native populations, and bring order and prosperity to a humbled frontier. Depending upon the demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million people, mostly Slavs, were to disappear. In one redaction, eighty to eighty-five percent of the Poles, sixty-five percent of the west Ukrainians, seventy-five percent of the Belarusians, and fifty percent of the Czechs were to be eliminated.

… so long as Britain did not fall, Hitler's only relevant vision of empire was the conquest of further territory in eastern Europe. The same held for Hitler's intention to rid Europe of Jews: so long as Britain remained in the war, Jews would have to be eliminated on the European continent, rather than on some distant island such as Madagascar. … if Germany conquered the Soviet Union, it could use Soviet territories as it pleased. Hitler had just ordered preparations for the Soviet invasion when he proclaimed to a large crowd at the Berlin Sportpalast in January 1941 that a world war would mean that "the role ofJewry would be finished in Europe." The Final Solution would not follow the invasion of Britain, plans for which were indefinitely postponed. It would follow the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 941. The first major shooting actions would take place in occupied Soviet Ukraine.
And so the worst era of Nazi mass murders began. Here's Snyder's summary of what German invasion meant in Belarus:
Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). … Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army. … A rough estimate of two million total mortal losses on the territory of present-day Belarus during the Second World War seems reasonable and conservative. More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported a quarter million more people to Poland and tens of thousands more to the Gulag. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.
That's what Snyder means by "bloodlands." The "bloodlands" were as well where most of the "Final Solution," the extermination of European Jews, was carried out.
About 5.4 million Jews died under German occupation. Nearly half of them were murdered east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, usually by bullets, sometimes by gas. The rest perished west of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, usually by gas, sometimes by bullets. East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, a million Jews were killed in the second half of 1941, in the first six months of the German occupation. Another million were killed in 1942. West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, Jews came under German control significantly earlier, but were killed later. …

The mass murder of Polish Jews in the General Government and in Polish lands annexed to Germany was initiated after more than two years of German. occupation, and more than a year after Jews had been consigned to ghettos. These Polish Jews were gassed at six major facilities, four in the General Government and two in the lands annexed to the Reich, functioning in one combination or another from December 1941 through November 1944: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobib6r, Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz. The core of the killing campaign west of the Molotov- Ribbentrop line was Operation Reinhard, the gassing of 1.3 million Polish Jews at Belzec, Sobib6r, and Treblinka in 1942. Its last chapter was Auschwitz, where about two hundred thousand Polish Jews and more than seven hundred thousand other European Jews were gassed, most of them in 1943 and 1944.
After terrible suffering, the Soviet Red Army carried the fight through the bloodlands and into Germany itself, enabling the Allies to redraw the map of Europe and leaving the Soviet Union with a vast area of compliant satellite states where its hegemony lasted until 1989. In the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union during the long Cold War (1948-1989), on both sides understandings of the history of the terrible Stalinist and Nazi period became distorted. In particular, Stalin developed a paranoid fear of surviving European Jews who he viewed as conspiratorial internationalists might break the intellectual wall between western capitalist degeneracy and his socialist republics.
Stalinist anti-Semitism in Moscow, Prague, and Warsaw killed only a handful of people, but it confused the European past. The Holocaust complicated the Stalinist story of the suffering of Soviet citizens as such, and displaced Russians and Slavs as the most victimized of groups. It was the communists and their loyal Slavic (and other) followers who were to be understood as both the victors and the victims of the Second World War. The scheme of Slavic innocence and Western aggression was to be applied to the Cold War as well, even if this meant that Jews, associated with Israel and America in the imperialist Western camp, were to be regarded as the aggressors of history.

So long as communists governed most of Europe, the Holocaust could never be seen for what it was. Precisely because so many millions of non-Jewish east Europeans had indeed been killed on the battlefields, in the Dulags and Stalags, in besieged cities, and in reprisals in the villages and the countryside, the communist emphasis upon non-Jewish suffering always had a historical foundation. Communist leaders, beginning with Stalin and continuing to the end, could rightly say that few people in the West appreciated the role of the Red Army in the defeat of the Wehrmacht, and the suffering that the peoples of eastern Europe endured under German occupation. It took just one modification, the submersion of the Holocaust into a generic account of suffering, to externalize that which had once been so central to eastern Europe, Jewish civilization. During the Cold War, the natural response in the West was to emphasize the enormous suffering that Stalinism had brought to the citizens of the Soviet Union. This, too, was true; but like the Soviet accounts it was not the only truth, or the whole truth. 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.

Like the vast majority of the mass killing of civilians by both the Nazi and the Soviet regimes, the Holocaust took place in the bloodlands. After the war, the traditional homelands of European Jewry lay in the communist world, as did the death factories and the killing fields. By introducing a new kind of anti-Semitism into the world, Stalin made of the Holocaust something less than it was. When an international collective memory of the Holocaust emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, it rested on the experiences of German and west European Jews, minor groups of victims, and on Auschwitz, where only about one in six of the total number of murdered Jews died. Historians and commemorators in western Europe and the United States tended to correct that Stalinist distortion by erring in the other direction, by passing quickly over the nearly five million Jews killed east of Auschwitz, and the nearly five million non-Jews killed by the Nazis. Deprived of its Jewish distinctiveness in the East, and stripped of its geography in the West, the Holocaust never quite became part of European history, even as Europeans and many others came to agree that all should remember the Holocaust.
This long set of quotations doesn't begin to do justice to what Professor Snyder has done in this book. The histories of Nazi Germany by Richard J. Evans about which I've written recently achieve their power through dispassionate piling up of evidence of crimes and barbarism. Snyder is passionate. He weaves particular human stories into a grand narrative. For him, clearly writing the history of mass murder is a necessary moral activity. Much of academia repudiates this kind of engagement. I think it what history ought to be. Let the pedants quibble -- this forces me to think and feel.

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