21 June 2009

Timothy Snyder: 'Holocaust: The Ignored Reality'

Timothy Snyder's article in the upcoming 16 July New York Review of Books offers nothing less than a corrective to conventional twentieth-century European historiography in under 4,200 words. It will be read for a long time.

Snyder traces, sensitively but authoritatively, signs of 'the difference between history and memory' in twentieth-century Europe. Among other things, he argues that

[t]he emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers of Europeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing to the German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws our attention to the Western European victims of the Nazi empire, the Gulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from the geographical center of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate on Auschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelve years, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi and Soviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe, one defined more or less by today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia...

The geographic, moral, and political center of the Europe of mass killing is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies of atrocity by both regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jews above all but not only, suffered the most, since these lands were both part of the Soviet Union during the terrible 1930s and subject to the worst of the German repressions in the 1940s. If Europe was, as Mark Mazower put it, a dark continent, Ukraine and Belarus were the heart of darkness.

As in his fine The Reconstruction of Nations (Yale, 2003), Snyder shows what a skilled, objective practitioner in comparative history can achieve: critical lessons for our common future.

If there is a general political lesson of the history of mass killing, it is the need to be wary of what might be called privileged development: attempts by states to realize a form of economic expansion that designates victims, that motivates prosperity by mortality. The possibility cannot be excluded that the murder of one group can benefit another, or at least can be seen to do so. That is a version of politics that Europe has in fact witnessed and may witness again.

Another note from this past week: Masha Lipman's column in 19 June's Washington Post confronts what Snyder calls an 'imperialism of martyrdom.'

In the following excerpt she targets the logical cul-de-sac of the stated mandate of the Kremlin's new commission 'to counteract attempts to falsify history that undermine the interests of Russia' (“по противодействию попыткам фальсификации истории в ущерб интересам России"), which we discussed in a post on 13 June:

...[T]he goal of a government commission established last month by President Dmitry Medvedev's decree [is] to oppose attempts to falsify history that damage Russia's interests. This mission shows the potential for interpretation -- and abuse: It implies that genuine historical fact cannot be damaging to Russia's world stature, but also that there's nothing wrong with the distortion of facts if it embellishes the country's image.

The rest of Lipman's column can be read here.

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