15 October 2010

Echoes of the East in the West

The publication of eminent historian Timothy Snyder's new book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is surely a memory event of major implications, scholarly and politically, for today's eastern and western Europe alike. Shifting its focus away from the West-centric lens through which the history of World War II has traditionally been written, this book makes Eastern Europe its analytical centre of gravity as the actual geographic, moral, and political pivot of one of the most atrocious aspects of WWII – the mass killings of European civilians.

Through studying the experience of today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states' consecutive subjugation to the rule and atrocities of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, Snyder's work has already invigorated many old horses of the debate about their comparability and moral equivalence. A recent sequence of articles on the theme published in the Guardian confirms that the origins of WWII, the relative blame of the Soviet Union for the outbreak of the war, and the 'permissible' empirical substantiations of the notion of 'genocide' in the context of the 20th-century Europe remain among the most divisive bones of contestation among the scholars and memory warriors of different leanings.

What Snyder depicts as an attempt to balance the books of the history of WWII in order to further a sense of common European history on the grounds of more empathic solidarity with East European experiences of the war, appears to his critics as a dangerous attempt to blur the moral responsibility of Nazi Germany by allegedly relativising the uniqueness of the Jewish Holocaust and lending scholarly legitimacy to the political claims of 'Baltic ultra-nationalists'. Emphasising how the interaction between Nazi Germany and Soviet Union mutually enabled their respective genocidal policies in Eastern Europe, Snyder firmly refutes reserving the moral interrogation of the war exclusively for the Holocaust, and sticks to his guns by stressing that for the first two years of the war, 'Stalin was Nazi collaborator number one'.
The kindling debate on Yale historian's latest book is concurrently a vivid reminder how scholarship is still often taken to be just another version of politics, if in disguise, in the comparative analysis of the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The author of Bloodlands can hardly help, no matter his original intentions, if the interested readers on different fronts of the ongoing memory war over the meaning and legacy of WWII will use his core arguments as a sword or shield in pursuing their respective - and controversial - mnemopolitical agendas.

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