Thursday, June 23, 2011

European Horrors

It must be exceedingly difficult to write a book on the genocides perpetrated by Hitler and Stalin, genocides in which the Holocaust has a part, but genocides which are different and independent from it. The historian- writer must honour the Holocaust, but must include or exclude its importance as the material demands. A tough job for even the best.

James Kirchuk has reviewed a book that he believes has done this successfully. In "The Butchery of Hitler and Stalin," Kirchuk reviews Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. 

Snyder’s aim is to place the Holocaust within the context of this era of mass killing. He does so by focusing on the region he terms the “bloodlands,” the territories that fell under both German and Soviet occupation between 1933 and 1945 and were the main theaters of those regimes’ policies of non-combat-related mass murder. The era of the bloodlands commences with the Ukrainian famine, is followed by Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937–1938, continues with the combined German and Soviet mass murder of Poles during the short-lived period of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the German starvation of Soviet citizens across present-day Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and ends with the German “reprisal” killings of Belarusians and Poles. All told, some fourteen million people are estimated to have died as a result of these atrocities...

This map is earlier than the time in question, but shows clearly the "bloodlands" encompassing Poland and the Ukraine.
According to Kirchuk, Snyder avoids rhetorical moves that writers, politicians, revisionists, and Holocaust "diminishers" have and do employ.

First, is the argument people use when they want to diminish the severity, occurrence, and seriousness of a problem. It goes something like this: Women should not campaign for an end to domestic abuse, because some husbands are abused as well; Canadian-Japanese should forget about apology and reparation because homeless men in Saskatchewan were conscripted and sent overseas during WWII and no one is asking for the same for them (this is almost verbatim as I heard it). With the Holocaust, the argument is often similar: other peoples were massacred in huge numbers, so the Holocaust doesn't deserve so much discussion. But severe social problems and atrocities don't cancel each other out; they are all deserving of humanity's attention.

The other rhetorical move is much more widespread and subtle (and much harder to argue against!).
Kirchick quotes Snyder:
Without diminishing the enormity of the Holocaust, Snyder dissents from those writers who argue that it is its very enormity that renders it inexplicable. “To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap,” he writes.
As I read this, I am reminded of other tragic, albeit far less enormous, events that humanity has dealt with and processed. The Montreal Massacre in1989; the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, and the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, - in addition to all the serial killings, child kidnappings, and anything else that seems beyond what we can endure.

At the time of the Montreal Massacre, there was much debate about the nature of such killers and woman-haters as Marc Lepine. Some saw him as a monster and mutant, a crazy person who had no relation to other normal human beings. Some saw him as extreme, but still on the continuum of human behaviour, a product of misogynistic attitudes in the general population.

As much as we may not like it, to see these people as monsters beyond humanity is to push away scrutiny of deep social problems and hatred of the other. I believe that when we put the perpetrators of such enormous and awful deeds "beyond human concern or historical understanding," we extinguish any hope for an explanation that will help us to understand and possibly avoid such events in the future.

Of course, it's true that most of us would not do such things, and we rightly wonder how anyone could. Our investigations and questions would be well placed if we asked what there is in our human nature and our human societies that creates such extreme, but human, actions.

I don't know whether I will read Snyder's book or not: Kirchuk says that he had to shut the book at times to avoid the overload of so much human misery. I am glad that he read it though, and that he wrote such a detailed and good review.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Chris:
Yes, like you, we rather think that we should not wish to read Snyder's book. Not because we do not have any interest in the matters contained but, rather, because of them and because of the enduring images in one's mind that are so very hard to live with.

The points you raise here are exceedingly well put and we do agree that rather than simply dismiss the perpetrators of horrific crimes as madmen and then to move on, it surely is important to look at the impact of other factors on their actions in order that we might at least learn some lessons for the future.

ChrisJ said...

Jane and Lance,

Yes, exactly. It is very hard to carry those kinds of images, and we already have many that we can't avoid.

Ciss B said...

Though it is miserable to think of those images, there are way too many young people in Europe and elsewhere that deny it ever happened.

My own fear is that if we don't honestly address the lies with those painful truths we will forget the lessons taught from them.

ChrisJ said...


Good point; the farther we get from the events, the easier it is to forget. In Germany and a few other European countries, it is a crime to deny the Holocaust.

Judie said...

In today's world, young people everywhere are exposed to killing,torture, and abuse quite often through video games, and television/movies, and I feel that many of them have become so desensitized to the horrors of war that they cannot see the impact these atrocities have on human life.

I don't plan to read Snyder's book. I could hardly watch Schindler's List.

This is an excellent post, Chris.

ChrisJ said...

De-sensitization exists everywhere, I think, After the hockey riots in Vancouver last week, one of the young women caught looting, and laughing about it, on camera was subsequently fired from her part-time job. She was incensed that the company would do that - so many young people are so de-sensitized to others rights it defies logic.

Judie said...

How true! We were vandalized a couple of weeks ago. A group of teens jumped into our back yard and walked on the cloth canopy of our gazebo, and tried to steal some furniture. It cost us several hundred dollars in repairs. They never thought about what they were doing--they were only living for the moment.

Getting back to your post, so many of the leaders who ordered the atrocities were men who were either psychopaths, or sociopaths. The sociopaths know how to work the minds of the people, and the psychopaths don't know what it means to have empathy.

ChrisJ said...


I guess being in the moment isn't always a good thing. It's the pits that your yard was vandalized.

Hels said...

The book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin examines just one third of just one century in just one continent. And yet it is already too excruciatingly painful for us to read. I cannot even imagine being a historian of this period and facing the data every day.

I suppose the impossibility of dealing rationally with genocide was first made clear to me as a first year history student. In the mid 13th century, the Cathar Christians of Southern France were besieged by the troops of the regular Catholic Church and exterminated in endless fires.

All Hitler and Stalin did differently was to raise the killings to an industrial scale.

ChrisJ said...


I believe it was in killing Cathars that the pope told the troops to kill everyone, Cathars and Catholics alike, and God would sort it out!

Owen Gray said...

Some things are difficult to understand. But that fact should not extinguish the effort.

All human atrocities are rooted in a place, time and mindset. If we refuse to examine these things, we make the repetition of those atrocities inevitable.

ChrisJ said...

Yes, exactly. When we refuse to see ourselves as part of the problem, we cannot change anything.