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Timothy Snyder on the Forgotten Holocaust
Posted on Feb 15, 2008
As Stalin edited the myth, he gave the Russians a central role. They were the nation that was more equal than the others. The war was fought under the banner of Russian nationalism, and presented by Stalin in a famous toast as a Russian victory. But the war was not, for the most part, fought in Russia; most Russians never saw a German. While no one would wish to forget the horrible siege of Leningrad, Soviet Ukrainians and Soviet Belarusians bore the brunt of the fighting, Ukrainians and Belarusians suffered far more than Russians, and Jews suffered more than anyone else. This was precisely, in a typically Stalinist irony, what made the Russian nation great. Russia was, as Stalin saw matters, less contaminated. People who had remained in Belarus and Ukraine under German occupation were suspect. They had had contact with another system. People who had been taken prisoner and held in camps were still more suspect. They had left the Soviet universe. All of them, and the millions of returning soldiers and forced laborers, were tainted by their contact with the world beyond the USSR. In this light, the persecution of the Anti-Fascist Committee hardly seems surprising.
In their discussions of the fate of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the documents it collected, the editors of “The Unknown Black Book” explore some of these issues but disregard larger problems of international politics that made up part of the context. For Stalin the Jewish question was a national question, and every national question was an international question. If a national question could be exploited in international politics, that was all well and good. It was perfectly legitimate to encourage national revolts against British or later American imperialism. It was also perfectly legitimate to support the Zionist dream of an independent state of Israel, as Stalin in fact did. The Soviets expected Israel to be a loyal ally of Moscow. When it did not prove to be such, Stalin had a reason, from his perspective, to persecute Jews. If they were not with him, they were against him. So ended the history of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and so might have ended the chronicle of its work. The English publication of “The Unknown Black Book” is the latest important step in the recreation of its intellectual legacy, one of serious and irreplaceable research on the Final Solution.
The evidence of “The Unknown Black Book” can be discomfiting to Western readers. It recalls that the center of Jewish life in Europe, and indeed in the world, was in Ukraine, Belarus and Poland. The Netherlands of Anne Frank, the Italy of Primo Levi and even the Germany of Victor Klemperer were the margins of Jewish life, not the center. It also forces us to insert a new event into our habitual account of the Holocaust. Jews were put in ghettos in Poland before the invasion of the Soviet Union, but they were not murdered in large numbers until thereafter. Hitler was planning some kind of Final Solution throughout the war, but until 1941 this meant exile rather than murder. It can be uncomfortable to be reminded that the German decision to kill all the Jews of Europe was taken quite late, in summer or autumn 1941, and that this decision was taken in a certain context. That this context was the German invasion of the Soviet Union also introduces a certain awkwardness. Hitler connected the Jews to Soviet power, and therefore some students of modern Jewish history, particularly in the United States, treat the issue of Jewish communists as taboo. This would have made no sense to the survivors whose memories are recorded in this volume, many of whom saw themselves precisely as both communists and Jews.
The eastern Holocaust of death pits leads us inevitably to questions of the comparison of totalitarian regimes. The comparison of Nazi and Soviet power, a matter of theoretical interest in the West, was a practical exercise in eastern Europe. East Europeans, including Soviet Jews, experienced rule by both, and had to make their choices. The grim complexity of the eastern front deprives us of an easy sense of heroism and victimhood. Jewish communist partisans in Belarus or Ukraine obviously seem heroic as enemies of the Nazis and avengers of their families. Their legacy is muddled by the fact that they bore arms to defend a system that had killed 3.5 million Ukrainians and a similar number of Kazakhs by famine 10 years before, and a million other Soviet citizens by execution in 1937-1938. It is confused still more by the fact that the Soviet Union began the Second World War as a de facto ally of Hitler, joining in the invasion and then the plunder of Poland in 1939-1941. In summer 1941, Soviet Jews had not known what to expect from the Germans, because the Soviet press had not been reporting German anti-Semitic policies. All of that said, it is perfectly clear why Jews in Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine would join the partisans, and it is surely best to understand their immediate motives rather than to shy away from the issue for fear of violating a taboo by associating Jews and communism.
In a strange way, comprehending the western Holocaust taxes us less than considering the eastern Holocaust. In 60 years of debates about origins and methods of the Final Solution, we have brought the Enlightenment into service against itself, explaining German crimes as a kind of paradox of modernity. The tools of modern technology, goes a common view, the trains and the gas, allow for mass killing at a distance. The alienation of modern society means that people might not know or care what happened to neighbors who disappeared in the middle of the night. The tools of modern bureaucracy allow responsibility to be divided into such small pieces that it is impossible to assign it to individuals. In Hannah Arendt’s famous formulation, complexity makes evil banal. Yet in the Soviet east, little of this seems pertinent. There the Einsatzgruppen killed by following simple orders from above, drawing Jews to ghettoes and death pits by brute violence and simple ruses, ending their lives by the simple expedient of bullets, in places where neighbors could hear the gunshots. The most complicated part, sometimes neglected, was remembering to dig the trench beforehand.
The Germans knew what they were doing, and still they did it. The Jews knew what was coming, and still they died. Bystanders knew what would befall their neighbors, and rarely helped. The events described in “The Unknown Black Book,” half of the Holocaust, remove our covering stories and leave the truth bare. Evil is banal, but not because it is complex. Evil is banal because it is so simple.
Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. He has recently completed “The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke” (Basic Books, 2008). He is currently at work on “Bloodlands: Eastern Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 1933-1953.”
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