01 March 2012


Amazon link
I'm 30% of the way through Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands, and the book has become a daily companion, a painful compulsion. This is by far not the only book I've read about the butcheries of 20th-century Europe; Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners and Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin's Russia--mentioned here-- are among the most memorable. But Snyder's book does three new things, at least for me:
  • he locates the vast majority of the slaughters of civilians in a specific geographic space--from central Poland to Smolensk, taking in territory in Poland, the Baltic lands, Belarus, Ukraine, and western Russia--and helps us understand the logic of this geography; 
  • he analyzes the ways Hitler's and Stalin's strategies built upon each other, and how those exterminations in those specific places served their aims;
  • he describes the mechanisms of utter forgetfulness--why the vast majority of these fourteen million women, children, and men died without the world noticing, and why their deaths usually remain unremembered even now (hint: many don't fit the conventional GULag/Auschwitz categorizations).
A few quotations:
With a single word (Marxists), Hitler united the mass death in the Soviet Union [Ukrainian starvation at the beginning of the 1930's] with the German social democrats, the bulwark of the Weimar Republic. It was easier for most to reject (or accept) his entire perspective than it was to disentangle the true from the false. For people lacking close familiarity with Soviet politics, which meant almost everyone, to accept Hitler's assessment of the famine was to take a step toward accepting his condemnation of left-wing politics, which in his rhetoric was mixed with the rejection of democracy as such.

Stalin's own policies made it easier for Hitler to make this case, because they offered a similarly binary view of the political world. Stalin, his attention focused on collectivization and famine, had unwittingly performed much of the ideological work that helped Hitler come to power.

* * *

Together, between September 1939 and June 1941, in their time as allies, the Soviet and German states had killed perhaps two hundred thousand Polish citizens, and deported about a million more.

* * *

Hitler wanted the Germans to become an imperial people; Stalin wanted the Soviets to endure the imperial stage of history, however long it lasted. The contradiction here was less of principle than of territory. Hitler's Garden of Eden, the pure past to be found in the near future, was Stalin's Promised Land, a territory mastered at great cost, about which a canonical history had already been written (Stalin's Short Course of 1938). Hitler always intended to conquer the western Soviet Union. Stalin wanted to develop and strengthen the Soviet Union in the name of self-defense against just such imperialist visions, although his fears involved Japan and Poland, or a Japanese-Polish-German encirclement, more than an invasion from Germany.

* * *

[In Hitler's view] Colonization would make of Germany a continental empire fit to rival the United States, another hardy frontier state based on exterminatory colonialization and slave labor.
This final quotation from Neal Ascherson's review in the Guardian might help explain why the book is such compelling reading even as it makes my stomach hurt to read it:
The figures are so huge and so awful that grief could grow numb. But Snyder, who is a noble writer as well as a great researcher, knows that. He asks us not to think in those round numbers. "It is perhaps easier to think of 780,863 different people at Treblinka: where the three at the end might be Tamara and Itta Willenberg, whose clothes clung together after they were gassed, and Ruth Dorfmann, who was able to cry with the man who cut her hair before she entered the gas chamber." The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. "It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people."
Snyder's frequent comparisons of Hitler and Stalin, two of Earth's all-time champions of mass evil, are fascinating (and horrifying). Hitler and his colleagues often come across, at least in their earlier years, as amateurs compared to Stalin and the well-developed apparatus of the NKVD. It reminded me of a comment made by our friend in Buzuluk: "Nazi Germany was a Kindergarten compared to Russia. Next to Stalin, Hitler was just an amateur." Tens of thousands of Stalin's political opponents were executed, and millions died of avoidable starvation, disease and cannibalism in the Soviet Union, during the 1930's; civilian exterminations on this scale under Hitler did not occur until the war--but at that point Hitler more than made up for lost time.

Do I still believe what I said a couple of years ago in "Are you adequately ashamed?"? There I expressed my dislike of foreigners practicing atrocity voyeurism at Russia's expense. I didn't like--and still don't like--the idea of Americans and others feeling either pity or superiority because of the depth and scale of the Soviet descent into mass brutality and the apparent lack of an adequate reckoning to this day. Snyder's book reminds me that, in that lack of reckoning, there may be both denial and political pragmatism, but there are also very clear reasons why people simply don't know what happened. For those who don't--even for those who think they do!--he is a disciplined and humane guide into the planetary pathology of the "bloodlands."

Snyder's concern isn't to shame this or that party or politician in any country. (At least not in what I've read so far!) But simply as human beings, we have a sacred job to do: to remember these forgotten victims, to listen to the traces of their voices provided by Snyder's dedicated research, and to understand the global criminals who organized, argued for, recruited for, and justified their slaughter, with the active or passive complicity of millions just like us. The slogan "never again" loses all power if we think this is a national problem requiring strictly national expiation. It's a problem that makes nonsense of inane patriotism and glib liberalism alike. It is a problem of our species.

Bloodlands, part two

"Meet Patrick Ball, a statistician who's spent his life lifting the fog of war." (Link from Arts and Letters Daily.)

Hooray for Argenta Friends Press! They're making available a PDF copy of the late Gordon Hirabayashi's inspiring out-of-print booklet, Good Times, Bad Times, Idealism Is Realism, which I mentioned here. In the booklet, Gordon describes how his ideals helped him resist and cope with the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast in World War II.

Like many Friends publishers, the Press is in a difficult financial position these days; if you request this PDF from this page, I hope you also make a contribution to Argenta Friends Press on this page.

Linah Alsaafin: "My grandfather passed away and I was denied the right to see him." (Original article here.)

"New! Improved! Russian political ads!" The presidential election is three days away.

Book review of James Cone's and John Piper's books on "coming to terms with our [racist] inheritance." "Both authors skillfully claim the redemptive possibilities resident in their inheritance. But one must accept the full inheritance. And the full inheritance includes the Christian hands that shed innocent blood. Herein lies my criticism."

"It was a dark and stormy night. There was a knock on Tuffy Tooth's door. 'Why it's Dr. Friendly, the dentist.' 'Hello, Tuffy.' 'And a little girl.' 'My name is Judy--and I'm afraid.'" The Internet Museum of Flexi/Cardboard/Oddity Records takes it from there--but it's just a brief sample. Once upon a time I collected thin plastic and cardboard records like this, but I have no idea what happened to my collection.

"You don't need no ID, you don't need no membership card."


Susanne K said...

I am grateful to you for reading names and details. I feel like I *should* - the people who died in these awful circumstances deserve to be remembered and honored. But whenever I get close to evil in that way, I start to despair, and I get listless and hopeless and any action seems futile... For myself, I have decided that I honor the dead best by avoiding sources of despair, in order to maintain my energy to resist the forces that are spawning new evil acts. I suspect that in this, too, discernment is required. I imagine God encouraging each one of us to ask: God, what would you have me do to honor the dead and to prevent new atrocities?

Johan said...

I believe that the Ephesian "whole armor of God" looks different for each of us. That's one place where discernment comes in. Denial is probably not part of the armor, however. In your case, it's resisting "the forces that spawn new evil acts" that might be part of your armor, along with the important tasks of discernment and self-care.

For me personally, the pain I feel when I read or hear about these specific victims is a life-giving pain. I'm so grateful that I have my own (albeit microscopic) role in keeping their memory alive with the help of these authors. However, if within our beloved community we're not converting some of this pain into resistance toward future evil, then I suppose this pain becomes a sort of self-indulgence. The fact that these moral monsters were human, not just specifically German or Russian, makes this resistance a collective imperative.

The Gospel is not really good news if its proclamation requires glossing over the fate of millions of innocents and pretending that such things don't happen to God's beloved. But I'm sure that the ways we collectively carry this burden of reality vary dramatically from person to person. (And to tell the truth, I don't think I'm carrying all that much of it 99% of the time.)

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ..... Friends and pacifists might especially like Nicholson Baker's huge compendium pf newspaper clippings and diary quotations from the period 1920-1941 (the run-up to America's entry into World War II). Nicholson Baker has a definite point of view: that the deliberate destruction of civilian lives is an evil. This leads him to be jaundiced in criticism not only of Hitler and Stalin, but also of Roosevelt and especially of Churchill. Baker's book is an excellent antidote to the usual British and American propaganda about the "good war."
In the postscript, Baker concludes that the pacifists and their allies, including Gandhi and Herbert Hoover, failed in the end, but they were right.
Of course, it;s impossible to say what would have happened had the pacifist leaders been in charge of the U.S.A. and Britain. Certainly these countries would have eventually been attacked and gone to war; but millions of lives might well have been saved---especially German civilians, persons in extermination camps, and persons in Asia. (One of the great strengths of Baker's book is his concern for the war in Asia and its consequences to civilians.)
This book is called Human Smoke.
My copy came from the FGC bookstore.

Johan said...

I've just ordered my copy. (That's how much I trust your book recommendations, Jeremy!)

Jeremy Mott said...

Thanks Johan. I've been trying to convince Friends to obtain and read the book Human Smoke ever since it was published in 2008, with very limited success. Yet it's obvious by his name, and the fact that he graduated from Haverford, that the author is a Friend or at least of Quaker background. He tries to show little favoritism to Friends, other than Rufus Jones (for his AFSC work) and Herbert Hoover (for his attempts to feed starving people in occupied Belgium and Poland, thwarted by the British blockade of Europe). Instead, he reveals the feelings of the many
other pacifists and isolationists from the period between the two world wars. Imagine, a time when opposition to militarism in the U.S.A. was entirely respectable, and it was also acceptable to dislike Roosevelt and Churchill! My late father would have liked this book, for it portrays Churchill, from his own writings and from those close to him, as virtually "high" on war and on killing German civilians.
Yes, Roosevelt was constrained by the realities of American politics to put off complete entry into the war until Pearl Harbor Day. Yet he, and even more Churchill, were full members of the
club that warred on civilians, just like Stalin and Hitler.
It's a truly shocking story.
Jeremy Mott